Archive for April, 2013

Design Patents

April 30, 2013

Utility patents get all of the publicity in when discussing innovation.  This could be changing with Apple’s $1.05 billion verdict against Samsung, which was based in large part on infringement of Apple’s design patents.

Another option that an inventor may want to consider is a design patent.  Utility patents cover structural and functional aspects of an invention, while design patents cover the asthetic features.

Design patents differ from utility patents in a number of basic ways.  A design patent is granted to cover the ornamental design of an object that has practical utility.  For example, a design patent may be obtained for a new shape of a beverage container, the particular shape and features of the tread of a shoe, computer icons, and other items that have practical utility.

A design patent is not permitted for something that exists for purely aesthetic reasons, such as a work of art.  A painting, sculpture, or other work of fine art would be protectable by copyright and possibly other intellectual property rights, but would not be eligible for design patent protection.

An invention may be entitled to both a utility patent and a design patent since a utility patent protects the structure of an article and the way it is used and works; a design patent protects the way an article looks.  If the design–the way the article looks–is dictated primarily by the article’s function, it would not properly be the subject of a design patent.  An example may be the shape of a gear that is designed primarily to fit with other gears and not for aesthetic purposes.

The requirements for obtaining a design patent are similar to that for utility patents.  The design must be novel and non-obvious; the examiner will perform a search of the prior art to be certain that the design meets these requirements.  Furthermore, the drawings must clearly show the features sought to be protected by patent.  The drawings will typically be more detailed than in a utility application as they will often show more views of the invention.  The drawings contitute the claims of the design patent.  Because they don’t require a detailed specification like a utility patent, design patents are also less costly to prepare and file.

Design patent protection lasts for 14 years (shortly to increase to 15 years) from the date the patent issues compared to 20 years from the earliest filing date for a utility patent.  No maintenance fees are required for design patents.

Another advantage of design patents over utility patents is that they seem to be much easier to obtain.  In recent years, design patents have had an allowance rate of about 90% over the last few years, compared to utility patent allowance rates of under 50%.  Over 80% of design patent applications are allowed without rejection; only 1.2% are rejected based on prior art with a larger number rejected on formality grounds.

In an era of increasing backlog and pendency of utility applications, more than half of design patents are pending for less than a year, with the average pendency being about 16 months.

For an invention where design and utility patent protection are both appropriate, I would not skip the utility patent.  An inventor should at least file a utility application for its broader scope of coverage and should also consider a design patent.  A design patent would provide some protection while waiting for a utility patent to issue.  They are also cheap since they don’t involve a great deal of preparation and prosecution.  Inventors should always consider whether their inventions are eligible for design and utility patent protection.

PTO Budget Problems

April 22, 2013

As I alluded to last week, the PTO is again facing a budget crisis.  Acting PTO Director Teresa Stanek Rea told employees last week that “immediate and significant” budget cuts were coming due to lower-than-expected fee revenue and the congressionally mandated budget cuts from the sequester.

Hiring, travel, training, and information technology modernization will be the focus of initial cuts, but it seems likely that significant cuts will be required across the board.  The agency will attempt to minimize impact on users, but that can only go so far.

Director Rea noted that fee revenue is “substantially below” PTO expectations set for in its FY2013 budget.  Sequestration cuts have been mandated at about 5% of PTO revenue or $148 million.  Since the PTO is a fee-based agency that is self-funded that shouldn’t be a problem, right?  They simply will take in less revenue and therefore have less to spend.

Unfortunately, it appears the agency is getting hit by a double whammy.  Not only is revenue down, but Congress is again instituting fee diversion.  The 5% cut will apparently come from fees the PTO has collected.  These will be shunted to other agencies within the Federal government.

I thought the America Invents Act was supposed to fix all of the PTO’s budget problems and issues of the past.  The PTO was granted rule-making authority to set its own fees so as not to be at the whim of Congress.  And Congress PROMISED this time that it would no longer divert PTO funds.  Of course, this promise came at the same time that the prohibition against the practice was stripped from the bill.

What did we think would happen?  Did we really think Congress would keep its word on fee diversion?  Seriously?

Patently-O and IPWatchdog have written about this issue as well.

PTO Numbers – March 2013

April 19, 2013

We have now reached the half-way point of FY2013.  It’s time to review PTO numbers again.

The following is a comparison of the PTO’s numbers from March 2013 with the end of FY2012 (at my last numbers update).  Time to refer again to the PTO’s Data Visualization Center to see how things are going.

