So the Federal Circuit has spoken. The late Jerome Lemelson gets his comeuppance. And companies around the country breathe a sigh of relief.
Whether Mr. Lemelson goes down in history as a modern day Thomas Edison (and I’ve sometimes had my doubts about Tom) or as just a shrewd manipulator of the legal system, remains to be seen. But whatever your views, last week’s decision in Symbol Technologies v. Lemelson is significant and may well mark the end of an era.
If you haven’t already done so, I strongly recommend spending some time at the Squire Sanders lemelsoninfo.com site and poking around the history of this fascinating case. One blog entry cannot begin to cover what’s available or address the issues raised. But I’ll share what I think are some highlights.
The trial transcripts — all twenty-seven days’ worth — are instructive. First, it’s genuinely refreshing to run across a judge who, in open court, says things like “I really don’t give a damn what his knowledge was at the time of the deposition” and “Mr. Fey, what in the hell is going on here?” (Transcript Day 9 p. 20, lines 3-4, and p. 66, line 20.) Admittedly, this was a bench trial, but I think we need a bit more of that. (I like a judge who has the nerve to say what the rest of us are thinking.)
Lemelson attorney Gerry Hosier is one of the best in the business and has a reputation for great cross-examinations. I wasn’t disappointed, and thought his cross of Plaintiff’s patent expert, Martin Adelman, was pretty humorous. (Transcript Day 19 pages 131-138.) Guess the lessons for experts are: (1) avoid comparing yourself to God, and (2) be careful who you accuse of being a bank robber.
On a more serious note, this case raises important issues of patent law that, frankly, I’m not sure how should be resolved. Lemelson is correct that nothing in the statutory law limits the right to file continuing applications. He is right that procedurally he has done nothing wrong. If his original disclosure supports his later filed claims, the mere passage of time should not render those claims unenforceable (at least under the pre-1995 scheme). If his originally filed specification does not support those claims, that is a defense the accused infringers should prove with clear and convincing evidence.
And yet, there is something inherently strange about introducing claims 39 years after an application is filed. While it’s hard to find anything in the statutory law that Mr. Lemelson violated, most observers will sympathize with his opponents here. I wonder if that might be the reason the Federal Circuit, in my opinion, drafted its decision to address the limited, and probably unique, circumstances of the particular case. With patent terms now limited to 20 years from the date of first filing, it’s likely we will never see the Lemelson situation again. Perhaps that is what the Federal Circuit is banking on.
Another issue I find significant is Lemelson’s objection to the Federal Circuit’s practice of prohibiting citation to or consideration of unpublished decisions. He argues persuasively that prohibiting citation to unpublished opinions runs contrary to the idea that similarly situtated litigants should be treated the same and is inherently wrong and unconstitutional. I agree. This business of pretending that unpublished decisions never happened is a dirty little secret and has no place in a nation of laws and open courts. Precedent is precedent, and you can’t avoid creating history by saying in advance, “This doesn’t count.”
Finally, I think Lemelson’s arguments against the participation of numerous supposed amici were well taken. Basically, Lemelson argued that, far from being “friends” of the court, the amici were in fact well-coordinated participants in a coalition to defeat the Lemelson patents and that their participation was a thinly-disguised way of beating the page limitation that ordinarily applies to appellate briefs. Although I agree that a weak argument is not likely to get stronger simply by being repeated a dozen times, I do think that Lemelson’s objections to the participation of so many “outsiders” had significant merit.
Again, the entire Lemelson saga is something that is probably unique and may well never be seen again, at least not in the same form. Still, I can’t help asking whether last week’s decision was, in fact, based on sound law. Or whether, collectively, the courts simply decided that, “Well, Jerry, you may be right but we’re going to rule against you anyway, because we just don’t like what you’re doing.” Kind of brings us face-to-face with the question of whether we truly do believe in the rule of law, or whether we pick and choose depending on who is involved.