Patent restrictions and elections

Why is my examiner holding a chainsaw?

USPTO examiners can require patent restrictions.  These narrow the scope of your originally submitted patent claims.  Choose carefully here.

A while back, you filed a patent application.  Now you have received a phone call or letter from your examiner.  You are informed that there are “Election/Restrictions” and that you must choose between various patent claims on various “Species group” lists.  What is this?

Your initial USPTO patent filing fee buys your patent application about 25 to 30 hours of total examination time.  This is not a lot of time, and frequently examiners think that an application will take longer than this. When this happens, the examiner can reduce his workload by asserting that your application contains “multiple inventions”.  Each of these “multiple inventions” is called a “species”.  These “species” are pieces or fragments of your original claim set.  Examiners divide your claim set among these species, and then send you a notice asking you to “elect” a “species” and claims for examination.  The claims that you don’t elect are called “withdrawn”.

Be careful here.  Examiners have orders to initially reject most patent applications.  The examiner is chopping your invention into smaller pieces to make it quicker and easier to reject. This chopping is uneven. Some pieces may be commercially useful, others not.  Some pieces may be easy to reject, others hard. Sometimes there are only a few pieces, but other times the examiner may split your invention into 15 or even 50+ pieces!

USPTO rules allow restrictions and elections to be done either orally or in writing.  Sometimes your examiner may call you on the phone, explain the restriction and election options, and ask what you want.  A bad decision can be costly, and these oral elections are often legally binding.  I recommend not deciding on the spot.  To be sure you understand all the details and have time to think, request the restriction in writing.

There are restriction rules.  The species need to be distinct, and the restriction should not destroy the invention.  If your examiner has violated these rules, you can and should argue back (this is called a “traverse”) in writing.  Unfortunately, you still have to choose, no matter how unreasonable your examiner’s scheme may look.

Even if your examiner rejects your arguments, there will be other chances.  Later in the examination process, after your elected claims are found to be allowable, you can request “rejoinder” and try to get more claims examined.  You can also have the unelected claims examined later (for extra filing fees) as one or more divisional applications.

USPTO office actions

USPTO office actions
USPTO office actions

USPTO office actions are used to reject most patent applications by using “done before”, “obvious”, “vague”, or “not patent eligible” type arguments.

Although we all hope that a patent application will sail through the USPTO patent examination process and be allowed “as is”, this usually doesn’t occur.  As a practical matter, examiners work on a quota system. The net effect of this quota or “count” system is that the average successful patent is usually rejected several times before it is allowed.

Typically an examiner will first read the patent claims, and search for various citations (often earlier filed patent applications) that match certain claim key-words.  The examiner will then write a 20-40+ page “office action” document that rejects your various claims for various reasons, and send it to the correspondence contact of record.  The examiner expects you to respond within three months by submitting a written “office action response” that rebuts these various rejections.

The most “popular” USPTO rejections are:

Done before – 35 USC 102: The examiner thinks he has found another single citation that teaches everything in your particular claim. However absent actual copying, no two patents are usually totally alike. This type of rejection can often be rebutted by explaining where the citation is different, or amending the claims to add additional detail that differs from the citation.

Obvious – 35 USC 103:  The examiner (sometimes impermissibly guided by your disclosure) is attempting to reject your claim by combining features from multiple citations. The examiner may often create a Frankenstein concept that may or may not be plausible. Fortunately, there are examination rules here. Often this type of rejection can be rebutted by any of 1) showing that the examiner is misquoting the citations, 2) amending your claims, 3) showing which “103” examination rules were broken.

Vague – 35 USC 112:  This “vagueness” or “indefinite” type rejection is used for different things. Sometimes it is harmless and easily corrected, such as when the claim’s grammar is off. Sometimes it is deadly, such as when your underlying patent application doesn’t teach how your invention works in adequate detail.  This is more likely to happen if the original application lacks specific examples.  Although this can often be rebutted or fixed by changing the claims, sometimes the only way to attempt to fix this is to file a “continuation in part” application that adds the missing detail.

