All posts by Jason Rantanen

About Jason Rantanen

Jason is a Law Professor at the University of Iowa College of Law.

Opportunity for Latino Law Students Interested in Intellectual Property

By Jason Rantanen

The Hispanic National Bar Association and Microsoft are once again sponsoring their week-long HNBA/Microsoft Intellectual Property Law Institute (IPLI).  One of my students participated in the 2013 IPLI and raved about it for months afterwards.

From the IPLI website:

The “HNBA/Microsoft IP Law Institute” will provide opportunities for Latino students interested in intellectual property law, including patents, copyrights, trade secrets and trademarks. This summer, up to twenty-five Latino law students from law schools across the country will be chosen to participate in an IP immersion program in Washington, DC with all necessary expenses covered. Candidates will be selected in a highly competitive process, and the selected students will be provided substantive instruction, the opportunity to observe first-hand U.S. IP institutions at work, and the chance to meet leading members of the IP legal community who will serve as mentors and potentially provide pathways for future job opportunities.

For more details, check out the website: http://www.hnba.com/main/view_event/18/1

Dr. Sheppard Selected as Director of USPTO’s Detroit Office

By Jason Rantanen

Congratulations to my colleague at the University of Nebraska College of Law, Dr. A. Christal Sheppard, who I understand has been selected as the first Director of the PTO’s Detroit satellite office.  From her biography at the College of Law:

Dr. Sheppard began her career as a scientist earning a M.S. and Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the University of Michigan.  After receiving a J.D. from Cornell University Law School and interning with Judge Rader at the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the Executive Office of the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, she was a practicing attorney at the law firm of Foley & Lardner earning extensive experience in patent prosecution, client patent counseling and ligation. She then served in the Office of the General Counsel of the United States International Trade Commission working on Section 337 matters, arguing before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. In 2005, Dr. Sheppard also completed Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Executive Education for Senior Managers in Government program.

Her successful career in intellectual property law and policy included her tenure as Chief Counsel on Patents and Trademarks for the United States House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary where she was integral in many endeavors including the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, the most comprehensive change to this nation’s intellectual property laws in over 60 years.

 

Teva v. Sandoz: Deferential Review on Factual Issues; de novo review of final question of construction

By Jason Rantanen

Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc. v. Sandoz, Inc. (2015) Download Opinion
Breyer (author), joined by Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan; Thomas (dissenting) joined by Alito.

One (or both) of us will certainly write more on this very important opinion.  The Court holds that subsidiary factual issues are reviewed for clear error while legal determinations continue to be reviewed de novo.  From the Court’s syllabus:

Held: When reviewing a district court’s resolution of subsidiary factual matters made in the course of its construction of a patent claim, the Federal Circuit must apply a “clear error,” not a de novo, standard of review.  Pp. 4–16.

***

(c) This leaves the question of how the clear error standard should be applied when reviewing subsidiary factfinding in patent claim construction. When the district court reviews only evidence intrinsic to the patent, the judge’s determination is solely a determination of law, and the court of appeals will review that construction de novo. However, where the district court needs to consult extrinsic evidence in order to understand, for example, the background science or the meaning of a term in the relevant art during the relevant time peri­od, and where those subsidiary facts are in dispute, courts will need to make subsidiary factual findings about the extrinsic evidence.  The district judge, after deciding the factual dispute, will then interpret the patent claim in light of the facts as he has found them.  The ulti­mate construction of the claim is a legal conclusion that the appellate court can review de novo. But to overturn the judge’s resolution of an underlying factual dispute, the appellate court must find that the judge, in respect to those factual findings, has made a clear error. Pp. 11–14.

(d) Here, for example, the District Court made a factual finding, crediting Teva’s expert’s account, and thereby rejecting Sandoz’s ex­pert’s contrary explanation, about how a skilled artisan would under­stand the way in which a curve created from chromatogram data re­flects molecular weights.  Based on that factual finding, the District Court reached the legal conclusion that figure 1 did not undermine Teva’s argument that molecular weight referred to the first method of calculating molecular weight. When the Federal Circuit reviewed the District Court’s decision, it did not accept Teva’s expert’s explanation, and it failed to accept that explanation without finding that the Dis­trict Court’s contrary determination was “clearly erroneous.”  The Federal Circuit erred in failing to review this factual finding only for clear error.  Teva asserts that there are two additional instances in which the Federal Circuit rejected the District Court’s factual find­ings without concluding that they were clearly erroneous; those mat­ters are left for the Federal Circuit to consider on remand.  Pp. 14– 16.

The Court provides a few examples of how this new standard is to be applied:

In some cases, however, the district court will need to look beyond the patent’s intrinsic evidence and to consult extrinsic evidence in order to understand, for example, the background science or the meaning of a term in the rele­vant art during the relevant time period.  See, e.g., Seymour v. Osborne, 11 Wall. 516, 546 (1871) (a patent may be “so interspersed with technical terms and terms of art that the testimony of scientific witnesses is indispensable to a correct understanding of its meaning”).  In cases where those subsidiary facts are in dispute, courts will need to make subsidiary factual findings about that ex­trinsic evidence. These are the “evidentiary underpin­nings” of claim construction that we discussed in Mark-man, and this subsidiary factfinding must be reviewed for clear error on appeal.

