Inter Partes Review is a proceeding that the USPTO adopted in 2012 that allows a challenge to an issued patent based on obviousness or lack of novelty. Inter Partes Review has become an increasingly common tool to invalidate a patent as an alternative to litigation in Federal Court. In Covidien LP v. University of Florida Research Foundation Inc., the US Patent Trial and Appeal Board addressed the issue of whether sovereign immunity would extend to a state actor who owns rights to a patent being challenged in an administrative forum such as an Inter Partes Review. Under the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the 50 States of the Union and their branches, have immunity from a lawsuit instituted by a private party. Court decisions interpreting the 11th Amendment have construed it broadly to extend this immunity not only to lawsuits in a court of law, but also to other adjudicative proceedings such as those of administrative agencies.
An Inter Partes Review in many way parallels a lawsuit in a court of law. For example, there is discovery, depositions, motions, and oral argument. Further, a panel of judges decide not only the outcome of the proceeding, but also whether the proceeding may even be instituted. In Covidien LP v. University of Florida Research Foundation Inc., the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board ruled in favor of the University of Florida Research Foundation. The U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board decided that due to the similarities between civil litigation and an InterPartes Review, the University of Florida Research Foundation, being an arm of the State of Florida, was entitled to assert sovereign immunity as a defense to the institution of an Inter Partes Review. This decision may have an effect on the number of Inter Partes Reviews that are instituted against public research institutions, such as state universities.
Last year, the Federal Circuit decided UltimatePointer, LLC v. Nintendo Co., Ltd. UltimatePointer brought a patent Infringment suit against Nintendo for its Wii console which uses indirect-pointing remote control devices. The district court ruled for Nintendo on summary judgment concluding that direct-pointing devices, and not indirect-pointing devices, were within the scope of the claims of UltimatePointer’s patent. The Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, reasoning that the specification of the patent repeatedly emphasize that the invention is directed to a direct-pointing device and that there are disadvantages with indirect pointing devices. This decision underscores the importance of the specification on how claims are construed. As seen in UltimatePointer, LLC v. Nintendo Co., Ltd., a court may limit the scope of a claim based on the content of the specification.