By Paul Morgan
Introduction and Summary
On January 5 the PTO proposed a new 37 CFR §1.290 in the Federal Register for third party pre-issuance submissions of prior art in patent applications of others. The new rule is needed to implement the new statutory provision - 35 U.S.C. §122(e) – found in Section 8 of the AIA [Leahy Smith America Invents Act]. 35 U.S.C. §122(e) will be effective as of September 16, 2012, and will be usable against any pending applications [including reissues but not reexaminations] filed before or after that date. It will permit anyone to submit patents, published patent applications, or other printed publications, to the USPTO for consideration and inclusion in the record of a patent application as long as the submission includes a "concise statement of relevance" and meets some other paperwork requirements, which need not be discussed here since they will be clearly spelled out in the final PTO rules. As discussed below, §122(e) includes a significant expansion of the time period for submitting prior art documents to be put into someone else's pending application. The statute also expands what you can say about the documents (accompanying explanations and arguments) well beyond the present limitations found in 37 CFR §1.99. The submission process will remain cheap and simple, but it will still present the same conundrums as to whether or not you should use it?
In the same Federal Register is the proposed PTO rulemaking for amending 37 CFR §1.501 to accommodate the amendment of 35 U.S.C. §301. This amendment will slightly expand what information anyone can submit to the USPTO for inclusion in an already issued patent file when accompanied by a written explanation regarding the "pertinency and manner of applying" the information to at least one patent claim. That expand [new] information which can be put into an issued patent file will include written statements made by the patent owner before a Federal court or the Office regarding the scope of any claim of the patent. But the Office's use of such written statements will be limited to determining the meaning of a patent claim in reexamination proceedings and post grant review proceedings. This provision is also effective on September 16, 2012.
The Present Situation [PRE AIA]
First keep in mind that the PTO considers it to be actionable unethical conduct to put any papers into anyone else's ex parte [normal] patent application file unless there is an express statutory basis for doing so. Furthermore, papers attempted to be filed in a reexamination in which you are not a party [other than just the initial request papers for an ex parte reexamination], will not be entered. Adverse prior art submissions for anything in the PTO are quite restricted.
37 CFR §1.291 "Protests by the public against pending applications" and 37 CFR §1.292 "Public use proceedings" have existed for many years, but have been rarely used, and I suspect that few PTO practitioners or PTO personnel have ever seen one. Some senior PTO officials I asked at a CLE meeting several years ago doubted if there had been more than a handful per year. The rare Rule 292 proceedings are mostly used in connection with a parallel interference. Rule 291's potential usage was significantly restricted when the statute providing for U.S. 18 month application publications went into effect, ending Rule 291 "protest" filing opportunities after an application publication date.
The PTO at that time also put severe rule constraints that were not statutorily required into a 37 CFR §1.99 limiting what could be submitted and when. Rule 99 has a short time limit of only two months following the application publication date. Rule 99 also expressly states at (d) that a "submission under this section shall not include any explanation of the patents or publications, or any other information. The Office will not enter such explanation or information if included in a submission under this section." There is also a limit of 10 submitted documents. The PTO even threatened to reject submitted prior art patent copies if they were merely marked or high-lined to show the examiner where the relevant teaching or disclosure was buried in the patent! It seemed obvious to me at that time that the PTO did not really want to be bothered with any extra examiner work from third party prior art submissions. [The AIA has now at least made it clear that that is not quite what Congress has in mind.] An English language translation must be provided for all relevant portions of any listed non-English language document to be considered by the examiner, and that requirement will continue under the proposed new rules. Some patent attorneys reportedly consider it preferable to just send prior art to an applicant's patent attorney by registered mail and rely on the inequitable conduct concerns of that patent attorney to get that patent attorney to file the prior art the application, or to set up an IC defense if they do not.
35 U.S.C. §301 above [with its original 37 CFR §1.501] was enacted years ago accompanying the first [ex parte] reexamination system. It is simply to allow people to place prior art in an issued patent file without having to initiate a reexamination, so that the art might hopefully be considered if anyone subsequently requested a reexamination. It is understood that §301 has rarely been used, and I am not aware of any PTO statistics to the contrary, even though §301 says that it can be done anonymously. My very limited experience was that the PTO clerical staff did not know what to do with the [rare] §301 submittal and it was not placed in the patent file until we made follow-up efforts. [A copy of the PTO submittal mailed to the patent owner was helpful for a licensing discussion, but I wouldn't count on that happening often.]
