By Dennis Crouch
Belkin v. Kappos (Fed. Cir. 2012) (Appeal of Inter Partes Reexam No. 95/001,089)
OptimumPath's U.S. Patent No. 7,035,281 broadly covers a wireless router with onboard authentication and is based upon an application filed in the year 2000. When Belkin filed its inter partes reexamination request, it argued that a set of four prior art references render all 32 claims unpatentable. The USPTO partially granted Belkin's request. However, the USPTO found that only one of the four references ("Pierce") raised a substantial new question of patentability, and the Pierce-SNQ only related to claims 1-3 and 8-10 of the '281 patent. The USPTO thus rejected the request as to the remaining claims 4-7 and 11-32. Further, the USPTO also rejected the notion that the four-reference combination raised a SNQ with regard to claims 1-3 and 8-10.
Belkin filed a petition to challenge the partial denial. Since the reexamination had been granted as to claims 1-3 and 8-10, Belkin only challenged the USPTO's adverse decision regarding the other claims. That petition was duly denied. As prosecution developed, the Examiner (supported by the BPAI) determined that the lone reference (Pierce) did not actually anticipate claims 1-3 or 8-10. Further, the USPTO refused to consider the four-part combination obviousness argument that had been rejected at the request stage. The BPAI then confirmed the Examiner's decision – holding that the Board did not have the power to now decide that the combination of references raise a SNQ of patentability because that determination is not appealable under 35 U.S.C. § 312(c).
The USPTO differentiates between petitions and appeals and according to the Board, Belkin erred by failing to timely petition to challenge SNQ determination rather doing what it did (waiting to appeal that determination after receiving an adverse examiner decision0.
Now, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) has affirmed the Board decision – holding that
The proper course of action was for Belkin to have petitioned the Director to review the determination that the arguments relying on the [other three references] did not raise a substantial new question of patentability pursuant to 37 C.F.C. § 1.927. Belkin did not do so, and thus that decision became final and non-appealable, rendering those issues beyond the scope of the reexamination.
One problem raised by this decision by Judge Lourie and joined by Chief Judges Rader and Judge Wallach is that it conflicts with the MPEP.
MPEP § 2648 identifies a hypothetical situation parallel to Belkin's – where an inter partes reexamination request on a particular claim is granted based upon one set of prior art but denied based upon another set of prior art. According to the MPEP, no petition challenging the partial-grant may be filed with regard to that claim and that once granted, the reexamination will consider "all prior art."
[N]o petition may be filed requesting review of a decision granting a request for reexamination even if the decision grants the request as to a specific claim for reasons other than those advanced by the third party requester. No right to review exists as to that claim, because it will be reexamined in view of all prior art during the reexamination under 37 CFR 1.937.
MPEP § 2648. The Federal Circuit decision here considered the conflict created by the MPEP and ultimately determined that the MPEP does not carry the weight of law and thus is easily discarded. The court writes:
[T]he MPEP does not have the force of law, and is only entitled to judicial notice as the PTO's official interpretation of statutes and regulations with which it is not in conflict. Molins PLC v. Textron, Inc., 48 F.3d 1172, 1180 n.10 (Fed. Cir. 1995).
This holding here (following Molins) becomes even more important under the AIA as the PTO has received a substantial additional amount of rulemaking authority for determining the proper methodology of conducting the array of post-grant challenge options. Here we have a re-affirmance that the USPTO's statements in the MPEP will not be given the same deference that will be due to rules promulgated and printed in the code of federal regulations (CFR). The court noted that this decision should not be seen as offering any guidance as to how the AIA will be interpreted (since this case applies the old law regarding inter partes reexaminations).
Limit Scope of Reexamination: The court here goes on to hold that the Patent Act strictly limits the prior art that the USPTO can apply in considering challenged claims during reexamination. In particular, in the reexamination the PTO can only consider the prior art that the director found raised the substantial questions of patentability. The court writes:
In any event, in order to reconcile what may otherwise appear to be conflicting provisions, we hold that, under the statute, available prior art may only be considered to answer the specific questions of patentability found by the Director.
In a footnote, the expressly refuses to rule on a situation where the patentee amends claims or adds new claims during the reexamination. Thus, in those situations, the PTO might have the power to consider other references.
We do not reach the issue of what prior art references the PTO may or may not consider during reexamination in response to an amended or substituted claim.
The problem with this holding on the "statute" is that the court does not actually identify the statutory provision that lead to its conclusion. I suppose that the best statute on point is Section 312(c) that limits the appeal of SNQ determinations. If we allow a requester to force the consideration of additional references by appealing to the BPAI - then that begins to look like an appeal of the SNQ determination. That seems to be a fairly weak argument and perhaps that is why the court did not spell it out.
For its part, the Board was likely thinking of this case as an important stake-in-the-ground to limit the scope of the new post grant review regimes (that the Board is handling directly rather than the CRU). The importance is evidenced by the fact that the case was decided by an expanded 5-judge panel which included Board Vice-Chief Judge James T. Moore and Judge Allen MacDonald as added members.