Not eligible – 35 USC 101:  In the old days (i.e. before 2015), this was a rarely used rejection because the 35 USC 101 law was written to be very expansive. However, recent court decisions have made this area quite a swamp, and this is still being sorted out. In the meantime, realize that business methods and financial methods have a higher than average rejection risk.

Trade Secrets

secrets
“Sshh” by Deborah Azzopradi

Consider trade secrets, especially when your commercially important secrets are unsuitable for patent or copyright protection.

Consider the formula for Coca-Cola and its “natural flavorings”, which dates back over 100 years.  Even if the formula could have been patented (unlikely), the patent would be long expired.  The formula might not be even eligible for copyright since it is a list.  In any event, a copyright by now would be both expired and useless since a copyright is only for the printed words.  However as a closely guarded trade secret, the formula remains valuable (the trademark, of course, is almost priceless).

In addition to recipes, trade secrets can include production methods, marketing methods, computer software, and the like. Pretty much any information that gives a business competitive advantage, and is not generally known, is a potential trade secret.

Trade secret protection is very narrow – unless you can prove to a court that you carefully guarded the secret, and someone with access to the secret then misappropriated the secret, you are out of luck. If someone figures out the secret by other means (e.g. reverse engineering), there is no protection, even for Coca-Cola.

However if you can convince the court that trade secret theft occurred, you can request injunctions (e.g. block disclosure), damages (your economic harm caused by the theft), and possibly even seizure of materials and/or attorney fees.

Until recently, trade secrets were only handled at the state level.  However in May 2016, the federal Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (DTSA) was signed into law.  Trade secret theft can now be handled in either state or federal court. Trade secret theft can now be charged under both civil and even criminal law.

So if you are doing a startup, think about which of your non-commonly known information gives you a competitive edge. Where appropriate, apply for patents and trademarks, and register copyrights to prove copyright ownership.  For the rest, although some disclosure may be required for marketing and fund-raising, try to limit this disclosure, and take positive steps (e.g. restriction of access, nondisclosure agreements) to preserve not-generally-known information that is competitively important.

Design patents

For stronger design patents – less detail can give you broader coverage, so consider turning some solid lines into broken lines.

design patent
Design patents can be like the disappearing Cheshire Cat

On the surface, design patents – a patent that covers the ornamental appearance of an article of manufacture, seem simple. File multiple drawings showing your design from multiple angles – often all six sides of an imaginary cube, as well as in perspective. If (under a famous court case called the Egyptian Goddess test), an ordinary observer (familiar with the prior art designs of similar products) will confuse someone else’s product with the patented design, then there is infringement.

This raises interesting questions of pattern recognition. The problem is often explained by analogy to the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland.  How much of the cat do you need to see in order to identify it as a Cheshire Cat?

In a design patent, the parts that are required are shown in solid lines, and the optional parts are shown in broken lines.  As more and more solid lines are turned into broken lines, the design becomes more general, but of course at some point, the design then becomes too general to be unique or even recognizable.  See “A Guide to Filing A Design Patent Application” for more information.

When broad coverage of a design is desired, consider filing multiple versions (or alternatively continuations) of a design patent.  Narrower but safer versions can have more solid lines; in riskier but broader versions, replace the less essential solid lines with broken lines.  Perhaps a subset or outline of your product is distinct enough to warrant design patent protection?  If you think that your design may have multiple distinct sections, consider putting in broken lines to show these sections in the initial filing, since the USPTO won’t let you do it later.

Compared to utility patents, design patents are relatively inexpensive to file, and relatively easy to get.  However again, the design patent is only for the artistic and non-functional aspects of the design. Design patents now have a 15 year lifetime, and no maintenance fees are required.

A few more tips — design patent examiners have a well-developed ability to detect inconsistencies between drawings and/or ambiguity in drawings.  Problems can often be avoided by first making good quality 3D CAD files, and then making these 3D CAD files available to the patent attorney.

Continuation applications

Don’t like having your own inventions used against you?  Before your patent issues, consider filing a continuation application.

Continuation applications
Continuation applications

Just got your US patent application allowed?  Congratulations!  Now before it issues (usually about 2-4 months after you pay the issue fee), you need to decide if you ever will want to file any improvements or variations of that invention in the future.

