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By R. Devin Ricci

The general outlay of this guide is to present some of the who, what, where, when, and why of the patent system in order to be able to explain the all-important how to obtain a patent. This guide aims to acquaint the reader with various aspects of the patent process, laying a proper foundation that will help the reader make informed decisions regarding patents. It should be stressed that the patent system is very complex – this guide will only touch on some of the many rules, nuances and exceptions contained in the United States patent system. Therefore, you should not rely solely on this guide and should consult an attorney.

The patent process is a long and expensive process, and the result of obtaining a patent cannot be guaranteed. However, what awaits a truly novel, non-obvious, and useful (1) invention at the end of the process is one of the most powerful intangible property rights available in the United States.

Disclaimer: This guide does not constitute legal advice and is not intended to supplement the advice that would be obtained from retaining a patent attorney or agent to aid in the patent process. This guide stands as a cursory review of the United States patent system as it relates to utility patents. This primer does not encompass on international patent protection. It is being provided in an effort to better acquaint the reader with some of the major aspects associated with the patent process. It is imperative for those considering or currently undertaking the patent process to understand what to expect when they choose to seek patent protection for an invention.

Why – the Great Incentive for Disclosure

The patent system aims to foster innovation. From single inventors to corporations, the great lure, the carrot of the patent system is the powerful, exclusive rights afforded by a patent. An issued patent grants an inventor the exclusive rights to exclude others from making, using, and selling the patented invention throughout the United States for a period of up to twenty years from the date of filing. In exchange for this right to exclude (2), an inventor must fully disclose to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) how to make and use the claimed invention. The tradeoff for the public is twofold. First, the information contained in the patent is published at least by the date of issuance. Therefore, the information itself becomes public knowledge, available as information in research and development. Second, the invention becomes part of the public domain once the patent’s term ends, free for all to exploit and use.

It may seem counterintuitive that eliminating some competition would actually foster innovation, but it does. Remember, the public or its elected government generally cannot walk into a business, laboratory, home, or garage and force an inventor to disclose his invention to the public. Companies and inventors are free to hide their innovations as trade secrets, which are not subject to term limits. Trade secret rights vary from state to state; however, the gist is that by keeping an invention as a trade secret, an inventor can remain the sole beneficiary of his invention as long as the information does not become public knowledge (3). The power of a trade secret lies in its potential longevity, but is limited to information that remains secret and cannot be discovered through ordinary use or reverse engineering, i.e., taking apart an object to see how it works in order to duplicate or enhance the object. Technological advancements in the modern marketplace hinder the use of trade secrets. Simply put, it is continuously becoming easier to reverse engineer products and discover the process or machine the inventor attempts to hide through trade secrets. This shift has led many companies and inventors to seek patent protection instead of attempting to keep their innovations as trade secrets.

What – Patentability and Components

Patentable subject matter

There are three types of patents: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. Utility patents are by far the most common of the three types. Both plant and design patents adhere to their own sets of rules and attributes (4); however, this guide solely addresses the process of prosecuting a utility patent. Patentable subject matter for a utility patent comprises any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof (5). In addition to fitting into one of these five enumerated categories or “improvements thereof,” an invention must also be useful, novel, and non-obvious as determined by the USPTO and/or a court.

Utility – is the innovation useful?

Courts have generally whittled the “utility requirement” into a de minimus (minimal) threshold. Under this viewpoint, an invention with any conceivable use or function generally satisfies the utility requirement. The purpose of the utility requirement is to prevent rights which arguably lie under other forms of intellectual property from gaining patent protection. For example, purely aesthetic functionality such as that of a painting would not qualify for patent protection; rather, it may eligible for copyright protection. However, it should be noted that the ornamental look of an otherwise functional item may qualify for a design patent.

Novelty – is the innovation “new”?

The question of novelty asks whether or not the invention is truly inventive; i.e., are the elements of the invention anticipated by the prior art (i.e., already known in the industry). In other words, the question of novelty asks whether or not any single prior art reference exists in the pertinent industry which already discloses the invention at the time of effective filing (i.e, the priority date).

Any public disclosure, regardless of how the disclosure was made, constitutes prior art as of the date it is made publically available. This includes any subject matter that was patented, described in a printed publication, or in public use, on sale, or otherwise available to the public before the effective filing date of the claimed invention. One notable exception exists to the public disclosure requirement in that the inventor’s own disclosures will not count as valid prior art so long as the subject matter is described in a patent application applied for within one year of the public disclosure. Therefore, once the inventor makes any public disclosure, a time clock starts ticking by which the inventor has one year to file an application with the patent office or the subject matter is barred by statute (a “statutory bar”) from being novel.

Moreover, as of March 2013, the United States patent system was reformed by the America Invents Act, switching the patent system from the long standing ‘first to invent’ system to a ‘first to file’ system. The present system renders any U.S. patent, patent application publication, or a World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) published international patent application (Patent Cooperation Treaty – PCT) as prior art as of the date the subject matter was effectively filed in the respective patent office, whether in the U.S. or abroad.