First Action Pendency – 19.2 Months

At the end of FY2012, first action pendency was 21.9 months.  That number is a significant improvement.  That’s a 12% drop in the first six months of the year.

“Traditional” Total Pendency – 31.1 Months

Traditional pendency is down from 32.4 months in September.  The 4% reduction continues to demonstrate progress in this area.

Application Pendency with RCEs – 38 Months

This represents a 3.5% reduction since September and a drop of 1.4 months.  This is progress, but the increasing number of RCE filings (and appeals) makes this number look better than it actually is.

Applications Awaiting First Office Action – 607,482

This number is virtually unchanged during FY2013, down from 608,283.  The PTO had this number down to 593,339 at the end of February.  The huge spike in new filings to beat the first-to-file transition, however, brought the number back up.

Patent Application Allowance Rate – 51.1%, 68.8%

The first number counts RCE filings as abandonments, while the second number does not, but counts them as continuing prosecution.  These numbers are only slightly changed from 51.4% and 68.2%, respectively, in September.  The nearly 17% difference between the two numbers is, however, troubling.  Especially considering the next number.

RCE Backlog – 111,274

At the end of FY2012, the PTO reported 95,200 applications with RCE filings that awaited action; at the end of FY2011 that number had crept up to 63,487.  That represents a 17% increase during FY2013 and a 75% increase over the last two years.  Not good . . .  Rather than apportioning blame, perhaps trying to find a solution is the best answer.

Number of Patent Examiners – 7,842

This number is unchanged from 7,837 in September.  The PTO is facing another budget crisis due to sequestration.  This number will probably fall.

Pendency from Application Filing to Board Decision – 87.9 Months

The crisis at the Board continues to get worse and shows no signs of abating.   This number continues to climb–from 85.9 months in September.  New technologies become obsolete prior to getting a patent or decision by the Board.  The PTO hired a number of additional patent judges and attorneys to deal with this issue, but the sharp increase in the number of appeals filed has made tackling this an impossibility.   The Board now has significantly greater responsibilities with the beginning of the new post-grant review proceedings.

At the end of February, the Board had 26,459 pending appeals from ex parte application prosecution, a number virtually unchanged during FY2013.  4,695 new appeals were filed since September (a pace for 11,268), which is on pace for a 9.4% reduction from FY2012.  Meanwhile, the Board disposed of 4,720 cases during FY2013 (a pace for 11,328), an increase of 14% from FY2012!

In other types of cases, 152 inter partes review cases have been filed, 14 trials instituted and 3 concluded.  15 transitional business method cases were filed with 5 trials instituted.  10 new interferences were declared, with 26 concluded, leaving the Board with 37 still to be decided.  46 new ex parte reexamination cases were filed, with 41 being disposed.  27 such cases remain pending.  82 inter partes reexaminations have been filed.  The Board has decided 67, leaving an inventory of 79 cases pending.

Conclusion

The PTO is doing a good job on the front end.  Significant progress is being made on first office action pendency.  The problems begin, however, once an application reaches a final office action.  RCE filings are skyrocketing.  Many or most of these are the result of examiners forcing them on applicants.  This is very inefficient and increases application cost and pendency significantly.

The PTO must come up with a plan to deal with its crisis at the Board.  Applicants deserve the ability to get a final agency decision on a patent application within a reasonable time frame.  The PTO is working hard to try to hire more judges and patent attorneys to work on this situation, but Congress added to its workload as well.

To exacerbate these issues, fee diversion appears to be back.  Even though the PTO is funded by user fees, it is being required to cut funding and transfer fees to other agencies.  This is not permissible and must end.  More details are available here and here.

Be Certain to Rebut Examiner’s Statements During Prosecution

April 17, 2013

Yesterday, a divided panel of the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s narrow claim construction based on the applicant’s prosecution history disclaimer in Biogen IDEC v. GlaxoSmithKline.

Biogen obtained a patent that covered a method for treating patients with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) by administering a therapeutically effective amount of anti-CD20 antibody.  Anti-CD20 antibodies are antigen proteins that are capable of being used in cancer treatment.  At issue in the case was the meaning of the term “anti-CD20 antibody.”

During prosecution of the patent, the examiner rejected the claims for lack of enablement.  The claims were not enabled under the broadest reasonable interpretation standard used by the PTO for “any and all anti-CD20 antibodies, no matter the specificity or affinity for the specific epitope on the circulating tumor cells.”  The examiner acknowledged that the specification did enable certain antibodies, such as RITUXAN® (rituximab), but was silent as to necessary specificity and affinity for other anti-CD20 antibodies.

