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An Overview of Recent U.S. Supreme Court Jurisprudence in Patent Law

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The U.S. patent law is subject to change through legislation, the regulations and rules of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and judicial interpretation. The 109th Congress considered, without passing, legislation that would have significantly reformed provisions of the Patent Act; similar patent bills may be introduced in the 110th Congress. In 2006, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued requests for public comments regarding its proposed rule amendments and new guidelines governing the patent application and approval process.

Patent law jurisprudence is continually being developed through litigation over activities that allegedly infringe a patent holder's rights. The losing party in these cases may appeal the district court's decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, a specialized tribunal established by Congress that has exclusive appellate jurisdiction in patent cases. Parties dissatisfied with the Federal Circuit's rulings may petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the appellate court's decision. However, the Supreme Court is not required to entertain the appeal; it has discretion to decide whether to grant certiorari to review the case. While the Supreme Court has left the Federal Circuit's opinions undisturbed in the vast majority of patent cases since the creation of the specialized patent court in 1982, the Court has shown, over the past three terms, an increased willingness to hear cases that raise patent law issues. The Supreme Court Justices' apparent new found interest in patent cases perhaps stems from a recognition of the growing importance of intellectual property to the nation's information-based economy, as well as a need to correct perceived errors in lower courts' interpretation and application of patent law.

This report provides a brief summary of the Supreme Court's patent law jurisprudence in the following eight cases that have been argued or decided since 2005: Merck KGaA v. Integra Lifesciences I, Unitherm Food Systems v. Swift-Eckrich, Illinois Tool Works v. Independent Ink, eBay v. MercExchange, Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings v. Metabolite Labs., MedImmune v. Genentech, KSR International v. Teleflex, and Microsoft v. AT&T.