By Dennis Crouch
The Versata saga provides an important case history showing the power of the new post-grant review procedures before the USPTO and the Office's seeming new power to operate without fear of judicial review. However, over the next year the Federal Circuit will have its opportunity to review the PTAB's controversial decisions.
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Versata's hierarchical pricing engine software had strong sales in the mid 1990's, that ended when SAP and others added the component to their product line – an extra add-on was no longer needed. SAP indicated that its software replaced the need for Versata's add-on and actively discouraged customers from using Versata.
Versata's In-Court Victories: Versata eventually sued SAP in 2007 and won a first jury verdict and then a second jury verdict (finding that SAP's "patch" did not cure the infringement) with a $300 million + damage award. That final decision was later affirmed on appeal.
Petition for Post-Grant Review of Covered Business Method: Meanwhile, following the district court's second finding of infringement (but prior conclusion of the aforementioned appeal), SAP filed a petition for Post Grant Review available to "Covered Business Methods" as part of the America Invents Act. SAP had clearly been anxious to use this approach and filed the PGR petition at its first opportunity on September 16, 2012 (the first day such petitions were allowed). CBM2012-0001.
If you remember, post-grant review (including CBM review) allows for challenge on "any ground that could be raised under paragraph (2) or (3) of section 282 (b) (relating to invalidity of the patent or any claim)." This has been interpreted by the PTO to include validity challenges raised under 35 U.S.C. § 101, 102, 103, or 112. But see Can a Third Party Challenge Section 101 Subject Matter Eligibility in the USPTO's new Post-Grant Review Procedure?
SAP's petition challenged the patent claims as (1) directed toward unpatentable subject matter under §101; (2) lacking written description; (3) indefinite; and anticipated.
USPTO Grants Petition for Post Grant Review: In a January 2013 order, the USPTO's Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) granted the petition after finding that the challenged claims are "more likely than not unpatentable." In particular, the PTAB allowed the challenge to move forward on the Section 101 and 102 grounds.
The PTAB made two additional important rulings:
What is a Covered Business Method?: First, the Board ruled that the '350 patent claims qualified as covered-business-methods because the claims are directed to a method for the "management of a financial product or service" and are not "technological inventions." The PTO's working definition of "technological" is rather unhelpful in that it simply asks whether the claim recites a new "technological feature" or "solves a technical problem using a technical solution." Relevant claims of the patent (U.S. Patent No. 6,553,350) are shown below (claims 17 and 26). And, you will note that the method claim 17 does not recite any steps that could not be done with pencil and paper.
Issue Preclusion / Collateral Estoppel Does Not Apply: The ordinary rule in federal courts is that preclusion applies following final judgment by a district court. The fact that an appeal is pending does not impact the finality of the district court judgment unless & until the appellate court takes some action. In Pharmacia, the Federal Circuit wrote that the "vast weight of case law" supports the notion that a judgment should be given its full preclusive effect even when an appeal is pending. Pharmacia & Upjohn Co. v. Mylan Pharm., 170 F.3d 1373 (Fed. Cir. 1999). Here, Versata argued that the PTO should follow that general rule and since SAP already had a full and fair opportunity to challenge the patent validity and had lost its federal lawsuit resulting in final judgment. The PTAB rejected Versata's argument finding instead that it would would not respect any final judgment subject to a pending appeal to the Federal Circuit.
As the final judgment in the related Versata v. SAP litigation is currently on appeal to the Federal Circuit, we hold that the district court's judgment is not sufficiently firm to be accorded conclusive effect for purposes of 37 C.F.R. 42.302 as it is still subject to reversal or amendment.
On this issue, it is interesting to note that the appeal brief filed by SAP did not challenge district court's validity finding. Thus, although the district court decision in general could have been rejected on appeal (it wasn't), there was simple no chance even in January 2013 that the appellate panel was going to opine on patent validity issues.
At this point, in January 2013, the PTAB was beginning its review of the '350 patent's validity and, in parallel the Federal Circuit was considering SAP's appeal that focused on noninfringement and remedy arguments.
