Archive for patents
For those of us working with innovators seeking to build and grow much-needed businesses and bring new valuable new products to the world, it’s painful to survey the damage that has been done to the patent system in the United States over the past decade and the corresponding damage to innovation. Many factors have come together in a perfect storm of patent hostility, driven in part by rhetoric about dread “patent trolls” spread by Silicon Valley giants whose business models are threatened by the pesky patents of other parties but also by political hostility to pharma patents, perhaps because the unmanageable costs of Obamacare might be reduced somewhat if drug costs could be driven down by reducing the value of IP.
The hostility came in several waves. The American Invents Act created several new ways to gut patents, most particularly the Inter Partes Review (IPR), which would allow opponents and their allies to file endless actions against existing patents to wear down the owner and in nearly 90% of the cases so far, eventually eradicate key claims. There would also be a series of Supreme Court decisions such as the Alice decision that would make it easier for the USPTO to reject patents by declaring the invention to be “abstract.” What does “abstract” mean? The Supreme Court refused to define the term in their decision, giving examiners and courts a hammer they can swing any way they want. And then there would be a series of actions from the USPTO itself, headed by a former Google attorney highly sympathetic to the anti-patent sentiments of Silicon Valley, which went beyond the requirements of the law and of judicial decisions to exacerbate the hostility toward patents.
One of the most shocking aspects of the war on patents has been the discovery that the judges of the PTAB, the Patent Trials and Appeals Board the runs the IPR system, have no code of ethics beyond the basic requirements for any employee in the Dept. of Commerce. Thus, unlike judges in any other area, the judges of the PTAB can take cases from their former clients. General rules for Commerce employees requires a one-year buffer for cases with a potential conflict of interest, but for judges in the US judicial system, the distance must be much greater. In general, a judge simply should not take a case involving a former client regardless of how long ago the financial relationship ended. But with the scandalous lack of a judicial code of ethics for PTAB judges, questionable cases occur and with easily predicted results. Gene Quinn and Steve Brachman of IPWatchdog write forcefully on this scandal here and here.
The PTAB has been called the “death squad” of American patents, and some of its judges seem to relish that role.
Michelle Lee, the Google-tainted director of the USPTO, has at least been removed from that position, and many patent practitioners and patent seekers hope that the new leader will be free from heavy Silicon Valley influence and will take bold steps to curtail the damage being done to the US patent system. Meanwhile, many innovators are looking to other countries to develop their innovations, including places like China where IP is increasingly valued and supported. May the US catch up!
One of the great challenges in intellectual property work is translation of foreign documents. Translating between Chinese and English is especially difficult for machine translation, where strange or even nonsense results are common due to the complexity of Chinese and the difficult legal and technical phrasing that is common in patents. Google Translate is quite poor in this context, and the outstanding translation tools at Baidu.com also generally don’t work well for patents.
Wonderfully, WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organization) has come to the rescue with WIPO Translate, a machine translation tool that has been especially designed for patents. The results have been stunningly good in my testing so far, vastly outperforming prior systems.
WIPO Translate can handle a variety of language pairs both ways, all involving English and either Chinese, French, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Only about one paragraph at a time can be translated, so you can’t yet dump an entire patent all at once into WIPO translate.
In using WIPO Translate, you can select a technical field to help focus the translation and improve the chances of the appropriate terminology being used.
I’ve noticed that many companies tend to emphasize patents in their IP strategy. Sometimes that’s almost all they consider. Sound IP strategy, however, requires applying a variety of tools. A broad approach to intellectual assets is more important than ever. Patents of various kinds, trademarks, trade secrets, copyright protection, and low-cost publications can all play a useful role.
Utility patents can protect your products, their components, the machines for making them, the methods of making them, and methods of using them, among other things. Design patents can protect aesthetic elements. Copyrights can protect commercial expression (ads, for example) of that function. Trademarks protect the brands that are based on the consumer perception of the product. Packaging relevant to your products may also be protected with utility patents, design patents, trademarks, and copyright.
The power of trademarks in protecting a company is illustrated in a recent case involving Adidas, owner of trademark for a tennis shoe with three stripes on the side. In May 2008, an Oregon jury ruled that Payless Shoes should pay $308 million to Adidas for infringing that trademark. (Payless appealed but subsequently abandoned its appeal after agreeing to an out-of-court settlement with Adidas.) Payless may have hoped to evade the three-strip trademark of German-owned Adidas by using four stripes, but Adidas successfully argued that their stripes create a distinctive mark that is a sign of origin, and that both two-stripe and four-stripe shoes may cause confusion in the minds of consumers. Three simple parallel stripes have become a distinctive part of the Adidas brand. This coverage may last as long as the brand does, unlike the limited coverage afforded by patents. Adidas, of course, relies on both utility and design patents as part of its IA strategy.
