By: Ivan T. Kirchev and J. Ryan Lawlis
The power to protect a company’s inventions with patents comes with the responsibility of seeing its patent applications the whole way through the Patent Office, from the initial filing to issuance and beyond.
The filing of a patent application begins a lengthy and sometimes harrowing dialogue with an examiner at the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) who is responsible for making sure that the application’s invention is truly deserving of patent protection. If (or in reality when) the examiner does not agree that the claimed invention is patentable, the examiner will send the applicant a series of “office actions” rejecting the application or demanding certain amendments to the application. With each office action comes a turn of the hourglass, giving the applicant a definite window of time (usually up to six months) to submit a response. If the applicant’s reply satisfies the examiner, the examiner issues a “notice of allowance,” indicating that the applicant’s invention will be issued as a patent.
However, if the applicant makes a wrong turn during prosecution, the application may become “abandoned” in the eyes of the PTO. When a patent application is abandoned, the patent application is dead and anyone can practice the invention described in the patent application. Once it becomes abandoned, the application requires special petition procedures and payment of fees to revive, if it can be revived at all. If it cannot be revived, the application will never issue as a patent.
An application can become abandoned in one of two ways. First, the applicant fails to respond to a particular PTO notice within a specified time during the prosecution of the application. For example, if the applicant fails to reply to an office action within the specified time period, or files an incomplete reply, or fails to do whatever it is that the examiner has requested before the hourglass runs out, then the application will become abandoned.
Second, a patent application can become abandoned by a formal, express abandonment, requested by the applicant. Express abandonment is not necessarily a bad thing and sometimes is actually a step in the right direction for a company. Because an abandoned unpublished application will never become available to the public, sometimes abandonment may be a strategic decision on the part of the applicant to keep the invention out of the public eye.
When the application becomes abandoned, the applicant will receive a notice from the PTO. At that point, the applicant can either ask for reconsideration if he or she disagrees with the PTO decision, or petition for revival. In order to petition the PTO for revival, the applicant must file a reply that includes; (1) the reply that was originally required before the missed deadline, (2) a statement or showing that abandonment was respectfully either unavoidable or unintentional, and (3) the necessary fee.
If the applicant claims that the abandonment was unavoidable, it must show the PTO that the entire delay in filing the required reply from the due date for the reply, until the filing of a grantable petition pursuant to this paragraph, was unavoidable. “The entire delay” means every single day from the missed deadline to the submission of the petition for revival; the showing must include documentary evidence to support the claim of unavoidability. What qualifies as “unavoidable delay” is determined on a case-by-case basis by the “reasonably prudent person” standard.
Generally, to justify revival on the grounds of unavoidability, an applicant must either show truly dire and uncontrollable circumstances, or reasonable actions that unexpectedly resulted in abandonment. Examples of justifiable unavoidability include the death of the prosecuting patent attorney, the constant moving and financial burden of an application for the medical treatment of cancer, or any reasonable interpretation of a rule. What will not qualify for unavoidable grounds of revival includes miscalculation of the filing deadline, unawareness or misunderstanding of the rules of patent prosecution, or conflicts with personal life. Therefore, businesses should carefully consider their decision to abandon a patent application intentionally (e.g. by deliberately not responding to an office action). Most likely, this type of action will lead to an abandoned application that can never be revived.
If the applicant claims that the abandonment was unintentional, it similarly must state that the entire delay was unintentional. But because a petition claiming unintentional abandonment must merely contain a statement stating as much, rather than a showing, petitions claiming unintentional abandonment are generally less burdensome than claiming unavoidable abandonment. The Manual of Patent Examining Procedure (MPEP) acknowledges as much, stating that the PTO relies on the applicant’s duty of candor and good faith to accept the statement that “the entire delay in filing the required reply from the due date for the reply until the filing of a grantable petition pursuant to 37 CFR 1.137(b) was unintentional” without requiring further information in the vast majority of petitions. Furthermore, the PTO’s reliance on the face value of this statement is enforced by the applicant’s obligation to inquire into the underlying facts and circumstances before providing the statement to the PTO.
However, if the application is revived based on this statement, but then after the patent issues facts arise showing that the statement was false, the entire patent family can be rendered unenforceable on the grounds on inequitable conduct. This situation may arise, for instance, in the discovery of correspondence from the patent attorney to the inventor or the patent examiner indicating an understanding that the patent application will become abandoned, followed by the patent application actually becoming abandoned.
If the application is revived in either case, the applicant must submit a terminal disclaimer to disclaim the length of time that the application was abandoned, and the term of the patent will be shortened accordingly.
Finally, although the America Invents Act (AIA) will impact a variety of patent prosecution issues as it goes into full effect by April of next year, the rules related to abandonment and revival will remain unaffected.