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Expect a "Perilous Future for Most Business Method Patents," Saith Judge Marylin Patel

Judge Marylin Hall Patel, a federal district judge in the North District of California (San Francisco/Silicon Valley) since 1980 and Chief Judge in the District from 1997 – 2004, is a well known federal judge when it comes to intellectual property matters. For example, Judge Patel decided the Grokster case at the district court level, which eventually was affirmed by the Supreme Court, and she has decided many patent cases.  When she speaks on IP matters, one would do well to listen

Therefore, her March 26, 2009 decision in Cybersource v. Retail Decisions is of no small significance. In this case Judge Patel applied In re Bilski to invalidate two business method patent claims in U.S. Patent No. 6,029,154, titled “Method and system for detecting fraud in a credit card transaction over the Internet.” The CAFC’s decision in Bilski requires that a process either be tied to a machine or apparatus or involve a transformation, and Judge Patel held that the ‘154 patent failed this “machine-or-transformation” test.

Judge Patel held that a credit card number is not a physical object, thereby failing the “transformation” test, and she rejected the argument that because the claims were tied to the Internet they satisfied the “machine” test, since “one cannot touch the Internet.”

At the conclusion of her opinion she stated:

In analyzing Bilski, one is led to ponder whether the end has arrived for business method patents, whose numbers swelled following the decision in State Street. Without expressly overruling State Street, the Bilski majority struck down its underpinnings. This caused one dissenter, Judge Newman, to write that State Street “is left hanging,” while another dissenter, Judge Meyer, registered “an emphatic ‘yes’” to rejecting State Street, and a third, Judge Rader, queried whether the court was willing to decide that the entire field of business patents is “undeserving of incentives for invention.” 545 F.3d at 995, 998, 1014. Although the majority declined say so explicitly, Bilski’s holding suggests a perilous future for most method patents.

The observations of several Justices suggest that this issue may be expected to receive serious consideration by the Supreme Court . . . The closing bell may be ringing for business method patents, and their patentees may find they have become bagholders.

American Lawyer: The USSC Has the CAFC Trembling in its Robes

“Justice belongs to those who claim it, but let the claimant beware lest he create new injustice by his claim and thus set the bloody pendulum of revenge into its inexorable motion”

Frank Herbert


For those who have access to the American Lawyer (and I realize that at $430/year that’s a tiny percentage of lawyers, and almost no non-lawyers), there’s a interesting article in the March 2009 issue on the impact the Roberts Court’s patent rulings in appeals from the CAFC (six cases, six reversals) has had on the CAFC. The article, titled “The Error of Their Ways,” shows the extent to which the USSC is pushing the CAFC in the direction of a more moderate (less permissive) application of patent law. According to this article, the Supreme Court has the CAFC questioning everything they have ever known about patent law. If this article is to be believed, the Supreme Court has effected a major retrenchment in U.S. patent law.

Oh well. Who said that the law was immune from creative destruction?

You may be able to find the American Lawyer in a library, but I doubt that many libraries would pay that subscription ….

CAFC to Patent Applicant: "Read Our Lips – We Really Don't Like Business Method Patents"

In In re Lewis Ferguson, a March 6, 2009 decision from the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the applicant sought to patent “a marketing paradigm for bringing products to market.” After the application was denied by the various levels of the Patent Office bureaucracy for lack of patentable subject matter, the applicant appealed. The CAFC court quoted this claim from the application as an example:

A paradigm for marketing software, comprising:

a marketing company that markets software from a plurality of different independent and autonomous software companies, and carries out and pays for operations associated with marketing of software for all of said different independent and autonomous software companies, in return for a contingent share of a total income stream from marketing of the software from all of said software companies, while allowing all of said software companies to retain their autonomy.

Novel and nonobvious? It may just be me, but if this isn’t a distribution system that’s been implemented a million times, I’ll be damned.

