Thanks to my Boalt classmate Julie Turner, I found out that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling which appears to give teeth to the requirement that the claims of patents be obvious - the "obviousness" test. Patent law is complicated, but to (over)simplify it, the court held, in KSR International v. Teleflex Inc (pdf version here) that the obviousness test was being applied way too narrowly by the Federal Circuit (appeals circuit that handles patents) and that a number of new tests should be applied in trying to find obviousness.
The closing paragraphs of the opinion are particularly exciting (emphasis mine):
We build and create by bringing to the tangible and palpable reality around us new works based on instinct, simple logic, ordinary inferences, extraordinary ideas, and sometimes even genius. These advances, once part of our shared knowledge, define a new threshold from which innovation starts once more. And as progress beginning from higher levels of achievement is expected in the normal course, the results of ordinary innovation are not the subject of exclusive rights under the patent laws. Were it otherwise patents might stifle, rather than promote, the progress of useful arts. See U. S. Const., Art. I, §8, cl. 8. These premises led to the bar on patents claiming obvious subject matter established in Hotchkiss and codified in §103. Application of the bar must not be confined within a test or formulation too constrained to serve its purpose.
KSR provided convincing evidence that mounting a modular sensor on a fixed pivot point of the Asano pedal was a design step well within the grasp of a person of ordinary skill in the relevant art. Its arguments, and the record, demonstrate that claim 4 of the Engelgau patent is obvious. In rejecting the District Court's rulings, the Court of Appeals analyzed the issue in a narrow, rigid manner inconsistent with §103 and our precedents. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.