A Sign of the Times? A Brief Look at the Trend of Patent Cases Before the US Supreme Court

Patents

By: Devin Salmon, Patent Analyst, IP.com

Since Tyler v. Tuel in 1810 the US Supreme Court has played a large role in interpreting patent law and defining the role patents play in our society. In the last few years the number of patent cases decided by the Supreme Court has greatly increased. Historically, there has typically been just one or two patent cases per year heard by the Supreme Court, and sometimes years when with no patent cases. Now the Supreme Court is hearing 3-4 or more patent cases per year, every year.

So far in 2017 the Supreme Court has rendered decisions on 5 cases:

  1. Sandoz v. Amgen and Amgen v. Sandoz
  2. TC Heartland v. Kraft Food
  3. Impression v. Lexmark
  4. SCA Hygiene v. First Quality Baby Products
  5. LifeTech v. Promega

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear Oil States Energy v. Greene’s Energy and SAS Institute v. Lee, priming 2017 to be a record-setting year for the number of patent cases heard before the Supreme Court. Here is a chart showing the Supreme Court cases from 1960-2017.

Source:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_Supreme_Court_patent_case_law
http://writtendescription.blogspot.com/p/patents-scotus.html

Only twice before has the Supreme Court heard more than four cases in a single year – once in 1964 when there were five cases heard. In 1964, two of the cases were companion cases that upheld that patent law was reserved for the federal government and not the states. The second time was when six cases were heard in 2014, which is the year Alice v. CLS provided a precedential decision, which we are still realizing and feeling the effects of.

Not only has the number of patent cases heard by the Supreme Court increased in recent years, the impact is profound. In addition to Alice, the Supreme Court has repeatedly reversed the Federal Circuit’s sometimes long-standing interpretation of the law. Oil States Energy v. Greene’s Energy could drastically change the face of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB).

Is this trend of patent cases being taken to the Supreme Court going to continue, or will it die off as it did after the spike in 1964? Perhaps it is a sign of the times we live in, where intellectual property is more important than ever. What does this mean for the future for patent holders? Is one of the cases from 2017 set to be another precedential decision?