What Can a Patent Cover?

Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings is suing Metabolite Laboratories Inc. over a patented method for diagnosing B vitamin deficiencies. After several years of litigation and appeals, the case has made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Why should the electronics industry be watching the outcome?
Because, for the first time in 25 years, the Supremes are listening to arguments over what can — and cannot — be patented. Its ruling could send shock waves through the industry.

According to an Associated Press story, “Attorneys say the outcome of the case, if it’s not dismissed or sent back to the lower courts, could rank among the most important patent law decisions ever made.” At stake: possible restrictions on new patents and challenges to tens of thousands of older ones.

Particularly as the areas of biotechnology and nanotechnology come to the forefront, just what is unique gets grayer and grayer. The argument against is that inventors are trying to patent laws of nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas.

That is the essence of LabCorp v. Metabolite. In court filings, LabCorp has said the patent gave its owners an effective monopoly over a basic scientific principle or natural phenomenon, and that the mere thought about that relationship could infringe the patent!

I’m certainly no patent lawyer, but every inventor I know tells me the idea is to write the patent as broadly as possible. They also say many ideas are filed in order to slow down the competition.
And although my knowlege of the history of patents is admittedly rudimentary, I know that The Framers intended that novel works could be protected only for short periods of time, rationalizing that innovation is central to a society’s growth.

I hope the Supremes keep that in mind.

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About Mike

Mike Buetow is president of the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (pcea.net). He previously was editor-in-chief of Circuits Assembly magazine, the leading publication for electronics manufacturing, and PCD&F, the leading publication for printed circuit design and fabrication. He spent 21 years as vice president and editorial director of UP Media Group, for which he oversaw all editorial and production aspects. He has more than 30 years' experience in the electronics industry, including six years at IPC, an electronics trade association, at which he was a technical projects manager and communications director. He has also held editorial positions at SMT Magazine, community newspapers and in book publishing. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois. Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikebuetow

One thought on “What Can a Patent Cover?

  1. Interesting indeed. Did you note the suit Cognex filed against Acacia/Veritec in regards to “patent trolling?” The issue in that case is a 2-D reading technology, but the press release certainly tugs on the greater issue of companies whose sole income comes from asserting patents.

    On an unrelated but similar note, I read an interesting article in Slate about the Dan Brown copyright infringement case (http://www.slate.com/id/2137797/)that brings up some interesting ideas about the differences in trying to “own” truth vs. fiction.

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