In recent years, U.S. trademark rights have been expanded to cover not just traditional logos and names, but to also cover colors, scents, characteristic sounds, and three-dimensional shapes. Examples include:
- Yamaha’s distinct water spout from its WaveRunner® personal water craft. As U.S. Trademark 74321288 states, “The mark is comprised of a three-dimensional spray of water issuing from the rear of a jet propelled watercraft and is generated during the operation of the watercraft.”
- Tiffany’s famous robin-egg blue gift box (US Trademark 75360201).
- Intel’s five musical notes (US Trademark 78721830).
Trademarks can have an unlimited life, unlike the 14-year-life design patents have from the date of filing, or the 20-year life of regular utility patents. Under U.S. law, trademarks can be used to sue both manufacturers and distributors of infringing products.
We recommend that innovators look for creative combinations of both trademarks and patents, as well as other forms of intellectual assets.
One of those other forms can be called “digital intellectual assets,” a broad category that includes domain names. They may be trademarked, but if you don’t own the domain name, you’ll have an expensive battle trying to wrest it from someone else. As soon as you consider candidates for trademarks, quickly register the related domain names. Also consider getting the related Gmail accounts, Facebook accounts, Twitter accounts, Youtube channels, Pinterest accounts, etc. Those are free or inexpensive and can be worth a great deal if your brand name becomes important.
Abraham Lincoln said that the patent system “added the fuel of interest to the fires of genius.” Today the fires of genius and the fire of innovation itself is getting doused with something less helpful than fuel. These fires are being cooled and, in some cases, extinguished with harsh attacks on the IP rights that once enabled and motivated lone inventors and small businesses to take the fruits of their genius to the market.
The owners of small businesses, the people who generate most of the innovation and business growth in the United States have good reason to be worried. Their ability to attract funding through valuable intellectual property is being compromised. Their ability to protect their products and innovations from the power of corporate giants is being whittled away. This has come from many quarters, but there is a widespread anti-patent movement driven by politics and misinformation. It’s the bitter fruit of a bitter anti-property rights movement that exaggerates the threat of a few bad actors to justify widespread weakening of property rights in ways that will hurt the economy and our society for years to come.
We have seen a recent series of Supreme Court cases that have made it much harder to obtain patents and enforce them. We have seen massive changes in US patent law that make it easier to invalidate patents after they are granted and make it harder and more costly to stop infringers if your patent survives. Now the bogeyman of “patent trolls” is held up as a threat to America that requires more sweeping “patent reform” to make it even harder to enforce a patent, and it looks like both parties are united in a quest to do “something big” to shake up the IP rights that helped drive the American economy for so many decades. Corporate giants benefit from this reform as it clears away the annoyance of other people’s IP rights standing in the way of their marketing muscle. But the economy as a whole and the rights of many are hurt in this process this amplifies innovation fatigue .
Several recent articles highlight just how serious the problem has become. Louis Carbonneau in “Toxic Asset: The Gradual Demise of the American Patent” (IPWatchdog.com, December 10, 2014), surveys the radical changes in the past two or three years:
On the judicial front, in 2014 we saw no fewer than 5 Supreme Court decisions going against patent holders on the various subjects of obviousness (a key test for patent validity), what constitutes “abstract ideas” (which now undergo a more stringent test for patentability), business method patentability, indefiniteness (how you construe claims), reasonable royalty (how you calculate damages), willful infringement (how you punish the “bad actors”) and fee shifting (making losers pay for winners legal fees). All of these decisions have collectively made it harder for patent owners to: i) maintain the validity of duly issued patents (previously presumed by law), ii) pursue infringement claims, ii) prove damages (let alone treble damages), iv) have open discussions with potential infringers prior to litigating, and have left the unsuccessful patent owner at risks of paying millions in legal fees to the other side if the judges so decides.
Parallel to judicial reform at the federal courts, recent US patent reform with the American Invent Act (AIA) introduced a new post grant review mechanism called Inter Partes Review (IPR) which allows a party to challenge the validity of any issued patent before the Patent Trial & Appeals Board (PTAB). Strangely, despite the PTAB being an emanation of the same USPTO that delivered all these patents in the first place, there is no longer a presumption of validity before the PTAB for the patents being challenged while other rules make it easier to invalidate patents based on prior art.
