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Doctrine of Equivalents
The doctrine of equivalents is a legal rule in most of the world's patent systems that allows a court to hold a party liable for patent infringement even though the infringing device or process does not fall within the literal scope of a patent claim, but nevertheless is equivalent to the claimed invention. U.S. judge Learned Hand has described its purpose as being "to temper unsparing logic and prevent an infringer from stealing the benefit of the invention". Royal Typewriter Co. v. Remington Rand, Inc., 168 F.2d 691, 692 (2d Cir. 1948).
The goal of the doctrine of equivalents is to provide patent owners with fair protection for their patents. Historically, courts took a literal approach to patent interpretation, based on established principles of legal interpretation. However, by the 18th and 19th centuries, this had come to be seen as unduly limiting on the scope of protection afforded a patent-holder, especially as patent applicants are often required to describe new technology for which an adequate vocabulary has not yet been developed. In response to this, the English courts developed a so-called 'pith and marrow' approach, which tried to distinguish between the essential and non-essential features of a patent claim when deciding infringement cases. At the same time, courts in other countries, notably the United States, developed slightly different approaches to claim interpretation, of which the 'doctrine of equivalents' is perhaps the most famous. The equivalents doctrine takes a more holistic approach when comparing the patented invention with an alleged infringing device than did the 'pith and marrow' approach.
Attempts are ongoing at harmonizing the different approaches internationally (see below); however, progress is slow due to the long history of patent law in developed nations. The doctrine has been criticized as unduly vague, to the extent that it injects uncertainty and unpredictability to a patent system.