Patents Supreme Court Cases

The power to issue patents arises from Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which authorizes Congress “to promote the progress of science and useful arts” by giving inventors exclusive rights to their discoveries for a limited time. Once a patent has been issued, its holder can prevent others from making, using, or selling the invention. The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office reviews patent applications and grants three types of patents: utility patents (by far the most common), design patents, and plant patents.

There are four main requirements for an invention to receive a patent:

  • Statutory subject matter: the invention falls within the scope of the Patent Act, which covers areas such as processes, machines, manufactured articles, and compositions of matter, but not abstract ideas or laws of nature
  • Novelty: the invention is new and cannot be found in the “prior art” in the field
  • Non-obviousness: the invention would not be obvious to the typical person in the field
  • Utility: the invention has a real, present use, rather than a speculative use or a possible future use

Patent owners often sue competitors and others for alleged infringement. Sometimes a device or process literally infringes every limitation of the claim for a patented invention, but infringement also may be found under the doctrine of equivalents when a device or process has only insignificant differences from the patented invention.

Below is a selection of Supreme Court cases involving patents, arranged from newest to oldest.

Minerva Surgical, Inc. v. Hologic, Inc. (2021)

Author: Elena Kagan

The doctrine of assignor estoppel, which limits an inventor's ability to assign a patent to someone else for value and later contend in litigation that the patent is invalid, applies only when the assignor's claim of invalidity contradicts explicit or implicit representations that they made in assigning the patent.

Helsinn Healthcare S.A. v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. (2019)

Author: Clarence Thomas

A commercial sale to a third party who is required to keep the invention confidential may place the invention “on sale” for patent purposes.

Oil States Energy Services, LLC v. Greene's Energy Group, LLC (2018)

Author: Clarence Thomas

It is not unconstitutional for the USPTO to engage in inter partes review, in which it is authorized to reconsider and cancel an issued patent claim in limited circumstances.

Impression Products, Inc. v. Lexmark International, Inc. (2017)

Author: John Roberts

A patentee's decision to sell a product exhausts all of its patent rights in that item, regardless of any restrictions that the patentee purports to impose.

Halo Elecs., Inc. v. Pulse Elecs., Inc. (2016)

Author: John Roberts

Enhanced damages under the Patent Act are not to be meted out in a typical infringement case but are instead designed as a “punitive” or “vindictive” sanction for egregious infringement behavior.

Samsung Electronics Co. v. Apple, Inc. (2016)

Author: Sonia Sotomayor

In the case of a multicomponent product, the relevant “article of manufacture” for arriving at a damages award in a patent infringement case need not be the end product sold to the consumer but may be only a component of that product.

Commil USA, LLC v. Cisco Systems, Inc. (2015)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

A defendant's belief regarding patent validity is not a defense to an induced infringement claim.

Nautilus, Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc. (2014)

Author: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

A patent is invalid for indefiniteness if its claims, read in light of the patent's specification and prosecution history, fail to inform, with reasonable certainty, those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention.

Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int'l (2014)

Author: Clarence Thomas

When claims are drawn to the abstract idea of intermediated settlement, merely requiring generic computer implementation fails to transform that abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention.

Bowman v. Monsanto Co. (2013)

Author: Elena Kagan

Patent exhaustion does not permit a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder's permission.

Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. (2013)

Author: Clarence Thomas

A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated, but cDNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring.

Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc. (2012)

Author: Stephen Breyer

When the laws of nature recited by patent claims are not themselves patentable, the claimed processes are not patentable unless they have additional features that provide practical assurance that the processes are genuine applications of those laws.

Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB S.A. (2011)

Author: Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

Induced infringement of a patent requires knowledge that the induced acts constitute patent infringement. Deliberate indifference to a known risk that a patent exists does not satisfy the knowledge required.

Microsoft Corp. v. i4i Limited Partnership (2011)

Author: Sonia Sotomayor

An alleged infringer must prove a patent invalidity defense by clear and convincing evidence.

Bilski v. Kappos (2010)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

Although the machine-or-transformation test may be a useful and important clue or investigative tool, it is not the sole test for deciding whether an invention is a patent-eligible process under Section 101.

Quanta Computer, Inc. v. LG Electronics, Inc. (2008)

Author: Clarence Thomas

The patent exhaustion doctrine provides that a patented item's initial authorized sale terminates all patent rights to that item. This doctrine applies to method patents.

KSR Int'l Co. v. Teleflex, Inc. (2007)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

In determining whether a combination patent is appropriate, or whether it fails for obviousness, a court must ask whether the improvement is more than the predictable use of prior art elements according to their established functions.

eBay, Inc. v. MercExchange, LLC (2006)

Author: Clarence Thomas

The traditional four-factor test for deciding whether to award permanent injunctive relief applies to patent disputes.

Festo Corp. v. Shoketsu Kinzoku Kogyo Kabushiki Co. (2002)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

The patentee can overcome the presumption that prosecution history estoppel bars a finding of equivalence when the equivalent was unforeseeable at the time of the application, the rationale underlying the amendment bears no more than a tangential relation to the equivalent in question, or there is another reason suggesting that the patentee could not reasonably be expected to have described the insubstantial substitute in question.

Pfaff v. Wells Electronics, Inc. (1998)

Author: John Paul Stevens

The on-sale bar to patents applies when two conditions are satisfied before the critical date: the product is the subject of a commercial offer for sale, and the invention is ready for patenting.

Warner-Jenkinson Co., Inc. v. Hilton Davis Chemical Co. (1997)

Author: Clarence Thomas

The doctrine of equivalents must be applied to individual elements of the claim, rather than the invention as a whole. The essential inquiry is whether the accused product or process contains elements that are identical or equivalent to each claimed element of the patented invention.

Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc. (1996)

Author: David Souter

The construction of a patent, including terms of art within its claim, is exclusively within the province of the court.

Lilly & Co. v. Medtronic, Inc. (1990)

Author: Antonin Scalia

The use of patented inventions reasonably related to the development and submission of information needed to obtain marketing approval of medical devices under the FDCA is exempt from infringement.

Bonito Boats, Inc. v. Thunder Craft Boats, Inc. (1989)

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

By offering patent-like protection for ideas deemed unprotected under the federal patent scheme, a state law conflicted with the strong federal policy favoring free competition in ideas that do not merit patent protection.

Diamond v. Diehr (1981)

Author: William Rehnquist

A patent claim drawn to subject matter otherwise statutory does not become non-statutory simply because it uses a mathematical formula, computer program, or digital computer.

Diamond v. Chakrabarty (1980)

Author: Warren Burger

A live, human-made micro-organism is patentable subject matter.

Parker v. Flook (1978)

Author: John Paul Stevens

The identification of a limited category of useful but conventional post-solution applications of a mathematical formula does not make a method containing the formula eligible for patent protection.

Sakraida v. Ag Pro, Inc. (1976)

Author: William Brennan

Producing a desired result in a cheaper and faster way does not qualify for a combination patent without producing a new or different function.

Dann v. Johnston (1976)

Author: Thurgood Marshall

The mere existence of differences between the prior art and an invention does not establish the invention's non-obviousness.

Kewanee Oil Co. v. Bicron Corp. (1974)

Author: Warren Burger

The federal patent policy of encouraging invention is not disturbed by the existence of another form of incentive to invention, such as trade secret protection, and the two systems are not in conflict in this respect.

Gottschalk v. Benson (1972)

Author: William O. Douglas

The discovery of a novel and useful mathematical formula may not be patented.

Graham v. John Deere Co. (1966)

Author: Tom C. Clark

The determination of non-obviousness is made after establishing the scope and content of prior art, the differences between the prior art and the claims at issue, and the level of ordinary skill in the pertinent art.

Brenner v. Manson (1966)

Author: Abe Fortas

One may patent only that which is useful, and the requirement that a chemical process be useful is not satisfied by a showing that the compound yielded belongs to a class of compounds that scientists are screening for possible uses.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Stiffel Co. (1964)

Author: Hugo Black

When design and mechanical patents are invalid for want of invention, a state unfair competition law cannot be used to get an injunction against copying the product or an award of damages for such copying.

Great Atlantic Pacific & Tea Co. v. Supermarket Equipment Corp. (1950)

Author: Robert H. Jackson

The mere combination of a number of old parts or elements that, in combination, perform or produce no new or different function or operation than that previously performed or produced by them is not a patentable invention.

Graver Tank & Mfg. Co. v. Linde Air Products Co. (1950)

Author: Robert H. Jackson

In determining equivalents in a patent infringement case, consideration must be given to the purpose for which an ingredient is used in a patent, the qualities that it has when combined with other ingredients, the functions that it is intended to perform, and whether persons reasonably skilled in the art would have known of the interchangeability of an ingredient not contained in the patent with one that was.

Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co. (1948)

Author: William O. Douglas

Patents cannot issue for the discovery of the phenomena of nature. If there is to be an invention from such a discovery, it must come from the application of the law of nature to a new and useful end.

Special Equipment Co. v. Coe (1945)

Author: Harlan Fiske Stone

A subcombination patent may be used to prevent appropriation by others of a combination invention that the claimant is using when there is no purpose to enlarge the patent monopoly of either invention.

U.S. v. General Electric Co. (1926)

Author: William Howard Taft

In licensing another person to make, use, and sell their invention, a patentee may impose the condition that sales by the licensee must be at prices fixed by the licensor.

Westinghouse v. Boyden Power Brake Co. (1898)

Author: Henry Billings Brown

Even if the patentee brings the defendant within the letter of their claims, infringement should not be found if the defendant has so far changed the principle of the device that the claims of the patent, literally construed, have ceased to represent their actual invention.

Telephone Cases (1888)

Author: Morrison R. Waite

To procure a patent for a process, the inventor must describe their invention with sufficient clearness and precision to enable those skilled in the matter to understand what their process is, and they must point out some practicable way of putting it into operation, but they are not required to bring the art to the highest degree of perfection.

Egbert v. Lippmann (1881)

Author: William Burnham Woods

To constitute the public use of an invention, it is not necessary that more than one of the patented articles should be publicly used. Also, whether the use is public or private does not necessarily depend on the number of persons to whom its use is known. Finally, if an inventor sells a machine of which their invention forms a part, and they allow it to be used without restriction of any kind, the use is public.

City of Elizabeth v. American Nicholson Pavement Co. (1878)

Author: Joseph Bradley

The use of an invention by the inventor or people under their direction, if made in good faith solely to test its qualities, remedy its defects, and bring it to perfection, is not a public use that precludes a patent even if others thereby derive a knowledge of it.

Adams v. Burke (1873)

Author: Samuel Freeman Miller

When the patentee, or the person having their rights, sells a machine or instrument whose sole value is in its use, they receive the consideration for its use and part with the right to restrict that use.

Coffin v. Ogden (1873)

Author: Noah Haynes Swayne

In an infringement lawsuit, the defense of a prior invention was established when the defendant proved that the alleged prior invention was complete and capable of working, it was known to at least five people and probably others, and it was put in use, tested, and successful.

Gayler v. Wilder (1850)

Author: Roger Taney

Prior invention and use did not preclude a subsequent inventor from taking out a patent when a person had made and used an article similar to the patented invention but did not make their discovery public and did not test it to discover its usefulness, after which it was forgotten or abandoned.

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