Is a printed publication that predates a patent application always considered prior art? Many may think that a reference published, and available to the public, prior to a patent application’s filing date is prior art. While this is usually the case, recent court decisions have highlighted exceptions to this standard.
Courts Clarify What Constitutes Prior Art
In GoPro, Inc. v. Contour IP Holding LLC, 2017-1894, 2017-1936 (Fed. Cir. July 27, 2018) (“GoPro”), the Federal Circuit determined that a catalog distributed at a trade show open only to dealers of action sports vehicles was prior art to patents relating to action sports video cameras. Particularly, the Court noted that the trade show’s focus on action sports vehicles did not preclude persons of ordinary skill in the art from attending because a primary purpose of action sports cameras is for use on action sports vehicles.
GoPro clarifies that a printed publication disclosed at a trade show is publicly accessible within the meaning of section 102 even if the trade show is not aimed at persons of ordinary skill in the relevant art. While GoPro takes an expansive view, practitioners seeking to overcome a printed publication distributed at a trade show, conference, meeting, or similar gathering may still find success arguing that the printed publication was not publicly accessible when there is no credible reason that a person of ordinary skill in the relevant art would have been in attendance. For example, a slight change to the facts in GoPro, such as the cameras at issue being used for portrait photography rather than action sports photography, may have persuaded the Court to find that the catalog was not publicly accessible.
In Acceleration Bay, LLC v. Activision Blizzard Inc., 2017-2084 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 6, 2018), the Federal Circuit found that an article published on a university website was not prior art to later-filed patents because the website only indexed articles by author and year, and lacked a reliable search function. Specifically, the Court noted that the test for public accessibility is not whether a reference has been indexed, but whether the reference was indexed in a meaningful way that would permit a person of ordinary skill in the art to locate it.
It is worth noting that the university website at issue in Acceleration Bay was from 1999 and may have lacked competent search functionality that is now commonplace. Moreover, today, articles published on a website likely would be keyword indexed by a search engine, thus making it difficult to argue against public accessibility regardless of the manner of indexing performed by the website. Nevertheless, practitioners should be mindful that articles published on a website are not necessarily publicly accessible if it can be shown that no meaningful indexing of the article was performed. In particular, if an article is not keyword indexed by the publishing website or a search engine—which may occur if the website prevents pages from being indexed by search engine crawlers—it may indicate that the article was not publicly accessible.
Although not every printed publication is considered prior art under Section 102, the growing ease with which nearly all printed material is easily accessible online makes that determination less and less likely. Thus, when filing and prosecuting patent applications, practitioners should be wary of withholding references from the USPTO in reliance on prior art exceptions, such as those implied by GoPro and set forth in Acceleration Bay.