By Dennis Crouch
Before the America Invents Act (AIA), the Patent Act included a specific prohibition on patenting something the purported inventor did not actually invent. According to the statute, "[a] person shall be entitled to a patent unless ... 102(f) he did not himself invent the subject matter sought to be patented." 35 U.S.C. § 102(f) (pre-AIA). When that provision was eliminated, Congress was assured by various parties that the inventorship requirement was sufficiently protected by the U.S. Constitutional reference to "inventors" and by the "[w]hoever invents or discovers" preamble of 35 U.S.C. § 101. This position is exemplified by Joseph Matal in his recent article on the creation of the AIA.
Some may think that, because § 102(f) has been repealed, there is no longer any legal requirement that a patent for an invention be obtained by the inventor. Not so. Both the Constitution and § 101 still specify that a patent may only be obtained by the person who engages in the act of inventing. Indeed, even commentary on the 1952 Patent Act noted, with respect to § 102(f), that "[t]his paragraph is perhaps unnecessary since under § 101 it is 'Whoever invents ...' who may obtain a patent and later sections provide that the inventor must apply for the patent and execute an oath of inventorship."
Joseph D. Matal, A Guide to the Legislative History of the America Invents Act: Part I of II, 21 FED. CIR. B.J. 435 (2012).
To be clear, even under this duplicative construct we should recognize that Section 102(f) does have the important effect of eliminating 102(f)/103 prior art defined by the 1997 OddzOn Prods decision. The 102(f)/103 scenario is probably best termed a "derived knowledge" situation that occurs when an applicant learns of an invention created by someone else and then comes-up with an obvious variant of that invention. Under pre-AIA law, the resulting patent would properly be invalidated on 102(f)/103 obviousness grounds even if the prior-invention had never been made public or the subject of a sale. By removing 102(f), the AIA also removes the prospect of 102(f)/103 prior art. In his AIA article, Robert Armitage writes "subsection [102(f)] had become, as far as the courts were concerned, a prior art provision for assessing obviousness." Understanding the America Invents Act its Implications for Patenting, 40 AIPLA Q.J. 1 (2012). Armitage explains why the change is particularly fitting as part of the move-towards transparency embodied by the AIA first-to-file rules.
Moreover, putting a "prior art" provision of pre-AIA § 102(f) ilk into the new law would have undone the transparency/objectivity reforms that its elimination by the AIA worked to perfect. Congress simply rejected the notion that every individual named as an inventor on a patent application should be queried to determine what secret or private information the inventor was already aware of, from the work of someone else, at the time the invention was made by that individual. Congress rejected the notion that the inventor's private knowledge learned from others should then be provided to patent examiners to determine whether the inventor's claimed invention could be nonetheless regarded as "obvious" (perhaps in combination with other prior art).
Armitage at 98. Armitage and Matal were both instrumental in the development and passage of the AIA. Their well written articles explain the choices made in the AIA legislation and attempt to explain their visions for how ambiguities should be interpreted. Professor Sarnoff agrees with Armitage here that the AIA removes knowledge that a putative inventor obtained from another is no longer prior art. In his Patently-O Patent Law Journal Article, Sarnoff wrote:
By eliminating existing § 102(f), the new act removes the substantive prior art basis that used to prevent patents on derived inventions that are the same as or obvious in light of the derived knowledge. Because § 102(f) was treated as prior art for obviousness, it provided substantive grounds for denying or invalidating patents on obvious variants of a derived invention (e.g., applications or improvements of, or additions to or modifications of, a derived invention) as well as to the derived invention itself.
Joshua D. Sarnoff, Derivation and Prior Art Problems with the New Patent Act, 2011 Patently-O Patent Law Review 12.
Sarnoff absolutely agrees with Armitage that the law will no longer prevent an applicant who derived an invention from obtaining a patent on an obvious variant of that invention. I.e., the USPTO has no tools to prevent a third party from patenting obvious variants of information obtained from another. Now, the AIA does provide for a third party to initiate a derivation proceeding or a civil action for derivation. However, it appears to me that those actions (even if timely filed by the originator) would be unsuccessful because derivation proceedings are limited to cases where the derived claims are "substantially the same" as the originator's innovation. The substantially the same limitation is much narrower in scope as compared with the potential wide variety of obvious variants. Sarnoff largely agrees with my analysis here, but in a more equivocal manner.
