Prior Use Rights – a double-edged sword
One interesting aspect to the new patent law is the section relating to prior use rights.
If you are a small company who hits on a great way of doing things but can’t afford to patent it, and someone, years later, gets a patent for that exact same technology and tries to sue you for infringing their patent, you can now defend yourself against infringement with the expanded prior use rights. You couldn’t do this before except in very limited circumstances involving business method patents and the new law has expanded this right. To take advantage of the defense, you yourself have to have been using the invention in commerce for at least a year before the patent holder filed her application – you can’t just assert that “everybody” was using it although you yourself weren’t. If you can do this though, you have a defense to infringement.
Prior use rights is a double-edged sword however. There are two related ways in which misuse of this right can impact companies:
1) “Stealth Prior Art” – A competitor can invent technology, keep it a trade secret, and then later prevent a patent holder from enforcing a patent by showing that the competitor used the technology in commerce before the patent holder filed for the patent. In this way, the competitor acts as “stealth prior art” – no one knew how their technology worked or that they were using it in this way, the market wasn’t benefiting from having knowledge about this technology, and when a party that actually did disclose the technology to the public tries to enforce their patent, they are now faced with this secret prior use that weakens the utility of their patent, at least as to the stealth competitor. There’s something unsavory about the potential for abuse in this type of scenario. For a more detailed discussion of the ways in which prior use rights can be misused, you should check out IP Watchdog’s series of articles on this topic.
2) Pressure to file earlier – one clear way to deal with the possibility of stealth competition is to file as soon as you possibly can, which puts more pressure on already-constrained patent budgets.
Prior use rights can be an extremely helpful way in which small companies can defend themselves against companies that have more funding and can afford more robust patent portfolios. Unfortunately, as is often the case, there are still ways in which a useful tool can backfire. This is a potentially troubling, and somewhat controversial, aspect of the new law that the industry will be watching with interest.
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