Friday, November 11, 2005

Supreme Court to Reform Patent Law?

The Financial Times is suggesting that the US Supreme Court may make some dramatic decisions regarding patent law in the near future:
The court has three cases before it and a fourth that could arrive soon, which test some of the most fundamental tenets of US patent jurisprudence. Which country's courts should decide patent disputes that cross borders? And even more fundamentally, What can be patented in the first place? How obvious must an invention be to forfeit patent protection? And should challengers in patent infringement suits – even those who are not using the patent to produce anything – be allowed to shut down defendants whose products depend on many patents?
The article cites four cases that could decide many of these issues, the first of these, Laboratory Corp v Metabolite Laboratories, involves a patent for a system that can diagnose a vitamin deficiency -- essentially an algorithm (whether embodied in a computer program or the brain of a medical doctor). At the heart of the case is the question of what subjects can be patented. The outcome will have much to say about the validity of software and business method patents, and about what constitutes non-patentable "laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas."

Another important case is that of KSR International v Teleflex, where the standard of "obviousness" could be redefined:
Microsoft and other high-technology companies have urged the court to take this case, arguing that the federal patent court allows too many obvious technologies to be patented – such as the adjustable accelerator pedal at issue in KSR International v Teleflex, the case before them. Adopting a lax standard of obviousness means more patents are issued, and technology companies can be sued more often by holders of dubious patents, they say.
The other two cases, one involving eBay and one involving RIM (makers of the BlackBerry) will test courts' abilities to issue preliminary injunctions against alleged patent infringers. eBay argues that since any one piece of software could be potentially covered by hundreds of [dubious] patents, any one patent holder can effectively disable a software service or remove a software product from the market unjustly. The RIM case (which the Supreme Court has not yet taken up) faces a similar possible outcome: court-ordered shutdown of the entire BlackBerry network in the United States.

The obvious question to ask now is, where do members of the Supreme Court stand on the issue of IP-maximalism?


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