The U.S. Has a New Patent Law
President Obama signed the Patent Reform Act of 2011 into law on September 16, 2011. Below is a summary of selected provisions of the Act.
First to File
Effective March 2013, the U.S. patent system will change from a first-to-invent to a first-to-file system. This means that if two people make the same invention and there has been no public disclosure of the invention, and both describe and claim that invention in separate patent applications, the inventor that filed his patent application first gets the patent. Thus, filing early will be more critical than ever before. Companies should consider filing a provisional application for an invention as early as possible, possibly followed by additional provisional applications as the technology of an invention develops, with a non-provisional application within a year of the first provisional application. The first-to-file provision will have no effect on existing patents or applications filed before March 2013.
Effective September 2012, third parties will be able to challenge the validity of patents within nine months of issuance in the Patent Office in a Post-Grant Opposition Review proceeding. Any basis for a validity challenge will be entertained, including questions of novelty and obviousness, as well as challenges based on non-patentable subject matter or an improper written description or other formalities. After nine months, third parties may challenge patents through Inter Partes Review, which will replace existing Inter Partes Reexamination proceedings. In an Inter Partes Review, invalidity challenges must be based only on prior patents and printed publications.
In view of these changes, companies planning to initiate Inter Partes Reexamination proceedings should do so prior to September 2012. In addition, companies should arrange a monitoring program to identify patents that relate to the company’s product line for possible challenge in a Post-Grant Opposition Review proceeding upon issuance. Similarly, patentees should be aware that a significant challenge against their patents in the patent office may develop, and they should be prepared to defend against challenges from competitors when their own patents issue.
The new Act severely limits false marking lawsuits. Only the federal government and direct competitors that have been damaged can sue for false marking. Furthermore, non-government litigants will no longer be able to collect five hundred dollars in damages per item. In addition, it is no longer actionable not to remove expired patent numbers from products. The new law also provides for “virtual marking,” by which a company marks its product with “Patent” or “Pat.,” followed by a web address. The corresponding website displays the patent marking information and must be available to the public at no charge. These changes apply retroactively to existing cases.
The new law bars plaintiffs from suing multiple defendants in the same suit if the only thing that the defendants have in common is that they are alleged to infringe the same patent(s). Courts will also be barred from consolidating cases involving different defendants according to the same criteria, except that unrelated parties may still be joined for purposes of discovery. This provision applies to all suits filed on or after September 16, 2011.
Supplemental examination is a new post-grant procedure that will allow a patentee to cure possible inequitable conduct by presenting previously withheld information to the Patent Office after issuance of a patent. After the previously withheld information is presented, and if the claims are allowed again, that information cannot be used in later court proceedings. Supplemental examination proceedings cannot be commenced or continue once an infringement action has been brought.
Under the new Act, a company can file a patent application on behalf of an inventor where the inventor is under obligation to assign its rights to the company and refuses to sign the oath or declaration. This provision will become effective in September 2012.
Effective September 26, 2011, all Patent Office fees will be subject to a 15% surcharge.
There are numerous other changes to the patent system under the Patent Reform Act of 2011, including, for example, elimination of the “best mode” requirement, and changes unique to specific types of inventions, such as business methods or computers. For additional information or to discuss all the new changes in more detail, please call us.
© 2011 Andrews Kurth LLP