Legal experts say that a ruling this week by the U.S. Supreme Court could give new life to Internet phone company Vonage's claims that it has been the victim of overly generous patent rulings.
In a ruling in the case KSR International Co. vs. Teleflex Inc., released Monday, the Supreme Court clarified its thinking on patents and overturned lower court decisions that had set a high bar for invalidating new patents on the grounds that they were "obvious" combinations of preexisting inventions.
Though the case in question addressed a patent for an "adjustable pedal assembly with electronic throttle control," the ruling was widely interpreted as a major shift in patent law, which had been liberally applied in recent years to cover everything from counting pages in books to setting flat rates for wireless phone service.
In perhaps the first of many challenges under the new ruling, Internet phone company Vonage filed on Tuesday to have a patent lawsuit filed against it by Verizon retried in light of the ruling.
Legal experts contacted by InfoWorld said that the company could have a strong case given the Court's new position on patent obviousness.
"The Supreme Court basically said the court of appeals and federal circuit were applying too tough a standard to prove obviousness and that the standard to proving obviousness should be easier, especially where you're talking about combinations of known things," said Dan Ravicher, legal director at the Software Freedom Foundation, which filed a brief in the KSR-Teleflex case.
"The court was saying that the patent system had gone too far. That it was out of whack, and they wanted to reduce the speed down to a safe level," he said.
While the specifics of the Supreme Court ruling in the case are complex, the new ruling in the KSR case sets a higher bar for issuing new patents, said Rachel Krevans a senior intellectual property litigation partner at Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco.
"In a nutshell, the ruling says that you can't get a patent on an idea unless it's really new," she said.
That's an especially tough question in fields like high tech and electronics, where almost every invention is built upon the work of others. The question often comes down to whether an invention is "new enough," she said.
In recent years, patent examiners and the courts relied heavily on the presence of so-called "prior art," or a specific, existing patent that could teach a skilled practitioner enough about what he or she was trying to patent to make the idea itself "obvious."