This article was originally published on PatentlyO.com.
In Helsinn Healthcare S.A. v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc., the Federal Circuit had its first opportunity to address the impact of the “or otherwise available to the public” clause contained in post-AIA 35 U.S.C. § 102. In finding that the AIA “did not change the statutory meaning of ‘on sale’ in the circumstances involved here,” the Federal Circuit provided insight into the continued relevance of the forfeiture doctrine of Metallizing Engineering v. Kenyon Bearing.
The critical issue in Helsinn was whether the post-AIA definition of prior art requires public disclosure of the details of an invention in order to trigger the on-sale bar. In the AIA, Congress revised § 102—otherwise known as the “novelty provision.” As revised, the new novelty provision states:
(a) NOVELTY; PRIOR ART. — A person shall be entitled to a patent unless—
(1) the claimed invention was patented, described in a printed publication, or in public use, on sale, or otherwise available to the public before the effective filing date of the claimed invention.
While the AIA maintained the pre-AIA language of “patented,” “described in a printed publication,” “in public use,” and “on sale,” it added the emphasized clause above (the “catch-all clause”). The AIA does not provide any elaboration on the import of the catch-all clause, leaving many to wonder exactly what its presence means for the interpretation of the other, well-known categories of prior art.
Since its enactment in 2011, scholars have debated the effect of the catch-all clause on the “public use” and “on sale” statutory bars.* Helsinn asserted that the catch-all clause modifies prior-art categories such that only disclosures that publicly disclose the details of the invention qualify as prior art. Advocates like Helsinn contend that the intention of Congress was to overrule “secret” use and sale decisions, like Metallizing Engineering.
Others, including Teva, argue that the addition of the catch-all clause does not invalidate the years of case law interpreting “public use” and “on sale.” These advocates contend that interpreting the catch-all clause to impose a “public” requirement would be a foundational change to the purpose and rationale for the public use and on sale bars support—in the absence of a clear repudiation by Congress of the pre-AIA law.
*The number of articles discussing both sides of the debate is far too numerous to provide a full list. You can find a few of these articles listed here.
The facts of Helsinn presented a unique situation in which to consider this important question. Helsinn sued Teva for allegedly infringing four patents directed to a formulation of palonosetron for reducing chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (“CINV”). All the asserted claims covered a specific palonosetron amount in a solution—0.25 mg. The parties agreed that the critical date for all four patents was the same—but different laws were implicated by the patents. Three of the patents were governed by the pre-AIA patent laws, while the last patent fell under the AIA.
Teva alleged that Helsinn’s asserted patents were invalid under § 102. The conduct in question concerned an agreement entered into by Helsinn with another party to market and distribute Helsinn’s palonosetron formulation. Almost two years before the critical date, Helsinn agreed with MGI Pharma, Inc., that MGI would market and distribute one or more formulations of palonosetron, contingent on approval by the FDA. The agreement identified the 0.25 mg dosage as one of the potential formulations to be purchased and sold. Although the existence of the deal was made public (through a required SEC filing), the specific formulation details were redacted.
Thus, the district court faced analyzing the same conduct under two sets of laws: pre-AIA and post-AIA. Under either, however, the same two-prong framework explicated in Pfaff v. Wells Electronics applied: the on-sale bar is triggered where before the critical date (1) there is a sale or an offer for sale and (2) the claimed invention was ready for patenting. Under the Pfaff framework, the district court found that the distribution agreement constituted a sale with respect to the three pre-AIA patents. But the district court interpreted Congress’ addition of the catch-all clause as a modification to the “on sale” category that placed a public requirement on the disclosure itself. The district court found that under the AIA, a § 102-triggering sale must publicly disclose the details of the invention; a public sale that did not disclose the claim limitations was insufficient.
The Federal Circuit reversed this decision and provided an analysis may prove instructive in future cases concerning public uses and other non-informing disclosures. In its opinion, the Federal Circuit noted that the support for Helsinn’s argument that § 102’s requirements changed with Congress’ addition of the catch-all phrase rested outside of the text of the amended provision; Helsinn relied primarily on floor statements by a few individual members of Congress.
The Federal Circuit noted that those floor statements appeared to show “at most” an intent to do away with case precedent concerning “public use” cases, not “on sale” cases. According to the Court, the only “precedent” cited by the Congressmen were cases in which the invention was used in public, but that use did not disclose to the public the details of the claimed invention. E.g., Egbert v. Lippman; Beachcombers International v. Wildewood Creative Products; Jumpsport, Inc. v. Jumpking, Inc. Moreover, the Federal Circuit explained that even assuming the statements could be stretched to cover sale cases as well, the “secret sale” cases “were concerned entirely with whether the existence of the sale or offer was public,” not whether the details of the invention were disclosed. Thus, the Court found the floor statements were of little support for a different interpretation of the statutory meaning of “on sale” under the AIA.
The Federal Circuit further found Helsinn’s argument unpersuasive because imposing a publicity requirement would “work a foundational change in the theory or the statutory on-sale bar.” In fact, the Federal Circuit noted that the issue of whether to impose a publicity requirement was exactly the situation in Pennock v. Dialogue, in which Justice Story created the on-sale bar. In Pennock, Justice Story found that allowing a patent to stand after a sale that did not disclose the claim limitations “would materially retard the progress of science and the useful arts, and give a premium to those who should be least prompt to communicate their discoveries.” Relying heavily on its prior case law, the Court also explained why such a publicity requirement has never been considered necessary. The Federal Circuit concluded by hold that at most, the catch-all clause just requires that the sale must put the patented product in the hands of the public,* not that it must be informed of all the limitations of the claim.
