Is Patent Law Technology-Specific?
Dan L. Burk
University of California, Irvine School of Law
Mark A. Lemley
Stanford Law School
Berkeley Technology Law Journal, Vol. 17, p. 1155, 2002
Minnesota Public Law Research Paper No. 02-14
UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper No. 106
Patent law has a general set of legal rules to govern the validity and infringement of patents in a wide variety of technologies. With a very few exceptions, the statute does not distinguish between different technologies in setting and applying legal standards. In theory, then, we have a unified patent system that provides technology-neutral protection to all kinds of technologies.
Of late, however, we have noticed an increasing divergence between the rules themselves and the application of the rules to different industries. The best examples are biotechnology and computer software. In biotechnology cases, the Federal Circuit has bent over backwards to find biotechnological inventions nonobvious, even if the prior art demonstrates a clear plan for producing the invention. On the other hand, the court has imposed stringent enablement and written description requirements on biotechnology patents that do not show up in other disciplines. In computer software cases, the situation is reversed. The Federal Circuit has essentially excused software inventions from compliance with the enablement and best mode requirements, but has done so in a way that raises serious questions about how stringently it will read the nonobviousness requirements. As a practical matter, it appears that while patent law is technology-neutral in theory, it is technology-specific in application.
The paper explains how the application of the same general legal standards can lead to such different results in diverse industries. Much of the variance in patent standards is attributable to the use of a legal construct, the "person having ordinary skill in the art" (PHOSITA), to determine obviousness and enablement. The more skill those in the art have, the less information an applicant has to disclose in order to meet the enablement requirement - but the harder it is to meet the nonobviousness requirement. The level of skill in the art affects not just patent validity, but also patent scope.
We do not challenge the idea that the standards in each industry should vary with the level of skill in that industry. We think the use of the PHOSITA provides needed flexibility for patent law, permitting it to adapt to new technologies without losing its essential character. We fear, however, that the Federal Circuit has not applied that standard properly in either the biotechnology or computer software fields. The court has a perception of both fields that was set in earlier cases but which does not reflect the modern realities of either industry. The changes in an industry over time present significant structural problems for patent law, both because law is necessarily backward-looking and precedent-bound and because applying different standards to similar inventions raises concerns about horizontal equity. Nonetheless, we believe the courts must take more care than they currently do to ensure that their assessments of patent validity are rooted in understandings of the technology that were accurate at the time the invention was made.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 52
Keywords: patents, biotechnology, software, PHOSITA, patent scope, Federal Circuit
Date posted: November 14, 2002 ; Last revised: October 3, 2015