For example, if a district court resolves a dispute be­tween experts and makes a factual finding that, in gen­eral, a certain term of art had a particular meaning to a person of ordinary skill in the art at the time of the inven­tion, the district court must then conduct a legal analysis: whether a skilled artisan would ascribe that same mean­ing to that term in the context of the specific patent claim under review. That is because “[e]xperts may be examined to explain terms of art, and the state of the art, at any given time,” but they cannot be used to prove “the proper or legal construction of any instrument of writing.” Winans v. New York & Erie R. Co., 21 How. 88, 100–101 (1859); see also Markman, supra, at 388 (“‘Where tech­nical terms are used, or where the qualities of substances . . . or any similar data necessary to the comprehension of the language of the patent are unknown to the judge, the testimony of witnesses may be received upon these sub­jects, and any other means of information be employed. But in the actual interpretation of the patent the court proceeds upon its own responsibility, as an arbiter of the law, giving to the patent its true and final character and force’” (quoting 2 W. Robinson, Law of Patents §732, pp. 482–483 (1890); emphasis in original)).

Accordingly, the question we have answered here con­cerns review of the district court’s resolution of a subsidi­ary factual dispute that helps that court determine the proper interpretation of the written patent claim. The district judge, after deciding the factual dispute, will then interpret the patent claim in light of the facts as he has found them. This ultimate interpretation is a legal con­clusion. The appellate court can still review the district court’s ultimate construction of the claim de novo. But, to overturn the judge’s resolution of an underlying factual dispute, the Court of Appeals must find that the judge, in respect to those factual findings, has made a clear error. Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 52(a)(6).

The full discussion of the Teva example makes a similar point, finding that the Federal Circuit erred because it should have determined whether the district court’s acceptance of Teva’s expert’s explanation of figure 1 in the patent was “clearly erroneous.”

 

 

Upcoming Conferences and Workshops

By Jason Rantanen
Three upcoming conferences that may be of interest to readers:
This Friday and Saturday, January 16 and 17, the University of San Diego School of Law’s Center for Intellectual Property Law & Markets is holding its 5th Annual Patent Law Conference.  This year’s topic is “Patent Invalidity after the America Invents Act.”  Speakers include Judges Bencivengo, Bartick & Chen.  I attended last year as part of PatCon and thought it was a great event.  More details here: http://www.sandiego.edu/law/centers/ciplm/detail.php?_focus=49377#overview
Hal Wegner’s 3rd Annual Naples Patent Law Experts Conference will be held February 9 and 10.   This beachfront Conference in Naples, Florida, will involve  an interactive discussion by more than thirty faculty members.  Topics to be covered include recent and pending Supreme Court patent law decisions, potential legislative activity, issues of international law, and more. Further information from the sponsoring organization, the University of Akron, is available here: http://www.uakron.edu/law/ip/naples-midwinter.dot
On March 5-6, Don Chisum and Janice Mueller will conduct a two-day patent roundtable seminar.  The program is limited to a total of ten participants to maximize opportunities for interactive discussion and debate.  All sessions are led by treatise authors and educators Don Chisum and Janice Mueller. Coverage focuses on recent significant patent decisions of the Federal Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court. Topics currently planned for discussion include:
  • The Supreme Court’s Alice Corp. decision on patent-eligible subject matter and subsequent Federal Circuit decisions applying Alice
  • The Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari in Commil USA concerning the intent requirement for inducing infringement;
  • The Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari in Kimble v. Marvel concerning the propriety of post-patent expiration royalties;
  • The Supreme Court’s pending decision in Teva v. Sandoz on review of patent claim construction;
  • The Federal Circuit’s grant of en banc review in SCA Hygiene to determine whether the Supreme Court’s Petrella decision changed the law of laches as a defense to patent infringement;
  • Patent Practice Gone Wrong: Lessons from Patent Malpractice, Exceptional Case and Rule 11 Sanctions, and Inequitable Conduct Cases;
  • Patent Claim Construction and Definiteness in the Wake of Nautilus (and Anticipating Teva); and
  • Inter Partes Review: Two-Year Snapshot and Lessons from Case Studies.
No advance preparation is expected or required. The Supreme Court of Ohio Commission on Continuing Legal Education has approved the seminar for 12.0 hours of CLE instruction. For additional details on the venue, topics, and registration form, see http://chisum-patent-academy.com/upcoming-patent-law-seminars/advanced-patent-law-seminars-cincinnati-oh/ or e-mail info@chisum.com.

