In certain circumstances where appropriate, an examiner may take official notice of facts not in the record or rely on “common knowledge” in making a rejection, however such rejections should be judiciously applied.
PROCEDURE FOR RELYING ON COMMON KNOWLEDGE OR TAKING OFFICIAL NOTICE
The standard of review applied to findings of fact is the “substantial evidence” standard under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. 500 et seq. See In re Gartside, 203 F.3d 1305, 1315, 53 USPQ2d 1769, 1775 (Fed. Cir. 2000). See also MPEP § 1216.01. In light of recent Federal Circuit decisions as discussed below and the substantial evidence standard of review now applied to USPTO Board decisions, the following guidance is provided in order to assist the examiners in determining when it is appropriate to take official notice of facts without supporting documentary evidence or to rely on common knowledge in the art in making a rejection, and if such official notice is taken, what evidence is necessary to support the examiner’s conclusion of common knowledge in the art.
A.Determine When It Is Appropriate To Take Official Notice Without Documentary Evidence To Support the Examiner’s Conclusion
Official notice without documentary evidence to support an examiner’s conclusion is permissible only in some circumstances. While “official notice” may be relied on, these circumstances should be rare when an application is under final rejection or action under 37 CFR 1.113. Official notice unsupported by documentary evidence should only be taken by the examiner where the facts asserted to be well-known, or to be common knowledge in the art are capable of instant and unquestionable demonstration as being well-known. As noted by the court in In re Ahlert, 424 F.2d 1088, 1091, 165 USPQ 418, 420 (CCPA 1970), the notice of facts beyond the record which may be taken by the examiner must be “capable of such instant and unquestionable demonstration as to defy dispute” (citing In re Knapp Monarch Co., 296 F.2d 230, 132 USPQ 6 (CCPA 1961)). However, it is always preferable, when reasonably possible, for the examiner to cite a prior art reference rather than to rely on official notice. In Ahlert, the court held that the Board properly took judicial notice that “it is old to adjust intensity of a flame in accordance with the heat requirement.” See also In re Fox, 471 F.2d 1405, 1407, 176 USPQ 340, 341 (CCPA 1973) (the court took “judicial notice of the fact that tape recorders commonly erase tape automatically when new ‘audio information’ is recorded on a tape which already has a recording on it”). In appropriate circumstances, it might be reasonable to take official notice of the fact that it is desirable to make something faster, cheaper, better, or stronger without the specific support of documentary evidence. Furthermore, it might be reasonable for the examiner in a first Office action to take official notice of facts by asserting that certain limitations in a dependent claim are old and well known expedients in the art without the support of documentary evidence provided the facts so noticed are of notorious character and serve only to “fill in the gaps” which might exist in the evidentiary showing made by the examiner to support a particular ground of rejection. In re Zurko, 258 F.3d 1379, 1385, 59 USPQ2d 1693, 1697 (Fed. Cir. 2001); Ahlert, 424 F.2d at 1092, 165 USPQ at 421.
It would not be appropriate for the examiner to take official notice of facts without citing a prior art reference where the facts asserted to be well known are not capable of instant and unquestionable demonstration as being well-known. For example, assertions of technical facts in the areas of esoteric technology or specific knowledge of the prior art must always be supported by citation to some reference work recognized as standard in the pertinent art. In re Ahlert, 424 F.2d at 1091, 165 USPQ at 420-21. See also In re Grose, 592 F.2d 1161, 1167-68, 201 USPQ 57, 63 (CCPA 1979) (“[W]hen the PTO seeks to rely upon a chemical theory, in establishing a prima facie case of obviousness, it must provide evidentiary support for the existence and meaning of that theory.”); In re Eynde, 480 F.2d 1364, 1370, 178 USPQ 470, 474 (CCPA 1973) (“[W]e reject the notion that judicial or administrative notice may be taken of the state of the art. The facts constituting the state of the art are normally subject to the possibility of rational disagreement among reasonable men and are not amenable to the taking of such notice.”).
It is never appropriate to rely solely on “common knowledge” in the art without evidentiary support in the record, as the principal evidence upon which a rejection was based. Zurko, 258 F.3d at 1385, 59 USPQ2d at 1697 (“[T]he Board cannot simply reach conclusions based on its own understanding or experience—or on its assessment of what would be basic knowledge or common sense. Rather, the Board must point to some concrete evidence in the record in support of these findings.”). While the court explained that, “as an administrative tribunal the Board clearly has expertise in the subject matter over which it exercises jurisdiction,” it made clear that such “expertise may provide sufficient support for conclusions [only] as to peripheral issues.” Id. at 1385-86, 59 USPQ2d at 1697. As the court held in Zurko, an assessment of basic knowledge and common sense that is not based on any evidence in the record lacks substantial evidence support. Id. at 1385, 59 USPQ2d at 1697. See also Arendi v. Apple, 832 F.3d 1355, 119 USPQ2d 1822 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (finding that the Board had not provided a reasoned analysis, supported by the evidence of record, for why “common sense” taught the missing process step). See also In re Van Os, 844 F.3d 1359, 1361, 121 USPQ2d 1209, 1211 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (“Absent some articulated rationale, a finding that a combination of prior art would have been ‘common sense’ or ‘intuitive’ is no different than merely stating the combination ‘would have been obvious.’ … Here, neither the Board nor the examiner provided any reasoning or analysis to support finding a motivation to add Gillespie’s disclosure to Hawkins beyond stating it would have been an ‘intuitive way’ to initiate Hawkins’ editing mode.”).