Non-obviousness

Not only must innovations be deemed novel in light of the prior art, but they must also not be found to be obvious improvements of the prior art. Whereas novelty inquires as to whether or not the claimed invention is anticipated by a single prior art reference, obviousness asks whether or not it would have been obvious to a “person having ordinary skill in the art” (“PHOSITA”) to combine the elements of multiple prior art references to develop the proposed innovation.

The same prior art relevant to novelty is applicable for obviousness. However, more so than with novelty, the test for obviousness is to be viewed in light of the supposed “person having ordinary skill in the art” or the particular field relevant to the subject matter. For example, a typical organic chemist or electrical engineer would be the relevant PHOSITA for patent applications concerning an organic chemical process or an electrical apparatus, respectively.

Patent Applications

As will be explained in greater detail below, two types of utility patent applications exist– provisional and non-provisional applications. The provisional acts as a place holder while a non-provisional is a full application; however, they can be used in concert to maximize protection.

Provisional Applications: The provisional application is essentially an initial disclosure made to demonstrate that an invention was created. Provisional applications are filed to attempt to to prevent others from later claiming prior invention. The provisional application can be thought of as a place holder or a stake in the ground to claim and lock in a priority date for a claimed invention. However, no substantive rights will be granted from a provisional application. The provisional application will not be reviewed by an Examiner to determine if a patent should be granted; therefore, a provisional application need not meet all of the formal requirements that a non-provisional must meet. Rather, it needs to disclose enough of the invention so that when a full (non-provisional) application is filed, the applicant can point back to the provisional disclosure to show that the invention was disclosed and that the priority claim is accurate.

Provisional applications are optional. The priority claim of a provisional application lasts one year from its filing date. Essentially, it grants the applicant one year from the filing date of the provisional application to finalize and/or market its invention with patent pending status before the applicant must file a non-provisional application to keep the priority date and patent pending status alive. It should also be noted that the one year pendency between the provisional and non-provisional filing does not count against the potential twenty-year term of the patent, which commences on the date the non-provisional is filed.

Non Provisional Application: The non-provisional application is the full application for a patent that will be reviewed and prosecuted by the Examiners at the USPTO. A non-provisional application must meet the formal requirements set forth by patent laws and the USPTO. Therefore, it must comport with formal drawings (i.e., tagged drawings and figures which are capable of being reproduced by the UPSTO Printing department), a specification which discloses the invention to a degree that allows a person having ordinary skill in the art to make and use the invention, an abstract, and claims.

Specification: The specification, or disclosure, is a written description of the invention. Patent applications are subject to a written requirement whereby the application must disclose the invention with enough specificity in order for the disclosure to enable a “PHOSITA” to make and use the invention without undue experimentation. These requirements are often satisfied through a background section, a short summary, and a detailed disclosure of the invention in light of the drawings.

The specification also defines the scope of the patent claims. The claims and all potential amendments thereto must find descriptive basis in the disclosure as filed. No new matter can be added to a non-provisional application once it is filed. If the applicant wishes or needs to add new matter, it can be done through a continuation-in part application; however, the new matter would have a new filing date and would not be able to claim priority to the original application.

Claims: By statute, the application must claim a “definite” invention. The definiteness requirement mandates that each patent must “conclude with one or more claims particularly pointing out and distinctly claiming the subject matter which the applicant regards as [the] invention.” (6) Courts have mandated that definiteness is to be evaluated in light of the specification (the written description of the invention) and prosecution history from the perspective of a person skilled in the relative art at the time the patent was filed.

The claims section is the heart of the patent. As the name designates, this is the section wherein the applicant tells the USPTO and thus the public what is the intended invention. The claims of an issued patent define the scope of protection afforded by the issued patent. Claim drafting can be viewed as a strategy. An ideal claim walks a fine line. The goal is to draft the claim as broadly as possible so as to not unnecessarily limit the scope of protection while keeping the claim within the boundaries set forth by the prior art and the enabling disclosure. Remember, only novel, non-obvious, and useful inventions are capable of being patented. Therefore, while an ideal claim is drafted to provide broad protection, the claim cannot be too broad such that it is rendered either not-novel or obvious in light of the prior art in order to be accepted. It is typical for claims to be amended and limited during prosecution to obtain protection.

Drawings: Applicants are required to submit drawings when they are useful for the understanding of the invention. The USPTO has determined that applications for methods, processes or compositions of matter may not require drawings. Other applications, particularly applications for apparatuses or widgets, which incorporate component parts, are generally deemed to require drawings for a proper disclosure. The USPTO imposes requirements and formal restrictions on drawings; therefore, it is suggested that trained patent draft-persons be used to draft drawings.

Abstract: the abstract is a formal requirement which the USPTO requires that each and every non-provisional application contain. The abstract is a brief summary of the technical disclosure in the specification in fewer than 150 words.

