SCOTUSblog explains the excellent unanimous decision in KSR v. Teleflex. The Court overturned a lower court and invalidated a patent, strongly reaffirming the principle that patents must cover inventions that would not be obvious to a practitioner in the field based on existing inventions (“prior art”):
The Court’s decision has therefore called into question the validity of hundreds of thousands of claims in issued patents, and will likely lead to a dramatic change to the method by which the Patent Office, the courts, and the bar conduct their obviousness analyses.
This is excellent news, since the Patent Office has been on a tear lately, granting patents for a wider array of things, including business practices and algorithms, while staff sizes have held relatively steady, and patent reviewer expertise has not grown to match the state of the art. Fear of tripping over a questionable patent, or running afoul of a bogus patent held only for the purpose of extorting license fees, has hampered technological advancement, operating exactly counter to the intention of patents.
Patents are supposed to “promote the useful arts and sciences” by granting a limited period of monopoly over an invention. Overly broad patents and patents on obvious inventions (including business practices and computer algorithms) have left a field so convoluted as to be impossible for the average innovator to navigate.
This decision is a good first step. SCOTUSblog describes a lot of ambiguity left in the decision, ambiguity which will be sorted out by lower courts, but which will move us towards a more rational patent system.