But those kinds of cases were rare and made it difficult to invalidate patents that were granted. The new ruling makes it easier for both patent examiners and the courts to look across different examples of prior art and conclude that, all told, the new idea is "obvious," according to Krevans.
"The emphasis is on 'could someone do this and have the results be surprising,'" she said.
Vonage is hoping that the new standard casts doubts on Verizon patents for name translation and wireless technology that it was found guilty of infringing upon.
The company said the patents should be retried by the U.S. District Court in light of the Supreme Court ruling. Eric Rabe, a spokesman for Verizon, dismissed that argument.
"The KSR case is not related to our patent suit against Vonage. They're entirely different issues," he said.
Rabe declined to speculate on whether the new guidance from the Supreme Court could weaken his company's patents, but Krevans and others said that the impact of the KSR ruling will be felt right away.
"I have a trial starting in a patent case in three weeks, and I spent the morning with my team ripping up jury instructions and writing new ones," she said. Moreover, the instructions that are being written are entirely new.
The ruling could also open the door to wholesale reexaminations of existing patent grants, she said. "The grounds for reexamination of a patent are that there's a substantial new issue affecting patentability," she noted. The KSR ruling could create such grounds, allowing prior art for patents to be considered in light of the court's recent declaration about "obviousness" rather than the old standard.
In the end, it will take time to work out what the KSR ruling means, said computer science Professor Lee Hollaar of the University of Utah, who filed a brief to the Supreme Court in the case. And that makes predicting the ruling's impact on the Verizon-Vonage case difficult.
Still, Vonage would have to prove that there was prior art for Verizon's patents that is relevant under the new guidance but ignored previously.
"All the decision did was say, 'You can't be so rigid as to say that there has to be a specific teaching of a combination of technology,' and that's quite reasonable," Hollaar said.
Taken together with a ruling in May, 2006 in favor of online auction firm eBay that made it harder for patent holders to get immediate injunctions against infringing products, the Supreme Court is raising the legal bar of what constitutes a "new invention," legal experts agree.
"The theme in these cases is that the Supreme Court is very focused on inventions that are new combinations of components and elements that were known. And, in the Supreme Court's view, there is a pretty high bar for those inventions to be novel." Krevans said.
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