Where – the United States Patent and Trademark Office

The physical “where” of patent applications is becoming less important in the modern world because most filings for patent applications are conducted online via the patent electronic filing system (“EFS – Web”). That said, the United States Patent and Trademark Office is the federal bureaucratic agency in charge of prosecuting all United States patent applications. The main office itself is located in Virginia; however, satellite offices have been opening around the country in select cities, each housing specialized art units designed to decrease the pendency for applications involving key hotspots of innovation. The URL for the USPTO is www.uspto.gov.

Who – Inventors, Applicants and Examiners

Applicant(s): Generally, the applicant for patent rights is the inventor. Patent rights initially inure to the inventor and remain with the inventor unless he assigns or licenses his rights. Such assignments typically occur via sales or through contractual relationships, such as when an employee develops the innovation as part of his employment with a company. The provisions of the American Invents Act allow a company, to which an invention is assigned, or to which the inventor has a duty to assign, to apply for patent rights to the invention in the name of the company. Therefore, it is possible and rather common for a company to file a patent application.

When two or more inventors contribute to the conception of the invention they are termed joint inventors. It is important to determine the inventive contributions of each person involved in the creation of the invention. For example, as patent prosecution proceeds, it is possible and even likely that certain claims sought for patenting will be rejected. It is, after all, the USPTO’s job to be the gatekeeper ensuring that the monopoly of patent rights is not handed out lightly. Therefore, as claims are removed through prosecution, it is possible for a listed inventor, whose contributions only applied to cancelled or rejected claims, to no longer qualify as an inventor. If that happens, the affected inventor needs to be removed from the application.

Examiners: The USPTO employs examiners separated into art units, each specializing in a particular field. Many of the examiners have specialized degrees in the sciences (chemistry, biology, physics, engineering etc.), and a juris doctor degree, or other practical experience pertinent to their art units. For example, an application for a computer related invention will likely be assigned to a computer related art group wherein an examiner with a background in computer science will prosecute the application.

When to File

The inventive process commences at conception. Interestingly, all that is required to file a patent application is that the invention be fully conceived. The inventor or applicant must have enough of the invention conceptualized so that he can disclose the invention, in writing, to enable others in the field of the invention to make or use the invention.

The current patent system behooves potential applicants to “file early, file often.” As previously discussed, the United States patent system was reformed by the America Invents Act, switching the patent system to a ‘first to file’ system from the long standing ‘first to invent’ system. Admittedly, some exceptions to “first to file” exist under the current governing laws; however, the gist of the system is that the first applicant to file an application for a particular invention with the USPTO is deemed the inventor under the patent laws, preventing a later filing applicant from obtaining a patent. The “file early, file often,” strategy has been adopted by many corporations. The strategy is to file provisional applications as soon as a potentially marketable invention is conceived and follow up with additional provisional applications as notable improvements are made. This system allows for inventors to claim the earliest possible priority date for the invention while fleshing out the details to determine if a full non-provisional application is warranted.

In addition to the other considerations, the patent laws impose certain time limits or constraints on the filing. As discussed previously, the United States patent system imposes statutory bars that govern the novelty of a proposed invention. If the invention is disclosed to the public such as by use, sale, offer for sale, publication or otherwise, the statutory bar period is triggered. Any of the actions grouped as public disclosures of the invention trigger a one year countdown by which an application must be filed with the USPTO or no patent protection can be obtained.

How- the Patent Process

The typical patent process described herein involves the use and assistance of a registered patent attorney or patent agent. This process generally commences with an initial consultation in which the attorney explains the patent process to the potential-applicant and the potential-applicant discloses the invention to the attorney. After the initial consultation, a patentability study is often performed to determine the potential likelihood that a patent could be obtained. After a promising patentability study, or otherwise skipping the study entirely, a formal patent application is prepared and filed with the USPTO. In due time, the application will be assigned to an examiner who will review the innovation for patentability. If deemed patentable, the patent process concludes with the receipt of an issued patent. If not, the applicant has opportunity to submit arguments in favor of patentability.

Patentability Study

Patents are often a costly endeavor. Therefore, many applicants elect to “do their homework” before embarking in the process. In other words, before spending considerable sums on the patent process, many applicants order a patentability study to gauge the viability of their proposed patent application. A typical patentability search seeks relevant prior art which may be used by an Examiner to reject an application based on either novelty or obviousness grounds. These searches are usually conducted through a patent attorney, a patent agent or third party companies which specialize in prior art searches.

In the patentability opinion, a qualified person, typically the patent attorney or agent, uses the relevant prior art from the patentability study and compares it to the applicant’s disclosed invention in order to determine the potential for obtaining a patent. It should be noted that knowledge of the prior art can help to determine the breadth of a potential patent’s scope, and thus its overall granted protection. Also, as with most legal matters, issues of patent law require subjective determinations which are many times unpredictable. Therefore, even with a favorable patentability opinion, the applicant may not receive an issued patent.

