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High court to hear copycat-products case

The nation's high court agrees to consider a patent case that makes it easier for companies to develop knockoff products without breaking laws.

    The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an important patent case that could make it easier to develop knockoff products without running afoul of patent laws.

    On Monday, the court said it will consider whether to overturn a lower court ruling that limits a patent's scope. Oral arguments will take place sometime during the next session, with a decision expected after that.

    Many tech companies are closely watching the case, known as Festo v. Shoketsu Kinzoku Koygo Kabushiki, because it could affect how widely patent laws can be applied to copycat products.

    In November, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a decision that could weaken patent protections, opening the way for competitors or partners to release imitation products.

    Some companies have become increasingly aggressive in their attempts to protect all types of ideas by wrapping them in patent claims. Several companies fear the decision, as it stands, would let competitors cash in on product ideas, allowing them to make minor alterations to an item and then sell it without violating patents. But others, including IBM and Hewlett-Packard, are supporting the current decision, saying it clarifies patent laws.

    In its ruling, the appeals court cut back on a legal theory known as the "doctrine of equivalents." Under that principle, a patent owner could assert rights on products that went beyond the scope of an original claim--if the product performed an equivalent function of the patented item. For example, if a patent owner had rights to a product that contained a copper wire, another company would not be allowed to market a product with, say, an aluminum wire that performed the same function.

    However, the appeals court trimmed the legal principle, ruling that any later changes to the original filing would not be protected under the doctrine of equivalents. The decision, if it stands, would force companies to be more specific when filing their original claims.

    The dispute stems from a case in which Festo, a maker of robotics and automation systems, claimed that Shoketsu violated its patents for a rodless cylinder used in robotic arms on an assembly line. Although Festo won a few rounds, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually sent the case back to the appeals court, which issued the latest decision.

    In April, Festo asked the high court to overturn the ruling. Festo had hired former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr to help it prepare, but he had to drop out because of a conflict involving another case. Starr recruited failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork to take over.