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In re Queen's University at Kingston

United States Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit

March 7, 2016


Page 1288

          On Petition for Writ of Mandamus to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas in No. 2:14-cv-00053-JRG-RSP, Magistrate Judge Roy S. Payne, Judge J. Rodney Gilstrap.

         SHAWN DANIEL BLACKBURN, Susman Godfrey L.L.P., Houston, TX, argued for petitioners. Also represented by IAN B. CROSBY, RACHEL S. BLACK, Seattle, WA.

         MATTHEW WOLF, Arnold & Porter LLP, Washington, DC, argued for respondents Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., Samsung Telecommunications America, LLC. Also represented by JOHN NILSSON, JIN-SUK PARK.

         Before LOURIE, O'MALLEY, and REYNA, Circuit Judges. Dissenting opinion filed by Circuit Judge REYNA.


Page 1289

          [118 U.S.P.Q.2d 1222] O'Malley, Circuit Judge.

         Petitioners Queen's University at Kingston and PARTEQ (together, " Queen's University" ) are engaged in a patent infringement action against Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. and Samsung Electronics America, Inc. (together, " Samsung" ) in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. They seek a writ of mandamus directing the district court to withdraw its order compelling the production of Queen's University's communications with its non-attorney patent agents on grounds that the communications are privileged. We grant the petition.


         Queen's University at Kingston was established in 1841 and is located in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. In 1987, Queen's University founded PARTEQ Innovations in order to commercialize intellectual property arising from university-generated research. Queen's University is the assignee of U.S. Patent Nos. 7,762,665; 8,096,660; and 8,322,856 (the " patents-in-suit" ), and

Page 1290

PARTEQ is the exclusive licensee. The patents-in-suit are directed to Attentive User Interfaces, which allow devices to change their behavior based on the attentiveness of a user--for example, pausing or starting a video based on a user's eye-contact with the device.

         On January 31, 2014, Queen's University filed a complaint alleging patent infringement in the Eastern District of Texas against Samsung. In particular, Queen's University alleged that Samsung's SmartPause feature--which is in many of Samsung's newest devices--infringed the patents-in-suit. The district court set trial for November 9, 2015.

         Throughout fact discovery, Queen's University refused to produce certain documents it believed contained privileged information. It produced three privilege logs that withheld [118 U.S.P.Q.2d 1223] documents based, inter alia, on its assertion of a privilege relating to communications with its patent agents (we, like the parties, refer to this as a " patent-agent privilege" ). Samsung moved the district court to compel the production of these documents, which included communications between Queen's University employees and registered non-lawyer patent agents discussing the prosecution of the patents-in-suit. See Samsung's Motion to Compel Documents, Queen's Univ. at Kingston v. Samsung Elecs. Co., No. 2:14-CV-53-JRG-RSP (E.D. Tex. June 1, 2015), ECF No. 134. After holding a hearing on the matter, the magistrate judge granted Samsung's motion to compel, finding that the communications between Queen's University employees and their non-attorney patent agents are not subject to the attorney-client privilege and that a separate patent-agent privilege does not exist. See Minute Entry for Proceedings Held Before Magistrate Judge Roy S. Payne, Queen's (E.D. Tex. June 17, 2015), ECF No. 149.

         Queen's University filed an objection to the magistrate judge's order, which the district court overruled. The district court declined to certify the issue for interlocutory appeal, but agreed to stay the production of the documents at issue pending a petition for writ of mandamus. Order, Queen's (E.D. Tex. July 13, 2015), ECF No. 179. This petition followed and we ordered additional briefing and argument to address it. Because any appeal from the final judgment of the district court will be taken to this court, we have jurisdiction to consider the petition under 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a) (2012).


