Changes in U.S. patent law could diminish the value of patents in general, thereby impairing our ability to protect our products.
As is the case with other biotechnology companies, our success is heavily dependent on intellectual property, particularly patents. Obtaining and enforcing patents in the biotechnology industry involves both technological and legal complexity, and is therefore costly, time-consuming and inherently uncertain. In addition, patent reform legislation could further increase the uncertainties and costs surrounding the prosecution of our patent applications and the enforcement or defense of our issued patents. On September 16, 2011, the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, or the Leahy-Smith Act, was signed into law. The Leahy-Smith Act includes a number of significant changes to U.S. patent law. These include provisions that affect the way patent applications are prosecuted and may also affect patent litigation. The USPTO developed new regulations and procedures to govern administration of the Leahy-Smith Act, and many of the substantive changes to patent law associated with the Leahy-Smith Act, in particular the first to file provisions, only became effective on March 16, 2013. A third party that files a patent application in the USPTO after that date but before us could therefore be awarded a patent covering an invention of ours even if we had made the invention before it was made by the third party. This will require us to be cognizant going forward of the time from invention to filing of a patent application. Thus, for our U.S. patent applications containing a priority claim after March 16, 2013, there is a greater level of uncertainty in the patent law. Moreover, some of the patent applications in our portfolio will be subject to examination under the pre-Leahy- Smith Act law and regulations, while other patent applications in our portfolio will be subject to examination under the law and regulations, as amended by the Leahy-Smith Act. This introduces additional complexities into the prosecution and management of our portfolio.
In addition, the Leahy-Smith Act limits where a patentee may file a patent infringement suit and provides opportunities for third parties to challenge any issued patent in the USPTO. These provisions apply to all of our U.S. patents, even those issued before March 16, 2013. Because of a lower evidentiary standard in USPTO proceedings compared to the evidentiary standard in U.S. federal court necessary to invalidate a patent claim, a third party could potentially provide evidence in a USPTO proceeding sufficient for the USPTO to hold a claim invalid even though the same evidence would be insufficient to invalidate the claim if first presented in a federal court action. Accordingly, a third party may attempt to use the USPTO procedures to invalidate our patent claims because it may be easier for them to do so relative to challenging the patent in a federal court action. It is not clear what, if any, impact the Leahy-Smith Act will have on the operation of our business. However, the Leahy-Smith Act and its implementation could increase the uncertainties and costs surrounding the prosecution of our patent applications and the enforcement or defense of our issued patents, all of which could have a material adverse effect on our business and financial condition.
In addition, Supreme Court rulings have narrowed the scope of patent protection available in certain circumstances and weakened the rights of patent owners in certain situations. From time to time, the Supreme Court, other federal courts, Congress, or the USPTO, may change the standards of patentability and any such changes could have a negative impact on our business.
A number of cases decided by the Supreme Court have involved questions of when claims reciting abstract ideas, laws of nature, natural phenomena and/or natural products are eligible for a patent, regardless of whether the claimed subject matter is otherwise novel and inventive. These cases include Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 569 U.S. 12-398 (2013); Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International, 573 U.S. 13-298 (2014); and Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., 566 U.S. 10-1150 (2012). In response to these cases, the USPTO has issued guidance to the examining corps.
The full impact of these decisions is not yet known. For example, in view of these and subsequent court decisions, the USPTO has issued various materials to patent examiners providing guidance for determining the patent eligibility of claims reciting laws of nature, natural phenomena or natural products. Our current product candidates include natural products, therefore, this decision and its interpretation by the courts and the USPTO may impact prosecution, defense and enforcement of our patent portfolio. On March 4, 2014, the USPTO issued a memorandum reflecting the USPTO’s interpretation of the cases related to patent eligibility of natural products. The March 4, 2014 memorandum was superseded by interim guidance published on December 15, 2014. Additional guidance was published in July 2015 (July 2015 Update: Subject Matter Eligibility) and May 2016 (May 2016 Subject Matter Eligibility Update). The USPTO’s interpretation of the case law and new guidelines for examination may influence, possibly adversely, prosecution and defense of certain types of claims in our portfolio.
In addition to increasing uncertainty with regard to our ability to obtain future patents, this combination of events has created uncertainty with respect to the value of patents, once obtained. Depending on these and other decisions by Congress, the federal courts and the USPTO, the laws and regulations governing patents could change or be interpreted in unpredictable ways that would weaken our ability to obtain new patents or to enforce any patents that may issue to us in the future. In addition, these events may adversely affect our ability to defend any patents that may issue in procedures in the USPTO or in courts.