Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A look at the US Supreme Court's decision in Microsoft v. i4i

In 2009, a Canadian software development company out of Toronto named i4i Inc. won a $290 million law suit against Microsoft for wilfully infringing its patents.  The company developed a new form of document encoding known as XML (Extensible Markup Language). The versatility of the .xml extension lead to its integration into a number of software applications, including Microsoft Office. Microsoft, however, did not license the XML code.   

The Eastern District Court of Texas ruled in favor of i4i stating that a party accused of patent infringement, when asserting the invalidity of a patent, must convince the court of the invalidity by “clear and convincing evidence”.  This is a particularly high burden of proof and one not easily met.  

Photo by Darren Robertson
Microsoft fought the District Court’s interpretation in appeal but the outcome was the same.  Both the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the United States Supreme Court affirmed the trial judge’s decision and rejected Microsoft’s arguments demanding a lowering of the burden of proof and upheld the trial court’s ruling.

Justice Sotomayor wrote for a unanimous court (8-0 – Justice Thomas concurring. Chief Justice Roberts recused himself because he owns Microsoft stock) in saying that §282 of the American Patent Act of 1952 clearly states that a patent, once issued “shall be presumed valid”.  This places the burden of invalidating the patent on the other party. According to Sotomayor, it has long been settled law that the party alleging invalidity must prove it by clear and convincing evidence.  She cites a 1984 decision rendered by Judge Rich, one of the principal drafters of the 1952 Patent Act, supporting the clear and convincing standard.  In the 30 plus years since the aforementioned decision, the CAFC has never varied their opinion. 

Microsoft’s invalidity defense was twofold: First, they attempted to apply §102(b) of the Act that prohibits the issuing of patents when:

“the invention was patented or described in a printed publication in this or a foreign country or in public use or on sale in this country, more than one year prior to the date of the application for patent in the United States”

This provision, known as the “on-sale bar”, says that a patent that has been used or sold or has been disclosed in a publication more than one year before the patent is applied for is not patentable under the law. Microsoft claimed that the entirety of the XML patent was disclosed in a previously released i4i product called “S4”.  The Court, however, rejected this defence after hearing from two expert witnesses (the two principal inventors of the XML patent).

Microsoft’s second argument relied on the fact that when the XML patent was being examined, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) didn’t have the S4 patent to compare it to.   Relying on a recent decision, Microsoft asserted that when it is brought to light that the PTO didn’t have all relevant information during examination, the strength of their examination is greatly diminished.  Microsoft ultimately asserted that this lowered level of deference for the PTO should concordantly lower the standard of proof incumbent on a party alleging invalidity. 

Both of these arguments were utterly rejected by the Supreme Court who said that the “hybrid” burden of proof system Microsoft proposes has no precedent and no founding in law.  

Though the decision in this case turned primarily on statutory interpretation and the intention of Congress in enacting the law, Microsoft tried as hard as possible to make it seem that the issue at hand was the prior disclosure of the patent and the incomplete analysis of the PTO. 

Many IP professionals are skeptical of the value of this decision.  Surely had the ruling gone the other way, this case would be of paramount importance as it would be reversing a 35 year old interpretation that has thus far remained unchallenged.  Though some may question the importance of this decision outright, I am of the belief that the Supreme Court’s verdict affirms at least two points.

First, that the courts still show a high degree of deference towards the USPTO and therefore should continue to exercise judicial restraint in overturning its rulings.

Second, that smaller companies are capable of defeating behemoths like Microsoft when the law is in their favor.  Doubtless Microsoft fielded an expert team of attorneys who managed to conjure up and elucidate arguments that could have overturned a solid precedent.  Add to that the fact that a long list of tech giants such as Facebook, Google, Apple, Verizon etc. rallied behind Microsoft in support and you have a true David v. Goliath victory in favour of the Canadian i4i Inc. 

In my humble opinion, I think this case is most interesting for its rallying cry effect on smaller businesses than its actual implications on the legal framework of the US Patent system. As damaging as a $290 million verdict is, one would posit that if anyone could absorb such a loss it would be a company on the scale and magnitude of Microsoft. Though this decision surely is a blow to the tech giant, I don’t think too many people are (or should be) balling their eyes out for them right now...except Chief Justice Roberts that is...

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