The Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“PTAB”) has rarely allowed patent owners to replace or modify claims during inter partes review (“IPR”), covered business method review, or post-grant review.  In fact, in April 2016 the PTAB’s Motion to Amend Study reported that only 6 of 118, or about 5%, of such motions to amend claims had been granted.  We have not seen a substantial change since that report, but will that statistic be changing in light of recent events?  In particular, the PTAB just granted Shire’s motion to amend, and the Federal Circuit is considering en banc whether to shift the burden of proving patentability away from the patent owner, which could make it easier to amend claims.

In Amerigen Pharmaceuticals Ltd. v. Shire LLC, the PTAB instituted review of claims 18-21, 23 and 25 of Shire’s patent for the attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder medication known as Adderall XR.  In lieu of responding to the invalidity arguments, Shire filed a motion to amend that consisted of a request to cancel all of the claims under review and substitute a single, “new” claim in their place.  The PTAB granted Shire’s motion.

Does the Shire decision open the door for other patent owners hoping to amend claims during IPRs?  To answer that question, we need to look more closely at the facts in Shire.  Specifically, Shire requested cancellation of instituted claims 18-21 and 23, as well as non-instituted claims 22 and 24.  Shire also requested substitution of new claim 26 for instituted claim 25, which is a multiple dependent claim that recites:

  1. The pharmaceutical composition of any one of claims 2, 13 or 18 to 20 wherein the pharmaceutically active amphetamine salt in (a) and (b) comprises mixed amphetamine salts.

Proposed new claim 26 recites:

  1. The pharmaceutical composition of any one of claims 2 or 13 wherein the pharmaceutically active amphetamine salt in (a) and (b) comprises mixed amphetamine salts.

The PTAB’s ultimate decision relied on the fact that for these purposes a multiple dependent claim is treated in the same manner as if it were written as separate dependent claims.  In the case of claim 25, it is treated as if it had been written as five separate dependent claims with a separate claim depending from each of claims 2, 13, 18, 19, and 20.  Similarly, claim 26 is treated as two separate dependent claims with one depending from claim 2 and one from claim 13.   Effectively, claim 26 deletes three “claims” from claim 25, those that depended from claims 18-20, which were all claims under review by the PTAB.  Given that claims 2 and 13 were not under review, new claim 26 would not involve any claim under review.  Thus, Shire’s motion to replace claim 25 with claim 26 and cancel the other claims would leave no instituted claim under review by the PTAB.

Petitioner Amerigen opposed Shire’s motion to amend arguing that according to Idle Free Sys. v. Berstrom, Inc., a patent owner seeking to amend a claim has the burden “to show a patentable distinction over the prior art of record and also prior art known to the patent owner.”  The PTAB, however, explained that in Shire’s request “[e]ffectively, no claim is being amended, and claims are only being cancelled, because claims 18-24 are being removed, and proposed claim 26 removes three multiple dependent claims (claim 25 as it depends from claims 18-20)” and “[n]o other changes to the claims are being made.”  Therefore, the PTAB “agree[d] with Patent owner that ‘[t]here is no requirement for Shire to prove, after the Institution Decision, that original non-amended claims are patentable over all potential prior art, especially non-instituted claims.’”

While motions to substitute amended claims are rarely granted, motions to cancel claims are routinely granted.  Therefore, once the PTAB decided that Shire’s motion was merely canceling claims, the outcome was very predictable.  In other words, nothing really changed as a result of the Shire decision.

But, in In re Aqua, will the Federal Circuit turn the tide for amending claims?  Currently, a patent owner is allowed to file one motion to amend to (A) “cancel any challenged patent claim” and (B) “propose a reasonable number of substitute claims” that do not “enlarge the scope of the claims of the patent or introduce new matter.”  The patent owner has the burden of showing that the amended claims are patentable over the known prior art.  Then the petitioner may oppose the motion to amend and raise new arguments of unpatentability, cite new prior art against the proposed new claims, and file new expert declarations.  But in In re Aqua the Federal Circuit is currently considering en banc whether it is proper for the PTAB to put the burden on the patent owner to prove that the proposed substitute claims are patentable or whether the burden to show unpatentability should be shifted to the petitioner.

Under the current requirements, a patent owner must distinguish the proposed substitute claims over the material art in the prosecution history, the material art in the current proceeding, any material art in any other proceeding before the USPTO involving the patent, and any material art not of record but known to the patent owner.  In Shinn Fu v. The Tire Hanger, the PTAB found that, in instances where art is duplicative, a patent owner is not required to address each piece of art individually.  Instead, as long as the patent owner groups prior art references according to claim features and examines a representative reference from each group, the patent owner can satisfy its burden for purposes of a motion to amend.

As evidenced by the difficulty of succeeding on a motion to amend, the patent owner has a heavy burden.  Further, placing this burden on the patent owner differs from the traditional approach used during initial prosecution of a patent.  During prosecution, a patentee merely needs to respond to unpatentability positions offered by the examiner rather than affirmatively distinguishing the proposed claims from all known prior art.  If the Federal Circuit adopts a prosecution-like approach in In re Aqua, then the patent owner would likely still need to show the proposed new claims respond to a ground of patentability involved in the PTAB trial, do not broaden claim scope, and have written description support and do not introduce new matter.  The patent owner will also need to provide claim constructions for any new claim terms and show that the number of proposed substitute claims is reasonable. The petitioner, however, would then bear the burden of showing unpatentability.  In response, the patent owner would be given the opportunity to rebut the petitioner’s unpatentability arguments.

Shifting the burden to petitioners to show unpatentability could have a number of consequences.  For example, it may be easier to amend claims because it likely will be easier for a patent owner to rebut a petitioner’s specific unpatentability arguments for the substitute claims than to affirmatively show patentability.  Thus patent owners may be more likely to file motions to amend.  Further, if patent owners are more likely to succeed in amending claims, some petitioners may opt against an IPR petition and instead challenge validity in district court where amendment is not possible.

Even if amendments become easier to obtain, the patent owner will still need to consider the impact of amending claims on litigation strategy, particularly in ongoing litigation.  Amended claims give rise to intervening rights, which may relieve infringers of cancelled claims from liability during the period before the amended claims issue.  Further, amendments and arguments made to the PTAB may impact infringement and validity arguments in the district court proceeding.  Therefore, a successful claim amendment may dramatically impact infringement, validity, and damages arguments in co-pending district court litigation.

The Federal Circuit heard oral argument in In re Aqua on Friday, December 9, 2016.   Therefore, we will know soon whether there will be a shift that may favor patent owner amendments or whether amendments are destined to remain a rarity, at least for now.