The CAFC didn’t like it either, but they didn’t even get that far. Relying on In re Bilski, 545 F.3d 943 (Fed. Cir. 2008) (en banc), the Court observed:

Applicants’ method claims are not tied to any particular machine or apparatus. Although Applicants argue that the method claims are tied to the use of a shared marketing force, a marketing force is not a machine or apparatus. As this court recently stated . . . a machine is a “‘concrete thing, consisting of parts, or of certain devices and combination of devices.’ This ‘includes every mechanical device or combination of mechanical powers and devices to perform some function and produce a certain effect or result.’” . . . . Applicants’ method claims are not tied to any concrete parts, devices, or combination of devices.

Nor do Applicants’ methods, as claimed, transform any article into a different state or thing. At best it can be said that Applicants’ methods are directed to organizing business or legal relationships in the structuring of a sales force (or marketing company). But as this court stated in Bilski, “[p]urported transformations or manipulations simply of public or private legal obligations or relationships, business risks, or other such abstractions cannot meet the test because they are not physical objects or substances, and they are not representative of physical objects or substances.”…

Applicants do assert, however, that “[a] company is a physical thing, and as such analogous to a machine.” But the paradigm claims do not recite “a concrete thing, consisting of parts, or of certain devices and combination of devices,” . . . and as Applicants conceded during oral argument, “you cannot touch the company.”

Of course, Bilski is seeking to appeal the CAFC’s decision to the Supreme Court. If the appeal is accepted all bets are off on the “machine or transformation” test established by the CAFC in Bilski and applied here.

Here is a link to the case discussed above: In re Lewis Ferguson.

And here is a link to the Boston Patent Law Association’s (BPLA) brief urging certiorari and reversal in Bilski.

What?  Marshall, Texas?

What? Marshall, Texas?

It would be nice if lawyers didn’t have to call their clients and tell them that their company had been sued for patent infringement in the Eastern District of Texas (EdTX). “Where? Where’s that?” “What, you’ve never heard of Marshall, Texas?” you reply. “Never been to Tyler, Beaumont or Lufkin? Kind of quiet evenings after the sidewalks are rolled up, but your choice of BBQ rib joints is almost endless, and traffic isn’t a problem.”

As I’ve written before EdTX has evolved into a hotbed of patent litigation, although it has cooled a bit as of late. When you’re talking to a lawyer in Boston and you learn that he or she is heading to Texas, it’s a good bet that the destination is somewhere in the Eastern District. The EdTX has assembled some frightening statistics regarding number of patent cases (large) and the success rate of plaintiffs (high).

The lawyers in that part of the country joke that they used to do PI law (personal injury), and now they do IP law (intellectual property). But, everyone has known for a while that this couldn’t last forever, and that EdTX might lose its hold on patent litigation once W left office.

Indeed, the patent reform litigation just filed in the House and Senate has the EdTX in its crosshairs. The Senate bill states (excerpted):

A party shall not manufacture venue by assignment, incorporation, or otherwise to invoke the venue of a specific district court. Venue is only proper were (a) defendant is incorporated; (b) defendant has its principle place of business; (c) where the defendant is permanently located and has committed substantial acts of infringement; or (d) where the plaintiff resides if the plaintiff is a nonprofit or individual inventor. The court should transfer venue to avoid evidentiary burdens when transfer can be accomplished without causing undue hardship to the plaintiff.

If passed, a provision like this would cut into the patent litigation industry in EdTX, and the lawyers there might have to return to PI once the cases in their pipeline run out. That may make them sad, but it will make lawyers and companies in the rest of the U.S. quite happy.

Zealous Advocacy, or Abuse of Advocacy?

In the Medtronic v. BrainLab patent litigation in U.S. District Court in Colorado, Senior U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch has sanctioned Medtronic Navigation, Inc. and its lawyers $4.3 million, an amount which represents part of the attorney’s fees and costs incurred by BrainLab in defending this case. This order is a follow-up to his decision last February ordering that Medtronic be sanctioned, but not deciding (at that time) the precise amount of the sanction.

