Secondary considerations of nonobviousness

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Is your examiner repeatedly insisting that your patent application claims are obvious?  One option: “reboot” your examiner by submitting at least one Rule 132 declaration providing “secondary considerations of nonobviousness”.

 Obviousness rejections are needed to prevent trivial patents.  Obviousness is legally determined by considering if the invention would be obvious from the standpoint of an imaginary Person Having Ordinary Skill In The Art (PHOSITA). This is ultimately just legal guesswork, and as previously discussed, such determinations are often unduly influenced by hindsight bias.

There is an alternative mechanism. The patent legal system also allows applicants to rebut obviousness rejections by submitting “objective indicia of nonobviousness”, which we will call “outside evidence”. This outside evidence can include unexpected results, commercial success, long-unsolved needs, failure of others, professional approval, skepticism of experts, and the like.

Although allowed, such outside evidence has a rather second-class status.  You can even see this in the terminology: “secondary considerations of nonobviousness”.  The patent legal system actually prefers its imaginary PHOSITA reasoning over actual real-world evidence! Sounds silly, but remember that they are skeptical because applicants are constantly trying to game the system.

Submission of outside evidence is not done often.  You might think that with the 2007 KSR removal of anti-hindsight rules, it would be more frequently used, but it isn’t. However, in my opinion, it is a useful “in an emergency, break glass” kind of tool.  You use it when you want to try to break the examiner out of a mental “rut”, or even a mental “infinite loop” of obviousness rejections.

When to use it?  Obviousness rejections are routine.  It usually takes at least two office actions to see if the examiner is showing signs of having a non-negotiable “I still think it’s obvious” position.  If this seems to be the case, outside evidence can potentially be used to try to “reboot” the examiner and break out of the loop. This is because according to the USPTO examination rules MPEP 716.01(d)   Weighing Objective Evidence…“When an applicant timely submits [outside] evidence traversing a rejection, the examiner must reconsider the patentability of the claimed invention.”

Outside evidence is submitted as various “Rule 132 declarations”.  Here the identity and the credentials of an outside declarant (someone other than the attorney, and preferably other than the applicant) are presented, the relevant outside facts are given, and the declaration is signed by the declarant. It is important to try to find credible individuals for this and to submit the best evidence available.

Due to USPTO concerns that the outside evidence is unreliable, this is not a sure tactic.  The rules state that there must be a “clear nexus” between the outside evidence and the invention’s claims. The examiner may rebut by arguing that no such clear nexus exists, proposing alternative explanations, and/or looking for other ways to discount the declaration.  Still, if you do have good evidence, why not use it?

Obviousness, hindsight, KSR

Training the human neural network: by Novasdid (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The 2007 KSR v. Teleflex Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision is why the patent examiner, ignoring hindsight issues, just used your own teaching against you to reject your patent application claims as being “unpatentable” (obvious) under 35 USC 103.  Unfortunately, the US patent “obviousness” rules and regulations still have some “bugs”. 

The patent examiner has just reviewed your patent application, and has sent you a response. What are all these “rejected under 35 USC 103 as being unpatentable over (various citations)” statements? It almost looks like the examiner just copied your claim, interspersed it with various citations matching some of the claim words, and concluded with “therefore it would have been obvious to one of ordinary skill in the art…

This might even look to you like a standard formula that could be used to reject almost anything. Why does the USPTO work this way?

Some background: Without obviousness rejections, your patent could soon be swamped by many other competitor patents that claim the smallest, most trivial changes to your work. To keep the patent system healthy, there needs to be some “shielding”, some sort of “force field” that keeps competitors from getting too close to your work. In the US, the depth of the “shielding” or “force field” is set by trying to legally determine, often years later, what a person having ordinary skill in the art (PHOSITA) would think was obvious.

The big problem is “hindsight bias”. Lots of non-obvious things look obvious in hindsight. Here the legal system is attempting to cope, with varying success, with a very complex underlying problem of pattern recognition. Once you see the solution to a puzzle, it is hard to see anything else.

Prior to 2007, the USPTO used anti-hindsight rules in an attempt to minimize hindsight problems. However, in the 2007 KSR v. Teleflex case, SCOTUS made what, in my opinion, was a key error. Dictionaries define hindsight somewhat incompletely as: “understanding of a situation or event only after it has happened or developed”. SCOTUS ran this incomplete dictionary definition into the ground. They argued that the earlier anti-hindsight rules were too “rigid”, and that “common sense” should be used. They held that hindsight could be avoided by just considering if the invention would be obvious “at the time of the invention”.

This is an almost meaningless statement.  Who would file a patent application if it could be invalidated by later filed patent applications?

In reality, the patent applicant has just shown the examiner the solution to a puzzle, thus “training the examiner’s neural net” to subsequently view this solution as “obvious”.  However, the examiner is told to examine with 100% hindsight bias.  The examiner can also dismiss “hindsight” rebuttals by merely stating that under the newer, post-KSR, USPTO rules (MPEP 2141.01 III): “Content of the prior art is determined at the time the invention was made to avoid hindsight.”