While extremely useful, patentability searches are inherently limited and it can never be guaranteed that every potential prior art matter will be discovered. By law, the USPTO must keep any application in confidence for eighteen (18) months after the application’s earliest priority date (i.e., the date the application was first filed). Applicants can further delay the publication of patent applications by payment of non-publication fees. Furthermore, it should be noted that a majority of searches are conducted via “term searches.” Because a patent applicant is allowed to act as his own lexicographer, it is possible that the terms used in the search may be different from those used in patent applications and issued patents; therefore, it is possible that applications and patents exist which did not turn up in the search. Finally, many searches do not include the extensive listings of foreign patents, magazines, trade or technical journals, or other publications that may contain articles that will impact the patentability. Overall, the search acts to exemplify and bring to light the available pieces of prior art that are the most similar to the invention as described by the applicant. However, it is typical that at least a few patents from the preliminary search will turn up and be cited during prosecution of an application.

Draft and File Application

If the patentability search and opinion comes back favorable, the typical next step is to file an application. As previously discussed, there are two general types of utility applications for patent protection in the United States: provisional applications, which act more as place holders than anything, and non-provisional applications which are full-fledged applications for patent rights that are examined by the USPTO. Depending on his or her circumstances, an applicant has the choice to either (1) file a provisional application and then to come back within a year and file a non-provisional application or (2) file a non-provisional application and commence patent prosecution.

International Patent Rights

An applicant may have the ability to file for international patent rights. However, the scope of this guide is to discuss the United States patent system. It is highly suggested that any reader considering foreign or international patent rights seek qualified patent counsel to discuss options for doing so either under the Patent Cooperation Treaty or otherwise inform themselves of international patent rights. Note that a public disclosure is often a bar for most foreign patents.

Patent Pending Status

There is no such thing as a “provisional patent.” Once a patent application is filed with the USPTO, the invention covered and claimed by the patent application is deemed to have “patent pending” status. It is important to note that patent pending status does not grant the holder any substantive rights under the law. Indeed, no patent exists during prosecution for others to infringe, let alone be sued upon. The applicant can, however, alert others to the fact that it has claimed priority to an invention and that the applicant will bring an infringement action if necessary, if and when the patent issues.

Patent Prosecution

Expected Delays: As previously noted, the patent process is long. Typical applications can take anywhere between 2-4 years for the process to be resolved, with many applications taking even longer. The pendency period generally depends on the art class to which the invention is assigned and the backlog that art unit is facing at the time. Often a patent application may sit in a given art unit for one or more years before being assigned to an examiner for prosecution. It has been our experience that the art units for software, business method, and electrical engineering patents have generally experienced a heightened workload compared to many other units, and therefore have longer prosecution period.

It is possible to expedite a patent application under certain circumstances. Applications can be expedited at the USPTO under one of three categories: (1) payment of an additional fee, (2) by statute if the invention involves a certain, recognized class of subject matter, and (3) by statute based on the status (usually health or age) of the inventor. It should be noted that some expedited applications require a great deal of additional work on the part of the applicant.

Office Actions: During prosecution, the USPTO generally communicates with the applicant via one or more office actions which set forth a period of time for the applicant’s response. Examiners often object to certain aspects of the application in these office actions based on issues with formality (such as issues with the drawings) or substantive issues which concern the patentability of the claimed invention. If the examiner opines that the application is formally deficient or that the claimed innovation is not novel or is obvious, the examiner will first issue a non-final rejection in an office action. The applicant is allowed to submit an argument to rebut the examiner’s position. Depending on the circumstances, applicants may be able to employ several avenues for rebutting the Examiner including arguments rooted in law or fact, amending or cancelling claims in light of objections, or amending the specification to eliminate the formality issues raised by the examiner. In response to the applicant’s arguments, the examiner may grant the patent, object to the patent based on new grounds through another non-final rejection, or issue a final rejection. It is typical for an application to be met with one or more office actions before a final determination is made by the examiner. In the event that a final rejection is issued, the applicant may still be able to continue prosecution through the filing of an appeal with the Patent Trials and Appeals Board (PTAB), filing a continuation or a request for continued examination (RCE) to further seek protection.

Maintenance Fees: Although patent terms can last up to twenty years from the effective filing date, the USPTO requires the payment of periodic maintenance fees to keep the patent alive and enforceable. The window periods for the three payments are (a) 3 years to 3 1/2 years after the date of issue for the first maintenance fee payment, (b) 7 years to 7 1/2 years after the date of issue for the second maintenance fee payment, and (c) 11 years to 11 1/2 years after the date of issue for the third and final maintenance fee payment. These payments can be made up to six months after the above mentioned time periods (4, 8, and 12 years) with the payment of a surcharge fee.

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[1] There are three types of patents: utility, design, and plant patents. The focus of this guide is to acquaint the reader with utility patents because they are the most common and sought after of the three.
[2] In exchange for these exclusive rights, the patent holder must fully disseminate the invention to the public. Although others are prohibited from exploiting the patented invention during its term, the innovation enters the public domain upon expiration or abandonment, rendering the invention free for all to use.
[3] Trade secrets exhibit great benefits and drawbacks; however, this guide is limited to patent issues so a foray into the pro’s and con’s of trade secrets will not be discussed.
[4] For example, only asexually reproduced plants may be patented, and design patents can be obtained for any new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture.
[5] See. 35 U.S.C. 101; Please note that the United States Supreme Court has recently heard a multitude of cases which impact patentable subject matter. The holdings of these cases are too numerous to detail in this guide; however, it is strongly recommended that the reader consult with a knowledgeable person, such as a registered patent attorney or patent agent, to discuss the various implications these cases may have on patentable subject matter.
[6] See. 35 U.S.C. 112, Paragraph 2
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About the Author:

Devin Ricci is an associate in the Baton Rouge office of Kean Miller. He joined the firm in 2012 and practices in the intellectual property group. Devin has experience in the four areas of intellectual property rights: patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets.

