by Dennis Crouch
The America Invents Act (AIA) expands the opportunity for third-party pre-issuance submissions in patent cases. Beginning September 16 of this year (2012), anyone will be permitted to submit published documents ('printed publications') that are relevant to the examination of a pending application along with a concise explanation of the importance of the documents submitted.
In a recently issued set of final rules, the USPTO outlines the procedures that it has put in place to handle the new filings. Changes To Implement the Preissuance Submissions by Third Parties Provision of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, 77 F.R. 42150 (2012).
Targeted preissuance submissions offer an extremely inexpensive mechanism for limiting competitor patent scope. The process has little downside (in most cases) but does require additional competitor monitoring. The effectiveness of the process has not been tested. Although the process has major limitations, I believe that it will serve as an effective tool in the hands of skilled practitioners. I have spoken with several attorneys who are already preparing their preissuance submissions to be filed in late September.
- Implementation: Although the pre-grant submissions cannot be filed before September 16, once that date passes, they may be filed in applications that were already on file with the USPTO. I know of some individuals who are already preparing materials for pre-grant submissions against competitor applications. Presumably they will file those sometime on or after September 16, 2012.
- Deadlines: During the legislative process, the PTO supported these third-party submissions, but offered some concern that late-stage submissions could create problems for both patent applicants and for the USPTO examination process. Thus, for most cases the preissuance submission must be filed before the first office action rejection is mailed. In cases where there is no office action rejection or where the PTO works quickly, submissions will be allowed if within an alternative deadline of within six-months of publication. The PTO will not consider any submissions submitted after the notice of allowance.
- Requirements: Submissions may be done anonymously and electronically, but must include (1) A list identifying the items being submitted; (2) a concise description of the relevance of each item listed; (3) a legible copy of each non-U.S. patent document listed; (4) an English language translation of any non-English language item listed; (5) a statement by the party making the submission that the submission complies with the statute and the rule; and (6) the required fee ($0 if fewer than three-documents submitted).
- Results: The patent examiner is required to consider compliant third-party submissions in preparation for the next office action. The submitted documents will be listed on the face of the patent as considered.
How to make preissuance submissions more effective?: Some may have a more nuanced or longer-term strategy, but the usual realistic goal of a third-party submission is to limit the scope of a competitor's pending application. Barring retaliatory competitor action, the only downside is that a broad patent may still issue with a prosecution history reflecting that the examiner considered the submitted documents. No estoppel is created by the submissions. The identical argument will not be available during a later post grant review and may be more difficult to prove at trial than it would have been if never considered at the USPTO.
- Quality Art: The best preissuance submissions will begin with on-point prior art. Examiners will not likely be tolerant of submissions that lack prima facie credibility.
- Concise and Well Drafted: There is a large risk of examiners ignoring submissions that appear as a large stack of dense documents. The concise explanation should be designed to quickly lead examiners to a rejection based upon the submitted documents.
- Explaining Known Art: Rather than submitting new prior art, applicants may re-submit art already in the file along with an explanation of how the art should be applied.
- Reputation: Certain practitioners and entities will earn reputations as filing credible/incredible.
- Protect Potential Space: Remember that the patent applicant is still likely to receive a patent. The pre-issuance submission is useful for limiting and defining patent scope. The record will reflect that the patent definitely does not cover X. With the normal unpredictability of claim construction, this defining role result can be quite helpful down the road if the patent is ever litigated. Practicing entities should use the process to clear a path for their own current and potential technology usage. As discussed below, a third party may be satisfied with the applicant adding a definition to a claim term rather than actually amending the claim.
- Internal Prior Art: Remember that e-mails and other correspondence can potentially serve as printed publications under the patent laws. (See caselaw on 35 USC 102(a) & 102(b)).
- Other Questions of Patentability: The statute calls for the submission of documents “of potential relevance to the examination” and is certainly not restricted to issues of novelty and nonobviousness. The rules do not allow an applicant to simply submit an argument without an underlying published document. For a definiteness issue, a dictionary definition may serve as the hook. For a new-matter question, the document could be the related parent application. For a patentable subject matter issue, the document might be Mayo v. Prometheus.
Arguments Serving as Published Evidence: A third-party challenging enablement might want to hire an expert to study the application; publish an expert report; and then submit the report (along with a concise explanation) following these new procedures. This approach appears to fit within the statute that allows the submission of “any … printed publication of potential relevance.” However, in its notice of final rules, the USPTO has indicated that it will not accept materials created and published merely for the purpose of challenging the pending application in question. The USPTO appears to understand that the statute is broadly written and thus does not directly prohibit the filing of such documents. The Office instead concludes that the submission would be rejected because the required concise explanation of such a document “would likely be deemed an improper attempt by the third party to impermissibly participate in the examination of the application because the relevance of the document being described is its discussion of the patentability of the application.” In this sense, the Office seems to be setting up a conflict between these new submission procedures found in 35 USC 122(e) and the prohibition on protests and pre-grant oppositions left unamended in 35 USC 122(c).
I believe that the USPTO is probably wrong on its analysis of the law here — in many (if not most) cases, this type of evidence should be allowed under the law. The statute does not provide a particular mechanism for challenging the PTO's refusal to consider these submissions, but the Office is unlikely be convinced on petition without resorting to the filing of a federal case. As an aside, the filing of a non-compliant submission will likely trigger the applicant's duty of disclosure. In that case, the applicant will likely re-file the submission as part of an information disclosure statement.
Note: Some of these ideas came from reading Hal Wegner's useful report on Third Party Submissions: The Final Rule.