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SCOTUS rules on patent obviousness

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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The Supreme Court of the United States today ruled that an invention can be too obvious for a patent.

Taking up the patent issue and question of "How obvious is too obvious?" for the first time in 20 years, the court ruled unanimously in KSR International v. Teleflex that a gas pedal design was too obvious.

Engineering company Teleflex sued KSR International, a Canadian maker of gas pedals, for alleged infringement of a patent it owned on an adjustable gas pedal assembly (which includes an accelerator, brake or clutch) combined with an electronic control that can be adjusted by the driver to move the pedal closer to or farther from the driver – much like an adjustable seat in position to the steering wheel.

The case was dismissed at the District Court level on summary judgment based on obviousness, with a finding that anyone with an undergraduate degree or modest industry experience "would have found it obvious" to connect the two parts to provide the claimed assembly. But the Federal Circuit that hears all patent cases reversed that judgment.

"The Federal Circuit addressed the obviousness question in a narrow, rigid manner that is inconsistent with §103 and this Court ;s precedents," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for a unanimous court. "KSR provided convincing evidence that mounting an available sensor on a fixed pivot point of the Asano pedal was a design step well within the grasp of a person of ordinary skill in the relevant art and that the benefit of doing so would be obvious."

Further in the opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote, "We build and create by bringing to the tangible and palpable reality around us new works based on instinct, simple logic, ordinary inferences, extraordinary ideas, and sometimes even genius. These advances, once part of our shared knowledge, define a new threshold from which innovation starts once more. And as progress beginning from higher levels of achievement is expected in the normal course, the results of ordinary innovation are not the subject of exclusive rights under the patent laws. Were it otherwise, patents might stifle rather than promote the progress of useful arts."

This was one of two patent rulings the nation ;s high court issued today. The other – Microsoft v. AT&T – held in favor of Microsoft in that Section 271(f) of the Patent Act does not extend to cover foreign duplication of software.
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