*Of course, the Federal Circuit did not mean that the product must be explicitly in the hands of the public. As discussed in the opinion, “our prior cases have applied the on-sale bar even when there is no delivery, when delivery is set after the critical date, or, even when, upon delivery, members of the public could not ascertain the claimed invention.”
Looking at the Federal Court’s reasoning in Helsinn and The Medicines Co. v. Hospira, Inc., that Metallizing Engineering may remain good law under the AIA. As the Federal Circuit made clear, it does not view the floor statements in Congress as evidencing a clear intent to overturn the “on sale” precedent, instead “at most” supporting an argument that the intent was to overturn the “public use” case law. In The Medicines Co., the Federal Circuit referred to Metallizing as an “on sale” case: the conduct at issue in Metallizing was the sale of performing a particular claimed process for compensation before the critical date, i.e. activity triggering the on-sale bar. Thus, the Federal Circuit would likely find mere floor statements to be of little relevance to a factual situation similar to Metallizing. Moreover, as the Federal Circuit identified, the law regarding “secret sales” has always been concerned with whether the existence of the sale itself was publicly disclosed—not the details of the invention. There is no indication in Metallizing that the sales at issue were not publicly known, so the same rationale from Helsinn should apply.
In Helsinn, the Federal Circuit anchored its holding on the fact that imposing a requirement that a triggering sale disclose the details of the invention directly contradicts Justice Story’s reasoning in Pennock for creating the on-sale bar. As Justice Story saw it, to allow an inventor to exploit commercially his or her invention for an extended period and still maintain the ability to seek patent protection would undercut the “progress of science and the useful arts” and promote undesirable behavior. This principle has been consistently reiterated by the Federal Circuit. See The Medicines Co.; Atlanta Attachment Co. v. Leggett & Platt, Inc. (“The overriding concern of the on-sale bar is an inventor’s attempt to commercialize his invention beyond the statutory term.”). The aim of discouraging the inventor from improperly extending the monopoly was one of the underlying reasons behind Judge Learned Hand’s decision in Metallizing. Thus, it is possible that the Federal Circuit may find Metallizing to remain applicable after the AIA, despite the reduced ability for such conduct under the first-to-file concept of the AIA.*
*This is one argument raised in support of the view that the AIA explicitly overrules Metallizing. Under the first-to-invent approach, this type of secret commercialization provided a greater incentive because even if another filed a patent on the claimed invention prior to the commercial exploiter, the exploiter could, in theory, establish prior invention and obtain the patent. As prior invention is no longer a valid argument under first-to-file, the incentive to secretly exploit an invention is diminished. However, the fact that success may be more difficult does not, in and of itself, mean the forfeiture doctrine no longer has value or applicability. As long as one person is still able to commercially exploit his or her invention in a manner like that in Pennock or Metallizing, the reasoning for the doctrine would still apply.
The recent Supreme Court decision in TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Food Grp. Brands LLC also provides support for the continued relevance of Metallizing. See No. 16-341 (May 22, 2017). At issue in TC Heartland was the impact of Congressional amendment of the general venue statute (28 U.S.C. § 1391(c)) on the interpretation of the patent venue statute that was not amended (28 U.S.C. § 1400(b)). The patent venue statute has remained unchanged since the Supreme Court interpreted its scope, holding that a domestic corporation only “resides” for purposes of venue in a patent infringement action in its state of incorporation. See Fourco Glass Co. v. Transmirra Products Corp. (1957). However, after Congress amended the general venue statute in 1988, the Federal Circuit held that Congress’s amendment also changed the scope of where a corporation “resides” under § 1400(b) (although § 1400(b) remained unchanged). See VE Holding Corp. v. Johnson Gas Appliance Co. (1990). In TC Heartland, the Supreme Court reversed the Federal Circuit’s ruling in VE Holding, emphasizing that “[w]hen Congress intends to effect a change [to the statutory meaning of legal language], it ordinarily provides a relatively clear indication of its intent in the text of the amended provision.”
Accordingly, the TC Heartland decision can be interpreted as requiring clear congressional intent within the text of an amended provision itself to modify the settled meaning of statutory language. Such an interpretation would further undermine the persuasiveness of the minimal floor statements discussed in Helsinn, given that those statements were by individual senators, put forth their interpretations of post-AIA § 102, and are not included within the text of the AIA. Moreover, the Federal Circuit in Helsinn appears to have found the catch-all clause to not be a “clear indication if [Congress’s] intent in the text of the amended provision” to change the interpretation of “on sale” in the statute. In light of the large amount of scholarly debate on the meaning of the clause, it seems unlikely that the Supreme Court would disagree with the Federal Circuit’s apparent determination.
After Helsinn, it appears that on-sale bar precedent has survived the AIA. Applying the Court’s reasoning, and in view of other recent cases such as The Medicines Co. and TC Heartland, it appears the Metallizing Engineering precedent may also have survived the AIA, at least for now. However, there is still the possibility that the Federal Circuit may take the opportunity presented by the ambiguity caused by the catch-all clause to revisit the ultimate decision in Metallizing. Although the Federal Circuit may consider Metallizing to be an “on sale” case, Judge Hand’s opinion does rely on principles underlying both the “public use” and “on sale” bars. As such, the forfeiture doctrine of Metallizing would appear to be an extra-statutory bar, not falling within either the “public use” or “on sale” categories entirely. Because of this, some have questioned whether Judge Hand’s decision is actually correct. See Dimitri Karshtedt, Did Learned Hand Get It Wrong?: The Questionable Patent Forfeiture Rule of Metallizing Engineering, 51 Vill. L. Rev. 261 (2012). Moreover, although the Federal Circuit was not persuaded as to the “clear indication” of intent to change the meaning of “on sale” as advocated by Helsinn and others, that is not to say the Supreme Court would hold the same.