He represents a variety of clients including single inventors as well as companies of all sizes seeking a patent, artists and software engineers seeking copyright protection, and startup companies seeking to protect their intellectual property rights. He also has experience resolving intellectual property issues in the energy, refining, textile, marketing, advertising, manufacturing, and industrial sectors. Devin frequently drafts and files federal and state trademark applications for companies of all sizes as well as federal copyright registrations. He is a registered patent attorney and is licensed to practice before the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

As a registered patent attorney, Devin also drafts, files, and prosecutes process patents such as refining and chemical processes, apparatus patents such as consumer and industrial products, and systems patents such as plant designs. In addition to the experience in filing and prosecuting applications to obtain various intellectual property rights, he also has experience in drafting licensing and acquisition agreements concerning the various intellectual property rights.

Devin earned his B.S. in Biochemistry in 2009 from Louisiana State University. While earning his degree, Devin worked as a student researcher under a professor in the Biological Chemistry Department. He earned his J.D., magna cum laude, in 2012 from the LSU Law Center, where he was a member of the Order of the Coif. He also earned an additional diploma in Civil Law while attending the LSU Law Center.

Devin may be reached at 225.389.3713 or devin.ricci@keanmiller.com

 

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By Jessica Engler

Singer-songwriter Taylor Swift is primarily known for her musical talents, but the pop star has recently made headlines for her work in the intellectual property realm. According to the database of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), Swift has filed several trademark applications to register catchphrases from her 2014 album 1989. Swift has filed applications for registration of “Nice to Meet You. Where You Been?”, “Could Show You Incredible Things”, “Cause We Never Go Out of Style”, “Party Like It’s 1989,” and “This Sick Beat.” In the applications, Swift indicated that she plans to use these phrases on a plethora of different merchandise including apparel, paper products, toys, household items, and Christmas ornaments.

Because less people are buying full albums—instead opting for MP3s of single songs and streaming services—attempting to trademark lyrics may be a shrewd, yet smart, business move. Phrases can immediately “go viral” in today’s Internet age, and a person’s potentially marketable phrase may be quickly used by another for profit. For example, the phrase “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That,” exclaimed by Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins in a local news interview turned Internet viral video, is the subject of a pending trademark application filed by Ebony Arrington, who uses the phrase “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That!” as the title of her regular radio bit. Ms. Arrington has disclosed that she got the name for this radio bit from the “Sweet Brown” video interview. With how quickly other individuals may move in on another person’s creativity, companies and individuals may be inclined to emulate Swift and lock up phrases associated with them and/or their advertising campaigns before anyone else can profit. However, before immediately filing “knee-jerk” applications for trademark protection, potential applicants should consider the trademark-ability of slogans.

A trademark or service mark includes any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination, used or intended to be used to identify and distinguish the goods or services of one seller or provider from those of others, and to indicate the source of the goods/services. See 15 U.S.C. §1127. For a slogan to be protectable as a trademark, it must be either (1) inherently distinctive or (2) have acquired enough secondary meaning to be immediately associated with a particular brand of product or service. Secondary meaning is acquired when the meaning of a phrase transcends the literal meaning of its words and instead identifies a source. An example of a phrase that the USPTO has deemed as achieving secondary meaning is “Mayhem is everywhere,” which was registered in 2012 by Allstate Insurance Company to protect the slogan made popular by their “Mayhem” advertising campaign.

It is worth noting that none of Taylor Swift’s applications nor the “Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That” application have yet been accepted by the USPTO as registered marks. Therefore, their acceptability as a trademark has yet to be determined. However, for those potential applicants that have been inspired by Swift’s intellectual property maneuvers, consultation with a trademark attorney regarding the strength and secondary meaning of their slogans prior to application can be highly beneficial.

 

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By Bill Caughman

In 1999, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (“ICANN”) adopted the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP) which established a system for dispute resolution between owners of internet domain names and trademark owners. The UDRP allows a trademark owner to file a complaint with various administrative bodies, such as the National Arbitration Forum, by which the trademark owner asserts their rights and requests that offending domain names, including those held by cybersquatters, be either cancelled or transferred to the trademark owner as the rightful owner of a given trademark.