The applicant responded that those of skill in the art would know that

even though antibodies directed to the same antigen might have different affinities and functional characteristics, one of skill in the art could readily identify an antibody that binds to CD20 with similar affinity and specificity as does RITUXAN® using techniques that are well known in the art. . . . With that knowledge in hand, the skilled artisan could readily produce anti-CD20 antibodies using similar techniques, and screen such antibodies for those having an affinity and functional activity similar to RITUXAN®.

The examiner then withdrew the enablement rejection and the claims were allowed.

GSK developed an anti-CD20 antibody with distinctly different characteristics from RITUXAN®.  Biogen sued GSK for infringement.

The district court construed the term “anti-CD20 antibody” to mean “rituximab and antibodies that bind to the same epitope of the CD20 antigen with similar affinity and specificity as rituximab.”  This construction was based on Biogen’s disclaimer during prosecution of the patent to overcome the examiner’s enablement rejection.  Biogen stipulated that, under this construction, GSK did not infringe the claims of the patent.

Federal Circuit

On appeal, Biogen argued for the ordinary and customary meaning of the anti-CD20 antibody claim term.  The court acknowledged that to overcome this heavy presumption of the ordinary meaning, a “clear and unmistakable disavowal” by the applicant during prosecution is required.  The majority ruled that the applicant did make such a disavowal in this case.

According to the court, rather than challenging the examiner’s understanding of the “anti-CD20 antibody” claim term, the applicant merely argued that the claims were enabled for anti-CD20 antibodies that are similar to RITUXAN®.  The applicant seemed to acquiesce to the examiner’s assertion that the claims were not enabled for other types of anti-CD20 antibodies.

Although Biogen argued that the applicant was discussing functional and affinity characteristics of anti-CD20 antibodies generally, and suggested that those skilled in the art would apply their understanding of the selection of such antibodies similar to the selection of RITUXAN®, the court instead held that the statement demonstrated a disavowal of claim scope of reasonable clarity and deliberateness.

This case is highly unusual in that prosecution history disclaimers are usually a result of the applicant’s statements during prosecution, not the examiner’s.  The court, however, was unconvinced.

This case deals not only with applicants letting stand an examiner’s narrow characterization of a claim term, but also their adoption of that characterization to overcome the examiner’s enablement rejection.

Judge Plager dissented from the majority opinion.  He argued that the give-and-take with the examiner is part of a negotiation with the applicant.  Such negotiation often results in ambiguous statements as in this case.  These less-than-clear statements should not be used against the applicant as they do not enhance the prosecution history’s notice function to the public.  Such is the case here.  Judge Plager would reverse and use the ordinary meaning of the term.

Lessons

It seems fairly clear that in this case Judge Plager is correct.  The record seems less than clear as to why the examiner withdrew the enablement rejection.  Was it because the applicant disclaimed certain claim scope that was considered non-enabled?  Was it because the examiner was convinced by the applicant’s argument that by demonstrating enablement for certain anti-CD20 antibodies that it was enabled for others as well?  This is definitely not a clear and unmistakable disavowal of claim scope.

The lesson, however, is that applicants should rebut all of the examiner’s statements in office actions with which he does not agree.  In this case, the applicant may believe that he did just that.  He presented an argument that overcame the examiner’s rejection.  This is a really tough opinion on this issue.

Earlier in my career, I worked with an attorney in the past who taught me to use language such as the following.

To avoid any unintended consequences to the contrary, the undersigned respectfully does not accept or acquiesce in any statement, argument, or description in the Office Action except as expressly stated herein.

While this language generally seems to be overkill, and seems to be merely boilerplate, it would (hopefully) avoid a situation such as in this case.

Provisional Patent Applications

April 15, 2013

A provisional patent application is a patent application that may be filed at the PTO that can be used to establish a filing date or date of invention.  The application expires 12 months from its filing date.  This means that, in order to claim the benefit of the provisional application filing date, a non-provisional or foreign patent application must be filed within that 12 month period.

There is no such thing as a “Provisional Patent”, although you may hear that term.  A provisional patent application does not give the inventor any rights to exclude, as an issued patent does.

The PTO does not examine provisional applications, but merely keeps them in its records.  Filing a provisional application does not get the invention examined any more quickly; in fact, the application does not go into the examination queue at all, so it actually takes longer from the initial filing date of the provisional application to begin examination than if a non-provisional application were filed initially.

