Atlanta Attachment v. Leggett & Platt (Fed. Cir. 2008)
The CAFC once again reaffirmed patent law's parallel to Chicago democracy: File early and often.
The patentee, Atlanta Attachment, won a summary judgment on issues of infringement and validity. Missouri based defendant Leggett & Platt appealed — arguing that the patented sewing machine had been "on sale" for more than one year before Atlanta Attachment filed its patent application.
The on sale bar of 102(b) invalidates an issued patent that was on sale prior to the one-year critical date. In Pfaff, the Supreme Court defined "on sale" as requiring an embodiment of the claimed invention being subject to a commercial offer for sale and being ready for patenting at the time of the sale. The on sale bar can be negated in certain cases where experimentation was still occurring.
Facts: Atlanta Attachment was working with Sealy to develop a special ruffle producing sewing machine. Over the course of a few years, several prototypes were sent to Sealy for experimentation. Each one was returned to the plaintiff for improvements. The third prototype included all of the claimed elements. Atlanta Attachment invoiced Sealy and was paid for the prototype. Instead of delivering the prototype, however, Sealy merely tested the prototype at the patentee's facility and was later refunded its purchase price. At that time. Sealy made further suggestions regarding changes. In addition, Atlanta Attachment had offered to sell 50 production units prior to the critical date.
- On Sale: Although never actually delivered, prototype was sold an invoice was sent and paid. Additionally, the offer to sell the 50 production units constitutes an offer to sell. Here, the invention was considered on sale because the asserted claim was broadly written – even though the prototype was not the eventual preferred embodiment.
- Experimental Use: First, the CAFC held that the experimental use exception does not apply after a commercial offer for sale has taken place. Additionally, Atlanta Attachment cannot claim the experimental use exception for Sealy's tests since "experimentation conducted to determine whether the invention would suit a particular customer's purposes does not fall within the experimental use exception" and because Atlanta Attachment did not control the testing. This is a subtle point – the patentee apparently retained control over the device by keeping it in its facility, but did not control the testing of the device.
- Ready for Patenting: A prototype that is reduced to practice and works for its intended purpose is ready for patenting. The "intended purpose" here is shaped by the patent claim. And, later refinement of a device does not mean that it wasn't ready for patenting.
Thus the claim is invalid under the on sale bar of 35 U.S.C. §102(b). Additionally, the CAFC asked the court to reexamine whether the patentee's failure to submit information about the prototypes would be sufficient to lead to a finding of unenforceability due to inequitable conduct.
Concurrence: Judges Prost and Dyk joined the majority opinion, but also penned a separate concurring opinion begging for en banc review of the "confusing" jurisprudence on the experimental use exception to 102(b). "Without considering these issues in a comprehensive manner in future cases, we will never escape from the confused status of our current caselaw." They specifically believe that this and other CAFC decisions are wrongly decided because of the absolute disregard of any experimental use after an invention is reduced to practice.