Finally, on the political front, in 2013 the US House of Reps. passed the Goodlatte bill, which would erode rights conveyed to all patent holders despite being primarily directed at NPEs. It is now expected that the new Republican led Senate will revive the bill -currently on hold- in early 2015 and, with a rare showing of bipartisanship from the White House, it is expected to be signed into law. At the same time, 27 US States have passed or are in the process of passing laws that make it harder for people to assert the patents they own.
Carbonneau goes on to explain that in recent Federal Circuit cases, patent owners are being crushed, and in Inter Partes Review (IPR) cases before the USPTO, nearly 80% of the owners of challenged patents are being told by the USPTO that their patents are not valid over the prior art that the USPTO itself supposedly considered before granting the patent in the first place. Carbonneau puts it rather wryly:
The most interesting statistics come from the PTAB [the USPTO’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board, which processes IPR cases] because it only focuses on validity issues based on prior art; the very same prior art patent examiners are supposed to have found and analyze prior to issuing a patent. Since patents going through IPRs are usually the same ones that being litigated, you would assume that owners did a lot of due diligence before investing in a costly patent lawsuit. Well, the PTAB is declaring 77.5% of reviewed patents invalid! And this is not limited to “abstract” software; patents related to biotech and pharmaceuticals, medical and mechanical devices, are being invalidated at an even higher rate! Remember, this is an offspring of the very same agency that inventors paid thousands of dollars in the first place to review applications and issue their patents. Now, after having to pay a quarter to a half million dollars in legal fees (average cost of an IPR procedure for a patent holder), the same agency is telling patentees nearly 80% of the time: “Very sorry we made a mistake; we would not have allowed your application had we looked more carefully for existing prior art. And no, there is no refund available.”
Personally, I cannot think of any industry that could survive more than a month with a nearly 80% defective rate, let alone by forcing you to spend a fortune for the “privilege” to confirm that indeed your title was invalid in the first place! Only a government can come up with such a broken system and get away with it.
The impact of these anti-patent efforts has been a surprisingly sudden break from the trend of increasing IP litigation, with litigation in 2014 down about 13% from the previous year according to a new 2015 PwC report on patent litigation. The problem of explosively increasing patent litigation, a common excuse to justify the slashing of patent rights, is not supported by the data.
Richard Lloyd, writing for the IAM Blog, draws this observation from the PwC report:
Of these three classes [of patent litigants considered], NPE [non-practicing entity] companies have been successful 31% of the time in patent cases brought since 1995; this compares with a success rate for universities and non-profits of 48% and a lowly 18% for individual inventors. Individual patent owners also do far worse with damages pay-outs, getting a median award of $3 million compared with $11.5 million for company NPEs and $16.2 million for universities/non-profits.
There could be many reasons for individual inventors doing relatively badly. Although the PWC study doesn’t provide any, it’s easy to speculate that small inventors may have lower average quality patents to begin with, while they probably don’t have the same kind of litigation savvy as other NPEs and are much less likely to have access to the same kind of litigation expertise that larger, better funded patent owners can turn to.
But what PWC’s numbers also strongly suggest is that the US patent litigation system is strongly stacked against small, patent owning entities. Bearing this in mind, it is worrying that the main packages of reform proposed in the House of Representatives (the Innovation Act) and the Senate (the PATENT Act) are only going to penalise them further.
Lloyd notes that potential irony now that many lone inventors, recognizing that they have little chance of winning and have almost no chance of affording the punitive legal bills they may face if they sue and lose, may be more likely to turn to NPEs (“patent trolls”) for help as the most practical way to realize any benefit from their work.
There is a need to rebuild an innovation climate in the United States, starting with educating our leaders about the need for IP rights and the value of patents. If we don’t teach this lesson from within, it will eventually be taught rather loudly from without, for Europe and China are both moving to strengthen IP rights and strengthen IP enforcement. Europe’s Unitary Patent system could be a boon to IP there, though much remains to be seen, but the changes in China are strong and dramatic. That nation has gone from no patents and no IP system in the early 1980s to the world’s biggest source of IP generation and IP litigation, with many changes steadily strengthening the nation’s IP system. There is a long ways to go for China still and there have been some setbacks, but at current rates we can see China becoming a leading source of global innovation while the US loses its lead.
Will the flames of innovation be largely quenched in that nation? Much depends on what we do with IP rights now, the rights that will shape our culture and economy for decades to come. May the fires of genius be encouraged with something other than the cold water Congress and Courts have been sloshing.
Many leading IP professionals working with the US patent system are growing increasingly concerned about the weakening of the IP system there. Some are so concerned that they are wondering what steps can be taken to save it. Save it from what, you might ask? Save it from erosion of the basic property rights that the Constitution sought to protect. Solve it from the capricious destruction of the incentives that inventors need to create and share their work. Save it from judges and politicians who see patents and property rights as problems.
