Inéquitable**2 = Équitable

La cause Star Scientific, Inc. v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (Fed. Cir. 2007-1448, 8/25/08.) concerne un cas d'”inequitable conduct”. Durant la poursuite d’une demande de brevet, l’avocat du demandeur a reçu une lettre d’un collègue de l’inventeur selon laquelle il y aurait un lien possible entre une méthode de vulcanisation traditionnelle chinoise et l’absence de “tobacco specific nitrosamines” (TSNA). Notons que la demande de brevet en question portait sur une méthode de vulcanisation permettant de diminuer le TSNA. L’avocat n’a pas fait part de cette information au Bureau des brevets US, jugeant cette information non pertinente. Le tribunal de première instance en jugea autrement toutefois.

Le juge d’appel renversa la décision.

“Just as it is inequitable to permit a patentee who obtained his patent through deliberate misrepresentations or omissions of material information to enforce the patent against others, it is also inequitable to strike down an entire patent where the patentee only committed minor missteps or acted with minimal culpability or in good faith. As a result, courts must ensure that an accused infringer asserting inequitable conduct has met his burden on materiality and deceptive intent with clear and convincing evidence before exercising its discretion on whether to render a patent unenforceable.”

The opinion makes the following points about proving inequitable conduct:

  • Clear and convincing evidence must demonstrate (1) a “specific intent to deceive the PTO” and (2) the materiality of the withheld or misrepresented information;
  • Later-found materiality cannot by itself satisfy the intent-to-deceive element;
  • Circumstantial evidence can support an inference of deceptive intent, but that evidence itself must be clear and convincing;
  • Even if intent and materiality are proven, the court must balance the equities to determine if the conduct was “egregious enough” to render the patent unenforceable;
  • In balancing the equities, the issue is not the level of materiality or intent to deceive but rather the egregiousness of the conduct.

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