WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism Tuesday about the current legal standard for granting patents and signaled a willingness to make patents harder to obtain.
The justices heard oral arguments in KSR International v. Teleflex Inc., a case that focuses on whether an invention is obvious and therefore ineligible for a patent.
Teleflex Inc. sued KSR in 2002 for infringing its patent on a gas pedal it makes for Ford Motor Co. Teleflex combined a gas pedal that can be adjusted for the height of the driver with one that controls acceleration electronically, rather than through a mechanical cable. KSR subsequently made a similar pedal for General Motors.
KSR fought back, arguing that the combination of the two features was an obvious one and as a result the patent was invalid.
Justice Anthony Kennedy seemed to agree.
"Why is (it) such a big deal" to combine the adjustable and electronic pedals? Kennedy asked. "Certainly this inventor would not be the only one to think that the two could and should be combined."
Justice Stephen Breyer added a down-to-earth note, wondering if he would be entitled to a patent for moving his electric garage-door opener from the bottom of the door, where it had been chewed on by squirrels, to the top.
The case is one of several focused on patents on the Supreme Court's docket this term, as the justices wade back into an area of law they largely have avoided since the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit was created in 1982 to handle patents.
Legal experts interpret the court's interest as a sign the justices are willing to make changes to patent law. However, the justices voiced concern Tuesday over whether any changes to patent law might unleash a new wave of patent litigation.