One man who wants to save our IP system is Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) from California’s 48th District and a member of the House Science and Technology Committee. He recently authored a piece for the Washington Times called “Patent ‘reform’ is killing the right to invent: How a congressional misstep could imperil creativity” (March 1, 2015). I agree with much of what he says.
He warns that Congress’s zeal to stop “patent trolls” will actually result in them simply doing the bidding of powerful companies who are annoyed by little guys able to defend themselves with patents. In effect, Congress is being manipulated into apparently “reforming” the US patent system but in reality they will be weakening it for small inventors and making it more friendly to the big empires that see patents as unpleasant sources of cost and annoyance. Here is some of what Rohrabacher has to say:
With the best intentions, and naively going along with the corporate world’s hugely financed publicity machine, Congress is about to stomp on America’s most creative citizens, its inventors.
The target is not the much-hyped “patent trolls.” They are a minuscule matter. What’s at stake is average Americans’ constitutional right to own what they’ve created. We’re really up against corporate lawyers acting like ogres, devouring the little guy’s innovative accomplishments.
Many of my colleagues, without understanding the legislation’s impact, will soon vote on “HR 9,” a misnamed “patent reform,” also dubbed “pro-innovation,” that is anything but. In reality, it deforms our patent system beyond recognition.
This legislation — pushed by my Republican colleague, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, and deep-pocketed multinational corporations — appears on its way, again through the House, to the Senate, thence to an eager President Obama for signing.
When that happens, America’s exceptional system of invention will be shoveled into the depths of mediocrity, there to seep into the murk in which less scrupulous global competitors spend their resources.
In the last session, a bipartisan band of my Republican friends (some of whom made their pre-political marks as patent-holding inventors); members of the Black Caucus; and a heroic Ohio congresswoman, Democrat Marcy Kaptur, failed to dissuade our House colleagues that the bill was not the litigation-curbing effort as advertised.
The bill went to the Senate where, fortunately, it stalled. It’s back, this time resurfacing in the House with just one hearing. A whole class of small inventors, among the many who will be injured, is being kissed off as scarcely deserving a voice. All in a day’s work for the corporate influencers who shaped HR 9 from start to finish.
Just because a measure holds itself up as “tort reform” should not mean it escapes the scrutiny of free-market Republicans. It should instead call for a skeptical second look, and then more throughout its progress. Guaranteed: Such close-eyed analyses of this bill will encourage deep suspicion.
Fair-minded members will find themselves aghast at how this leaves defenseless our individual inventors, small and midsized companies, researchers, even universities who depend financially on their patent portfolios. It is a coup in the making by the biggest and best protected operators….
Legislative reform efforts invariably build on a narrative of great injustice. This one moves wildly beyond the need to fix real abuses, wherein at considerable cost companies must defend their legitimately acquired patents against unscrupulous claimants.
But the term “patent troll,” directed against such bad actors, has been transmogrified by corporate marketers to include legitimate small inventors — many of them minorities, which is why my Black Caucus friends sized up the issue astutely — who are outgunned and outspent when they try to protect their intellectual property.
Almost all infringement cases are brought by people who own a patent legitimately. If not, such cases should be decided in court. There is nothing wrong with bringing such matters to court — a cornerstone, not of crony capitalism, but of the free market itself.
Our economy and culture depend on the disruptive nature of innovation. Our Constitution deliberately made all people equal, giving no advantage to those of social status, wealth or position. The founders, even before they added the Bill of Rights, secured the right to hold patents in the Article I of the Constitution itself, the only right mentioned prior to the amendments.
We all know our country’s history of innovation. Large companies reject new ideas. It is the innovator who challenges the status quo, not the corporation.
Under the proposed bill, the pretrial discovery process — just one part of many dubious sections — tilts heavily against the small inventor, who of course must share his or her secrets with an opposing corporation’s well-armed legal team. In another era, I might have considered this an innocent, unintended consequence of ill-considered drafting. Not now.
I implore my colleagues in both the House and Senate to stop this monster aborning.
In a few days, I’ll be speaking about IP and innovation in China at the RISE 2015 conference in Miami, Florida, sponsored by INDA (a professional organization for the nonwoven fabrics industry). In my presentation, I’ll be sharing my “Dangerfield Theory” of IP and innovation in China. The Dangerfield Theory is based on comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who famously and repeatedly complained that he got no respect. China, in spite of remarkable advances in IP and innovation, continues to get no respect. Like Rodney himself, China is also a heavyweight, now leading the world in patents and IP litigation, and leading in the pursuit of many key technologies. Their innovation and IP is no laughing matter, but continues to just get no respect. This make China like Dangerfield, and for those companies and nations that ignore the threats and opportunities China creates, Chinese IP and innovation will also become “danger field.” Ignoring this field of danger and opportunity is foolhardy. It’s the kind of sleepy, lazy response we seen when a company or nation is beset by innovation fatigue.
