As Michael previewed this morning, the Supreme Court heard argument today in Helsinn v. Teva, which is focused on the post-America Invents Act § 102(a)(1) bar on patents if "the claimed invention was patented, described in a printed publication, or in public use, on sale, or otherwise available to the public" before the relevant critical date. The Federal Circuit held that Helsinn's patents were invalid because Helsinn had sold the claimed invention to a distributor more than one year before filing for a patent, but Helsinn (supported by the United States as amicus) argues that the "on sale" bar is triggered only by sales that make the invention "available to the public" under a broad reading of "public."
During argument, none of the Justices seemed inclined to favor Helsinn's attempt to argue that "on sale" clearly means on sale to everybody—Justice Kavanaugh said "it's pretty hard to say something that has been sold was not on sale," and Chief Justice Robert's noted that Helsinn's interpretation "might not be consistent with the actual meaning of the world 'sale'" because "if something's on sale, it doesn't have to be on sale to everybody." Nor did they jump at the government's argument that "on sale" means a product can be purchased by its ultimate consumers—Justice Sotomayor said: "This definition of 'on sale,' to be frank with you, I've looked at the history cited in the briefs, I looked at the cases, I don't find it anywhere."
Helsinn's better statutory argument is that the meaning of "on sale" is modified by "or otherwise available to the public" to require that the sale be publicly available. Indeed, for a reader with no background in patent law, this might seem like the most natural reading of the statute. Justice Alito said that "the most serious argument" against the Federal Circuit's position is "the fairly plain meaning of the new statutory language," and that he "find[s] it very difficult to get over the idea that this means that all of the things that went before are public." And Justice Gorsuch suggested, at least for hypothetical purposes, that "the introduction of the 'otherwise' clause introduced some ambiguity about what 'on sale' means now." But if there was more support to reverse the Federal Circuit, it was not apparent from the argument.
Much of the statutory language used in the Patent Act—including "on sale"—has developed a technical legal meaning over time, generally due to courts' attention to the law's utilitarian focus. For example, patentable subject matter caselaw is "implicit" in § 101, courts have put a highly specialized gloss on the word "obvious" in § 103, and—relevant here—the § 102 categories of prior art have long been interpreted to include relatively obscure and private uses. Although this expansive definition of prior art might seem unfair to patentees, there are also strong policy arguments in its favor, including (1) encouraging patentees to get to the patent office early (leading to earlier disclosure and patent expiration) and (2) avoiding patents when their costs (including higher prices for consumers and subsequent innovators) aren't likely to be outweighed by their innovation-incentivizing benefits, such as when there is independent invention—even when evidence of that invention is relatively obscure.
As Justice Kavanaugh noted at argument today, Mark Lemley's amicus brief on behalf of forty-five IP professors describes the long history of treating relatively non-public disclosures as prior art, including (1) "noninforming public use" cases, (2) "output of a patented machine or process" cases, and (3) cases involving secret, confidential, and nonpublic sales transactions. Justice Breyer also mentioned the Lemley brief, and he said it "seems right" to have the on-sale bar include private sales "to prevent people from benefitting from their invention prior to and beyond the 20 years that they're allowed." The legislative history of the AIA does not suggest that Congress intended to do sweep away all of these cases—Justice Kavanaugh said that he thinks "the legislative history, read as a whole, goes exactly contrary" to Helsinn's contention because "there were a lot of efforts … to actually change the 'on sale' language, and those all failed," leaving the losers "trying to snatch victory from defeat" with "a couple statements said on the floor."
It is perhaps because of this history that Helsinn and the government seemed more focused on the argument that "on sale" has always excluded nonpublic sales than on the argument that the AIA changed the law. Justice Ginsburg's only comment during argument was to ask Helsinn to clarify this: "I thought that one argument was that the AIA changed the way it was. But … you seem to say there was no change; 'on sale' never included the secret sale." Arguing for the government, Malcolm Stewart even conceded—in response to questioning from Justice Kagan—that if the law was settled pre-AIA such that "on sale" included nonpublic sales, then the new AIA language ("or otherwise available to the public") "would be a fairly oblique way of attempting to overturn" the law. But based on my reading of the transcript, it doesn't seem likely that the argument that "on sale" has always meant "on sale publicly" will get five votes.
I waited until after writing the above to get Ronald Mann's take at SCOTUSblog, but I think I very much agree on his bottom line conclusion: while this isn't "a case in which the argument clearly presages the result," the overall transcript "suggests that the most likely outcome will be an affirmance."