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The “Top Ten” Intellectual Property Stories of 2014 (Most “Definitely”)

I don’t think I can recall a more action-packed year for intellectual property law in my career, much less during the almost six years that I have been writing this blog. I am trying to write this while in transit, so there will be few footnotes or cites, but they are easy enough to find in my past posts, or online. I am not even sure that I outlined ten stories before I started typing, but here goes — in no particular order.

1,2,3 and 4. Mayo meet Alice meet Myriad - The Tortuous Path of s.101.

Although only Alice was decided in 2014, the excitement really started with the unexpected release of the PTO “Life Sciences” Guidelines in March (No. 1 Story). The draft Guidelines directed Examiners to reject claims to products of nature unless they were significantly different in structure from the products in their natural states, and declared that simple “If A, then B” diagnostic claims were patent-ineligible as attempts to patent natural phenomena.

The Guidelines were continuously criticized as based on a misreading of the earlier Mayo and Myriad S.Ct. decisions and were released in a revised form in December (No. 2 Story) via publication for comment in the Fed. Reg. The revised Guidelines recognized that the standards for claiming diagnostic tests were in flux but permitted consideration of functional differences in resolving the PE of natural products.

However, only a few days later, in U. of Utah Res. Fndn v. Ambry, (No. 3 Story) the Fed. Cir. held that primers could not be patented if not structurally changed from their natural sequence. Judge Dyk, writing for the panel, simply misread Myriad as holding that no isolated product of nature — as opposed to no naturally occurring DNA — could be patented unless it was markedly different than in its natural state. This decision followed the earlier invalidation of the claims to Dolly the cloned sheep in In re Roslin in which Judge Dyk, declared that no naturally-occurring living organism is patentable. The Utah panel also held that claims to comparing a subject’s DNA sequence to a reference sequence, wherein the claim also recited PCR amplification or probing, did not escape the Mayo requirement for an additional inventive concept in additional to the abstract idea of comparing sequences. This decision is ripe for rehearing en banc, if only to correct Judge Dyk’s manifest misreading of Myriad (and to keep the PTO Guidelines under some judicial control).

The title of this “news story” is meant to point up the tsunami-like “abstract idea” judicial exception to s. 101 patent-eligibility (PE). The Mayo v. Prometheus decision only mentions “abstract idea” once, and it is to cite to an earlier decision. The S. Ct. in Mayo reversed the Fed. Cir., holding that a claim reciting a natural phenomenon was required to recite some further inventive concept in order to be “significantly more” than a claim preempting use of the phenomenon. In Bilski, the Fed. Cir. fashioned the “machine or transformation test”. Judge Rader’s dissenting argument that a claim to hedging commodity risk was no more than an attempt to claim an abstract idea. The S. Ct. agreed with Judge Rader.

In Alice Bank, (No. 4 Story) the S. Ct. managed to marry the Mayo “test” for PE to the abstract idea exception of Bilski. The Court applied a two-step test. First, decide if a claim involves an abstract idea and then examine the claim to see if it contains significantly more than elements that are conventional and routine in the relevant art. Now, enter Utah Res. Foundation (Myriad) v. Ambry. While Ambry argued that the diagnostic claims were no more than an attempt to claim a natural phenomenon (mutations in DNA), the Fed. Cir. took a different tack and looked to itsMyriad decision for guidance.

And, lo and behold, at the Fed. Cir. level, Judge Lourie wrote that the DNA comparison claims were not PE, since they were directed to an abstract idea(!) So the Fed. Cir., simply applied the Mayo test as articulated in Alice and invalidated the method claims asserted by Myriad as attempts to claim an abstract idea, albeit with a bit of window dressing (PCR and probing). In the coming year, I can only hope that the PE of a simple “If A, then B” diagnostic claim will be resolved. And I also hope that Judge Breyer is not writing for the majority.

5. Kimble v. Marvel. The S. Ct. granted cert. to revisit the question of whether or not a requirement that a licensee pay post-expiration date royalties for a patent license is per se illegal (as it is presently).

6. Nautilus v. Biosig. While the S. Ct. tried to raise the bar for meeting s. 112(b) by requiring that claim elements be defined with “reasonable certainty,” rather than by the Fed. Cir.’s requirement that the meaning of the element not be “insolubly ambiguous” or “amenable to construction.” It is not at all clear where the new bar has been set.

7. Teva v. Sandoz. The S. Ct. granted cert. to resolve the question of whether or not it is proper for the Fed. Cir. to conduct de novo review of the district courts’ factual findings during claim construction. By the way, what is a mixed question of law and fact and how is a court to review them separately? Appeal to the Fed. Cir. and find out!

8. American Calcar v. American Honda Motors. This convoluted case stands for the observation that the inequitable conduct defense has risen from the grave of legal doctrines, to which it had been consigned by many commentators. Still, to prevail on this defense, a defendant is greatly assisted by the presence of a single (or perhaps two) “bad actors” who do things like try to patent a competitor’s drug — which, remarkably was the factual posture of two cases before the Fed. Cir. last year. You can advocate with vigor; just don’t lie.

9. Commil v. Cisco. Although the question present in the granted petition for cert. seems narrow (To what extent can evidence of a good faith belief in non-infringement negate the element of intent required to induce infringement?), this appeal is evidence that the S. Ct. is not yet tired of the challenges posed by Title 35.

10. Progress in Regulations Affecting Bringing Biosimilars to Market. In August, the FDA released its “Purple Book” listing approved reference products and actually accepted an application for a biosimilar “generic”. While some commentators feel that it will be more effective to re-conduct phase III trials than to try to navigate the hostile regulatory hurdles thrown up by the agency, the availability of biosimilar drugs seems inevitable.

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About this Author

Warren Woessner, Registered Patent Attorney, Schwegman Lundberg Law firm
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Warren Woessner is a registered patent attorney and a founding shareholder of Schwegman, Lundberg & Woessner. His practice focuses on chemical patent law, including biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, medical treatments, diagnostics, and biofuels and agricultural chemistry, including related opinion and licensing matters.

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