The tendency of Chinese IP and innovation to be invisible to the West is an issue I raised in 2011 right after the Thompson Reuter Top 100 Global Innovators report for 2011 included nothing from China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong in its list of 100 top innovators based on international patent filings over the past three years. I was astonished at how Chinese IP could be so invisible and overlooked, given that Foxconn/Honghai Precision, the Taiwanese and Chinese partner of Apple, compared to Apple itself actually had 3 times as many US patents in the time period of interest. Honghai had roughly 50 times as many US patents field as some companies that made the list. Other heavy international filers like Huawei, ZTE, and Lenovo were also neglected.
I contacted Thompson Reuters to complain, wondering also if they had made errors in their search or forget to include Honhai Precision in their search terms. I was told that they had done the analysis accurately, relying on a proprietary algorithm that requires a company to file in the US, the EPO (Europe), and Japan for a patent to count as an “international” patent. This definition tends to discriminate against Chinese IP, in my opinion, for Chinese companies, when they seek international protection, are usually content with IP in China and the US, plus some other specific nations, but tend to do relatively few filings with the EPO or with Japan. Japanese companies naturally file their first, just as Chinese companies file first in China. Given the high political tensions between Japan and China, and the relatively small market it is for Chinese companies, the motivation to file in Japan is small, regardless of the quality of the invention. Insisting on filing in Japan rather than China puts China at a great disadvantage and favors the many Japanese companies that make the list. Requiring that a patent be filed in the EPO and Japan in addition to the US sets a very high bar that does not properly reflect whether an invention is good enough to be pursued with international IP.
In 2012, the Thompson Reuters Top 100 Global Innovators report still had nothing from China. Its 2013 report finally mentioned Taiwan, but not Honghai/Foxconn. Only the Taiwanese semiconductor giant TMSC broke into the top 100. But the latest report from the end of 2014 finally mentioned a mainlaind Chinese company: Huawei. It’s about time. It’s not like Huawei just barely broke into the ranks of companies pursuing international IP. For several years they, like ZTE, have been in the top 5 international filers, according to the World IP Organization which administers PCT (Patent Cooperation Treaty) filings. Huawei is actually the world’s #1 international filer and has been for some time. Looks like they managed to barely break past whatever algorithmic blinders Thompson Reuters has, and for that tiny bit of progress, I guess we have to congratulate the folks at TR.
My soft and hesitant congratulations, though, may not be heard amid the roar of complaints that TR is facing for its related report, China’s IQ (Innovation Quotient), which praises China for its rapid rise in innovation and patent filings (in spite of meagre recognition on the Top 100 report). Some loud voices immediately complained, reminding us that Chinese innovation is weak and most of its patents are low quality. On Dec. 13, 2014, the influential magazine, The Economist, ran an editorial, “Patent fiction: Are Ambitious Bureaucrats Fomenting or Feigning Innovation?,” criticizing TR for their positive report on China and reminding us that China’ does not file as high a percentage of international patents as Japan, and suggesting that Chinese innovation and IP is “feigned” by bureaucrats and not driven by real inventions from real innovators. Still no respect!
Yes, there is a problem with poor quality patents in China driven by tax breaks. But that is changing as companies increasingly look to patents as strategic tools for the future, and are striving to increase quality. The quality problems in China may more severe than they are in the US, but the quality is improving, and expensive international filings are increasing, with China now #3 in the world, ahead of Germany, and likely to overtake Japan in a few years.
It’s true that Japanese patents are much more likely to be filed overseas than Chinese patents (something like 30% for Japan versus 5% for China), but this is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of the patent. The economic value is also an important issue. Japan is a small market. Its businesses prosper by selling products to many large foreign markets like the US, Europe, and China. There are strong economic reasons why Japanese companies would seek foreign patent protection. China, on the other hand, represents a huge and growing market. Apart from manufacturing for foreign companies using foreign IP, Chinese companies producing and creating their own products tend to find the Chinese market to be a big enough opportunity to keep them busy for years to come, and rely much less on exporting these to the confusing and uncertain overseas markets in the US and Europe. The economic incentives to seek IP overseas is less for many Chinese innovators than it is for Japanese innovators, and naturally we can expect foreign filings to be somewhat diminished, even when the invention is of high quality.