While the UDRP is certainly less expensive and less time consuming than formal litigation in court, the proceedings usually take many months and expenses can be substantial. In 2013, a new system for dispute resolution was implemented called the Uniform Rapid Suspension System (URS). This system has been expanding in use and coverage; only recently URS became applicable to .us top level domains. The URS is intended to provide certain trademark owners with an alternative to the UDRP. Under the URS, when a trademark owner files a complaint, the registrar of the domain name immediately locks the domain to prevent modification or transfer. The registrar will then provide notice to the domain owner of the complaint, and the domain owner has 14 days to file a response. If there is no response from the domain owner (which is frequent for cybersquatters), then the domain is immediately suspended. Once the domain is suspended, when a person enters the domain name into a search engine, they will be redirected to a URS placeholder page showing that the domain is suspended. This remedy is different from the UDRP where the domain can be terminated or transferred to the trademark owner, but it does shut down the offending site much faster, and the fees are typically less under the URS procedure.

There are some additional limitations of the URS process. A trademark owner desiring to use the URS must be the owner of a mark consisting of a word only, as opposed to a trademark on a design, symbol or other feature that is ordinarily protectable under trademark law. Additionally, the burden of proof under the URS is “clear and convincing” which is a higher standard than the “preponderance of evidence” standard under the UDRP.

For the right situation, the URS is another tool to help trademark owners protect their rights in the ever expanding world of internet domain names.

 

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By Sonny Chastain

We have become accustomed to having regular check-ups with our doctors. The doctor will analyze our current physical condition, including heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol level, lung condition or otherwise. The doctor may order a treadmill test or a screening for a particular function. The doctor will also compare current test results to any prior tests to determine any changes to the body and mind resulting from the stress of our daily lives. The doctor considers any symptoms to determine whether risks associated with developing any particular disease can be reduced through diet, exercise, medication or other intervention. The goal is to stay healthy and fit. While the probing, pricking, injecting, and waiting are all uncomfortable, these activities are certainly better than a stay in the hospital or worse.

Our businesses should undergo a similar checkup or audit – to analyze risks that are connected to the business. Vital signs of the business should be examined to determine the current state of affairs. Similar to the condition of a body, after the business is formed, business owners are often just too busy competing in the marketplace to “take a physical.” The important and urgent items such as payroll, inventory, and sales are the immediate focus. Matters which are important, but non-urgent, including the “vital signs of the business,” get placed on the back burner. Business owners just do not take the time to pay attention to signs or symptoms. No different than a frog that dies because it does not realize the water is heating up, business owners do not pay attention to growth, market changes, etc., which have caused their own “water to heat up.”

Too many times the legal issues in a business are not noticed until after the business has had a “heart attack.” Steps should be taken to proactively consider areas in which the business may be vulnerable. Remedying problems which may be identified in any check-up are much easier to address before a legal issue arises. A legal check-up should be customized for the particular business, but should typically include: (1) review of the By-Laws or Operating Agreement to determine if they are current and appropriately govern the operation of the business; (2) review of insurance coverage to determine whether operational risks of the business are covered or not; (3) identification of any trade secrets and consideration of whether reasonable steps are really being taken to keep them confidential; (4) review of logos, slogans, or other indicia utilized as a trademark to identify the business and whether they are protected; (5) analyze whether the business owns a copyright in or has a license for any works that are integral to operations, like software, publications, drawings, etc.; (6) review of employee handbook and consideration of whether the business is operating consistent with it; and (7) analysis of whether certain employees should have to execute a valid non-compete or non-solicitation agreement. Similar to action items for the body like exercise, diet, or medication, intervention or remedies can be considered for any identified shortcomings of the business.

So, maybe it is time for a check-up — to pick up your head and work “on” the business and not just “in” the business. Maybe it is time to consider the applicable vital signs of the business so as to get the “house in order.” After all, there are three outcomes for a business: (1) it fails/dissolves, (2) it is inherited by the owner’s heirs, or (3) it is sold or transferred to a third party. Failing to check vital signs may contribute to the first possible outcome. Otherwise, appropriate business checkups and action items to keep the business healthy, wealthy and wise make the other two outcomes much easier to accomplish.

How healthy is your business? Is it fit, fat, or on the verge of a heart-attack or stroke? Maybe it is time to conduct a business audit to determine the current condition of the business. Much like a routine physical exam, a legal check-up by your attorney will help you address any troubling finding, and provide you with a full report on the health of your company.

 

 

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By Devin Ricci

One of the lesser-known requirements for a patent is that it must claim a “definite” invention. The issue of definiteness lies primarily with the patent draftsperson, often a patent attorney or agent that is hired to expand the scope of an invention as broadly as possible without crossing the line into indefiniteness. Nevertheless, as patent litigation continues to develop, alleged infringers are growing ever wiser that claims can be invalidated for stretching too far, rendering them indefinite. On June 2, 2014, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Nautilus, Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc., relaxing the standard for a court to find a patent claim invalid as indefinite.

By statute, the definiteness requirement mandates that each patent must “conclude with one or more claims particularly pointing out and distinctly claiming the subject matter which the applicant regards as [the] invention.” [1]  Courts have struggled throughout the years to balance the inherent limitations of written language with the need to limit the monopolistic rights granted through a patent for a clear invention. In so doing, Courts have mandated that the notion of definiteness is to be evaluated in light of the specification (the written description of the invention) and prosecution history from the perspective of a person skilled in the relative art at the time the patent was filed.

