On February 27, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) released new guidance aimed at enhancing the methodology used to assess the obviousness of patent applications. The updated USPTO guidance emphasizes the need for a clear articulation of a reasoned analysis, grounded in relevant facts, in determining whether a claimed invention meets the criteria of being obvious. The USPTO asserts that this initiative is in line with the directives of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in KSR Int’l Co. v. Teleflex Inc., advocating for a flexible approach toward obviousness evaluations.

The USPTO suggests that this newly issued guidance will act as a practical manual for USPTO examiners, applicable to all utility patent applications under review or contestation. It allegedly aims to ensure a standardized application of the law of obviousness across various cases. 

A brief synopsis provided from the USPTO’s updated guidance and garnered since the KSR decision of the Federal Circuit include:

  • In KSR, the Supreme Court instructed the Federal Circuit that persons having ordinary skill in the art also may glean suggestions from the prior art that go beyond the primary purpose for which that prior art was produced. “Thus, the Supreme Court taught that a proper understanding of the prior art extends to all that the art reasonably suggests and is not limited to its articulated teachings regarding how to solve the particular technological problem with which the art was primarily concerned.”
  • Since KSR, the Federal Circuit has confirmed that “the flexible approach to obviousness encompasses not only how to understand the scope of prior art, but also how to provide a reasoned explanation to support a conclusion that claims would have been obvious.”
  • However, a flexible approach to obviousness does not negate the need for articulated reasoning and evidentiary support, the USPTO said.
  • Obviousness decision-makers must examine all the evidence before them.
  • The USPTO states that, “there is no one-size-fits-all approach to crafting an obviousness rejection.”

Kathi Vidal, Director of the USPTO, expressed the agency's commitment to issuing reliable patent rights while ensuring clarity and consistency across the board. “Our initiative aims at bolstering transparency and uniformity within our processes and across the innovation landscape,” Vidal remarked.

The implications of this USPTO guidance extend to design patents as well, with the USPTO keenly awaiting the Federal Circuit’s verdict in LKQ Corp. v. GM Global Technology Operations LLC.

Additionally, the USPTO makes notes that it is gearing up to explore the influence of artificial intelligence on the landscape of prior art and the competence of someone skilled in the art, particularly how these factors interplay with patentability assessments including obviousness determinations. The USPTO plans to invite public commentary on these topics soon.

The updated USPTO guidelines initially appear to increase the burden on the patent applicant or the patentee to show that a claimed invention is not obvious by allowing the obviousness decision-makers (e.g., USPTO examiners and judges of the Patent Trial and Appellate Board (PTAB)) more flexibility in rejecting claims and to go outside of the boundaries of patent documents used to reject claims as long as reasoning is articulated and evidentiary support is provided. To counter an obviousness rejection made by an obviousness decision-maker, patent applicants or patentees should review obviousness rejections for a clearly articulated obviousness reasoning, including evidentiary support (e.g., not purely the examiner or judge’s argument) that is sound (e.g., actually supports the examiners or judges’ positions). Patent applicants and patentees also may need to rely on more expert declarations or affidavits to help overcome obviousness rejections. 

WBD will continue to keep you updated as additional USPTO guidance on other related topics appears forthcoming.