There is a tsunami of quality IP and advanced innovation coming from China. China is learning and rapidly improving its approach to IP. Those who continue to ignore the threats and opportunities coming from this very change will find that the “Dangerfield Theory of Chinese IP and innovation” ultimately means the joke will be on them.
The US Supreme Court recently ruled that “abstract” concepts are not eligible for patents. The 2014 case, Alice Corporation Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Intl. or more simply Alice, is said by some to mean the death of thousands of patents if not entire industries. Critics such as Gene Quinn say it is unworkable, vague and indefinite, giving judges and enemies of patents a capricious tool to assault patents for software and other fields. One of the alleged problems with the Supreme Court’s ruling is that they expressly refused to define the word “abstract” because, of course, it is a very difficult word to define precisely for legal purposes. Greg Aharonian has expressed outrage over the “incompetence” of the Supreme Court in failing to even attempt to explain what they mean by “abstract.” IAM Magazine‘s blog warns of “potentially catastrophic effects” of the ruling. Even the calm and collected IP professor, Dennis Couch expresses concern that “there is no standard definition for ‘abstract’ and so it is difficult to identify abstract ideas from non-abstract ideas.” Many other IP experts and patent owners are up in arms because this allegedly adds confusion to patent law and gives judges a broad club to attack patents by merely calling them “abstract.” So much whining!
So how can you know if a claimed invention is “abstract” or not, when claim language invariably requires some degree of abstraction to describe the invention? OK, that’s a fair question, but there’s an easy answer thanks to the visual arts!
With a little artistic understanding, it is easy to predict precisely where the boundaries are for the hard-to-define term “abstract.” This is a case where art comes to the rescue. In my role as both a patent agent and an amateur artist, I can combine my skills to bring a little clarity. Students of art, especially the visual arts, know that artistic expression can capture and define concepts that cannot be precisely rendered by words alone and certainly not legalese.
The eye can often see what the pen cannot express. We should have learned this lesson decades ago in the debate over pornography. As Justice Potter Stewart once said, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” This statement is from Jacobellis v. State of Ohio 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964) and while decades old, it still applies brilliantly today. With that judicial framework, we can readily see that pornography is equivalent to the abstract in patent law. Yes, you can know it when you see it, and seeing is what we need to do now to understand the keen thinking of the Supreme Court on this topic. So let’s take a look and understand “abstract” based on abstract art, or more specifically, photographic abstracts selected from my own work, including collections of abstract photographic art. I think after a few examples you will better appreciate just where the boundaries are that separate “abstract concepts” from the concrete, tangible concepts suitable for patentable inventions.
Knowing It When You See It: Examples of Abstraction, Illustrated by Photography
Here I present a series of works from my abstract photographic art and discuss the nature of the abstraction.
The abstract above resembles abstract geometric concepts found in many paintings, almost cubist in flavor, but achieved using photography. I snapped a photo of a group of people inside the Wisconsin State Capital in Madison, Wisconsin, but using a slow shutter speed that resulted in blurring of many features. But you can recognize a black man with a baseball cap on the left. In his right hand is an iPod and you can see a white line representing the ear buds he is wearing. On the right side we see the side of a woman with a purse. Of course, while baseball caps, iPods, ear buds, and purses, like people themselves, are relatively tangible objects, in this context they are rendered less specific by the way in which they are captured or described, thereby creating abstraction from that which was initially concrete and specific. Let that be a lesson to patent drafters, by the way!
Here’s another with a related technique:
This abstract is based on the structures and controls of the front panel of a rental car. The camera was moved as I snapped the shot. Not a random mistake, but a deliberate effort to convert the concrete into the abstract by blurring and twisting. Of course, the limitations of language tend to do this to some degree to all inventions, no matter how tangible, as they are “blurred” and captured with the unsteady lens of a single patent claim. A little burring in inevitable, but this much blurring definitely turns the tangible into the abstract.
Now let’s consider abstraction without blurring:
This is a geometrical abstract wherein the elements (abstract circles and lines) from a physical structure dominate the image and create an abstraction. This essentially untouched photo was taken from the entrance of an abandoned shopping mall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The scene is drawn from the concrete–or rather, from metal beams, glass, and brick–but when viewed in this way, becomes a combination of abstract elements: circles and lines, rhythm and color. Clearly abstract. The silhouette derived from a remote tree reflected in glass at the bottom is an abstraction representing the intrusion of nature into artificial man-made realms. Don’t let the hint of a tree distract you from the abstract theme here. After all, anything derived a tree is a product of nature and thus unpatentable, according to the Supreme Court in their recent Mayo v. Prometheus decision, which served as a basis for the reasoning in the Alice decision.