No Challenge to PTO Decision to Grant Post-Issuance Review Petition: Versata also opened a third-front – filing suit in Virginia district court to overturn the PTO's decision to grant the post-issuance review petition. In a recent decision, the Virginia court rejected that request in Versata Development v. Rea (as Director of USPTO) and SAP AG, 2013 WL 4014649 (E.D. Va. 2013) (no subject matter jurisdiction). The AIA indicates that the PTO's determination of whether or not to institute post-grant proceedings are "final and nonappealable." 35 U.S.C. 324. Versata argued that "nonappealable" in the statute should be seen as merely limiting direct appeals to the Federal Circuit and that its request for review was akin to a "civil action" under 35 U.S.C. 145 and not an "appeal." Bolstering that argument is the language of 35 U.S.C. 329 and 141 that define appeal in post-issuance proceedings as appeals to the Federal Circuit. However, the district court rejected Versata's argument and held that the court lacked jurisdiction under the statute and that, in any case, the decision to grant the review was only an interlocutory decision. It is unclear, but Versata may appeal this decision soon. [As an aside, the language of the district court opinion suggests that petition is denied
Federal Circuit Decision (Largely) Affirms Lower Court: The next event in this long saga came in May 2013 when the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court's determination of infringement and the damages award. The only modification of the judgment was to ask the lower court to be more particular in injoining infringement without injoining sales of SAP products in general.
PTAB Final Judgment: The following month in June 2013, the PTAB came out with its final ruling holding that the patent claims are invalid under 35 U.S.C. §101 as unpatentably abstract. This decision obviously temporally follows both the district court decision and that of the Federal Circuit. Yet, the PTAB found itself to differ on both claim construction and validity.
In particular, the PTAB determined that it would apply the "broadest reasonable interpretation" (BRI) standard to claim construction during post-issuance proceedings even though the terms had already been construed by the district court in a final judgment. The PTO's rational is that (1) it is not bound by the district court judgment since "appeals from this proceeding are exclusively the Federal Circuit rather than to district courts" and that (2) the patentee's ability to amend claims during review suggests that BRI should apply.
In the 101 analysis, the panel found that the claimed method of determining a price using product group hierarchies was a "disembodied concept" capable of being performed mentally, on paper, or on a general purpose computer. The PTO final judgment did not substantially revisit the issues of preclusion or whether the PTO has standing to challenge the patent under Section 101.
At the PTAB, the current status is that the Board is considering a rehearing request by Versata with the primary new focus being on the Federal Circuit's Ultramercial decision. Versata again raised the contention that §101 is not a permissible ground for post grant review. Versata writes "Because § 101 is not a condition for patentability, much less specified as such as required by 35 U.S.C. § 282(b)(2), it is not reviewable in a post-grant review (or CBM review)."
All these issues are likely to come to a head as the case is appealed to the Federal Circuit over the next year.
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Claims at Issue:
17. A method for determining a price of a product offered to a purchasing organization comprising: arranging a hierarchy of organizational groups comprising a plurality of branches such that an organizational group below a higher organizational group in each of the branches is a subset of the higher organizational group; arranging a hierarchy of product groups comprising a plurality of branches such that a product group below a higher product group in each of the branches in a subset of the higher product group; storing pricing information in a data source, wherein the pricing information is associated, with (i) a pricing type, (ii) the organizational groups, and (iii) the product groups; retrieving applicable pricing information corresponding to the product, the purchasing organization, each product group above the product group in each branch of the hierarchy of product groups in which the product is a member, and each organizational group above the purchasing organization in each branch of the hierarchy of organizational groups in which the purchasing organization is a member; sorting the pricing information according to the pricing types, the product, the purchasing organization, the hierarchy of product groups, and the hierarchy of organizational groups; eliminating any of the pricing information that is less restrictive; and determining the product price using the sorted pricing information.
26. A computer readable storage media comprising: computer instructions to implement the method of claim 17.