A patent is an exclusive right granted by the government to an inventor for a limited period of time in exchange for public disclosure of the invention. A patent application must include one or more claims defining the invention which must be novel and non-obvious. The exclusive right that is given with the granting of a patent is the right to prevent others from making, using, selling, or distributing the patented invention without permission or a license.Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. In general, the right to exclusivity is granted for 20 years.
The policy behind the system of granting patents is to 1) encourage inventions; 2) provide for disclosure of the invention to the public; 3) provide an incentive to invest the time, energy, and money to experiment and then to produce and market the invention; and 4) to improve upon earlier patents.
Relatively new on the scene is the tax patent. A tax patent is a business method patent that discloses and claims a system or method for reducing or deferring taxes. They are also known as "tax planning patents", "tax strategy patents", and "tax shelter patents". In 1998, the Circuit Court of Appeals held in State St. Bank & Trust v. Signature Fin. Group that tax strategies were patentable. Since 1998, 160 patents on tax strategies have been granted. Patents have been granted on charitable giving techniques, real estate transactions, retirement planning and stock options among others.
The granting of tax patents has been a controversial subject. Opponents to tax patents say that they are "government-issued barbed wire" that prevents some taxpayers from getting equal treatment under the tax law. These would be the taxpayers who can’t use certain tax strategies because the strategies have been granted exclusively to the patent holders.
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) has been very critical of tax patents. Their position is that no one should have a monopoly over any part of the tax code and all Americans should be free to use any legally permissible means to comply with the law. Taxpayers should not be required to pay royalties or be subject to litigation for patent infringement just for paying their taxes.
The AICPA says that tax patents 1) limit the ability of taxpayers to fully utilize interpretations of tax law intended by Congress; 2) cause some taxpayers to pay more tax than Congress intended and may cause other taxpayers to pay more tax than others similarly situated; 3) complicate the provision of tax advice by professionals; 4) hinder compliance by taxpayers; 5) mislead taxpayers into believing that a patented strategy is valid under the tax law; and 6) preclude tax professionals from challenging the validity of tax strategy patents.
The idea of patenting tax planning techniques has caused much consternation. At a meeting of the American Bar Association, an estate planning technique using a Grantor Retained Annuity Trust (GRAT) to hold stock options was discussed. Many of the attendees received letters subsequently stating that the method under discussion had been patented – the Stock Option Grantor Retained Annuity Trust patent (“SOGRAT”) – and that taxpayers who had set up such an entity would have to pay a royalty or face suits for patent infringement.
Many of the attendees thought the technique was obvious, and many had frequently set up GRATs with various assets including stock options. With the advent of tax patents, before recommending any strategy does the lawyer have to do due diligence and search to see if the strategy was patented so as not to inadvertently violate the patent and subject himself and his client to liability for patent infringement?
In September 2011, President Barack Obama signed legislation passed by the U.S. Congress that effectively prohibits the granting of tax patents in general. The Leahy-Smith America Invents Act stops the granting of patents on tax strategies. Under the new law any “strategy for reducing, avoiding, or deferring tax liability” is deemed to be “prior art” under patent law, and, therefore not patentable. Existing tax patents were not affected by the new law and remain intact. However, tax patents in pending applications were deemed prior art under the new law and nonpatentable..
Since there are still existing tax patents, tax advisors and practitioners should know what techniques have been patented so as not to violate any patents thereby subjecting their clients and themselves to liability.
The Act specifically does not stop the granting of patents to tax preparation software and other software, and explicitly excludes the patenting of any “method, apparatus, technology, computer program product, or system, that is used solely for preparing a tax or information return or other tax filing” or that is “used solely for financial management, to the extent that it is severable from any tax strategy or does not limit the use of any tax strategy by any taxpayer or tax advisor.”