Unusual circumstances led to this disaster for Medtronic and its counsel. As many readers of this blog know, the judge, not the jury, determines the scope of the patent claims in patent litigation. This is done by the judge before trial, in what is often referred to as a “Markman hearing.” The name of the hearing is based on the 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Markman v. Westview, which held that patent “claim interpretation” is the province of the judge, not the jury. After the judge determines the scope of the patent and the meaning of the claims, he or she instructs the jury accordingly, and the lawyers are expected to honor the judge’s rulings and tailor their case to the judge’s pre-trial claim interpretation.

So, what went wrong in the Medtronics case? Apparently, during the jury trial on infringement the lawyers for Medtronic (the plaintiff), argued outside of the scope of claim interpretation determined by the judge.

Making a federal judge angry is almost always a bad idea. This is especially true when the judge is 78 year old U.S. District Court Judge Maitch, who has been on the federal bench since Richard Nixon appointed him 34 years ago and seen it all. (Judge Maitch presided over the Timothy McVeigh Oklahoma city bombing case. ) After Medtronic lost its patent case, the judge wrote (earlier this year):

Upon reflection, this Court finds and concludes that the rulings on the claims construction issues adjudicated the fairly debatable issues in this case and that the manner in which plaintiffs’ counsel continued the prosecution of the claims through trial was in disregard of their obligations as officers of the court. The fairness of the adversary system of adjudication depends upon the assumption that trial lawyers will temper zealous advocacy of their client’s cause with an objective assessment of its merit and be candid in presenting it to the court and to opposing counsel. When that assumption has been contradicted by a trial record of conduct reflecting a winning is all that is important approach to the trial process, the court has a duty to redress this resulting harm to the opposing party.

The court continued:

Rather than accept that the claims construction rulings stripped the merits from this case, counsel chose to pursue a strategy of distorting those rulings, misdirecting the jury to a different reading of the claim language, and blatantly presenting the jury with a product to product comparison contrary to established law and the Court’s cautionary instructions. . . . Capping all of this was a closing argument that misdirected the jury’s attention from the focus of the case, carefully crafted to avoid the Court’s instructions. That argument distorted both the evidence and the law, misleading the jury . . . .

Concluding, he stated:

Throughout these proceedings Medtronic and [its] lawyers have demonstrated that when they are faced with adverse court rulings, they proceed undeterred, with only superficial observance of the court’s determinations. Such conduct supports the conclusion that after the Markman rulings, Medtronic’s primary objective in pursuing this litigation was to put economic pressure on its competitor in the market.

Medtronic is likely to appeal the sanction. However, its predicament is complicated by the fact that in addition to “advocacy abuse” during trial the judge found Medtronic’s case to be frivolous, and he awarded sanctions on independent statutory grounds.

What is puzzling about this case is how Medtronic was able to get away with its in-court behavior. One would expect defense counsel to object strenuously to plaintiff’s attempt to ignore the Markman ruling during trial. If Medronic’s counsel persisted, the trial judge should have taken them into his chambers (the place that everyone else calls an office) and read them the riot act, even going so far as to threaten to hold them in contempt if they violated his order. Why that didn’t happen here, and why this problem was allowed to progress as far as it did, is something of a mystery to those who weren’t present in the courtroom during trial.

The judge’s choice of the phrase “advocacy abuse” is also interesting. If you asked around you’d find that very few lawyers are familiar with this phrase. In fact, a Westlaw search shows that the phrase has been used on only a handful of occasions in U.S. case law.

While the court did find this to have been an “exceptional case” justifying an award of fees against Medtronic under 35 U.S.C. Section 285, and against its attorneys under 28 U.S.C. Section 1927 for “unreasonably and vexatiously” multiplying the proceedings, in the alternative it awarded fees against both Medtronic and its attorneys under the court’s “inherent authority,” a judge-made concept that provides that the courts may sanction litigations and attorneys for conduct tantamount to “bad faith.” One may be left wondering whether abuse of advocacy rises to the level of bad faith. Undoubtedly, an answer to this question will be provided on appeal.

Read the full decision here.