Federal law has allowed for third party requests for reexamination of an issued patent on the basis on prior art since the 1980s. Under the America Invents Act of 2011 (AIA), three review processes replaced what was then known as “inter partes reexamination.” These three review proceedings enable a “person” other than the patent owner to challenge the validity of a patent post-issuance: (1) “inter partes review,” §311; (2) “post-grant review,” §321; and (3) “covered-business-method review” (CBM review). As an alternative to or in connection with a patent litigation, an interested third party, an accused infringer, or any “person,” can request one of these types of reviews.
In Return Mail v. Postal Service, the Supreme Court held that “[t]he Government is not a “person” capable of instituting the three AIA review proceedings.” https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/17-1594_1an2.pdf (June 10, 2019)
Return Mail sued the US Postal Service (part of the US Federal Government) for infringing its mail processing patent and Postal Service petitioned for CBM review under the AIA. The PTO agreed that the patent claimed ineligible subject matter, and cancelled the claims. On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed. Now, the Supreme Court has reversed – holding that the Government is not a person under the statute and therefore cannot petition for AIA review.
Justice Sotomayor led the conservative majority joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Justice Breyer wrote in a dissent that was joined by Justices Ginsberg and Kagan.
The majority here started with its presumption that congressional statutes are not intended to bind or be directed to U.S. Government activity. Here, the court looked and did not find sufficient textual language to overcome that initial presumption. In particular, the word “person” is used many times in the Patent Act (at least 18 times) and in several different ways. There is basically no indication that this particular use of “person” was designed to include the U.S. Government. The majority also noted the awkwardness:
Finally, excluding federal agencies from the AIA review proceedings avoids the awkward situation that might result from forcing a civilian patent owner (such as Return Mail) to defend the patentability of her invention in an adversarial, adjudicatory proceeding initiated by one federal agency (such as the Postal Service) and overseen by a different federal agency (the Patent Office).
The dissent argued that the government-not-a-person presumption is rather weak and was overcome by the Patent Act. In particular, the majority notes that Federal agencies are authorized to apply for patent protection – even though the statute states that a “person” shall be “entitled to a patent.” See 35 U. S. C. §§ 207(a)(1) and 102(a)(1).