Patent Clutter

Author:Janet Freilich
Position:Associate Professor, Fordham Law School
Pages:925-983
SUMMARY

Patent claims are supposed to clearly and succinctly describe the patented invention, and only the patented invention. This Article hypothesizes that a substantial amount of language in patent claims is in fact not about the core invention, which may contribute to well-documented problems with patent claims. I analyze the claims of 40,000 patents and applications, and document the proliferation... (see full summary)

 
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Patent Clutter
Janet Freilich*
ABSTRACT: Patent claims are supposed to clearly and succinctly describe the
patented invention, and only the patented invention. This Article
hypothesizes that a substantial amount of language in patent claims is in
fact not about the core invention, which may contribute to well-documented
problems with patent claims. I analyze the claims of 40,000 patents and
applications, and document the proliferation of “clutter”—language in
patent claims that is not about the invention. Although claims are supposed
to be exclusively about the invention, clutter appears across industries and
makes up approximately 25% of claim language. Patent clutter may
contribute several major problems in patent law. Extensive clutter makes
patent claims harder to search. Excessive language in patent claims may be
the result of over-claiming—when patentees describe potential corollaries they
do not possess—thereby making the patent so broad in scope as to be invalid.
More generally, it strains the comprehensibility of patents and burdens the
resources of patent examiners. After arguing that patent clutter may
contribute to these various problems, this Article turns to reforms. Rejections
based on prolix, lack of enablement, and lack of written description can be
crafted to dispose of the worst offenders, and better algorithms and different
litigation rules can allow the patent system to adapt (and even benefit from)
the remaining uses of excess language. The Article additionally generates
important theoretical insights. Claims are often thought of as entirely
synonymous with the invention and all elements of the claim are thought to
relate equally strongly to the invention. This Article suggests empirically that
these assumptions do not hold in practice, and offers a framework for
*
Associate Professor, Fordham Law School. I thank Yonathan Arbel, Oren Bar-Gill,
Colleen Chien, Nestor Davidson, Jesse Frumkin, John Goldberg, John Golden, Jennifer Gordon,
Clare Huntington, Joseph Kupferman, Ethan Leib, Joshua Lerner, Oskar Liivak, Alan Marco,
Michael Meurer, Kristen Osenga, Mark Patterson, Sarah Pihonak, Nicholson Price, Duane
Rudolph, Rachel Sachs, Joshua Sarnoff, Steven Shavell, Holger Spamann, Henry Smith, Haris
Tabakovic, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, Thomas Wollmann, Steven Worthington, and Dennis Yao. This
Article has also greatly benefited from feedback from patent examiners and members of the
Office of the Chief Economist at the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and from
participants at the New England Junior Scholars Workshop, PatCon 6, the 8th Annual Junior
Scholars in Intellectual Property Workshop, the 2016 Intellectual Property Scholars Conference,
the 2017 Tri-State Intellectual Property Conference, and workshops at St. John’s Law School,
Harvard Law School, and George Washington Law School.
926 IOWA LAW REVIEW [Vol. 103:925
restructuring conceptions of the relationship between claims and the
invention.
I.INTRODUCTION ............................................................................. 927
II.PATENT CLAIMS ............................................................................ 931
A.UNDERSTANDING CLAIMS ........................................................ 931
B.CLAIMS AND PATENT THEORY ................................................. 933
C.THE PRACTICE AND POLICY OF CLAIMS .................................... 935
1.Disclosure ....................................................................... 935
2.Clarity ............................................................................. 936
3.Searchability .................................................................. 937
4.Examinability ................................................................. 938
III. EMPIRICAL STUDY.......................................................................... 939
A.METHODOLOGY ...................................................................... 939
1.Measuring Element Frequency .................................... 942
2.Additional Data ............................................................. 943
3.Synonyms ....................................................................... 945
B.RESULTS ................................................................................. 945
1.Prevalence ...................................................................... 948
