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Supreme Court limits patent suits

Rulings are a victory for software makers

WASHINGTON -- The US Supreme Court gave businesses new protections from patent suits in two rulings yesterday, siding with technology companies, including Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp., and extending a trend toward limits on patent owners' rights.

The justices made it easier for companies accused of infringing on a patent to get it thrown out for failing to introduce a genuine innovation. In a second ruling, the court limited suits over software exports, saying Microsoft doesn't owe damages to AT&T Inc. for copies of the Windows operating system installed on computers overseas.

Both rulings are victories for software companies, website operators, and other technology businesses that are frequent targets of patent litigation. Microsoft, Intel, Cisco Systems, Time Warner, Viacom, Yahoo, and were among the companies that urged new patent restrictions.

"These are dramatically important developments," said Emery Simon, a lawyer with the Business Software Alliance. He said the rulings would "rebalance the law," which he said had tipped too far in favor of patent holders.

The ruling concerning patent validity overturned a decades-old test. The case centered on the requirement that an invention be "nonobvious" and not simply combine prior inventions.

The justices unanimously said the federal appeals court that handles patent cases had given too much power to developers of trivial technological improvements.

"Granting patent protection to advances that would occur in the ordinary course without real innovation retards progress," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court.

The ruling threw out a Teleflex Inc. lawsuit that accused KSR International Inc. of using a patented invention for adjustable gas pedals.

The disputed Teleflex patent covered an electronic sensor combined with gas, brake, or clutch pedals that adjust to the height of the driver. Teleflex said its method took less space than previous combinations.

Under today's ruling, "the ability to obtain patents in all areas of technology in the US will go down and the cost and time to get them will go up," said Teleflex lawyer Robert Sterne.

In the Microsoft case, the court voted 7-1 to narrow a law that applies US patent rights beyond the country's borders in some circumstances. The lower court sided with AT&T, which sued Microsoft for infringing on a patent covering digital voice transmissions.

"If AT&T desires to prevent copying in foreign countries, its remedy today lies in obtaining and enforcing foreign patents," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority.

Justice John Paul Stevens dissented. Chief Justice John Roberts, who owns Microsoft stock, didn't participate.

The fight concerned an AT&T patent, now expired, that covered a way to send voices digitally without making them sound like machines.