         A. Choice of Law

          When reviewing a district court's decision, we apply the law of the regional circuit where that district court sits for non-patent issues, but we apply our own law for questions impacting substantive patent questions. See In re Spalding Sports World Wide, Inc., 203 F.3d 800, 803-04 (Fed. Cir. 2000). Regarding discovery matters, this court has " held that Federal Circuit law applies when deciding whether particular written or other materials are discoverable in a patent case, if those materials relate to an issue of substantive patent law." Advanced Cardiovascular Sys., Inc. v. Medtronic, Inc., 265 F.3d 1294, 1307 (Fed. Cir. 2001). " [W]e will apply our own law to both substantive and procedural issues intimately involved in the substance of enforcement of the patent right." O2 Micro Int'l Ltd. v. Monolithic Power Sys., Inc., 467 F.3d 1355, 1364 (Fed. Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Sulzer Textil A.G. v. Picanol N.V., 358 F.3d 1356, 1363 (Fed. Cir. 2004)). " [A] procedural issue that is not itself a substantive patent law issue is nonetheless governed by Federal Circuit law if the issue pertains to patent law, if it bears an

Page 1291

essential relationship to matters committed to our exclusive control by statute, or if it implicates the jurisprudential responsibilities of this court in a field within its exclusive jurisdiction." Midwest Indus., Inc. v. Karavan Trailers, Inc., 175 F.3d 1356, 1359 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (en banc in relevant part) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Applying these standards, we have held that we apply our own law when deciding whether particular documents are discoverable in a patent case because they relate to issues of validity and infringement. See id. (citing Truswal Sys. Corp. v. Hydro-Air Eng'g, Inc., 813 F.2d 1207, 1212 (Fed. Cir. 1987) (" [A] determination of relevance implicates the substantive law of patent validity and infringement. Hence, we look to Federal Circuit law." )). We have also held that we apply our own law when making " a determination of the applicability of the attorney-client privilege to [a party's] invention record [because it] clearly implicates, at the very least, the substantive patent issue of inequitable conduct." Spalding, 203 F.3d at 803-04. Similarly, this case involves the applicability of privilege for a patentee's communications with a non-attorney patent agent regarding prosecution of the patents-in-suit. Those types of communications are potentially relevant to numerous substantive issues of patent law, including claim construction, validity, and inequitable conduct. See Spalding, 203 F.3d at 803-04; Midwest Indus., 175 F.3d at 1359. Accordingly, we apply our own law.

         B. Mandamus Review

          In deciding whether to grant mandamus review for discovery orders that turn on claims of privilege, we consider whether: " (1) there is raised an important issue of first impression, (2) the privilege would be lost if review were denied until final judgment, and (3) immediate resolution would avoid the development of doctrine that would undermine the privilege." In re Seagate Tech., LLC, 497 F.3d 1360, 1367 (Fed. Cir. 2007) (en banc) (internal quotation marks omitted) [118 U.S.P.Q.2d 1224] (quoting In re Regents of the Univ. of Cal., 101 F.3d 1386, 1388 (Fed. Cir. 1996)). " Mandamus may thus be appropriate in certain cases to further supervisory or instructional goals where issues are unsettled and important." In re Nintendo Co., 544 Fed.Appx. 934, 936 (Fed. Cir. 2013) (citing In re BP Lubricants USA Inc., 637 F.3d 1307, 1313 (Fed. Cir. 2011)).

