A March decision by the United States Supreme Court represents a significant victory for patent owners. The court upheld the doctrine that the rights of a patent owner are not always limited to what is literally described in the patent. Instead, if a competitor is using the "equivalent" of the patented invention, the patent is infringed.

The Supreme Court's decision is particularly important in areas of rapidly developing technology, where a patent applicant may not be able to foresee technological advances that might provide an equivalent way of using the patented invention. As a result, the inventor may not always be able to draft a patent to cover the unforeseen advances. But in light of the Supreme Court's decision, substituting an equivalent feature in place of a feature literally described in the patent will not avoid infringement.

The case, Warner-Jenkinson v. Hilton Davis, involved a patented process for removing impurities...

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