George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

CPIP Scholars Join Amicus Brief Arguing that the Government Cannot Petition for CBM Review

U.S. Supreme Court buildingOn December 17, 2018, CPIP Senior Scholars Adam Mossoff and Kristen Osenga joined an amicus brief written on behalf of seven law professors by Professor Adam MacLeod, a CPIP Thomas Edison Innovation Fellow for 2017 and 2018 and a member of CPIP’s growing community of scholars. The brief, which was filed in Return Mail Inc. v. United States Postal Service, asks the Supreme Court to reverse the Federal Circuit’s determination that the federal government has standing to challenge the validity of an issued patent in a covered business method (CBM) review before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB).

The petitioner, Return Mail, owns a patent for a method of processing mail that is returned as undeliverable. After the Postal Service refused to take a license, Return Mail sued it for “reasonable and entire compensation” in the Court of Federal Claims under Section 1498(a). Thereafter, the Postal Service filed a petition at the PTAB seeking CBM review, arguing that several claims were unpatentable. Return Mail contested the ability of the Postal Service to petition for CBM review, arguing that it is not a “person” who has been “sued for infringement” within the meaning of Section 18(a)(1)(B) of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act of 2011 (AIA). Over a forceful dissent by Judge Newman, the Federal Circuit upheld the PTAB’s determination that the Postal Service has standing to challenge Return Mail’s patent before the PTAB.

The amicus brief written by Prof. MacLeod argues that the Federal Circuit was wrong to hold that the federal government could be treated as a “person” who has been charged with infringement. The brief points out that the federal government cannot be liable for patent infringement since it has sovereign immunity. Instead, the government has the authority to take a license whenever it pleases under its eminent domain power—so long as it pays just compensation to the patentee. The Federal Circuit classified the Postal Service’s appropriation as infringement, thus bringing it within Section 18(a)(1)(B) of the AIA. But, as the amicus brief notes, an infringement is an unlawful exercise of the exclusive rights granted to a patentee. The government may have exercised Return Mail’s patent rights, but it did not do so unlawfully, and as such it is not in the same position as a private party who has been charged with infringement.

The Summary of Argument is copied below, and the amicus brief is available here.


The United States Postal Service (“Postal Service”) wants to be a sovereign power. It also wants not to be a sovereign power. It exercises the right of sovereignty to take patent rights by the power of eminent domain. But it wants to stray beyond the inherent limitations on sovereign power so it can contest the validity of patent rights in multiple venues and avoid the duty to pay just compensation for a license it appropriates.

At the same time, the Postal Service asserts the private rights of an accused infringer to initiate a covered business method review (“CBM”) proceeding though it is immune from the duties and liabilities of an infringer. In other words, the Postal Service is trying to have it both ways, twice. It wants the powers of sovereignty without its disadvantages, and the rights of a private party without exposure to liability.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit erroneously ruled that the Postal Service can exercise both the sovereign power to initiate an administrative patent review, which is entrusted to the Patent Office, and the sovereign power to appropriate patent rights by eminent domain, which is delegated to federal agencies that may exercise patent rights. Congress separated those powers and delegated them to different agencies for important constitutional and jurisprudential reasons. Furthermore, the Federal Circuit ruled that the Postal Service can be both immune from liability for infringement and vested with the powers of an accused infringer. It did this by misstating what a “person” is within the meaning of United States law and by reading unlawfulness out the definition of “infringement,” as the Petitioner explained in its Petition.

In the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act of 2011 (“AIA”), Pub. L. No. 112-29, 125 Stat. 284, Congress created alternatives to Article III litigation concerning patent validity—inter partes review (“IPR”), post-grant review (“PGR”), and covered business method proceedings (“CBM”). IPR, PGR, and CBM proceedings are intended as alternatives to inter alia infringement actions in which an accused infringer might challenge patent validity. This suggests that the Government, which is immune from liability for infringement, is not a “person” with power to initiate an IPR, PGR, or CBM proceeding.

In jurisprudential terms, the Postal Service claims the powers and immunities of the legislative sovereign, who possesses the inherent power of eminent domain and is immune from liability for infringement. At the same time, the Postal Service tries to claim the powers of an accused infringer and so disavow the legal disadvantages of the sovereign. It cannot have both.

In fact, the Postal Service cannot infringe and cannot be charged with infringement. The sovereign who exercises the power of eminent domain and pays just compensation has acted lawfully, not unlawfully, and therefore has not trespassed against the patent. And the Postal Service must pay compensation when it appropriates a license to practice a patented invention. Vested patents are property for Fifth Amendment purposes, and the Government must pay for licenses taken from them, just as it pays for real and personal property that it appropriates.

To read the amicus brief, please click here.