          Importantly, a writ of mandamus may be granted to overturn a district court order " only when there has been a clear abuse of discretion or usurpation of judicial authority in the grant or denial of the order." Connaught Lab., Inc. v. SmithKline Beecham P.L.C., 165 F.3d 1368, 1370 (Fed. Cir. 1999); see also Schlagenhauf v. Holder, 379 U.S. 104, 110, 85 S.Ct. 234, 13 L.Ed.2d 152 (1964) (finding that " the writ is appropriately issued . . . when there is 'usurpation of judicial power' or a clear abuse of discretion" (quoting Bankers Life & Cas. Co. v. Holland, 346 U.S. 379, 383, 74 S.Ct. 145, 98 L.Ed. 106 (1953))). To prevail, a petitioner must establish that it has no other adequate means to attain the desired relief and that its right to issuance of the writ is " clear and indisputable." See Cheney v. United States Dist. Court, 542 U.S. 367, 380-81, 124 S.Ct. 2576, 159 L.Ed.2d 459 (2004); see also In re Regents of the Univ. of Cal., 101 F.3d at 1387 (finding that the petitioner has the burden of establishing " that its right to issuance of the writ is clear and indisputable, and that it lacks adequate alternative means to obtain the relief sought" ) (citing Mallard v. United States Dist. Court for Southern Dist., 490 U.S. 296, 309, 109 S.Ct. 1814, 104 L.Ed.2d 318 (1989); Allied Chem. Corp. v. Daiflon, Inc., 449 U.S. 33, 35,

Page 1292

101 S.Ct. 188, 66 L.Ed.2d 193, (1980)). As the issuing court, moreover, once the petitioner establishes the two prerequisites, we then have discretion to determine whether the writ is appropriate under the circumstances. Cheney, 542 U.S. at 381.

         In its petition, Queen's University argued that mandamus is appropriate as it is its only remedy. See Queen's University Appellant Br. 1-5. It argued, moreover, that the discovery order it petitions this court to overturn raises an issue of first impression. Id. Finally, it asserted that, if the discovery order is left in place and the communications-at-issue are produced, " the confidentiality of those communications will be lost forever" as " [t]he [c]ourt cannot unring that bell." Id. at 3. In its response to Queen's University's petition, Samsung contended that mandamus is inappropriate because, even if we were to find that a patent-agent privilege exists such that the discovery order is clearly erroneous, the privilege issue can be reviewed as part of a complete appeal. See Samsung Pet'r Br. 14-17.

         After careful consideration, we concluded that mandamus review of the district court's discovery order in this case appeared appropriate. This court has not addressed whether a patent-agent privilege exists--it is an issue of first impression for this court and one that has split the district courts.[1] Immediate resolution of this issue will avoid further inconsistent development of this doctrine. See In re MSTG, Inc., 675 F.3d 1337, 1342 (Fed. Cir. 2012) (" Mandamus review is appropriate here as to the privilege issue. The issue of whether settlement negotiations are privileged is a matter of first impression before this court and one on which district courts are split." ).

         If we were to deny mandamus, moreover, the confidentiality of the documents as to which such privilege is asserted would be lost. In the event that the documents were produced and a judgment on the merits reached, it would be difficult--if not impossible--for this court to disentangle the effect of the production of the allegedly privileged documents from other considerations that led to the judgment. See Spalding, 203 F.3d at 804 ( " [W]hen a writ of mandamus is sought to prevent the wrongful exposure of privileged communications, the remedy of mandamus is appropriate 'because maintenance of the attorney-client [118 U.S.P.Q.2d 1225] privilege up to its proper limits has substantial importance to the administration of justice, and because an appeal after disclosure of the privileged communication is an inadequate remedy.'" ) (quoting In re Regents of Univ. of Cal., 101 F.3d at 1387).

Page 1293

          Understanding that the legal standard for obtaining mandamus relief is an exacting one, we found it likely satisfied here and ordered additional briefing and argument on the merits of the privilege claim asserted.

         In its supplemental briefing, Samsung informed the court that it had filed a request for inter partes review (" IPR" ) on the patents-in-suit, that the United States Patent and Trademark Office (" USPTO" or " Patent Office" ) had instituted those IPRs, and that the district court had stayed the proceedings pending a ruling from the Patent Office. Samsung now argues that the current stay of the district court action and the existence of the IPRs constitute changed circumstances that warrant denial of the petition for writ of mandamus, regardless of the merits. Samsung Pet'r Br. 17-18.

