Non-statutory Obviousness-Type Double Patenting Decisions by the PTAB

Non-statutory obviousness-type double patenting.  It is quite a mouthful, and as just as difficult to say quickly three times fast as it is to try to understand when slogging through the relevant sections of the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure (MPEP).  While the name and analysis are complicated, the principle is not–the courts have stated that a patent applicant should not be allowed to patent the same invention merely by filing a second patent application on it later in time.

Reviewing approximately the last six months of ex parte appeals decisions by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), the Board considered this issue in 197 decisions.  In 37 cases, the Board reversed the Examiner’s determination for at least one claim; in 29 of the decisions, the Board’s reversal was for all claims.

The total reversal rate (14.7%) for this issue is lower than that observed over the same period in even non-statutory subject matter cases (see our most recent posts).  We suspect there are likely many reasons for this result.  Here are some possibilities:

  1. Appellants may not be contesting this issue on appeal as it can be relatively easily handled later through filing a terminal disclaimer. This is supported by the large number of summarily affirmed dispositions, meaning the Board affirmed the rejection because the applicant failed to raise any arguments on the issue.
  2. The issue is a narrow, technical one that Examiners and the Board find more black and white.
  3. For many industries (other than biotech or pharmaceuticals), extra patent term is not as commercially important, so many applicants are choosing not to incur additional cost seriously contesting this issue on appeal. Instead, they are fine with filing a Terminal Disclaimer to render the rejection moot.

Current PTAB Decisions of §101 – Nonstatutory Subject Matter

Over the past 6 months, 144 ex parte appeals decisions involving 35 U.S.C. 101 have been handed down that specifically deal with the issue of whether the claims at issue are drawn to statutory subject matter. This subject is the most rapidly evolving area of IP law today, and from our experience one of the most ambiguous in view of what seems to be an “I’ll know it when I see it” approach of the Supreme Court’s two part test set forth in Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 573 U.S. __, 134 S.Ct. 2347 (2014).

In the 144 decisions, the Board reversed the Examiner’s finding that the claims were directed to non-statutory subject matter in 37 cases–25.7% of the time.  Of these 37 cases, 36 involved a reversal as to all claims on appeal.

Compared to the reversal rates for obviousness and novelty (see our other posts), the Board is upholding non-statutory subject matter decisions by Examiners much more often.  However, the 25% total reversal rate indicates that even in the unsettled world of section 101, the Board does not agree with the Examiners in 1 out of 4 cases.

The data indicate that the patent-eligibility provision is not being treated by the PTAB as the exception that swallows the rule, which has been the fear of many practitioners observing the steady stream of invalidations on section 101 grounds flowing out of the courts.  Instead, the data indicates that a substantial number of cases are, in its judgment, passing the two part test.

 

Obviousness Appeals before the PTAB

Experience has shown that one of the most difficult issues for patent applicants to overcome during prosecution is a finding the invention is obvious. In 2007, the US Supreme Court freed USPTO Examiners to use many different reasons that one of ordinary skill would combine the teachings of prior art references. Since then, anecdotal evidence from practice suggests that applicants are less successful in overcoming obviousness rejections.

Examiners apply obviousness rejections all the time. How does one make sense of whether an obviousness rejection is reasonable? In the overwhelming majority of cases, one of two scenarios plays out. In the first scenario, the applicant wins after it presents the Examiner with compelling arguments showing that the claims would not have been obvious in light of the applied references. In the second scenario, the Examiner wins by not withdrawing the rejection until amendments are made or forcing the applicant to abandon the application. In a small minority of the time, the case is appealed, which turns out to be one of the most significant measures of the Examiner’s prima facie case for obviousness.

The appeal is a significant measure because both sides are willing to commit significant time and resources into a position. How are patent applicants doing when it comes to reversing obvious rejections on appeal?

The past six months of ex parte appeal decisions from the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) show relatively high reversal rates:

In 41.8% of the decisions, the Board reversed the Examiner for at least one appealed claim.

In 32.6% of the decisions, the Board reversed the Examiner for all appealed claims.

The data set included the 3998 total decisions in which 35 USC 103(a) was an issue in an ex parte appeal.  Of the total number of decisions, 1302 were reversed in whole and 369 were partially reversed.  The exact timeframe measured was from 7/25/16 – 1/7/2017. Appeals from reexamination proceedings were not included in the data.

This data indicates that where the issue is obviousness, the practitioner has better than a 1 out of 3 chance that the Board will reverse the Examiner.

35 USC 102 Reversal Rates for PTAB

The doctrine of anticipation under Section 102 is one of the most settled areas of patent law. A reference either discloses the features of a claim or it does not. True, there are nuances to the doctrine, such as inherent disclosure of the applied reference and the broadest reasonable interpretation of claim terms. But for the most part, to support an anticipation rejection, an Examiner must point to where in an applied reference the features of a claim is disclosed and the anticipation rejection should be on solid ground.

Because the doctrine of anticipation is pretty straightforward, one would expect that the frequency that an Examiner is overturned would be relatively low. But the appeals decisions of such rejections tell a surprisingly different story. Looking back at the past six months of ex parte appeal decisions from the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) for those decisions involving at least one section of 35 USC 102 reveals that anticipation rejections are among the highest reversed rejections:

In 58% of the decisions, the Board reversed the Examiner for at least one appealed claim.

In 49% of the decisions, the Board reversed the Examiner for all appealed claims.

The data set included the 976 total decisions in which 35 USC 102 (all sections) was an issue in an ex parte appeal. A total of 481 decisions wholly reversed the Examiner on anticipation grounds, and a total of 85 decisions partially reversed the Examiner on anticipation grounds. Appeals from reexamination proceedings were not included in the data.

These data indicate that where the issue is anticipation of the claims, the practitioner has better than 50% odds of having the Board reverse the Examiner.