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Abstract

A classic property rights question looms large in the field of patent law: where do the rights of inventors end and the rights of the public begin? The right of inventors to modify the scope of their claimed inventions, even after the patent issues, is in direct tension with the concepts of public notice and the public domain. The Patent Act currently permits broadening of claims so long as a reissue application demonstrating intent to broaden is filed within two years of the original patent issue. Over the years, however, this relatively straightforward statutory provision has sparked numerous disputes over its meaning and application.

On September 8, 2011, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit heard oral arguments or In re Staats. In this case, Apple Computer, Inc. appeals the rejection of a continuation reissue patent application. The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office and the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences rejected the application on the grounds that Apple attempted to broaden the scope of its patent claims in a manner not “foreseeable” more than eight years after the patent first issued. Apple contends that the language of the statute and prior case law permit its interpretation, and the application should be allowed in the interest of innovation. This issue is hardly a new one—this submission highlights nearly 140 years of case law, legislative history, and statutory shaping pertaining to broadening reissues. We analyze the issues raised in the briefs from Staats, as well as the oral arguments. Finally, we discuss from a practitioner’s perspective what the Federal Circuit could do—and should do—in the field of broadening reissues.