The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the narrow issue of whether an adjustable gas pedal with an electronic sensor that moves according to a driver’s height is too “obvious” an invention to warrant patent protection.
But a trade group representing some of the nation’s biggest patent holders, including Apple, Autodesk and Microsoft as well as IBM, have filed briefs urging the nation’s top court to use the case as an opportunity to confront a broader problem in patent law: The standard for proving something is “obvious” has been set too high by the courts.
If the burden of proof for obviousness were lower, it would be easier to invalidate the glut of so-called junk patents that software, hardware and other technology companies view as threatening to the way they do business.
The big patent holders aren’t parties to the actual case. It began after KSR International of Canada began supplying General Motors with adjustable gas pedals for its SUVs. Teleflex (nyse: TFX – news – people ) had patented a similar device in 2001 that was used in trucks produced by Ford Motor. So Teleflex demanded royalties from KSR. KSR refused, and the lawyers were off and billing.
A U.S. District judge in Detroit agreed with KSR that Teleflex’s patent wasn’t valid, because combining a sensor with an adjustable pedal was just too obvious. Meaning any old Joe in the field could have thought up the combination, and so Teleflex’s innovation wasn’t special enough to warrant a patent.
The U.S. Court of Appeals overturned that decision because KSR failed to establish that some “‘suggestion, teaching or motivation'” would have led a person of ordinary skill” in the field of automotive pedal technology to combine a sensor and a pedal to create Teleflex’s device.