         Queen's University filed its petition for writ of mandamus in this court on July 17, 2015. Dkt. No. 1. The magistrate judge stayed the production of the relevant documents pending resolution of that petition in this court. Order Granting Stay of Production, Queen's (E.D. Tex. July 13, 2015), ECF No. 179. Samsung then moved to stay the proceedings entirely under the theory that (1) the pending writ of mandamus would prejudice its ability to prepare for trial, and (2) the refusal to grant a stay would effectively give Queen's University the relief it sought, since trial likely would proceed before this court could resolve the privilege issue. Samsung's Emergency Motion to Stay Pending Writ of Mandamus, Queen's (E.D. Tex. July 20, 2015), ECF No. 189. While that motion was pending, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (the " Board" ) instituted IPRs against all asserted claims of the patents-in-suit. See Queen's (E.D. Tex. August 10, 2015), ECF No. 197; Queen's (E.D. Tex. July 31, 2015), ECF No. 194. The magistrate judge then sua sponte ordered supplemental briefing on whether institution of the IPR affects its earlier stay of Queen's University's discovery obligation. Queen's (E.D. Tex. Aug. 14, 2015), ECF No. 199.

         The court concluded--as it had previously found--that the " production remains stayed pending resolution by the Federal Circuit." Stay Order at 2, Queen's (E.D. Tex. Aug. 28, 2015), ECF No. 214. The magistrate judge further found that:

[g]iven the stay of Plaintiffs' production obligations in light of their petition for writ, and further in view of the pending IPR proceedings that have been instituted as to all asserted claims (Dkt. Nos. 194, 197), the Court hereby STAYS the instant matter until the later of the Federal Circuit's resolution of Plaintiffs' writ, or the PTAB's final adjudication in all instituted IPR proceedings.


         Samsung contends that this order means there is no longer any imminent threat to Queen's University regarding its production obligations. Samsung Pet'r Br. 17. As Queen's University noted at oral argument, however, while the district court did stay the proceedings based on the IPRs, it invoked only the pending mandamus petition to stay the production of documents withheld by Queen's University. Oral Arg. at 02:14-02:59, available at ; see Stay Order, Queen's (E.D. Tex. Aug. 28, 2015), ECF No. 214 at 2 (" [T]he Court elected to stay Plaintiffs' production 'pending disposition of the petition or other order of the Court of Appeals.' (Dkt. No. 179) That production remains stayed pending resolution by the Federal Circuit." ). We too do not read the district court order as foreclosing the possibility that a denial of the writ will require the challenged production even if

Page 1294

the remainder of the proceedings is stayed for other reasons. There is, furthermore, no certainty as to when the IPR proceedings will end or what precisely those proceedings will resolve. It remains likely that some or all of the documents as to which privilege is claimed are at risk of disclosure. It also remains likely that a panel of this court will be asked to review the very merits issues this panel already has considered at length. And, it remains virtually certain that future district courts will be asked to address almost identical privilege claims. For these reasons, while the IPR proceedings and accompanying stay certainly weigh against mandamus relief, we do not believe those changed circumstances offset the importance of resolving this issue and clarifying a question with which many district courts have struggled, and over which they disagree.

         Turning to the merits, Queen's University's right to the issuance of the writ turns on whether a patent-agent privilege exists. Because we find that such a privilege should be acknowledged, we find that Queen's University's " right to issuance of the writ is clear and indisputable, and . . . it lacks adequate alternative [118 U.S.P.Q.2d 1226] means to obtain the relief sought." Spalding, 203 F.3d at 804-05.

         C. Existence of the Patent-Agent Privilege

          In federal district courts, the scope of discovery is governed by Rule 26(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides in relevant part: " Parties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case . . . . Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable." Thus, while the scope of permissible discovery is broad, it only encompasses documents relating to " nonprivileged matter[s]."

         Rule 501 of the Federal Rules of Evidence addresses what is privileged. Rule 501 states:

The common law--as interpreted by United States courts in the light of reason and experience--governs a claim of privilege unless any of the following provides otherwise:
o the United States Constitution;
o a federal statute; or
o rules prescribed by the Supreme Court.