B.If Official Notice Is Taken of a Fact, Unsupported by Documentary Evidence, the Technical Line of Reasoning Underlying a Decision To Take Such Notice Must Be Clear and Unmistakable
In certain older cases, official notice has been taken of a fact that is asserted to be “common knowledge” without specific reliance on documentary evidence where the fact noticed was readily verifiable, such as when other references of record supported the noticed fact, or where there was nothing of record to contradict it. See In re Soli, 317 F.2d 941, 945-46, 137 USPQ 797, 800 (CCPA 1963) (accepting the examiner’s assertion that the use of “a control is standard procedure throughout the entire field of bacteriology” because it was readily verifiable and disclosed in references of record not cited by the Office); In re Chevenard, 139 F.2d 711, 713, 60 USPQ 239, 241 (CCPA 1943) (accepting the examiner’s finding that a brief heating at a higher temperature was the equivalent of a longer heating at a lower temperature where there was nothing in the record to indicate the contrary and where the applicant never demanded that the examiner produce evidence to support his statement). If such notice is taken, the basis for such reasoning must be set forth explicitly. The examiner must provide specific factual findings predicated on sound technical and scientific reasoning to support the conclusion of common knowledge. See Soli, 317 F.2d at 946, 37 USPQ at 801; Chevenard, 139 F.2d at 713, 60 USPQ at 241. The applicant should be presented with the explicit basis on which the examiner regards the matter as subject to official notice so as to adequately traverse the rejection in the next reply after the Office action in which the common knowledge statement was made.
C.If Applicant Traverses a Factual Assertion as Not Properly Officially Noticed or Not Properly Based Upon Common Knowledge, the Examiner Must Support the Finding With Adequate Evidence
To adequately traverse such a finding, an applicant must specifically point out the supposed errors in the examiner’s action, which would include stating why the noticed fact is not considered to be common knowledge or well-known in the art. See 37 CFR 1.111(b). See also Chevenard, 139 F.2d at 713, 60 USPQ at 241 (“[I]n the absence of any demand by appellant for the examiner to produce authority for his statement, we will not consider this contention.”). A general allegation that the claims define a patentable invention without any reference to the examiner’s assertion of official notice would be inadequate. If applicant adequately traverses the examiner’s assertion of official notice, the examiner must provide documentary evidence in the next Office action if the rejection is to be maintained. See 37 CFR 1.104(c)(2). See also Zurko, 258 F.3d at 1386, 59 USPQ2d at 1697 (“[T]he Board [or examiner] must point to some concrete evidence in the record in support of these findings” to satisfy the substantial evidence test). If the examiner is relying on personal knowledge to support the finding of what is known in the art, the examiner must provide an affidavit or declaration setting forth specific factual statements and explanation to support the finding. See 37 CFR 1.104(d)(2).
If applicant does not traverse the examiner’s assertion of official notice or applicant’s traverse is not adequate, the examiner should clearly indicate in the next Office action that the common knowledge or well-known in the art statement is taken to be admitted prior art because applicant either failed to traverse the examiner’s assertion of official notice or that the traverse was inadequate. If the traverse was inadequate, the examiner should include an explanation as to why it was inadequate.
D.Determine Whether the Next Office Action Should Be Made Final
If the examiner adds a reference in the next Office action after applicant’s rebuttal, and the newly added reference is added only as directly corresponding evidence to support the prior common knowledge finding, and it does not result in a new issue or constitute a new ground of rejection, the Office action may be made final. If no amendments are made to the claims, the examiner must not rely on any other teachings in the reference if the rejection is made final. If the newly cited reference is added for reasons other than to support the prior common knowledge statement or a new ground of rejection is introduced by the examiner that is not necessitated by applicant’s amendment of the claims, the rejection may not be made final. See MPEP § 706.07(a).
Any rejection based on assertions that a fact is well-known or is common knowledge in the art without documentary evidence to support the examiner’s conclusion should be judiciously applied. Furthermore, as noted by the court in Ahlert, any facts so noticed should be of notorious character and serve only to “fill in the gaps” in an insubstantial manner which might exist in the evidentiary showing made by the examiner to support a particular ground for rejection. It is never appropriate to rely solely on common knowledge in the art without evidentiary support in the record as the principal evidence upon which a rejection was based. See Zurko, 258 F.3d at 1386, 59 USPQ2d at 1697; Ahlert, 424 F.2d at 1092, 165 USPQ 421.