On May 13, 2015, the Federal Circuit confirmed in Classen Immunotherapies, Inc. v. Elan Pharmaceuticals, Inc. that the safe harbor provisions of 35 U.S.C. § 271(e)(1) can shield post-FDA approval activities from liability for patent infringement when the activities generated information that was submitted to the FDA to support a supplemental New Drug Application and Citizen’s Petition. However, the Federal Circuit remanded the case to the district court to determine whether other allegedly infringing activities, such as using the information to file a patent application, also were shielded by the statute.

The Claims At Issue

The patent at issue was Classen’s U.S. 6,584,472, directed to a method for accessing and analyzing data on a commercially available drug to identify a new use of that drug, and then commercializing the new use. Claim 36 (which depends from claim 33, which was canceled during reexamination) is representative of the asserted method claims, and claim 59 is representative of the asserted kit claims:

33. A method for creating and using data associated with a commercially available product, wherein the method comprises the steps of: accessing at least one data source, comprising together or separately, adverse event data associated with exposure to or use of the product and commercial data regarding marketing, sales, profitability or related information pertaining to the product; analyzing the accessed data to identify (i) at least one new adverse event associated with exposure to or use of the product, (ii) at least one new use for the product responsive to identification of the at least one new adverse event, and (iii) the potential commercial value of the at least one new use for the product; and commercializing the newly identified product information based upon the analyzed data.

36.  The method of claim 33, wherein the commercializing step comprises formatting the data relating to at least one new adverse event associated with exposure to, or use of the product, or documenting same, such that a manufacturer or distributor of the product must inform consumers, users or individuals responsible for the user, physicians or prescribers about at least one new adverse event associated with exposure to or use of the product.

59.  A proprietary kit comprising (i) product and (ii) documentation notifying a user of the product of at least one new adverse event relating to the product, wherein determination of the new adverse event is based upon the data provided by the method of claim 36.

Footnote 1 of the Federal Circuit decision states, “Because issues of validity are not before us in this appeal, we express no opinion as to whether the asserted claims cover patent ineligible subject matter in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International, 573 U.S. __, 134 S. Ct. 2347 (2014).”

Procedural Background

Classen asserted U.S. Patent No. 6,584,472 against Elan, alleging that Elan infringed the patent by (i) studying the effect of food on the bioavailability of the FDA-approved muscle relaxant Skelaxin, (ii) using the clinical data to identify a new use for the drug, and (iii) commercializing the new use. In particular, after Skelaxin was approved, Elan conducted clinical studies on the effect of the drug when administered with or without food, and then submitted the results to the FDA when seeking approval of a supplemental New Drug Application (“sNDA”) to revise the labeling for Skelaxin and in a Citizen’s Petition proposing changes to the approval requirements for generic versions of Skelaxin. Additionally, Elan filed patent applications based on the new clinical data and sold kits with the revised label containing information derived from the data.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland granted Elan’s motion for summary judgment of non-infringement, finding that Elan’s activities were “reasonably related to the submission of information” under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), and were therefore protected by the safe harbor provision of 35 U.S.C. § 271(e)(1). Classen appealed to the Federal Circuit.

The Federal Circuit Decision

The Federal Circuit decision was authored by Judge Lourie and joined by Chief Judge Prost and District Judge Gilstrap (of the Eastern District of Texas) sitting by designation.

On appeal, Classen argued that Elan’s activities are not exempt under the safe harbor because they involved merely “routine” post-approval reporting to the FDA, which the Federal Circuit held in its 2011 decision in Classen Immunotherapies, Inc. v. Biogen IDEC lies outside the scope of the § 271(e)(1) safe harbor.

This statute provides in relevant part:

It shall not be an act of infringement to make, use, offer to sell, or sell within the United States or import into the United States a patented invention . . . solely for uses reasonably related to the development and submission of information under a Federal law which regulates the manufacture, use, or sale of drugs . . . .

In Classen v. Biogen, the court indicated that the safe harbor applies only to pre-marketing activities, and held that the safe harbor “does not apply to information that may be routinely reported to the FDA, long after marketing approval has been obtained.” However, a year later in Momenta Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Amphastar Pharmaceuticals, Inc., the Federal Circuit held that the safe harbor can shield post-approval activities from giving rise to liability for patent infringement where the information submitted to the FDA “is necessary both to the continued approval of the ANDA and to the ability to market the … drug.” Thus, it is not surprising that in this case the Federal Circuit noted that the statutory language does not “categorically exclude post-approval activities from the ambit of the safe harbor.”

Turning to the activities at issue, the Federal Circuit found that post-approval studies conducted to support an sNDA “serve similar purposes as pre-approval studies in ensuring the safety and efficacy of approved drugs.” Thus, the court reasoned, “As an integral part of the regulatory approval process, those activities are ‘reasonably related to the development and submission of information’ under the FDCA, 35 U.S.C. § 271(e)(1), and are therefore exempt from infringement liability.” The court  therefore concluded that the post-approval clinical trials, sNDA and Citizen’s Petition “clearly fall within the scope of the safe harbor.”

Although the Federal Circuit remanded to the district court to determine whether Elan’s activities related to “reanalyzing the clinical data to identify patentable information and filing patent applications are commercial activities outside the scope of the safe harbor,” and whether “selling Skelaxin with the revised label that contained the information derived from the clinical study” infringed the Classen kit claims, the court took it upon itself to “assist the district court in its analysis of infringement . . . [by] mak[ing] the following observations of the record:”

  • Filing a patent application is generally not an infringement of a patent
  • Filing a patent application is not commercialization of an invention, and so a method claim requiring commercialization is likely not infringed by Elan’s actions
  • Placing information submitted to the FDA on a product label generally cannot be an act of infringement.

Given these “observations,” it seems unlikely that the district court will find that Elan infringed the claims at issue.

The Wide Mouth of the Safe Harbor

This decision is one of many Federal Circuit decisions that broadly construe the safe harbor of § 271(e)(1). Indeed, less than one year after the court seemed to draw a bright line around the scope of the safe harbor that excluded post-approval activities, the court blurred that line in Momenta and now it has erased it further in this case.

The Commercial Value of Patent Applications

Although the Federal Circuit’s “observation” that filing a patent application generally is not an act of infringement may be correct, we question its suggestion that filing a patent application is not a commercial activity. To the contrary, filing a patent application can be an essential step of a commercialization plan, and can increase the commercial value of the invention. On the other hand, we would agree that it is unusual that a patent could be infringed by “commercializing … information,” as recited in the Classen patent.