But in a civil case, state law governs privilege regarding a claim or defense for which state law supplies the rule of decision.

Fed. R. Evid. 501. " Rule 501 of the Federal Rules of Evidence authorizes federal courts to define new privileges by interpreting 'common law principles.'" Jaffee v. Redmond, 518 U.S. 1, 8, 116 S.Ct. 1923, 135 L.Ed.2d 337 (1996). Rule 501 " did not freeze the law governing the privileges of witnesses in federal trials at a particular point in our history, but rather directed federal courts to 'continue the evolutionary development of testimonial privileges.'" Jaffee, 518 U.S. at 8-9 (quoting Trammel v. United States, 445 U.S. 40, 47, 100 S.Ct. 906, 63 L.Ed.2d 186 (1980)). Samsung does not contend that recognition of a patent-agent privilege is foreclosed by the United States Constitution, any federal statute, or any rule prescribed by the Supreme Court. We thus turn to " reason and experience" in order to determine whether a patent-agent privilege is now appropriate.

         We do so with caution, however, recognizing that there is a presumption against the recognition of new privileges. Federal courts must be cognizant of the age-old principle that " the public . . . has a

Page 1295

right to every man's evidence." United States v. Bryan, 339 U.S. 323, 331, 70 S.Ct. 724, 94 L.Ed. 884 (1950). Indeed, the Supreme Court has warned that evidentiary privileges " are not lightly created nor expansively construed, for they are in derogation of the search for truth." United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 710, 94 S.Ct. 3090, 41 L.Ed.2d 1039 (1974).

          The most well-known and carefully guarded privilege is the attorney-client privilege. It is well established that an attorney-client privilege exists to " encourage full and frank communication" between counselor and client and " thereby promote broader public interests in the observance of law and administration of justice." Upjohn Co. v. United States, 449 U.S. 383, 389, 101 S.Ct. 677, 66 L.Ed.2d 584 (1981); accord Trammel, 445 U.S. at 51 (" [P]rivilege rests on the need for the advocate and counselor to know all that relates to the client's reasons for seeking representation if the professional mission is to be carried out." ). It is also without question that the privilege attaches to a communication made " for the purpose of securing primarily legal opinion, or legal services, or assistance in a legal proceeding." Spalding, 203 F.3d at 805; see also Upjohn, 449 U.S. at 389 (stating that legal advice " can only be safely and readily availed of when free from the consequences or the apprehension of disclosure" ).

         It is true, moreover, that courts have consistently refused to recognize as privileged communications with other non-attorney client advocates, such as accountants. See Couch v. United States, 409 U.S. 322, 335, 93 S.Ct. 611, 34 L.Ed.2d 548 (1973); see also United States v. Arthur Young & Co., 465 U.S. 805, 817, 104 S.Ct. 1495, 79 L.Ed.2d 826 (1984) (" In light of Couch, the Court of Appeals' effort to foster candid communication between accountant and client by creating a self-styled work-product privilege was misplaced, and conflicts with what we see as the clear intent of Congress." ). The same is true for jailhouse lawyers. See, e.g., Velasquez v. Borg, No. 93-15566, 1994 WL 327328, at *1 (9th Cir. June 8, 1994) (" Because [Petitioner] does not contend that he thought [the jailhouse lawyer] was authorized to practice law, he has not proven a violation of the attorney-client privilege as traditionally understood." ); Moorhead v. Lane, 125 F.R.D. 680, 686-87 (C.D. Ill. 1989) (refusing to extend the attorney-client privilege " to communications made to a 'jailhouse attorney.'" ).