The public does not get access to a provisional application unless and until a non-provisional application that claims the benefit of the provisional application filing date is published.  A provisional application can delay publication of the invention, even if the applicant will be filing outside the US.

Why File a Provisional Application?

The main reason is actually the delay.  The provisional application gives an additional 12 months to further develop the invention and to see if there is a market for the invention, and it can also delay prosecution costs associated with the application.

First, it often takes a long time to perfect a new product or process.  There are many details to work out and many improvements can be made in the early stages after the initial concept is completed.  To establish an early date of invention, a provisional application can be filed once the initial concept is completed, but prior to the perfection of the invention.  The 12 months before the non-provisional application must be filed can be an aid in this endeavor.  Additional provisional applications can be filed during the 12 month period to establish an invention date for any improvements.  Various strategies exist for which applications should be used for a priority claim.

Second, a provisional application delays some of the expenses associated with obtaining a patent.  For example, the filing fee for a provisional application is currently only $260/130/65 (large/small/micro entity), while the filing fee for a non-provisional application is $1600 ($730 for small entity filed electronically/$400 micro entity).  There are additional fees for excess claims, prosecution fees, and issue and publication fees.  It may be advantageous to delay these fees until it is determined that there is a market for the invention.  A provisional application gives the application 12 months to find investors, buyers, or licensees for the product or process.

A provisional application can be a good way to be certain that the inventor’s own activities will not be available for use as prior art.  If there is an imminent publication or product launch of the invention, say in a few days, and there is not time to prepare a complete and thorough application, a quick provisional can be helpful.  A complete non-provisional should be filed as soon as possible thereafter, it is not necessary and can be dangerous to wait the entire 12 months prior to doing so.

Now that the US has transitioned from a first-to-invent to a first-to-file regime, filing a provisional application may be even more important.  Given that the grace period is severely restricted and that you need to beat any other potential filers to the Patent Office, filing a provisional application and later following up with a non-provisional can be a great strategy.  If you need to publicly disclose your invention, file a provisional application for it first.

Is a Provisional Application Cheaper?

There are ads on Google for $99 or $149 provisional patents.  It can be cheap to file a quick application to protect against public disclosure as noted above.

Many people believe that filing a provisional application is a simple thing.  Some inventors will do it themselves, before going to a patent attorney for a non-provisional application a year later.  Others want their attorney to prepare a bargain application of maybe a few pages or so.  After all, provisional applications don’t even require claims.

Sometimes, it is necessary to file a quick and dirty provisional application, such as where there is going to be an imminent product release or publication that could create a bar to getting a patent in the future.  In general, however, it is not cheaper to prepare a provisional application than a non-provisional application.

In order for a later-filed non-provisional application to obtain the benefit of the filing date of a earlier provisional application, US patent law requires that the claims of the non-provisional application be supported by the provisional application.  What this means is that an applicant must include sufficient detail in the provisional application in order for it to do any good.  Otherwise, you are only entitled to the filing date of the non-provisional application.  In that case, the provisional was a waste of time and money and the delay in filing the non-provisional application may be detrimental to obtaining a patent for the invention.

Applicants should take the time and spend the money to have a good provisional application prepared that includes as much detail as is available at the time of filing the provisional application.

In summary, a few points are worth mentioning or repeating:

  • A provisional application can be a good idea to establish an early filing date and to give additional time to perfect the invention or work on improvements, as well as to determine whether there is a market for the product or process.
  • A provisional application can also be a good way to delay filing and prosecution costs until a later date.
  • A provisional application should not be filed until the invention includes sufficient details to reduce the invention to practice.
  • Provisional patent applications should include sufficient detail to support claims in a later-filed non-provisional application.
  • A provisional patent application permits the applicant to mark a product as “patent pending.”
  • A quick provisional application can be filed to protect against public disclosure provided that a complete non-provisional application is filed shortly thereafter.

IP in Employment Agreements

April 9, 2013

For a company with substantial intellectual property in hand and under development, it is important to have employment agreements for new employees that include clauses for dealing with intellectual property rights.

When hiring new employees, be certain to have IP disclosure and assignment clauses in employment agreements for all employees.  These clauses should require the new employee to promptly disclose new inventions or other intellectual property to the employer upon conception and to assign such inventions to the employer at that time.  Be certain that the agreement is clear that the employee has an obligation to assign new inventions to the new employer as a part of the employment.

Have all new employees sign such agreements prior to employment or at least on the first day.  Some states may require additional consideration once employment has already commenced for such clauses to be valid.