Now it’s time for something trickier but still abstract.
This image shows a mirror and a section of translucent plastic roofing above a cable car stop on the way to a tall mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro. The mirror and the roofing are tangible, distinct objects, as are the buildings in the background. But here the image celebrates the blues and greens in conjunction with arcs and circles. The mirror does not display the photographer, but another section of the building, and is a symbol of the failure to reflect upon one’s self, becoming lost instead in the haze of what we call civilization, even while standing next to a towering temple of nature (the unseen mountain). The mirror also punctuates the series of repeated curves of the roofing, like a grand period putting a stop to the rhythms of the sky, an abstract concept again reflecting the invasive nature of civilization. It’s all very abstract stuff, though individual components are tangible, just as patent claims may contain concrete elements such as servers, computers, and processors, but in the end create an overall impression in the mind of the viewer or judge that is decidedly abstract.
Now I turn to an abstraction that is linked to the whole concept of innovation and IP, the famous light bulb, but here an abstract version thereof.
This photo is little more than an abstract idea representing the concepts of “light emission” and perhaps “bulbs.” It was actually abstracted from a fairly specific and tangible device, a fluorescent light bulb, but with extreme photographic settings and color adjustment that removed much of what is concrete in favor of the abstract. Sure, you can argue that it has components that are somewhat tangible and concrete, but those of us who know the abstract when we see it have no trouble calling it such. It’s not a patent-worthy bulb. It’s just an embodiment of an abstract idea. Patent ineligible. I know it, because I, like any good judge, know it when I see it. Try proving me wrong! Or rather, just try proving a judge or patent examiner wrong when they see something abstract in your carefully claimed invention.
As you can see, the boundaries of “abstract” are surprisingly clear and easy to predict–and surprisingly difficult to evade. I hope this will help all those complainers worried about “uncertainty” from the Alice decision to appreciate the new kind of certainty that it gives. Good luck to all you inventors and small companies out there. May your patents be less abstract and more valuable in the future.
Originally posted at JeffLindsay.com as “Abstract Art to the Rescue of Abstract Patent Law: How to Know “Abstract” When You See It.”
The recent Alice decision from the Supreme Court threatens patents for many innovators working with computers, software, information, and knowledge–in short, the heart of the modern Knowledge Economy. By waving around the undefined word “abstract”–a word that the Court expressly refused to define–they have ruled that a major part of the economy is simply not eligible for patent protection. An article at the popular IP blog, PatentlyO, seeks to explain if not justify the Court’s ruling. In “Alice, Artifice, and Action,” Jason Rantanen elucidates the thinking of the Court as he explains that the problem with the invention in Alice is that ultimately, what it involved “is just information” and thus intangible or abstract, unworthy of patent protection. I recognize this is a widely held belief, but it is not based on modern science. Maybe superstition, but not science.
It’s time for those in the IP profession to recognize what many scientists and engineers have long understood: that information is physical. Just as e=mc^2 helps us understand the relationship between matter and energy, the laws of thermodynamics plus a good deal of modern quantum mechanics and other fields helps us understand the physical relationships between information, matter, and energy. Entropy is one of the key physical concepts that helps us appreciate that linkage. See Wikipedia’s article on this topic at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy_in_thermodynamics_and_information_theory.
Information cannot be processed without physical, material change often affecting more than just physical entropy alone. That information processing may be in the form of electronic signals, computer chips, magnetic media, graphical interfaces, or chemical reactions with DNA (DNA, of course, is “just information” encoded with a brilliantly simple and tangible system).
In the Industrial Age, we focused on inventions made with cogs and pistons, steel and glass–crude, weighty, and easy to touch or see. Their making and their use involved smoke and flame, clangs and whirrings that nobody could miss. But we have moved into the the Information Age, where the greatest innovations that will drive our economy, the Knowledge Economy, are much finer, often microscopic, involving silent, invisible (to the naked eye) change that is still every bit as physical and real as anything a blacksmith hammered out. To dismiss the workings of the new electronic machines of our day and their many fruits as mere abstractions, intangible, immaterial, the whisps of ethereal spirit devoid of substance, is to miss the reality of the greatest era of innovation and invention ever. To exclude inventions in handling information as inherently unpatentable is a tragic error, one that contributes concretely to the growing innovation fatigue in the U.S.