          [118 U.S.P.Q.2d 1227] Samsung concedes that, where a patent agent communicates with counsel or receives communications between his client and counsel, the attorney-client privilege may protect those communications from discovery. See, e.g., Park v. Cas Enters., Inc., No. 08-cv-03, 2009 WL 3565293, at *3 (S.D. Cal. Oct. 27, 2009). It contends, however, that, where counsel is not involved in the communications--as Queen's University concedes is the case here--we should neither expand the scope of the attorney-client privilege nor recognize an independent patent-agent privilege to protect such communications from discovery. For the reasons we explain, we find that the unique roles of patent agents, the congressional recognition of their authority to act, the Supreme Court's characterization of their activities as the practice of law, and the current realities of patent litigation counsel in favor of recognizing an independent patent-agent privilege.

          In Sperry v. State of Florida ex rel. Florida Bar, 373 U.S. 379, 83 S.Ct. 1322, 10 L.Ed.2d 428, 1963 Dec. Comm'r Pat. 211 (1963), the Supreme Court was faced with a challenge to the State of Florida's attempt to regulate the activities of patent agents on grounds that those activities constitute the practice of law.

Page 1296

The Supreme Court addressed the challenge in two stages: first, determining whether the activities of patent agents before the Patent Office constitute the practice of law, and, second, determining whether, if so, the State of Florida had the authority to regulate those activities. The Supreme Court answered the first question in the affirmative and the second in the negative.

         The Supreme Court expressly found that " the preparation and prosecution of patent applications for others constitutes the practice of law." Id. at 383. The Court concluded that:

[s]uch conduct inevitably requires the practitioner to consider and advise his clients as to the patentability of their inventions under the statutory criteria, 35 U.S.C. § § 101-103, 161, 171, as well as to consider the advisability of relying upon alternative forms of protection which may be available under state law. It also involves his participation in the drafting of the specification and claims of the patent application, 35 U.S.C. § 112, which this Court long ago noted " constitute[s] one of the most difficult legal instruments to draw with accuracy."

Id. (citations omitted). Sperry, thus, confirms that patent agents are not simply engaging in law-like activity, they are engaging in the practice of law itself. To the extent, therefore, that the traditional attorney-client privilege is justified based on the need for candor between a client and his or her legal professional in relation to the prosecution of a patent, that justification would seem to apply with equal force to patent agents.

         While this threshold conclusion in Sperry is important to our decision, it is the rest of the Sperry opinion we find most informative. It is not the fact that--within the limited authority granted to them by the Patent Office--patent agents engage in the traditional practice of law that is the most meaningful takeaway from Sperry , it is the Supreme Court's explanation of why states may not regulate that practice of law that lends most support to the recognition of a patent-agent privilege. In holding that the State of Florida had no authority to regulate the admitted practice of law by patent agents, the Supreme Court emphasized that it is Congress who has authorized and continues to permit the practice of law by patent agents when appearing before the Patent Office. See id. at 379 (" '[T]he law of the State, though enacted in the exercise of powers not controverted, must yield' when incompatible with federal legislation. Congress has provided that the Commissioner of Patents 'may prescribe regulations governing the recognition and conduct of agents, attorneys, or other persons representing applicants or other parties before the Patent Office,' 35 U.S.C. § 31, and the Commissioner, pursuant to § 31, has provided by regulation that '(a)n applicant for patent . . . may be represented by an attorney or agent authorized to practice before the Patent Office in patent cases.' 37 CFR § 1.31." (citing Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. 1, 211, 6 L.Ed. 23 (1824) (footnote omitted) (emphasis added)). In explaining its holding, the Supreme Court discussed the history of the Patent Office's power to regulate patent agents. Id. at 388-400. Looking to legislative history, the Court traced the discussion of patent agents by Congress " back to 1861, when Congress first provided that 'for gross misconduct [the Commissioner of Patents] may refuse to recognize any person as a patent agent, either generally or in any particular case . . . .'" Id. at 388 (quoting Act of March 2, 1861, ch. 88, § 8, 12 Stat. 247). The 1869 " Rules and Directions" issued by the Commissioner