When preparing such agreements, keep in mind that certain words have specific definitions or understandings in patent law.  For example, ambiguity could arise as to whether the employee would “conceive” and “make” an invention.  Try to stick with the definitions that are common to patent law.  “Conception” refers to “formation in the mind of the inventor, of a definite and permanent idea of the complete and operative invention, as it is thereafter to be applied to practice.”  This is more than just a vague idea, it requires definite plans for how to implement the invention.  “Make” or “reduction to practice” refers to the act of actually making the invention work for its intended purpose.

Next, to avoid a dispute as to whether the employee developed the invention prior to employment, when executing the agreement, give the new employee the opportunity to indicate that he developed the invention prior to commencing employment.  Require that he prove this development by providing sufficient detail that he can’t later argue that vague statements constitute conception.  Unless the parties agree otherwise, the employee should retain all rights in inventions that he conceived or invented prior to commencing employment.  To reduce the chances of a dispute regarding this issue, try to get it out there early in the process rather than waiting until later.

Finally, use language that requires the employee to promptly disclose inventions to the company and to “hereby assign” all future inventions.  The assignment is not required later once the employment has ended and you need to chase the employee and potentially sue him.  Instead, make it effectual as soon as inventions are conceived.

Former employees are not always cooperative in the patent process for their former employers.  You should probably include language the grants the employer at least a partial power of attorney to execute documents on behalf of the former employee inventor in cases where that becomes necessary.

Searching for Prior Art

April 4, 2013

A question that is often asked by new inventors is:  should I do a prior art search before filing a patent application?  The answer, as in most areas of law and life in general, is that it depends.

For individual inventors and smaller companies including start-ups, in most circumstances, I would suggest that yes you should do a prior art search.  Many larger companies have a number of scientists and technologists who are familiar with the technology and what their competitors are doing.  They can also absorb the potential risks of not doing a prior art search.  Most small entities and start-ups do not and can not.

Many, if not most, new inventors are convinced that they are the only ones that have thought of the idea that they seek to patent.  They believe that they have had a flash of insight that no one else has had.  They may even do a bit of Internet research to convince themselves that they are in the clear and that there is no need to do a prior art search.  They are often surprised by the results when they do have a search conducted.

The risks of not doing a search are several.  First, and most importantly, if you plan to commercialize or market the invention as a product or service, you don’t want to get slapped with an infringement lawsuit right out of the gate.  These suits are extremely expensive even if you don’t get hit with a large damage award.  There is a risk that you will not be able to afford to defend such a suit and that all of your hard work in developing the invention, getting it through the prototype stage, and getting it to market would be wasted.  Usually, there is a significant monetary and time investment involved with these steps.  There is also a risk that a court could issue an injunction that would prohibit you from making, using, selling, or offering the invention for sale.

Second, conducting a prior art search prior to preparing a patent application may make prosecution of the application more efficient and cost-effective.  By knowing the closest prior art, the patent application and the claims may be prepared more strategically to take advantage of areas of patentability.  Claims may be prepared that get close to the prior art without encroaching on it.  It may be possible to develop arguments and strategies for convincing the patent examiner that the invention is non-obvious vis-a-vis the prior art.

You may find that the invention needs to be reconfigured to “design around” patents that are found.  This could add to the value of the invention and potentially give you a competitive advantage.  You may find, however, that someone else has a patent that directly prevents you from patenting your invention.  In such a case, you may determine whether to abandon your endeavor or seek to partner with or secure a license from the patent holder.

The main disadvantages of conducting a prior art search are that it will cost some money and that any material prior art that is uncovered must be disclosed to the Patent Office during prosecution of any patent application that is filed for your invention.  The cost is usually not significant in the overall scheme of bringing a new product or service to market and preparing and prosecuting a patent application.  In fact, a good prior art search can make these endeavors more efficient.  Most patent applicants are looking for strong patent protection in which case it is not a disadvantage to bring prior art to the patent examiner’s attention.  This will permit the patent to be “vetted” over that prior art.

Mechanics

A patent attorney can assist you in having a prior art search performed.  A brief written description and possibly a few drawings or sketches of the invention should be prepared.  This information is provided on a confidential basis to a professional patent search firm that will conduct the patent search.  These firms are usually located in Northern Virginia near the PTO and are staffed with engineers and scientists, at least some of whom may be former patent examiners.  The search firm provides the information to a person with skill in searching the subject matter of the invention who conducts the search.

A good “freedom to operate” and patentability search takes a couple of weeks to complete and usually costs less than $2,000, often less than $1,000.  For a “freedom to operate search,” the searchers will search that claims of US patents that are currently in effect.  For a patentability search, the searchers will also search for older US patents, foreign patents, and non-patent literature that may disclose the invention.

