[Update] A vote on S.23 is expected this evening, March 2, 2011. Before becoming law, the bill would need to also be approved by the House of Representatives.
I want to thank Professor McCrackin and her students for providing a useful analysis that compares the patent-race issues involved with the move to a first-to-file system.
I have long maintained that pressure to move to first-to-file has very little to do with these patent races. Interferences are extremely rare. And, as we all know, if it is difficult to prove prior dates of conception and reduction to practice, it is all-but-impossible to prove diligence at the level required by caselaw. Thus, in the words of Paul Morgan, analyzing the change in terms of the patent race is a "truly academic exercise."
For this reason, in my 2010 article on anticipation I decided to move the nomenclature away from first-to-invent and first-to-file systems and instead talk about whether the patent system is filing-date-focused or invention-date-focused and also to query the type of grace period allowed by the various systems.
What few are talking about with the proposed legislation is that it would increase the scope of prior art available to invalidate a patent – even when no competing patent application is filed.
In particular, the proposed legislation severely restricts the one-year grace period currently available to a patent applicant. Under the new legislation, a prior inventor could only antedate a pre-filing disclosure if that disclosure was (1) derived from the inventor or (2) made public after the inventor publicized her invention. Under the current rules, the one-year grace period operates without regard to the source of the putative prior art.
Even more, under current law, sales and offers-to-sell only constitute prior art if those sales occurred more than one year before the patent application filing date. 35 U.S.C. § 102(b). In those circumstances, no "swearing behind" is necessary against sales activities because they only qualify as prior art if they occurred outside of the grace period. It appears from the language of the bill, that no grace period would be allowed for pre-filing sales activities. Rather, the grace period language in the proposed bill only relates to "disclosures" and on sale activity is typically not seen as a disclosure.
From a practical standpoint, these elements involving the grace period are much more likely to impact patent applicants than any potential interference issue.
The proposed re-written novelty statute (35 USC § 102) would read as follows:
Sec. 102. Conditions for patentability; novelty
102(a) Novelty; Prior Art- A person shall be entitled to a patent unless--(1) the claimed invention was patented, described in a printed publication, or in public use, on sale, or otherwise available to the public before the effective filing date of the claimed invention; or (2) the claimed invention was described in a patent issued under section 151, or in an application for patent published or deemed published under section 122(b), in which the patent or application, as the case may be, names another inventor and was effectively filed before the effective filing date of the claimed invention.
102(b) Exceptions-(1) DISCLOSURES MADE 1 YEAR OR LESS BEFORE THE EFFECTIVE FILING DATE OF THE CLAIMED INVENTION- A disclosure made 1 year or less before the effective filing date of a claimed invention shall not be prior art to the claimed invention under subsection (a)(1) if-- (A) the disclosure was made by the inventor or joint inventor or by another who obtained the subject matter disclosed directly or indirectly from the inventor or a joint inventor; or (B) the subject matter disclosed had, before such disclosure, been publicly disclosed by the inventor or a joint inventor or another who obtained the subject matter disclosed directly or indirectly from the inventor or a joint inventor. (2) DISCLOSURES APPEARING IN APPLICATIONS AND PATENTS- A disclosure shall not be prior art to a claimed invention under subsection (a)(2) if-- (A) the subject matter disclosed was obtained directly or indirectly from the inventor or a joint inventor; (B) the subject matter disclosed had, before such subject matter was effectively filed under subsection (a)(2), been publicly disclosed by the inventor or a joint inventor or another who obtained the subject matter disclosed directly or indirectly from the inventor or a joint inventor; or (C) the subject matter disclosed and the claimed invention, not later than the effective filing date of the claimed invention, were owned by the same person or subject to an obligation of assignment to the same person.