Monday, 10 December 2018 16:16

When is an invention "on sale?"

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The Supreme Court is currently posed with the question: Does the confidential sale of an invention disqualify that invention from later patenting? Helsinn Healthcare S.A. v. Teva Pharm. USA, Inc., 138 S.Ct. 2678 (2018).

The patent statute does not directly address this question, but does state that an invention is precluded from patenting if that invention was “on sale” or “in public use” prior to the filing date for that patent application. Years of case law have added to the meanings of these terms. But now there is an additional term, “or otherwise available to the public.”  35 U.S.C. § 102(a)(1).  Under which circumstances does this new term preclude patenting? Circumstances that are applicable to the certified question for the Court?

The Supreme Court has previously ruled that public use of an invention will not preclude patenting if the public use is for experimentation.  Pfaff v. Wells Elecs., 525 U.S. 55, (1998).  That Court qualified the statutory language, reading in the experimentation use.  But that Court did not rule on the “on sale” criteria except to identify a distinction between experimental use and “products sold commercially.” Is there a similar qualification of a commercial sale, supported by precedent and legislative history, that can exempt a confidential sale from being barred from patenting?

And where would “otherwise available to the public” fit in here? Does “otherwise” mean that the previous items in the list, such as “on sale,” are also to be understood as “available to the public?” Or is it a modern catch-all for new patentability conditions that were not contemplated when the provision was written in 1952?

Read 305 times Last modified on Monday, 10 December 2018 18:10
James Iaconis

James joined Malloy & Malloy after years of practicing law in Houston and Boston, in boutique IP practice, as in-house IP counsel at a software company, and after running his own practice.  Some of his clients include software companies, healthcare professionals, filmmakers, physicians, and individual inventors.  Prior to earning his J.D. and LL.M. in Intellectual Property, James used his Computer Science degree as a software developer for more than 10 years, designing and writing computer programs in many different industries.