In other words, thanks to the KSR ruling, the present USPTO rules can be paraphrased as Don’t bother us about “hindsight”, we’re not listening, and SCOTUS says that we don’t have to!

Fortunately, there are other ways to rebut obviousness rejections. Examiners often misquote the citations, have gaps in their reasoning, and their proposed combination is often a Frankenstein monster that differs significantly from the claim.  Secondary considerations can also be raised. So things can be done, but this hindsight “bug” (or feature) in US obviousness patent law is annoying.

Writing patent claims

A patent claim is like a jigsaw puzzle piece
A patent claim is like a jigsaw puzzle piece

Writing patent claims is analogous to describing multidimensional jigsaw puzzle pieces using words.  Your claims have to fit in the spaces between prior art.

Patent claims are the most important part of a patent because the claims are legally enforceable.  Claims are also the trickiest part because they have to follow many rules.  Claims should describe your invention, not read on the prior art, and not be obvious variations on prior art. Claims should also be precise enough that others can clearly determine what it is that you are claiming.

Like a jigsaw puzzle:  As a useful analogy, consider each patent claim to be somewhat like a multidimensional jigsaw puzzle piece. Each claim should be written using words and clauses that, in addition to describing your invention, “bend in” to avoid prior art, and “bend out” when there is no prior art.

From the patent examiner’s standpoint, he or she is looking at your claims in the context of the other prior art (the other pieces). The examiner is determining if each of your particular claim “pieces” is fitting nicely into the holes between prior art, or if they are hitting the other prior art “pieces”.  If there is overlap, the examiner will, at a minimum, want you to make your claims “bend in more” to avoid that prior art.  Part of the process of writing patent applications is to try to anticipate where this might happen and to write the patent in a way that gives you more options to “bend in” and “bend out” during the patent examination process.

There is one big difference between jigsaw puzzles and patent claims, however.  In jigsaw puzzles, although the different pieces can’t overlap, the gap between the different pieces can be made very small.  Think of this gap as the area where, given that one piece is “bending in“, it is “obvious” that the other piece must “bend out“.

Unlike jigsaw puzzles, examiners often require that this “gap” be big enough so that the shape of your jigsaw puzzle piece (claim) is not immediately obvious in view of the shape of the neighboring pieces.  In fact, a big part of the patent examination process is negotiating the extent of this gap, and how best to amend the claims accordingly.

Foreign patent traps

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).

Cleaning up obsolete case law: time to revisit In re Gorman


35 USC 103 rejections: Ever have something rejected as “obvious” in view of a combination of 5+ references?  The re Gorman case is how such absurd rejections are rationalized.

According to MPEP 707 section 7.37.07, arguments that the examiner used an excessive number of citations are presently found to be “unpersuasive”.  Section 7.37.07 is based upon an old case In re Gorman, 933 F.2d 982, 18 USPQ2d 1885 (Fed. Cir. 1991).  However Gorman uses reasoning that is now obsolete and unsupported due to patent law developments since 1991.

Some key aspects of the re Gorman decision were:

When it is necessary to select elements of various teachings in order to form the claimed invention, we ascertain whether there is any suggestion or motivation in the prior art to make the selection made by the applicant. Interconnect Planning Corp. v. Feil, 774 F.2d 1132, 1143, 227 USPQ 543, 551 (Fed.Cir.1985). ” ‘Obviousness can not be established by combining the teachings of the prior art to produce the claimed invention, absent some teaching, suggestion or incentive supporting the combination.’ ” In re Bond, 910 F.2d 831, 834, 15 USPQ2d 1566, 1568 (Fed.Cir.1990) (quoting Carella v. Starlight Archery and Pro Line Co., 804 F.2d 135, 140, 231 USPQ 644, 647 (Fed.Cir.1986)).

The extent to which such suggestion must be explicit in, or may be fairly inferred from, the references, is decided on the facts of each case, in light of the prior art and its relationship to the applicant’s invention. As in all determinations under 35 U.S.C. Sec. 103, the decisionmaker must bring judgment to bear. It is impermissible, however, simply to engage in a hindsight reconstruction of the claimed invention, using the applicant’s structure as a template and selecting elements from references to fill the gaps. Interconnect Planning, 774 F.2d at 1143, 227 USPQ at 551. The references themselves must provide some teaching whereby the applicant’s combination would have been obvious

However since 2007 KSR Int’l Co. v. Teleflex, Inc., 550 U.S. 398, the “teaching, suggestion or incentive” requirement for combining citations is no longer required (although still allowed).  When this part of the 1991 Gorman court’s reasoning, shown in the first paragraph above, is removed, it becomes clear that the legal and logical underpinning of their 1991 decision no longer apply!

However under present rules, MPEP 707 section 7.37.07, based upon the now obsolete 1991 Gorman legal reasoning, still acts as a roadblock for any applicant who attempts to argue that the examiner did:  “engage in a hindsight reconstruction of the claimed invention, using the applicant’s structure as a template and selecting elements from references to fill the gaps.”

Given that the Gorman court’s assumptions no longer hold, isn’t it time to revisit this case?  At present, there is no upper limit to the number of citations that an examiner can apply, and indeed I personally have seen combinations of eight citations used in obviousness rejections.