If you do have some improvements or variations in mind, now is the time to start working on filing a “continuation-in-part” (or CIP).  In a CIP, you are basically telling the USPTO that you have added some new concepts to your original patent application.  This is OK – worst case the examiner may determine that the new concepts have a later filing date, but in any event, the examiner won’t hold your original patent application against you.

In contrast to a CIP, patent continuation applications are essentially a repeat of the original application. Any differences to the claims had better be fully disclosed in the original application.

Why file a continuation?  One common reason is that you think that you may be able to get stronger claims the second time around, perhaps by making the claims shorter and hence stronger.  Or perhaps there was something in the original application that you forgot to put into your original claims. Both types of claim changes are fine so long as you can show that the newer claims were fully disclosed in the original application.

A second common reason is a nagging fear that although you might not have thought of any improvements or variations yet, you can’t rule out the possibility that you might do so in the near future.  Here, if you don’t file a continuation, after your patent issues, your own patent will be used against your later patent applications as if someone else had invented it.

However if you do file a continuation, it essentially keeps your original patent “alive” a while longer (usually at least another year or so).  Then, if you do come up with an improvement, you can then file a CIP to your continuation application.  When you use this strategy, the USPTO will allow you to claim your later improvement without using your original application against you.

Foreign patent traps

trap
It’s a trap!

Outside of the US, foreign patent offices will often use your own prior patent filings against you.  Avoid this trap by planning carefully.

Both US and foreign patent laws are based on various legal fictions.  One legal fiction is that an invention is instantly created in a fully formed state.  Another legal fiction is that even if a particular improvement to the invention was not actually obvious to the real inventor, still an examiner or judge may reject this improvement as being obvious to an imaginary “person of ordinary skill in the art”.  Patent law just doesn’t cope with hindsight well.

In practice, we all know that real inventions often come into life slowly, usually after much trial and error.  Complex inventions may take years to fully develop. The inventor is thus faced with a dilemma – file fast so as to be the first person to file, or keep working on the invention, file a better patent application, but possibly lose to someone who filed sooner?

US patent laws recognize this problem, and allow an inventor file as many patent applications as needed, even over a period of years, and gradually accumulate a “stack” of patent applications.  This stack of patent applications captures both the time of earliest invention, as well as a later time-optimized form of the invention. Intuitively this system seems fair.  Wouldn’t it be unfair to use an inventor’s own earlier work against the inventor?

Doesn’t this basic rule of fairness apply everywhere?  Unfortunately it does not.  The harsh reality is that outside of the US, other countries typically use an inventor’s own earlier patent applications against them.

This assumption of basic fairness often traps inventors and startups.  Here the only way to avoid the trap is to recognize that this problem exists, and take steps to mitigate problems.

As a good rule of thumb for international patents, assume that there is at most a 12 month window after a first (US) patent application has been filed in which to make further improvements. Plan accordingly. If you have thought up improvements to your invention, it is far better to submit these improvements as an updated PCT patent application before the 12 month anniversary of the first patent application.

After 12 months, you can’t claim the priority date of your first US filing. Someone else can jump ahead of you and claim credit.  Even worse, 18 months after filing (when usually your first US patent application will be published) your first US patent application can then be used against your later filed improvement.

It is very irritating to have an international examiner claim that your improved invention is obvious against your own earlier filed application.  Even more irritating when you know that in reality the improvement was totally not obvious.  Perhaps the improvement may have taken you a year or more of hard work!  Too bad — to the foreign examiner, your improvement is obvious.

The lesson here is: if you have made improvements, file them as an updated international patent within 12 months of the filing date of your first invention (or in an emergency, at least before your first patent application is published — usually 18 months after first filing).

Startup IP due diligence

Maat
Maat – goddess of truth

Startup investors know that they are mostly investing in just your IP.  So get your IP ownership situation under control before due diligence starts.

What does a startup investor get for his money? Startup companies are really just a bundle of information (usually ideas), people (founders, contractors, consultants), and things (tangible property, cash). A startup’s “things” will usually have minimal value. The people can walk out the door at any minute. So all that an investor may actually get for his money is some sort of ownership option in the information – the startup’s intellectual property (IP).  Prudent startup investors thus often conduct a fair amount of due diligence on this “IP”.