For over a decade, the Federal Circuit has erred on the side of validity for claim definiteness, questioning whether patent claims were “amenable to construction” or “insolubly ambiguous.” Under these guidelines the Federal Circuit would hold that “if reasonable efforts at claim construction result in a definition that does not provide sufficient particularity and clarity to inform skilled artisans of the bounds of the claim, the claim is insolubly ambiguous and invalid for indefiniteness.” [2]  The United States Patent and Trademark Office interpreted this standard to mean that “the validity of a claim will be preserved if some meaning can be gleaned from the language.” [3]

That standard is no more. In Nautilus, the Supreme Court held that the concepts of “insolubly ambigu[ity]” and “amenab[ility] to construction” are not apt standards for definiteness. The Court sought to mandate clarity of patent claims, while recognizing that absolute precision is unobtainable. Under this reasoning, the Court returned to traditional notions, holding that a patent is invalid for indefiniteness if its claims, read in light of the patent’s specification and prosecution history, fail to inform, with reasonable certainty, those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention.

It can be noted that the Nautilus decision does not create any breakthroughs in patent invalidation. In reality, the Supreme Court rendered no new standard as it returned to a more barebones, traditional approach to the definiteness standard. Rather, the decision lessens the burden for patent and patent claim invalidation for lack of definiteness and acts as a subtle hint to the Federal Circuit and lower courts that a definiteness challenge shouldn’t necessarily err on the side of validity. Thus, the decision opens the gate for further validity challenges based on indefinite claims.


[1] 35 U.S.C. 112, Paragraph 2
[2] Star Scientific, Inc. v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 537 F.3d 1357, 1371; see, also. ExxonResearch & Eng'g Co. v. United States, 265 F.3d 1371, 1375 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (“Only when a claim remains insolubly ambiguous without a discernible meaning after all reasonable attempts at construction must a court declare it indefinite.”)
[3] See, MPEP 2173.02

 

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By Jessica Engler and Devin Ricci

On May 21, 2014, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy pulled the plug on the latest bill aimed at fighting patent trolls. The term “patent troll” is an aptly coined name for non-practicing entities, companies formed to hold and collect royalties on patent rights without manufacturing, using, or otherwise selling the patented products or processes. The news of the judiciary committee’s removal of patent reform from the agenda has left many wondering about the future of patent reform. While some are predicting that patent reform will not be addressed until the next term, another branch of government has recently begun issuing rulings that affect the American patent law sector, potentially making patent infringement litigation costlier to trolls.

On April 29, 2014, the United States Supreme Court issued opinions in both Octane Fitness, LLC v. Icon Health & Fitness, Inc. and Highmark v. Allcare Health Management System, Inc. In both Octane Fitness and Highmark, the Supreme Court was presented with the nearly identical issue of when attorney’s fees can be awarded to the winning party of a patent infringement suit. These two opinions are the first decisions in a line of several patent cases currently on the Supreme Court’s intellectual property-heavy docket.

The Patent Act permits district courts to award attorney’s fees to prevailing parties in “exceptional circumstances;” however, the Patent Act does not provide a definition or examples of what would constitute those “exceptional circumstances.” 35 U.S.C. § 285. Though early decisions had taken a holistic, equitable approach to awards of attorney’s fees, in the 2005 case Brooks Furniture Manufacturing, Inc. v. Dutailier Int’l, Inc., the Federal Circuit Court adopted a rigid and mechanical formulation for determining if such fees would be awarded. 393 F.3d 1378 (2005). Under Brooks Furniture, a prevailing party could recovery attorney’s fees only when: (1) the opposing party engaged in misconduct during the litigation or in securing the patent; or (2) when the claim of infringement is objectively baseless and brought in bad faith. The Federal Circuit Court has subsequently stated that a claim is “objectively baseless” only when the claim is “so unreasonable that no reasonable litigant could believe it would succeed,” and that litigation is brought in bad faith only when the plaintiff “actually know[s]” the claim is objectively baseless. iLOR, LLC v. Google, Inc., 631 F.3d 1372, 1378 (2011). Last, the Brooks Furniture decision stated that the evidence of this bad faith must be “clear and convincing,” the most burdensome legal standard of proof.

By requiring this rigid, nearly-impossible standard for the award of attorney’s fees, the Brooks Furniture decision insulated patent trolls from the costly repercussions of their highly litigious behavior. The typical modus operandi of a patent troll commences with a demand letter sent to an alleged infringer demanding payment of a licensing fee for the allegedly impermissible use of the patent trolls’ patented technology. In an overwhelming number of cases the patent trolls’ claims of infringement are extremely weak and may even be invalidated if brought to trial. However, the high cost of patent litigation often renders it more economical to pay the licensing fee or settle, further promulgating the patent trolls’ ability to collect funds on extremely weak claims. As stated by Apple, Inc. in an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court, the opening line of many negotiations with patent trolls is some form of “What we are asking for is less than it will cost you to litigate this case to judgment.”

