This case involving a PTO rejection of claims for a method of playing golf using a tee for most of the shots hinged on whether a reference was “publicly accessible.” The applicant had submitted a manuscript describing the invention to the copyright office more than a year before filing an application. The key question is whether the manuscript was publicly accessible by virtue of being in the copyright office.
“In several cases involving references stored in libraries, we have considered whether the research tools available would have been sufficient to permit an interested researcher to locate and examine the reference.” (p. 6.) Cataloging and indexing are important research tools but not the whole story. “While cataloging and indexing have played a significant role in our cases involving library references, we have explained that neither cataloging nor indexing is a necessary condition for a reference to be publicly accessible.” (p. 7.) The standard for public accessibility is “whether an interested researcher would have been sufficiently capable of finding the reference and examining its contents” in light of all “the facts and circumstances surrounding the disclosure.” (p. 8.)
The court noted that “a reference can be considered publicly accessible even if gaining access to it might require a significant amount of travel” and that it is “unnecessary to show that anyone actually inspected the reference.” (p. 8.) The court also found that in this case the inability to make copies did not render the reference inaccessible. (p. 8.) Further, although the copyright database did not provide any reasonable means of searching, two other databases, Westlaw and Dialog, permitted searching of titles by keywords of materials in the copyright office. However, there was insufficient evidence to establish when the reference at issue was available in Westlaw or Dialog. “[I]n this case the government has not identified any evidence of the general practice of the Copyright Office, Westlaw, or Dialog with regard to database updates. Absent such evidence, we have no basis to conclude that the manuscript was publicly accessible prior to the critical date.” (p. 16.) The court rejected arguments that a prima facie case showing that the manuscript was in the databases was established. “We see little difference between the evidence in this case and a situation in which an examiner comes across an undated reference that discloses an invention for which an applicant is seeking the patent. We surely would not view the mere existence of the reference in the latter scenario as prima facie evidence that it was available prior to the applicant’s critical date.” (p. 16-17.)