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KSR v Teleflex - It Was That Obvious?

How does one determine if a current or potential patent is obvious and not entitled to be a patent? An invention is obvious when the differences between the subject matter sought to be patented and the prior art are such that the subject matter as a whole would have been obvious at the time the invention was made to a person having ordinary skill in the art. In the Supreme Courts view, "Common sense teaches…that familiar items may have obvious uses beyond their primary purposes and in many cases a person of ordinary skill will be able to fit the teachings of multiple patents together like pieces of a puzzle."

In its 2007 decision for KSR v Teleflex the Supreme Court continued to define precedent for what is considered obvious. In the KSR case, KSR International Co. claimed that Teleflex Inc. infringed upon their patent of, "a mechanism for combining an electronic sensor with an adjustable automobile pedal so the pedal's position can be transmitted to a computer that controls the throttle in the vehicle's engine." In response, Teleflex argued that by looking a combination of prior art patents, one could conclude that KSR's patent was obvious.

The District Court and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit used two tests to determine if a patent is obvious, the "Teaching, Suggestion, or Motivation" (TSM) test and the Graham precedent. Under the TSM test a patent is only obvious if the prior art, the problem's nature, or the knowledge of a person having ordinary skill in the art reveals some motivation or suggestion to combine the prior art teachings. However, the still acceptable Graham precedent compares differences of prior art while considering secondary considerations such as long felt need and success in the marketplace.

In overruling the Court of Appeals the Supreme Court held that, "KSR provided convincing evidence that mounting a modular sensor on a fixed pivot point of the [prior art] pedal was a design step well within the grasp of a person of ordinary skill in the relevant art," therefore the patent is obvious. In this decision the Supreme Court said that the Court of Appeals had used the TSM test too rigidly stating, "When it is so applied, the TSM test is incompatible with our precedents. The obviousness analysis cannot be confined by a formalistic conception of the words teaching, suggestion, and motivation, or by overemphasis on the importance of published articles and the explicit content of issued patents."

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