Inventorship: When was the Invention Conceived?

Dawson v. Dawson, Dkt. No. 2012-1214, 1215, 1216, 1217 (Fed. Cir. March 23, 3013).

This case deals with the issue of when an invention is conceived and involves an invention ownership dispute between a university and a pharmaceutical manufacturer. The issue was whether an inventor, Dr. Dawson, conceived of the invention while employed at the University of California, San Francisco (“UCSF”) or instead later when he joined Insite, a pharmaceutical manufacturer. This case deals with medical preparations, but is interesting on the conception point.

Background
While employed at UCSF, Dr. Dawson made a presentation at a meeting of the World Health Organization (“WHO”) Alliance for Elimination of Trachoma. Trachoma is a bacterial infection of the eye that can lead to blindness. Dr. Dawson’s presentation covered the topical use of an antibiotic called azithromycin to control trachoma, which later became the subject of two patents at issue in the appeal. Documents from the WHO regarding the meeting, discussed Dr. Dawson’s presentation but also included a number objections to Dr. Dawson’s approach, such as the concern that that “[n]o product is available” and that the “[e]fficacy and dosing schedule” would need to be determined, and that “problems with ointments for trachoma treatment are well known . . . . Ointments are difficult to apply and poorly tolerated.”

Dr. Dawson left UCSF and began working at Insite with Dr. Bowman on a formulation. Dr. Dawson needed the help of Dr. Bowman because Dr. Dawson did not have experience in preparing ophthalmic medication formations. Dr. Dawson and Dr. Bowman later filed two patent applications as joint inventors. These applications resulted in Patent No. 6,239,113 and U.S. Patent No. 6,569,443. UCSF filed an application to provoke an interference.

Principles of Invention Conception
The court recited several principals of invention conception:

  • Conception is the “‘formation in the mind of the inventor, of a definite and permanent idea of the complete and operative invention, as it is hereafter to be applied in practice.’” Hybritech Inc. v. Monoclonal Antibodies, Inc., 802 F.2d 1367, 1376 (Fed. Cir. 1986)
  • After conception “all that remains to be accomplished, in order to perfect the art or instrument, belongs to the department of construction, not creation.” 1 Robinson on Patents 532.
  • “[c]onception is complete only when the idea is so clearly defined in the inventor’s mind that only ordinary skill would be necessary to reduce the invention to practice, without extensive research or experimentation,” and that “[a]n idea is definite and permanent when the inventor has a specific, settled idea, a particular solution to the problem at hand, not just a general goal or research plan he hopes to pursue.” Burroughs Wellcome Co. v. Barr Labs., Inc., 40 F.3d 1223, 1228 (Fed. Cir. 1994).
  • “[b]ecause it is a mental act, courts require corroborating evidence of a contemporaneous disclosure that would enable one skilled in the art to make the invention.” Id.

No Testimony of the Inventors
The court noted that UCSF did not seek testimony from inventor Dr. Dawson or Dr. Bowman on the issue of conception. This is likely because the inventors were not likely to provide favorable testimony to UCSF. However, in this case the reliance on what normally surfaces as corroborating evidence, i.e. contemporaneous disclosure of the alleged conception, was not successful.

General Idea Not Enough in This Case
The court found that the announcement of the general idea in the WHO documents was not sufficient. The court found that the documents provided a preliminary statement about a possibility or potential use and an need for continued work and a report back, fell short of the “definite and permanent idea of the complete and operative invention.”

The Court further found the specific concentrations provided in the patent claims were not disclosed initially in the WHO documents and at the time Dr. Dawson did not know of what concentrations to use.

Dissent
The dissent found the evidence showed that Dr. Dawson did conceive of the invention while at UCSF. The majority responded that it was reviewing the decision of the Board and not evaluating the evidence in the first instance. Therefore the majority only concluded “that substantial evidence supports the Board’s relevant factual findings and that the Board did not err in holding that UCSF failed to meet its burden of proof as to the legal issue of conception.”

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