The Supreme Court, in its Octane Fitness and Highmark decisions, recognized that the Brooks Furniture framework is unnecessarily rigid, and that it impermissibly encumbers the district courts’ discretion. In Octane Fitness, the Court held that the term “exceptional” should be given its ordinary meaning; thus, an “exceptional” case is “one that stands out from the others with respect to the substantive strength of the party’s litigating position or the unreasonable manner in which the case was litigated.” This definition permits the district court to look to the totality of the circumstances in determining whether the case is one that would be described as “exceptional.” In so doing, the Court rejected the requirement that patent litigants establish their entitlement to fees by “clear and convincing evidence” and instead adopted a more relaxed standard. Further, in Highmark, the Supreme Court noted that because attorney’s fees were within the district court’s discretion, the Federal Circuit Court can only review that award for an “abuse of discretion.”

These opinions will likely have several positive effects against the more nefarious behaviors of patent trolls. Under this relaxed standard for attorney’s fees, the district courts will now have a greater ability to impose costs upon parties whom they believe have brought unreasonable claims. With that flexibility reinstated, an increase in attorney’s fees awards for patent litigation may be anticipated. Further, the Highmark decision has greatly hindered the Federal Circuit Court’s role in the determination to award attorney’s fees. Because the Federal Circuit Court can only review the decisions to determine whether they are an abuse of the district court’s discretion, the Federal Circuit Court can no longer reverse awards of attorney’s fees on the basis that the case does not include “exceptional” circumstances. Therefore, if a party is granted attorney’s fees by the district court, there may be less danger that the award will be reversed on appeal.

The impact of these decisions is already starting to take shape. Wasting no time, the Supreme Court put these opinions into action with its recent decision in Kobe Properties v. Checkpoint Systems. The district court in Kobe Properties issued a $6.6 million award of attorney’s fees against the patent owner. Using the now defunct standard, the Federal Circuit Court reversed the district court’s award because it found that the patent owner’s lawsuit was not “objectively baseless.” Under the decisions of Octane Fitness and Highmark, the award has now been reinstated and the case remanded back to the Federal Circuit Court for reconsideration in light of these decisions. However, the Federal Circuit Court’s hands may now be tied as it will have to consider the award under the “abuse of discretion” model, and not on the merits.

 

By R. Devin Ricci and Pamela A. Baxter 

The question as to whether isolated strands of human DNA are patent eligible subject matter has finally been answered. The Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc (1), on Thursday, June 13, 2013. Confirming what many patent practitioners anticipated, the Court held that a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and therefore is not patent eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101 merely because it has been isolated. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the Court ruled that complementary DNA (cDNA), which is synthetically constructed from a DNA segment by removing the introns (the non-coding DNA segments in a gene), can constitute patent eligible subject matter because the cDNA is not naturally occurring. It is important to note that this carved-out exception protects universities, biotech companies, pharmaceutical companies, and other research institutions; without the carved-out exception, the ability for such entities to recuperate resources devoted to research and development may have been lost.

Continue Reading You Can’t Patent My DNA: A brief on Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc.

By Lee Vail

On May 10, 2013, the Federal Circuit, sitting en banc, handed down its opinion in CLS Bank Int’l v. Alice Corp., No. 2011-1301, slip op. (Fed. Cir. May 10, 2013). The majority of the Federal Circuit judges agreed on little other than that the method and computer-readable medium claims involved in the dispute were patent ineligible. Essentially, Alice Corporation owned patents that the Federal Circuit found to be nothing more than abstract ideas based on use of escrow accounts and record keeping associated with the settling of transactions. However, the Court failed to agree on the reasoning as to why such claims were ineligible subject matter with the judges evenly split regarding the eligibility of comparable computer systems claims.

Continue Reading CLS Bank: Software Patents at Risk?

By James R. "Sonny" Chastain

In its ruling of May 9, 2012, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s conclusion that Maker’s Mark Distillery, Inc.’s registered trademark consisting of the signature red dripping wax seal is due protection. The Samuels Family founded the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, and has been producing whiskey since the Eighteenth Century. Bill Samuels formulated the recipe for the Maker’s Mark bourbon in 1953. His wife, Margie, conceived of the red dripping wax seal. The company has bottled bourbon for commercial sale under the Maker’s Mark name and has used a red dripping wax seal on the bottle since 1958. In 1985, Maker’s Mark registered a trademark for the dripping wax seal component of its trade dress which is described it as a “wax-like coating covering the cap of the bottle and trickling down the neck of the bottle in a freeform irregular pattern.”

In 1995, Jose Cuervo began producing premium tequila entitled “Reserva de la Familia.” The tequila bottle had a wax seal that was straight edged and did not feature drips. However, in 2001, Cuervo began selling its tequila in the United States in bottles with a red dripping wax seal similar to the seal of the Maker’s Mark bottle.
 

Continue Reading Whiskey vs. Tequila: Courts find Cuervo’s Seal Infringes Maker’s Mark Red Wax Seal Trademark