Many proposals for patent reform legislation suggest changes to the inequitable conduct defense. One recurring proposal is to require that the defense spring from information material enough to get the a patent rejected or granted. Just checking the wrong box on a form, even intentionally, would not be material enough. Withholding or mischaracterizing prior art, or information about a statutory bar, would be enough for a patent to be declared unenforceable. Those notions of patent reform, though, remain simply notions.
Malfeasance, which may be immaterial to a patent having being granted, is now enough to render it unenforceable. Perhaps Applied Materials v Multimetrixs (N.D. Cal. 7/22/2008) is such a case or controversy. After an inventor signs a declaration, the PTO rules require no further signature by that inventor (provided he signed a power of attorney). The Multimetrixs’ inventors did not sign a power, at the outset, and so, they continued to sign filings. After notice of allowance, the application went abandoned. Before allowance, one of the named inventors had died. His signature on his inventors’ declaration was original, but then, was forged on filings made posthumously. An attorney was hired, and he dealt with the abandonment issue. In the later suit, Applied alleged its engineers, not Multimetrixs, were the true inventors. Applied sought a correction of inventorship, and Multimetrixs counterclaimed for infringement. The judge declared Multimetrixs’ patent unenforceable, but made no declaration about inventorship.
In the garden-variety case, the applicant withholds prior art or a prior sale, or makes arguments favoring patentability that were contrary to the truth or to other known information. In this case, the Judge stated that the applicant’s “misrepresentations did not relate to patentability,” and that it was “irrelevant that [the late] David Marguiles’ signature may nor have been required” on the later-filed prosecution. Seems like a good case for discussion of meaningful patent reform.
The decision lacks the step of “balancing” the materiality and the intent. The forgery plainly was intentional, but there was not much in the materiality bucket to balance that. In place of that analytical step, the Judge hits hard on the lack of credibility of the applicants-cum-forgers. The opinion even recites the ‘other bad acts’ evidence abpout one of the named inventor’s conviction for “selling freon for meth and for money laundering,” and added for emphasis, that it was for “selling four times the amount of freon necessary to satisfy the meth needs of the entire California Bay Area for a year.” That’s plainly pertinent to credibility, but the fact of forging the dead inventor’s signature was never really in doubt. What was missing was materiality, not more evidence of intent. The applicant’s conduct cannot be condoned, but either the patent is valid, and the inventorship is correct, or it is invalid or derives from a false claim of inventorship. That what is material, not how much freon the applicant sold.
Note: the author had a past, attorney-client relation with Applied, but has no knowledge of any aspect of this lawsuit other than what is set out in the recent court opinion.