724 Trade Secret, Proprietary, and Protective Order Materials [R-08.2012]

Situations arise in which it becomes necessary, or desirable, for parties to proceedings in the Patent and Trademark Office relating to pending patent applications or reexamination proceedings to submit to the Office trade secret, proprietary, and/or protective order materials. Such materials may include those which are subject to a protective or secrecy order issued by a court or by the International Trade Commission (ITC). While one submitting materials to the Office in relation to a pending patent application or reexamination proceeding must generally assume that such materials will be made of record in the file and be made public, the Office is not unmindful of the difficulties this sometimes imposes. The Office is also cognizant of the sentiment expressed by the court in In re Sarkar, 575 F.2d 870, 872, 197 USPQ 788, 791 (CCPA 1978), which stated:

[T]hat wherever possible, trade secret law and patent laws should be administered in such manner that the former will not deter an inventor from seeking the benefit of the latter, because, the public is most benefited by the early disclosure of the invention in consideration of the patent grant. If a patent applicant is unwilling to pursue his right to a patent at the risk of certain loss of trade secret protection, the two systems will conflict, the public will be deprived of knowledge of the invention in many cases, and inventors will be reluctant to bring unsettled legal questions of significant current interest . . . for resolution.

Parties bringing information to the attention of the Office for use in the examination of applications and reexaminations are frequently faced with the prospect of having legitimate trade secret, proprietary, or protective order material disclosed to the public.

Inventors and others covered by 37 CFR 1.56(c) and 1.555 have a duty to disclose to the Office information they are aware of which is material to patentability. 37 CFR 1.56(b) states that

information is material to patentability when it is not cumulative to information already of record or being made of record in the application, and

(1) It establishes, by itself or in combination with other information, a prima facie case of unpatentability of a claim; or

(2) It refutes, or is inconsistent with, a position the applicant takes in:

(i) Opposing an argument of unpatentability relied on by the Office, or

(ii) Asserting an argument of patentability.

A prima facie case of unpatentability is established when the information compels a conclusion that a claim is unpatentable under the preponderance of evidence, burden-of-proof standard, giving each term in the claim its broadest reasonable construction consistent with the specification, and before any consideration is given to evidence which may be submitted in an attempt to establish a contrary conclusion of patentability.

It is incumbent upon patent applicants, therefore, to bring “material” information to the attention of the Office. It matters not whether the “material” information can be classified as a trade secret, or as proprietary material, or whether it is subject to a protective order. The obligation is the same; it must be disclosed if “material to patentability” as defined in 37 CFR 1.56(b). The same duty rests upon a patent owner under 37 CFR 1.555 whose patent is undergoing reexamination.

Somewhat the same problem faces a protestor under 37 CFR 1.291(a) who believes that trade secret, proprietary, or protective order material should be considered by the Office during the examination of an application.

In some circumstances, it may be possible to submit the information in such a manner that legitimate trade secrets, etc., will not be disclosed, e.g., by appropriate deletions of nonmaterial portions of the information. This should be done only where there will be no loss of information material to patentability under 37 CFR 1.56 or 1.555.

The provisions of this section do not relate to material appearing in the description of the patent application.