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A New Hope for Patent Reform

September 20, 2004

A New Hope for Patent Reform

Consumer and Public Interest Groups Seek to Narrow and Invalidate Ambiguous Patents that Harm Society

Washington, DC - Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, and two public interest organizations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Public Knowledge, filed a friend-of-the-court brief today with the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, DC, arguing that ambiguous patent claims should be invalidated and that claim terms should be interpreted as narrowly as possible by the courts to protect the public. Currently, courts uphold patent claims unless they are deemed too ambiguous, and the courts interpret vague claim terms as broadly as possible. These rules often result in improper patents of uncertain scope and lead to overzealous threat letters and lawsuits brought by patentees that chill innovation and deter beneficial competition.

"Aggressive patent holders are using vague patent language to cause havoc in the software and Internet fields," said Jason Schultz, EFF staff attorney and organizer of EFF's Patent Busting Project. "We're asking the court to rein in these claims by limiting their scope to only those things clearly laid out in the patent itself."

"Placing clear limits on patents will provide much-needed protection for the public domain and create a fertile environment for technological growth," said Gigi Sohn, President of Public Knowledge.

In a recent example, Acacia Research sent more than 4,000 patent demand letters to universities and colleges across the nation, claiming its vaguely worded patents cover all known methods of streaming pre-recorded educational lectures over the Internet. Were the appeals court to rule that such vague patent claims are invalid or must be interpreted narrowly, the threatened universities and colleges could defend or dismiss these lawsuits with far greater ease.

The brief was filed for Consumers Union, EFF, and Public Knowledge by students and faculty of the Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Law Clinic of the Washington College of Law, American University, in a case called Phillips v. AWH Corporation, following a request from the appeals court for industry and public opinions on several issues of current patent law. The IP Clinic's Assistant Director and Counsel of Record on the brief, Joshua Sarnoff, said that "this may be the most important patent case ever decided. Claim meaning is the name of the game in patent law, and the Federal Circuit has the chance to lay down clear rules to determine claim meaning that will benefit society."

Contacts:

Joshua Sarnoff
Assistant Director
Glushko-Samuelson Intellectual Property Law Clinic
jsarnoff@wcl.american.edu

Jason Schultz
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
jason@eff.org

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