New 35 U.S.C.122(e)(1) and its proposed new rule 37 CFR §1.290 will greatly expand when you can legally put prior art into someone else's pending application file. As shown below, that is awkwardly expressed as "before the earlier of .. or the later of" three events in an application. But clearly it will normally be available for a much longer time period than the mere 2 months after a patent application is published of present Rule 99. It may be submittable for several years for applications not yet having a first office action with a claim rejection, as long as there is as yet no notice of allowance. Nor can the present unreasonable Rule 99 prevention of any explanations or comments on the submitted art remain, since "a concise description of the asserted relevance of each submitted document" is specifically required by this new statute:
(e) Preissuance Submissions by Third Parties-
(1) IN GENERAL- Any third party may submit for consideration and inclusion in the record of a patent application, any patent, published patent application, or other printed publication of potential relevance to the examination of the application, if such submission is made in writing before the earlier of--
(A) the date a notice of allowance under section 151 is given or mailed in the application for patent; or
(B) the later of--
(i) 6 months after the date on which the application for patent is first published under section 122 by the Office, or
(ii) the date of the first rejection under section 132 of any claim by the examiner during the examination of the application for patent.
(2) OTHER REQUIREMENTS- Any submission under paragraph (1) shall--
(A) set forth a concise description of the asserted relevance of each submitted document;
(B) be accompanied by such fee as the Director may prescribe; and
(C) include a statement by the person making such submission affirming that the submission was made in compliance with this section.
As noted, the proposed amended 37 CFR §1.501 for the AIA amendment of 35 U.S.C. §301 will just slightly add to the information can be submitted to the PTO to merely put into an issued patent file. That information can now comprise or include written statements made by the patent owner before a Federal court or the Office regarding the scope of any claim of the patent, and that information can supposedly be used in subsequent actual reexaminations. However, even if that made sense tactically or strategically in some situation, perhaps in anticipation of a potential ex parte reexamination initiated by the patent owner itself, I fail to see how that kind of material can affect that many reexaminations? The Fed. Cir. requirement that claim scope in a reexamination apply a "broadest reasonable interpretation" test is not the same as claim interpretation in patent litigation.
But Do You Really Want To Do It & How Likely Is the Overall Usage?
How likely is it that this somewhat increased opportunity to cite prior art in applications or patent files of others will be used? That depends largely on whether you think doing so is really a good idea or not. That obviously includes guessing how likely is a regular examiner in normal ex parte patent examination [not a reexamination] going to consider and apply that prior art to reject claims? A prior statistical study published by Prof. Crouch on his Patently-O blog of a low examiner usage rate of prior art cited by the applicants themselves is not encouraging. But perhaps a novel third party submission is more likely to get an examiner's attention and claim rejections than routine applicant IDS dumps?
Even if that effectiveness was predictable, there is clearly a serious risk in third party submissions of art into applications of others under any system. It will case the application owner to think that someone else thinks their patent application is important enough be worth attacking its claim scope. That is logically going to cause the patent application owner to put extra effort into getting that application allowed, with broad and variable scope claims, including possible RCE's and appeals if necessary, and possibly filing and keeping divisionals and continuations pending. Furthermore, the claims can be amended to distinguish the third party cited art without incurring "intervening rights" as would be the case in a reexamination. While the third parties citing the prior art do not face dangerous estoppels [as in inter partes reexaminations or PGR] they do risk greatly strengthening the enforceability of the resultant patent against that or similar prior art if not all potentially infringed claims are finally rejected.
The rare use of any of the present third party prior art submission systems does not suggest their likely future use, [unlike the increasing use of reexaminations]. The PTO has apparently never kept statistics on the number of prior art filings in other peoples patent applications under present 37 CFR 1.99 (in force since 2000), or otherwise. But I was cognizant of a docketing operation that was handling thousands of pending patent applications, and only one such third party prior art submission was ever identified as being filed against any of those thousands of U.S. applications [excluding those in interferences] and it was not successful in getting any claims rejected.
Perhaps there will be somewhat higher usage and success rates for the new 35 U.S.C.122(e)(1) and 37 CFR §1.290 because it will allow attached explanations of the relevance of the cited art. But until that is demonstrated, the conservative tendency of patent attorneys to save prior art defenses until they think they can be used more effectively later, especially in an inter partes reexamination [where the patent owner cannot make completely unchallenged ex parte arguments against the cited art] seems likely to prevail.
There is of course an academic myth, supported by some companies presumably for its PR value, that was at play in the lead-up to these AIA changes. Namely a strange inherent assumption that large numbers of the public have nothing better to do with their time and money than to undertake the tens of thousands of prior art searches and claim-relevant submissions that would be needed to have any significant effect on patent examination quality for the more than 500,000 patent applications a year, even though they are not aware of any that could ever threaten any of their products. A mere couple of hundred patent applications were provided with prior art submissions under a pilot "Peer to Patent" system, despite all its publicity, of which only a minority resulted in claims being rejected using the submitted prior art.
As usual, I would appreciate comments from others with relevant information on these subjects.