One of the important new antibiotics discovered and developed by pharmaceutical companies in the past few years is Rifampicin and its relative Rifamycin. These potent antibiotics remain key tools in fighting off serious infection. Their story begins with a soil sample taken from a pine forest on the French Riviera in 1957 that was then studied in an Italian laboratory, where unusual antimicrobial properties were observed in a newly discovered bacterium. eventually an unusual molecule produced by the bacterium was identified, isolated, mass produced–and, yes, patented.
Rifamycin was credited with conquering drug-resistant tuberculosis in the 1960s. These drugs are marvelous discoveries, important pharmaceutical inventions, and became the subject of multiple patents providing protection and incentives to the developers and improvers of this unique products.
Thank goodness these products were discovered and patented decades ago, because today the USPTO would probably reject any patent application out of hand using its newly fabricated and terribly damaging rules that rule out “natural products” as patentable subject matter. This is the result of what appears to be a politically motivated attack on the pharmaceutical industry by the US government, using a Supreme Court decision (Myriad Genetics) as the excuse, but twisting it to go beyond what the Supreme Court said. The political angle is that politicians want to “stick it” to the pharmaceutical industry and appear to be taking steps to lower the cost of drugs by limiting patent scope and other means. But the long-term effect will be reduced innovation and less progress in medication.
If a product is actually novel, useful, and non-obvious, the fact that it had origins of some kind somewhere in nature should not be a barrier to patentability. The fact that an unknown bacterium in some French soil existed in nature does not enable the public to understand and produce a powerful, pure antibiotic useful in treating many diseases. Those who discovered, tested, refined, and modified the compounds produced by the bacterium deserved and needed patent production. Without it, there would be lessened incentives to take on the burdens of discovery, testing and drug development. We would be less innovative, not more, without patents for novel materials with some kind of basis in nature. But today, such patents and such innovations are threatened. It’s another example of innovation fatigue driven by political agendas and political machinations.
If you think about it, every invention has some roots in nature. The protons, neutrons, and electrons used in every object or affected in every process come from nature. Are we sure that we need a vague and indefinite “natural products” exclusion beyond the more sensible previous criteria for patentability?
In response to recent court cases, the USPTO has dramatically revised its approach to dealing with a wide variety of patents. Its new guidelines to patent examiners on subject matter eligibility for inventions involving natural products seem to go way beyond the legal decisions on which they are allegedly based, adding extremely high barriers to patentability. If your invention uses natural products, as almost every tangible invention does to some degree, you now must show that what you claim is “significantly different” that what might be found in nature or from natural phenomena. This vague requirement gives examiners a new club. I’ve already seen it abused.
One client from a previous employer of mine was on the verge of having her patent allowed, but instead just received a ridiculous rejection based on the new guidelines. The invention is a real breakthrough in consumer products that replaces a potentially harmful active ingredient with a novel formulation of several natural compounds with unexpected benefits. The value of the invention is potentially huge, but the examiner notes that since all the ingredients are natural and not significantly different from what can be found in nature, the overall invention is not patentable. End of story. I hope this examiner doesn’t realize that every atom, electron, and photon used in any invention can be found in nature.
Those in the biotech industry are highly agitated by this development. “IP Practitioners ‘Horrified’ by USPTO Guidelines on Myriad” is a recent article from Managing IP Magazine with the following:
Sherry Knowles, principal at Knowles Intellectual Property Strategies [said]:
I think the guidelines that were promulgated by the Patent Office are horrifying to the pharmaceutical and biotech industry. That is probably the nicest thing I could say about them. According to the utility guidelines that came out in March this year, not only is no natural product patentable in the US, arguably derivatives of natural products may also not be patentable. That is a clear change in the law.
She said the guidelines include a number of questions to find out if something is patentable. The first is: is it a natural product and does it include chemicals derived from natural sources such as antibiotics and proteins. Knowles noted that 47% of drugs over the past 30 years include derivatives of natural products.
“According to the guidelines, if it is not a natural product you look at whether it is ‘markedly different’ from the natural product. That’s the test. Of course that is clear as mud and that will be defined over time in case law. But let’s say two-thirds of approved drugs that are derived from natural products are markedly different you are still down to 390 drugs over the past 30 years that arguably under the utility guidelines are not patentable. I find that horrifying. I am very concerned,” she said.
These new guidelines, as well as the questionable court cases behind them, reflect a growing anti-patent mentality among our judges, politicians, and bureaucrats. We need to educate a new generation to understand that intellectual property is a critical tool to lift all boats by encouraging innovation and the sharing of secret knowledge obtained by inventors. We need to reverse the popular trend of pointing to patents and trolls as the biggest barriers to progress, when it is not that way at all. Sound patents, properly examined and granted, encourage innovation and lead to gains in knowledge for all.