Guest Post by Paul Cole, Visiting Professor, Intellectual Property Law, Bournemouth University, UK
On Tuesday 24 November, David Kappos made a posting on the Director’s Forum including the following statement:
Some have suggested that the Office is determining obviousness in a way that stifles innovation by refusing patents for truly inventive subject matter. They’ve asked us to provide examples of non-obvious claims in view of KSR. Such examples would serve as a complement to the examples of obvious claims already in the guidelines.
David Kappos gave a presentation at the AIPLA Annual Meeting in Washington on October, and in a question and answer session that followed there were three questions which concerned KSR, more than any other topic. The two questioners who preceded me expressed dissatisfaction with seemingly unjust and arbitrary rejections for lack of inventive step. I asked whether the US examination guidelines on inventive step could be brought into line with those of the EPO, where positive and negative examples are carefully balanced, and the suggestion created a burst of applause from the audience.
More detained comments on the suggestion are found in a paper on KSR that was published in the John Marshall Review of Intellectual Property Law in 2008. For convenience of reference, the final section is set out here:
The USPTO has been accused of having become significantly less applicant-friendly following the KSR decision. This may reflect concerns about “patent quality” and is reflected in the Guidelines given to examiners. A big difference is noticeable between the EPO Examination Guidelines and those of the USPTO.
The EPO Examination Guidelines at Part C Chapter IV give examples relating to the requirement of inventive step. Considerable care has been taken to balance these examples. Examples illustrating the application of known measures in an obvious way and in which inventive step can be ruled out are balanced by further examples showing the application of known measures in a non–obvious way and in which an inventive step is therefore to be recognized. An example of an obvious and consequently non-inventive combination of features is balanced by an example of a non-obvious and consequently inventive combination of features. Examples of obvious and consequently non-inventive selection are balanced by examples of non-obvious and consequently inventive selection. The single example relating to overcoming a technical prejudice shows a situation where the application should be allowed, not refused. A reader of these Guidelines is made aware that although many applications are open to objection, there are many others that cover meritorious inventions and should be allowed.
When the USPTO issued its post-KSR Guidelines, from the standpoint of a prosecution attorney they made depressing reading. For example, the first heading which refers to combining prior art elements according to known methods to yield predictable results gives two examples, one of which is Andersons-Black Rock, Inc. v. Pavement Salvage Co. and the other of which is Ruiz v SAB Chance Co. in both of which obviousness was established. There is no balancing example in which inventive character was established. There follow five other headings illustrated by examples, each and every one of which shows the claimed subject matter to be obvious. The final heading concerns the TSM test which is not illustrated by any example. Under the heading “Consideration of Applicants Rebuttal Evidence” there are cursory indications that an applicant might have something relevant to say in reply, and that, for example, they might argue that the claimed elements in combination do not merely perform the function that each element performs separately. Might it not have been a good idea to inform the Examining Corps that if an applicant can demonstrate a new and unexpected result, this is strong prima facie evidence of inventive step, that this fact is supported by several opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court and that where such evidence is available an applicant should unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary expect a grant decision to follow? Experience in the EPO is that where an applicant can demonstrate a credible technical problem that he has solved, he will almost always be granted a patent and that although other objections, e.g. “one–way-street” or “bonus effect” are available, circumstances where such objections succeed are rare, as acknowledged by the U.K. High Court in Haberman.
Instructions to examiners are of general importance to the public because they are the main tool used during examination and the important event for most applicants is grant or refusal by the patent office, litigation of patents (even in the U.S.) being uncommon. Instructions are even more important for examiners who are trainees and those who have only recently acquired signatory authority because they are likely to rely chiefly on those instructions and to take some time to achieve a deep understanding of case law. It is important to teach examiners when to make objections and the appropriate grounds for doing so, but is it not equally important to teach them when applications should be allowed and to show them examples of patents whose validity has been upheld, as the EPO does? Quality patent examination is not just a matter of ensuring that applications lacking merit are reliably refused but also of ensuring that meritorious applications are reliably granted.
It now seems that there is at least a chance that the suggestion that I and apparently others have made will be acted on, and that the possibility is under active consideration in the USPTO. Examples of decisions on new function or result which are contained in my paper include the nineteenth century Supreme Court cases Winans v Denmead and Washburn & Moen Manufacturing, Co. v. Beat’Em All Barbed-Wire Co, these decisions being selected on the basis of their instructive character and accessibility to the widest possible range of readers.
For the most to be made of this opportunity, we as students and users of the patent system can help by suggesting additional positive decisions which it would be good for the USPTO to include in the revised inventive step Guidelines. Hopefully readers will respond with references to good Board of Appeals, District Court and CAFC cases, and I look forward to reviewing a large number of hopefully constructive suggestions posted here in response.
 Paul Cole, KSR and Standards of Inventive Step: A European View, 8 J. MARSHALL REV. INTELL. PROP. L. 14 (2008)., downloadable from http://www.jmripl.com/Publications/Vol8/Issue1/Cole.pdf.