The Toro Company sought inter parties review of an MTD Products patent. While the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) knocked the patent out holding the claims obvious, the PTAB determined the claim term “mechanical control assembly” was not a means-plus-function term subject to 35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶ 6. In MTD Products Inc. v. Iancu, the Federal Circuit disagreed. The court remanded the case noting the term is a “nonce term” that is not sufficiently structural to a person of ordinary skill in the art. The court further noted the specification does not demonstrate that the patentee intended to define the nonce term as the “ZTR control assembly” of the preferred embodiment.
Design patents ensure repeat customers
In Automotive Body Parts Association v. Ford Global Technologies, LLC, the Federal Circuit refused to “rewrite established law to permit ABPA to evade Ford[‘s] patent rights.” Like many auto manufacturers, Ford regularly uses design patents to protect the design of replacement parts. In an attempt to open up the replacement part market, ABPA argued that Ford’s design patents were invalid because replacement parts are “primarily functional”, that anyone repairing a vehicle will want replacement parts that “aesthetically match” the original design. The court rejected ABPA’s theory, holding “even in this context of a consumer preference for a particular design to match other parts of a whole, the aesthetic appeal of a design to consumers is inadequate to render that design functional.”
Supreme Court expands FOIA trade secret protections
In Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, the Court resolved a circuit court split interpreting when the Government may withhold confidential or trade secret information from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Previously, a company had to demonstrate “substantial competitive harm” for their information to be protected under FOIA Exemption 4. Now a company need only show the information “customarily and actually treated as private by its owner and provided to the Government under an assurance of privacy.” While the decision offers greater protections to companies providing information to the Government, it will limit information available through FOIA requests. Overturning decades of precedent, Justice Gorsuch wrote that the earlier National Parks decision is a “relic from a ‘bygone era of statutory construction.’”
Prohibition on immoral or scandalous trademarks violates First Amendment
The Supreme Court held in Iancu v. Brunetti that the Lanham Act’s prohibition on registration of immoral or scandalous trademarks violates the First Amendment. The USPTO had denied registration of “FUCT” in connection with artist and entrepreneur Erik Brunetti’s clothing line. Following the Court’s recent Matal v. Tam decision invalidating the prohibition on registration of disparaging trademarks, the Court held that the “immoral or scandalous” prohibition is also unconstitutional because it also discriminates on the basis of viewpoint. In a concurring opinion, Justice Alito notes that the decision “does not prevent Congress from adopting a more carefully focused statute that precludes the registration of marks containing vulgar terms….”
USPS – not a person
In Return Mail, Inc. v. U.S. Postal Service, the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Government is not a “person” that can institute AIA review proceedings. Return Mail had sued the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) for infringement of U.S. Patent No. 6,826,548. In response, the USPS petitioned the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to review the ‘548 patent, the claims of which were subsequently cancelled by the USPTO, and the cancellation affirmed by the Federal Circuit. The Supreme Court granted certiorari, reversed the lower courts, and determined that a federal agency is not a “person” eligible of petitioning for AIA review. In response to the Government’s arguments in favor of eligibility, Justice Sotomayor wrote for the Court: “None Delivers.”
USITC almost addresses public interest inquiry
As part of a global dispute, Qualcomm sought an exclusion order at the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) barring Apple from importing certain products having Intel processors. Last fall, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found Apple to have infringed one claim of a Qualcomm patent. But, the ALJ recommended against an exclusion order on the basis of public interest. Had the ITC affirmed the ALJ’s recommendation, it would have been the first time in over 30 years that the ITC denied an exclusion order on the basis of public interest. In its Final Determination, however, the ITC dodged the public-interest issue altogether and instead held Qualcomm’s patent invalid. See Certain Mobile Electronic Devices and Radio Frequency and Process Components Thereof.
Merely filing for copyright registration is insufficient for litigation
The Supreme Court unanimously held in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com that copyright litigation may not begin until after the Copyright Office has acted upon a registration application. Specifically, a copyright holder may commence an infringement suit when “registration … has been made”, that is, when the Copyright Office registers a copyright.
On-Sale Bar not changed by AIA
In an unanimous decision today, the Supreme Court held in Helsinn Healthcare S. A. v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. that the America Invents Act did not change the on-sale bar as it applies to confidential sales – “a commercial sale to a third party who is required to keep the invention confidential may place the invention ‘on sale’ under the AIA.” Simply put, a confidential sale more than one year before a patent application is filed can invalidate the patent.
Patent Eligibility – No Dice
The Federal Circuit held in In re Marco Guldenaar Holding B.V. that claims for a dice game were ineligible for patent protection. The court affirmed rejection of claims “directed to the abstract idea of ‘rules for playing a dice game,’ which fell within the realm of ‘methods of organizing human activities.’” Although the claimed dice had non-conventional markings, the court concluded that such markings simply constitute “printed matter” that falls outside the scope of patent eligibility under 35 U.S.C. § 101.
Happy New Year!
Just in case you were wondering … the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was busy and issued 339,995 patents last year. Happy New Year!