WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court -- stepping into the field of patent law, where it seldom ventures -- agreed yesterday to decide whether inventors have a right to a jury trial when their patents are challenged in court.
An special federal appeals court, the only one at its level with power to decide patent cases, ruled in January that the holder of a patent has a constitutional right to have a jury decide the validity of the patent.
A patent gives an inventor the exclusive use to an invention or to the right to let others use it for a fee.
The scope of the right to jury trial in patent cases has been unclear for decades. But the appellate court said that just as there has long been a right to a jury trial when a patent-holder goes to court to claim infringement, there should be a parallel right when the inventor is the target of a challenge claiming that the patent should never have been granted.
The issue arises in a dispute between American Airlines and a California inventor, Lawrence B. Lockwood, over who has a right to use computerized methods of airline reservations and ticketing.
Mr. Lockwood, who has two patents on computerized reservation systems, claimed that American Airlines copied them illegally. He sought damages and a court order against further infringement.
A federal judge ruled that American Airlines did not infringe on the patents.
Then, the airline pursued its own lawsuit against Mr. Lockwood, seeking to head off any further lawsuits by him by claiming that his two patents were invalid and should be nullified. The appeals court ruled he had a constitutional right to a jury trial, and American then appealed to the Supreme Court.
A final decision is expected next year.