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On May 28, the U.S. Supreme Court rebuked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit for blazing a new trail in patent law that left patent holders afraid that they might be defenseless against copycat manufacturers. But despite the high court’s efforts to dispel panic, patent law specialists remain uncertain about the impact of the Court’s decision. Festo Corp. v. Shoketsu Kinzoku Kogyo Kabushiki Co. Ltd., No. 00-1543. The biggest question may well be how the Federal Circuit, which alone among the circuit courts has jurisdiction over patent issues, applies the principle laid down by the Supreme Court. Festo Corp. holds two patents on a magnetic piston used “in machinery as diverse as sewing equipment and the Thunder Mountain ride at Disney World,” in the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the opinion for the unanimous court. When a competitor, Shoketsu (also known as SMC), introduced a similar piston, Festo went to court. Although the SMC piston was not an exact copy — it had a different type of seal and outer shell — Festo hoped to prevail under the “doctrine of equivalents.” According to Kennedy, the U.S. Supreme Court adopted the doctrine in 1854 to give patent holders protection against competitors who hoped to elude patents by varying one or two unessential details. The doctrine gives a patent holder the chance to persuade a federal judge that a competing product, though not identical, is so similar that it infringes on the patent. In its defense, SMC pointed to the give-and-take between Festo and a patent examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) leading to the issuance of the Festo patents. The examiner had initially rejected Festo’s applications as incomplete, but then relented when Festo submitted supplemental amendments. SMC noted that Festo had given no precise description of its piston’s seal and outer shell except in the amendments. Because t

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