2.Industry .......................................................................... 951
3.Application Characteristics ........................................... 953
4.Examination Characteristics ......................................... 955
5.Patent and Claim Characteristics ................................. 957
i.Specification Length................................................... 957
ii.Independent and Dependent Claims ........................... 958
iii.Value Indicators ........................................................ 958
iv.Time ......................................................................... 959
C.VALIDATING THE METHODOLOGY ............................................ 959
IV.DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS .................................................... 960
A.UNDERSTANDING CLUTTER ...................................................... 961
1.Signaling ........................................................................ 961
2.Insurance ....................................................................... 963
3.Wearing Out the Examiner .......................................... 964
B.THE PROBLEM WITH CLUTTER ................................................. 965
1.Disclosure ....................................................................... 966
2.Clarity ............................................................................. 968
3.Searchability .................................................................. 970
4.Examinability ................................................................. 971
C.CLUTTER AND PATENT THEORY ............................................... 971
1.A New Framework for Claim and Invention ............... 971
D.REFORMING CLUTTER ............................................................. 973
2018] PATENT CLUTTER 927
1.Strategies for Removing Ancillary Language .............. 974
i.Prolix ........................................................................ 974
ii.Enablement and Written Description Red Flags ........... 974
2.Strategies for Adapting to Ancillary Language ........... 976
i.Better Searching ......................................................... 976
ii.Removal to the Specification ....................................... 977
E.ADDRESSING POTENTIAL LIMITATIONS ..................................... 978
V.CONCLUSION ................................................................................ 980
I. INTRODUCTION
Perhaps the most famous catchphrase in patent law is “the name of the
game is the claim.”1 If claims are the name of the patent game, then patent
law has a fundamental problem: “it isn’t working.”2 Claims are so “notoriously
difficult to understand”3 that their meaning “is hotly debated in virtually every
patent case.”4 Claims are criticized as vague, unreadable, excessively long,
impossible to search, and dreadful to interpret.5 These concerns are
longstanding. For example, in 1916, Judge Learned Hand expressively
remarked that claims can be “such a waste of abstract verbiage . . . . It takes
the scholastic ingenuity of a St. Thomas with the patience of a yogi to decipher
their meaning.”6 Claim dysfunctionality has generated a copious amount of
literature7 in addition to policy proposals and changes at the highest level.8 In
recent years, the White House,9 the Federal Trade Commission,10 the Patent
and Trademark Office,11 and the Supreme Court12 have all begun seeking
1. Apple Inc. v. Motorola, Inc., 757 F.3d 1286, 1298 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (citing In re Hiniker
Co., 150 F.3d 1362, 1369 (Fed. Cir. 1998)).
2. Dan L. Burk & Mark A. Lemley, Fence Posts or Sign Posts? Rethinking Patent Claim
Construction, 157 U. PA. L. REV. 1743, 1744 (2009).
3. Kristen Osenga, The Shape of Things to Come: What We Can Learn from Patent Claim L ength,
28 SANTA CLARA COMPUTER & HIGH TECH. L.J. 617, 620 (2011).
4. Mark A. Lemley & Carl Shapiro, Probabilistic Patents, 19 J. ECON. PERSP. 75, 85 (2005).
5. See JAMES BESSEN & MICHAEL J. MEURER, PATENT FAILURE: HOW JUDGES, BUREAUCRATS,
AND LAWYERS PUT INNOVATORS AT RISK 10–11 (2008).
6. Victor Talking Mach. Co. v. Thomas A. Edison, Inc., 229 F. 999, 1001 (2d Cir. 1916).
7. See infra Part III.C.
8. See infra Part III.C.
9. Press Release, The White House: President Barack Obama, Fact Sheet: White House
Task Force on High-Tech Patent Issues (June 4, 2013), https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-
office/2013/06/04/fact-sheet-white-house-task-force-high-tech-patent-issues.
10. FED. TRADE COMMN, THE EVOLVING IP MARKETPLACE: THE OPERATION OF IP MARKETS
116–17 (2009) [hereinafter EVOLVING IP MARKETPLACE].
11. Glossary Initiative, U.S. PAT. & TRADEMARK OFF., http://www.uspto.gov/patent/initiatives/
glossary-initiative#heading-2 (last modified Apr. 3, 2016, 8:59 PM).
12. Nautilus, Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2120, 2129–30 (2014).

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