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" provided that '(a)ny person of intelligence and good moral character may appear as the attorney in fact or agent of an applicant upon filing proper power of attorney.'" Id. at 388-89 [118 U.S.P.Q.2d 1228] (quoting Rules and Directions for Proceedings in the Patent Office, § 127 (Aug. 1, 1869)). " From the outset, a substantial number of those appearing in this capacity were engineers or chemists familiar with the technical subjects to which the patent application related. 'Many of them were not members of the bar. It probably never occurred to anybody that they should be.'" Id. at 389 (quoting Letter from Edward S. Rogers, Hearings on H.R. 5527 Before the H. Comm. on Patents, 70th Cong., 1st Sess. 84 (1928)). In 1899, because non-attorney agents were found " particularly responsible for the deceptive advertising and victimization of inventors" at the Patent Office, the Commissioner first required the registration of those who practiced before the Office. Id. at 390 (citation omitted). Then, " in 1922, the [patent] statute was amended to expressly authorize the Commissioner to prescribe regulations for the recognition of agents and attorneys," " to provide for the 'creation of a patent bar[,]' and 'to require a higher standard of qualifications for registry.'" Id. at 390-91 (citations omitted).

         In response to a provision in a proposed bill designed to make it a criminal offense to misrepresent oneself as a registered patent practitioner, Congress discussed the distinction between patent lawyers and non-lawyer agents. Id. at 393. " [T]ime and again it was made clear that the . . . provision was not intended to restrict practice by agents, but was designed only to prevent them from labeling themselves 'patent attorneys,' as the Patent Office had theretofore permitted." Id. (footnote omitted). Congress made clear that it did not intend to hinder the Patent Office's right to allow non-attorney agents to prosecute patents before it, but only to prevent them from improperly holding themselves out as attorneys:

The proposed bills would not have affected " any engineers or draftsmen from doing those things which they have always been doing before the Patent Office" ; the bills sought " to bring about no change in the status of the many men now registered and entitled to practice before the Patent Office, regardless of whether they are members of the bar or not . . . ." (Emphasis added.) " [T]here are quite a number of solicitors of patents who are highly qualified and who are not members of the bar, who never graduated at law and were never admitted to the bar. But this bill doesn't disqualify those men. They can continue to qualify as patent agents." (Emphasis added.) When asked " [w]hat is going to be the difference in the legal prerogatives of the agents and the others that come in," the Commissioner of Patents responded that " [ t ] heir rights in the Patent Office will be exactly the same. Their rights in the courts will be different." (Emphasis added.)

Id. at 393-95 (footnotes omitted). In view of this storied history, the Supreme Court found " strong and unchallenged implications that registered agents have a right to practice before the Patent Office." Id. at 395. Samsung does not challenge the proposition that the prosecution of patents before the Patent Office constitutes the practice of law or that non-lawyer patent agents are allowed to engage in such practice under federal law. Nor can it, given the Supreme Court's clear language in Sperry.[2]

Page 1298

          The debate about whether to allow non-attorney patent agents to practice law before the Patent Office " received continuing attention both in and out of Congress during the period prior to 1952." Id. at 398. In Sperry, the Court found that the rights conferred to patent agents are federal rights and that Congress expressly permitted the Commissioner to promulgate regulations that allow patent agents to practice before the Patent Office in the 1952 Patent Act.[3] Ultimately, Congress endorsed a system in which patent applicants can choose between patent agents and patent attorneys when prosecuting patents before the Patent Office. Based on this, the Court found that the State of Florida could neither prohibit [118 U.S.P.Q.2d 1229] nor regulate that which federal law allowed. Id. at 379.

          Today, " [t]he Office--may establish regulations, not inconsistent with law, which--may govern the recognition and conduct of agents, attorneys, or other persons representing applicants or other parties before the Office." 35 U.S.C. § 2(b)(2)(D). Pursuant to these powers, the Office has determined that " [a]ny citizen of the United States who is not an attorney, and who fulfills the requirements of this ...

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