The results will typically include a stack of the closest 20-30 patents and other prior art references.  My practice is to provide these results to the inventor with instructions to review them in detail and to bring any that the inventor believes warrant further review by me to my attention, in any event the closest 3-4.  This saves on attorney time of having to review the entire stack.  The inventor is usually in the best position to determine any differences or similarities between the references and the invention.  At that point, we determine how best to proceed with the matter based on the search results.

One might reasonably ask why the inventor or the attorney cannot themselves conduct the prior art search on Google, the PTO website, or another search engine.  One answer is that it is far more efficient for these experts to perform the search than for the attorney to do so.  Their hourly rates are typically much less.  Second, I am always amazed that the professional searchers find prior art that I or the inventors have not been able to find.

In sum, I almost always advise a new inventor, small company, or start-up to have a prior art search done prior to marketing the invention or preparing a patent application.  In my opinion, the advantages of such a search far outweigh the risks or costs of doing so.

What is a Business Method Patent?

April 1, 2013

The America Invents Act set up a transitional program for reexamination of business method patents.  These patents can be challenged on prior art grounds of novelty and non-obviousness, but also on grounds that they are not directed to patentable subject matter.  So, what exactly is a business method patent?

Section 18 of the America Invents Act is a special transition program for challenging business method patents. The section defines “business method patents” as

a patent that claims a method or corresponding apparatus for performing data processing or other operations used in the practice, administration, or management of a financial product or service, except that the term does not include patents for technological inventions.

The law directed the PTO to issue regulations as to what a “technological invention” is. The PTO has proposed a definition:

whether the claimed subject matter as a whole recites a technological feature that is novel and unobvious over the prior art; and solves a technical problem using a technical solution.

This determination is to be made on a case-by-case basis. The PTO supports this definition by reference to the legislative history of the AIA. Unfortunately, this does not help very much. What is a “technical problem”?  What is a “technical solution”?

Versata v. USPTO

Given these extremely broad and imprecise definitions, it comes as no surprise that it will need to be settled by the courts.  IP360 (subscription service) is reporting that Versata Software, Inc. has sued the PTO and is arguing that the PTO’s definition suggests that any patent related to money falls within the program.  The statute, by contrast, indicates that only patents related to “financial products or services” should be covered by the program.

Versata’s competitor, SAP America Inc., filed a petition in September to have Versata’s U.S. Patent No. 6,553,350 reviewed.  A $391 million infringement verdict had been awarded to Versata based on SAP’s infringement of the patent.

In January, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board rejected Versata’s arguments.  “We do not interpret the statute as requiring the literal recitation of the terms ‘financial products or services.  The term ‘financial’ is an adjective that simply means relating to monetary matters.”  The Board has set an April 17 hearing date for the case.

Do the claims of the ‘350 patent fall within the definition set forth in the statute?  Several representative claims from the patent:

1. A method for determining a price of a product offered to a purchasing organization comprising: identifying one or more organizational groups, Within a hierarchy of organizational groups, of which the purchasing organization is a member, wherein pricing information is (i) stored in a data source and (II) associated with one or more of the organizational groups; retrieving from the data source the pricing information applicable to the one or more identified organizational groups; identifying one or more product groups, within a hierarchy of product groups, of which the product is a member, wherein pricing information is (i) stored in a data source and (ii) associated with one or more of the product groups; retrieving from the data source the pricing information applicable to the one or more identified product groups; sorting the retrieved pricing information applicable to the one or more identified organizational groups and the one or more identified product groups according to pricing types, the hierarchy of product groups and the hierarchy of organizational groups; and eliminating any of the pricing information that is less restrictive for the same pricing type; and determining the price of the product using the sorted pricing information that is not eliminated.

29. An apparatus for determining a price of a product offered to a purchasing organization comprising: a processor; a memory coupled to the processor, wherein the memory includes computer program instructions capable of: retrieving from a data source pricing information that is (i) applicable to the purchasing organization and (ii) from one or more identified organizational groups, within a hierarchy of organizational groups, of which the purchasing organization is a member; retrieving from the data source pricing information that is (i) applicable to the product and (ii) from one or more identified product groups, within a hierarchy of product groups, of which the product is a member; and receiving the price of the product determined using pricing information applicable to the one or more identified organizational groups and the one or more identified product groups according to the hierarchy of product groups and the hierarchy of organizational groups.