A startup’s IP can be viewed as being a mixture of alleged inventions (e.g. actual or potential patents), alleged copyrights, alleged trademarks, and alleged trade secrets.  At least some of this information may still only exist in the minds of the founders, contractors, and consultants. What is potentially real here, and what is not?

Sophisticated investors also know that according to our IP laws, unless actions are taken to protect the IP, the IP may either still belong to the individual that created it; or it may have become public domain.  Investors also know that startups often don’t fully understand IP law.  Has that intriguing startup already accidentally lost its key IP?  Was it missing essential IP to begin with?  This is why investors want IP due diligence studies.

Some ways that IP can be missing or lost include failure to obtain written IP assignment contracts, inadvertently placing IP into the public domain, and reliance on IP owned by someone else.

Failure to obtain written IP assignment contracts: IP assignment agreements should be obtained from anyone who has materially contributed to the company’s IP. Don’t assume that just because you paid for something, your company owns that IP — you often don’t. Try to do these IP assignments up front, because the longer you wait, the more leverage the other party has. For example, they could make unreasonable demands, or deny assignment altogether.

Inadvertently placing IP in the public domain: For patents, assume that anything you publish before a patent application is filed can be used against you, and be careful to update your patent filings as your technology advances. For trade secrets (i.e. important, not-generally known information which is often not patentable), take active steps to restrict access, require confidentiality agreements, and of course never publish this at all.

Reliance on IP owned by someone else: For patents, consider prior art searches to reduce the chances that you are infringing on other patents. For copyrights, check the status of your software licenses, and that you and your contractors are not copying other work. Avoid using names that might confuse customers from related companies, since this may cause trademark problems. For trade secrets, stay away from inside knowledge (not generally known in your field) that you or your contractors may have obtained from other companies.

Remember that from an IP due diligence perspective, if you can’t prove you did things right, the assumption will probably be that you didn’t.  So keep your documentation on file.

Open source software licenses for startups

BSD open source license
BSD open source license

Open source software is a wonderful thing.  The open source community has given us a gift pack animal that everyone from individual hackers to the largest companies in the world can ride.  However not all open source software licenses are alike. In particular, some of the most famous open source software comes with legal obligations that can be hazardous for startups.  So if you are doing a startup, resist the temptation to immediately grab your favorite open source software and start hacking.  Instead first take a bit of time to look that gift pack animal in the mouth.

What’s Gnu? Back in the 1980’s, Richard Stallman, who wrote the original and very influential Gnu OS open software license, had a deeply held opinion that in order to create an open software sharing community, it was necessary to “poison the well” for many commercial uses. This underlying hostility towards commercial applications is very evident in “The GNU manifesto”.

These “poison the well for commercial use” Gnu concepts in turn influenced the open source GPL (General Public License), which Linux and MySQL use; along with a number of other popular open source licenses.  Some of these open source license terms can negatively impact your ability to patent your software, as well as your other attempts to make your business profitable.

This problem scares investors.  Sophisticated investors now frequently include open source software questions as part of their routine, pre-funding, due diligence process. So yes, to avoid starving, this stuff matters.

Enter BSD: Not all open source software licenses have these problems. In the 1990’s other software experts decided that an open software sharing community could develop without also poisoning the well for commercial uses.  They developed the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license (initially for their Unix-like operating system). The BSD license encourages sharing, but does not usually limit commercial use or patents.

Although BSD type open source licenses and software are not quite as famous as GPL open source software, a large number of well-respected and highly reliable BSD distributions are available.  Like Linux, there are different flavors of BSD for different applications. Look into FreeBSD for large scale servers, OpenBSD for secure applications, and NetBSD for smaller scale devices.  There are also BSD web servers (e.g. Nginx, httpd, Lighttpd), BSD databases, and many other BSD licensed open source applications.

Use your business model to pick your open source software (license), and not the other way around.  Google’s main revenue is from advertising.  They could afford to base Android on GPL licensed Linux. They have to make Android available for a free download, but given their business model, this isn’t a problem for them.  By contrast Apple has a business model based on selling closed devices.  Apple can’t survive with non-proprietary software. As a result, Apple chose to build iOS and OS X on a BSD foundation.  So pick the license that is best for your business (hint, think permissive or public domain).

