I do not usually write about non-precedential Federal Circuit decisions, but I could not let the discussion of “simultaneous invention” in Columbia University v. Illumina, Inc.go without comment. As if protecting patents from a hindsight-based determination of obviousness is not challenging enough, this theory holds that subsequent invention by another relatively soon after the invention at issue can support a finding of obviousness. 

The Columbia University DNA Sequencing Patents

The patents at issue were three DNA sequencing patents: U.S. Patent No. 7,713,698; U.S. Patent No. 8,088,575; and U.S. Patent No. 7,790,869. Illumina challenged selected claims of the patents in Inter Partes Review (IPR) proceedings, and the USPTO Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) found all challenged claims anticipated or obvious over the asserted prior art references

The Obviousness Issue

The Federal Circuit opinion was authored by Judge Wallach and joined by Chief Judge Prost and Judge Schall.

As summarized in the Federal Circuit opinion, the claims at issue “involve modified nucleotides that contain: (1) a labeled base; (2) a removable 3’-OH cap; and (3) a deazasubstituted base.” Columbia argued that “‘it would not have been obvious … to use ‘a reversible chain-terminating nucleotide with a label attached to the base, rather than to the cap on the 3’-OH group of the sugar.'”

After reviewing the prior art, the court found substantial evidence to support the PTAB’s findings regarding the disclosures of the asserted prior art references and reasonable expectation of success. It is in its discussion of secondary considerations of non-obviousness that the court discusses “simultaneous invention”:

 “Independently made, simultaneous inventions, made within a comparatively short space of time, are persuasive evidence that the claimed apparatus was the product only of ordinary mechanical or engineering skill.” George M. Martin Co. v. Alliance Mach. Sys. Int’l LLC, 618 F.3d 1294, 1305 (Fed. Cir. 2010) ….

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As a secondary consideration … simultaneous invention is relevant when it occurs within a short space of time from the date of invention, and “is strong evidence of what constitutes the level of ordinary skill in the art.” Ecolochem v. S. Cal. Edison Co., 227 F.3d 1361, 1379 (Fed. Cir. 2000). Unlike the ultimate determination of obviousness, which requires courts to answer the hypothetical question of whether an invention “would have been obvious,” 35 U.S.C. § 103, simultaneous invention demonstrates what others in the field actually accomplished.

On the facts before it, the court noted that “Illumina did not present its simultaneous invention argument to the PTAB,” and because “the record is not fully developed, the evidence of simultaneous invention as a whole weighs only modestly in favor of obviousness.”

Why cite it as a factor at all if it wasn’t raised in the PTAB proceedings on appeal?

Simultaneous Invention

I traced the theory of “simultaneous invention” through the cases cited in the Federal Circuit decision.

In George M. Martin Co., the Federal Circuit already had determined that the district court had “correctly concluded as a matter of law that the differences between the prior art and the claimed improvement were minimal,” before it discussed “simultaneous invention.” Even then, it discussed it with this caveat:

Independently made, simultaneous inventions, made “within a comparatively short space of time,” are persuasive evidence that the claimed apparatus “was the product only of ordinary mechanical or engineering skill.” Concrete Appliances Co. v. Gomery, 269 U.S. 177, 184, 46 S.Ct. 42, 70 L.Ed. 222 (1925). But see Lindemann Maschinenfabrik GMBH v. Am. Hoist & Derrick Co., 730 F.2d 1452, 1460 (Fed. Cir. 1984) (“Because the statute, 35 U.S.C. § 135, (establishing and governing interference practice) recognizes the possibility of near simultaneous invention by two or more equally talented inventors working independently, that occurrence may or may not be an indication of obviousness when considered in light of all the circumstances.”).

In Ecolochem, the Federal Circuit discussed “simultaneous invention” in the context of reflecting the level of ordinary skill in the art, not obviousness per se:

The fact of near-simultaneous invention, though not determinative of statutory obviousness, is strong evidence of what constitutes the level of ordinary skill in the art.” The Int’l Glass Co. v. United States, 187 Ct.Cl. 376, 408 F.2d 395, 405 (1969). “[T]he possibility of near simultaneous invention by two or more equally talented inventors working independently, … may or may not be an indication of obviousness when considered in light of all the circumstances.” Lindemann, 730 F.2d at 1460, 221 USPQ at 487.

In the pre-Patent Act 1925 decision in Concrete Appliances Co., the Supreme Court noted that “[t]he several elements in the petitioners’ claims which we have enumerated embrace familiar devices long in common use, separately or in smaller groups, both in this and in kindred mechanical arts. It is not argued that there is any novelty in such units or groups; and the only serious question presented is whether, in combination in the apparatus described, they constitute an invention.” The Court then discussed numerous examples of similar devices made around the same time as the invention at issue before it explained:

The adaptation independently made by engineers and builders of these familiar appliances to the movement and distribution of wet concrete in building operations and the independent patent applications, within a comparatively short space of time, for devices for that purpose are in themselves persuasive evidence that this use in combination of well known mechanical elements was the product only of ordinary mechanical or engineering skill and not of inventive genius.

This appears to be the genesis of “simultaneous invention.”

Now that U.S. patent applicants are becoming accustomed to the importance of being the “first inventor to file” under the America Invents Act, do they also have to worry about how many file after them?