The new derivation procedure and civil action also may be inadequate to prevent the deriving applicant from obtaining the patent on an obvious variant even when the originator does file a derivation petition, when the original inventor learns about the obvious variant from the deriver (and had not earlier conceived of the obvious variant). And in litigation defending against the deriver's patent on an obvious variant, an unrelated third party may be unable to challenge the deriver's patent for obviousness (although it may be able to challenge it for improper inventorship, but only if the elimination of § 102(f) has not undermined the substantive basis for such invalidation.
Sarnoff (emphasis added).
Unlike Armitage & Matal, Mark Stadnyk is a total Washington DC outsider. His company MadStad designs and sells after-market motorcycle parts (mainly windshields and accessories). MadStad and Stadnyk filed suit in 2012 challenging the AIA as an unconstitutional modification of the US patent laws and asking the federal court to render the law null and void. One of the argument MadStad presents is that the statutory elimination of 102(f) is problematic because it runs contrary to the IP enabling clause of the US Constitution. The US Constitution empowers Congress to develop a patent system that grants rights to "inventors." And, according to MadStad, the new AIA creates a system where (1) non-inventors can apply for patent and (2) rights wrongly granted to non-inventors cannot be challenged in court by negatively affected third-parties.
In its response to MadStad, the USPTO recently presented its idea regarding inventorship. The USPTO rejects MadStad's argument and instead follows Matal's "duplicative" theory. (Matal is now an assistant solicitor at the USPTO.)
The USPTO writes:
The AIA does not sanction the award of patents to anyone but inventors. Retained verbatim—unaltered by the AIA—section 101 continues to restrict the grant of patents to inventors. Section 101 states: "Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title." 35 U.S.C. § 101 (emphasis added); see AIA, passim (no changes to § 101). By retaining section 101, the AIA still requires as a condition of patentability that the named inventor actually invent the claimed subject matter.
Nevertheless, Plaintiffs remarkably allege that the AIA eliminates the inventorship requirement and thus will allow an individual who is not an inventor to obtain a patent. The basis of their claim is that the AIA deletes section 102(f), which provides that a person will not be entitled to a patent if he "did not himself invent the subject matter sought to be patented." 35 U.S.C. § 102(f). Plaintiffs accordingly allege that, without section 102(f), "being an inventor is no longer a condition of patentability" nor "a requirement of patent validity under Section 282 of the Patent Act," which establishes the defenses in any action involving the validity or infringement of a patent. Plaintiffs' allegations are legally incorrect. Both the Supreme Court and the Federal Circuit have concluded that §101—which the AIA retains—is a condition for patentability and can be used as a defense in an action involving patent infringement and validity.
Thus, according to the USPTO, the AIA's deletion of the redundant requirement in 35 U.S.C. § 102(f) is irrelevant, as section 101 will continue to require that a patent only be awarded to an inventor.
Moving forward, the question is what work do the US Constitution and Section 101 actually do on the inventorship front? The link between patents and their inventors is strong and deeply rooted. As such, it is unlikely (in my view) that MadStat is correct in its argument that Section 102(f) was the only provision guaranteeing continuation of that link. An important question, however, is what to do about the inventorship requirement of the IP empowering clause. Are the limits of that clause implicitly embedded into the conditions and requirements of patentability or, instead, do we use those limits to invalidate legislation that fails to conform to the constitutional restrictions.
Prior to the 1952 patent act, lack-of-inventorship was a condition for patentability under the precursor to our Section 101 and was explicitly listed as a defense that a defendant charged with infringement could plead under the precursor to our Section 282. Thus, "the defendant may plead … That [the patentee] was not the original and first inventor or discovered of any material and substantial part of the thing patented." See RS § 4920 (Patent Act of 1870).
There are real ongoing questions that stem from the elimination of section 102(f): Is Armitage correct in his assessment of the law that a third party can now patent an obvious variation of an idea secretly learned from the true inventor? Is the USPTO correct that a patent can be challenged for improper inventorship as a violation of 35 U.S.C. 101?
- Scott Pierce substantially adds to the discussion with his article titled The Effect of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act on Collaborative Research, 94 J.P.T.O.S. 133 (2012).