Image: Erica Johnson

The idea behind the US patent system is relatively simple: register an invention with the government and get a 20-year monopoly to sell it, after which point your idea goes into the public domain. Sounds straightforward, right? Not if you're a patent lawyer. Underneath that basic framework is a legal infrastructure filled with so many loopholes, twists, and turns that, were it pipework, it would make any plumber sweat.

That system became a lot more complicated when the US Supreme Court, ruling in a case now known as Festo,1 set new standards for inventors' descriptions of patents. The high court decision, which set aside an onerous lower court ruling, should still worry most patent holders--especially those with life sciences patents--and fatten patent lawyers' paychecks. "There were two parts of the Festo ruling, and everybody forgets that only one of them was overturned," says Dianne Elderkin,...

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