Prof. Beauchamp posted a new essay to SSRN last week that caught my eye, and I thought I would share it here. Repealing Patents could not be more timely given the pending Oil States case - it discusses how patent revocation worked at our nation's founding, both in England and the U.S. Here is the abstract:
The first known patent case in the United States courts did not enforce a patent. Instead, it sought to repeal one. The practice of cancelling granted patent rights has appeared in various forms over the past two and a quarter centuries, from the earliest U.S. patent law in 1790 to the new regime of inter partes review (“IPR”) and post grant review. With the Supreme Court’s grant of cert in Oil States Energy Services v. Greene’s Energy Group and its pending review of the constitutionality of IPR, this history has taken on a new significance.
This essay uses new archival sources to uncover the history of patent cancellation during the first half-century of American patent law. These sources suggest that the early statutory provisions for repealing patents were more widely used and more broadly construed than has hitherto been realized. They also show that some U.S. courts in the early Republic repealed patents in a summary process without a jury, until the Supreme Court halted the practice. Each of these findings has implications—though not straightforward answers—for the questions currently before the Supreme Court.As with his other work, this essay is careful not to draw too many conclusions. It cannot answer all of our questions, and he explains why.
There were a few key points that really stood out for me; things we should be thinking about when we think about the "common law" right to a jury with respect to the Seventh Amendment, and more broadly how we think of revocation of patents as public.
First, the essay points out that the first Patent Act (with repeal included) predated the bill of rights. So when we think of common law, we usually look to England because the U.S. adopted English law at the time of the Seventh Amendment. But, here, the U.S. broke with England and installed its own procedure. It is quite possible that English practice at the time is simply irrelevant. I don't know how this cuts for the case, frankly.
Second, the revocation action came at a time when patents were essentially registered rather than examined. Beauchamp points out that the first three years had three cabinet members using discretion to grant patents, but they were not conducting prior art searches and the like. In other words, revocation, which was abolished when the patent examination system was installed in 1836, was a creature of non-examination, not a way to do re-examination.
Third, there were some summary revocations, but there was a dispute about whether a jury should decide factual issues on revocation. That debate lasted until 1924, when Justice Story (for the Supreme Court) ruled that the English procedure of a jury trial should apply. This, too, is ambiguous, because the right to a jury trial was really up in the air for a while. But what struck me most about this history is something different. As I wrote in my own article America's First Patents, Justice Story had an affinity for English patent law, and apparently liked to discard American breaks from the law in favor of English rule. In my article, it was his importation of a distrust of process patents (which gave rise to much of our patentable subject matter jurisprudence today). In this essay, it is his importation of the English revocation process, which required a jury. If it turns out that jury rule in early American repeal proceedings is important in this case, you'll know who to thank.