Medical device patents

Medical device patents
Medical device patents

Why are medical device patents important? New medical devices are both expensive and risky to produce. Without patent protection, few new medical devices would ever reach the market.

The number of filed and granted medical device patents has substantially increased over the last few years, with certain US states (California, Minnesota and Massachusetts) leading the way.  Certain countries, in particular Japan and Germany, are also heavily active in this area.

Write carefully: In contrast to some high tech areas, such as computers and software, which often rely on a larger number of lower impact patents, the medical device industry tends to rely on a smaller number of higher impact patents.  What this means is that any given medical device patent is more likely than average to be subjected to a high level of competitor scrutiny.  Remember also that in the medical device field, both the patent office and the courts may view the “person having ordinary skill in the art” (PHOSITA) as being highly skilled, such as a PhD or MD. Thus care should be given to write accordingly. It is helpful to include a lot of detail and discuss alternative approaches. Research and disclose prior art, and of course try to write claims in a manner that distinguishes over prior art.

Remember Europe: Medical devices are an international market, and often due to slower FDA review times, US firms first introduce new products in Europe.  Many US medical device patent applications end up being filed in Europe.  Thus European patent rules are often important.

Although there are a few glaring exceptions, US medical device patent eligibility rules generally tend to be expansive. The USPTO typically reviews these patents in its 3700’s art unit.  In recent years, this art unit has continued to grant medical device patents according to its historical percentages.

European patent eligibility rules are also generally quite permissive with regard to “gadgets” and in-vitro devices, as well as technical aspects of in-vivo devices.  However Europe (See G-II 4.2.1) doesn’t allow “methods of treatment of the [living] human or animal body by surgery or therapy and diagnostic methods practiced on [usually interpreted as “in”] the human or animal body “.  Fortunately the Europeans tend to read this exclusion narrowly, so this isn’t actually quite as restrictive as it sounds. However from a claim writing perspective, be careful of method claims with limitations that read on the patient’s body.  Try to focus more on the details of how the gadget (device) itself works.  Watch out for methods that remove a tissue, treat it, and then return it to the body, as these could run into trouble.

International patents

World map by Japinderum (CC BY-SA 3.0) license
PCT international patent treaty countries

Applying for international patents: Most countries maintain their own separate patent and trademark offices, and typically (Europe being a partial exception), patents operate within national borders.  Thus a US patent, for example, covers just the US.

The Paris Convention: The process of extending a patent application to cover multiple countries was worked out by several international treaties. One important treaty, which is still in effect, was the 1880’s era Paris Convention. This established that, for example, a foreign patent office will recognize the priority of a US utility patent application (or provisional patent application) for up to 12 months after its initial filing date.

This was a good start, but it often takes more than 12 months to determine if a new invention is commercially important. It is very expensive to file patent applications in many different countries. So for many applicants, 12 months just wasn’t long enough.

The Patent Cooperation Treaty: To extend this time, in the 1970’s the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) was enacted. This treaty is a bit complicated. Think of it as a temporary “holding tank” for patent applications. The key idea is that if you file a PCT application within 12 months of the filing date of the original patent application, you can extend your ability to then file international patents to 30 months from the filing date of the original patent application.

After 30 months from the filing date of the original patent application, however, you then need to make some tough decisions. It typically costs thousands of dollars to file (i.e. enter the national phase) in each separate country. So unless the invention is really very promising, often applicants either continue on only in the US, or else only file nationally in a few select countries.

The Patent Prosecution Highway: Typically, each local (national) patent office will then want to examine the patent application itself. This is both expensive and duplicative of resources. To help streamline the process, in the late 2000’s, various Patent Prosecution Highway (PPH) agreements were initiated, typically on a bilateral (country-to country) basis. Here, if a patent application has claims allowed by one (PPH) country’s patent office, the applicant can petition to have these claims accepted by other participating PPH offices. The US participates in the PPH, as do a number of other countries. The PPH is great when it works, but it is presently a patchwork of agreements rather than a comprehensive international treaty. So view the PPH as being somewhat in the “pilot” or “beta” stage.