 

Bard v. W.L. Gore: Revisiting Willful Infringement (Again)

By Jason Rantanen

Bard Peripheral Vascular, Inc. v. W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2015) 14-1114.Opinion.1-7-2015.1
Panel: Prost (author), Hughes (concurring), Newman (dissenting)

Professor Tom Cotter has an excellent write-up of this opinion over on his blog, Comparative Patent Remedies.   The main issue involves willful infringement: applying the de novo standard of review to the objective prong of the willfulness inquiry, as per Seagate and the earlier Bard decision, the majority affirmed the district court’s conclusion that Bard willfully infringed because its noninfringement defense is not “susceptible to a reasonable conclusion of no infringement. ” Judge Hughes wrote separately to reiterate his “belief that the full court should review our willfulness jurisprudence in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions” in Highmark  and Octane Fitness.  Judge Newman dissented; in her view, the majority failed to apply the de novo standard of review required by Seagate; applying that standard, the district court erred.   Judge Newman also questioned the imposition of double damages.

Judge Hughes’ concurrence, like Judge O’Malley’s concurrence in Halo v. Pulse last fall, suggests that the Federal Circuit remains divided on the appropriate legal standard for willful infringement post-Highmark and Octane Fitness.  Panels remain bound by the de novo standard set out in Seagate, but Judges Hughes and O’Malley strongly believe that the court should reconsider that precedent.  It may be only a matter of time before the Federal Circuit either addresses this divide en banc or the Supreme Court grants cert.  It’s also possible that the Court will provide some guidance on the issue in Commil v. Cisco; we’ll know later this year.

 

Promega v. Life Tech, pt. 2: Inducing Oneself

By Jason Rantanen

Promega Corp. v. Life Tech. Corp. (Fed. Cir. 2014) Download Promega v. Life Tech
Panel: Prost (dissenting-in-part), Mayer, Chen (author)

Before the holidays, I wrote about the enablement issue in this case.  Today I’ll talk about the inducement issue, which involves two significant—and probably erroneous—doctrinal developments.  I say “probably erroneous” because in my view at least one, if not both, would likely be reversed by the Supreme Court were it to grant cert.

The short version is that the majority held that in 35 U.S.C. § 271(f)(1), “induce” means “specific intent to cause” and “a substantial portion of the components” includes “a single important or essential component.”  The consequence of the former is that one can induce oneself; the consequence of the latter is that merely supplying a single “main” or “major” component of the claimed invention is sufficient for purposes to 271(f)(1).  Judge Prost dissented as to “induce” and would not have reached the “substantial portion” issue.

The patent claim: The asserted claim, claim 42 of patent No. RE 37,984, is directed to “[a] kit for analyzing polymorphism in at least one locus in a DNA sample.”  The claim limitations involve vessels containing a variety of materials: a mixture of primers, a “polymerizing enzyme suitable for performing a primer-directed polymerase chain reaction,” adenosine, guanine, cytosine and thymidine, a buffer solution, and template DNA.

LifeTech’s activities: LifeTech manufactured Taq polymerase in the United States and shipped it to its facility in the U.K. where it was combined with foreign-manufactured components to produce kits containing all the claimed elements.  While some of the kits were sold in the United States, the main issue on appeal involved kits that never entered the United States.  Taq is indisputably “a polymerizing enzyme suitable for performing a primer-directed polymerase chain reaction.”

Procedural History: At trial, the jury was instructed to consider liability for all “United States sales,” which included “all kits made, used, offered for sale, sold within the United States or imported in the United States as well as kits made outside the United States where a substantial portion of the components are supplied from the United States.” Id. at 11 (emphasis added).  LifeTech preserved its challenge to the italicized language.  The jury returned a verdict finding that “all of LifeTech’s worldwide sales were attributable to infringing acts in the United States.”  Id.  The district court subsequently granted JMOL in LifeTech’s favor.

On appeal, Promega challenged the court’s grant of JMOL as to both sales infringing under 271(a) and under 271(f)(1).  The Federal Circuit focused primarily on the 271(f)(1) issue. 35 U.S.C. § 271(f)(1) states:

Whoever without authority supplies or causes to be supplied in or from the United States all or a substantial portion of the components of a patented invention, where such components are uncombined in whole or in part, in such manner as to actively induce the combination of such components outside of the United States in a manner that would infringe the patent if such combination occurred within the United States, shall be liable as an infringer.

(emphasis added).  LifeTech raised two legal grounds for affirming the district court’s grant of JMOL.  First, it argued that 271(f)(1) requires inducement of another; one cannot induce oneself.  Thus, it could not be liable under 271(f)(1) for exporting the Taq polymerase to itself to combine with the other components.  Second, it argued that 271(f)(1) requires that a “substantial portion” of the components be exported; “one” component is not a “substantial portion” of the components.

For 271(f)(1), one can induce oneself: The majority first rejected LifeTech’s argument that 271(f)(1) should be interpreted as requiring another person to be induced.  Rather, it means “merely the specific intent to cause the combination of the components of a patented invention outside the United States.”  Slip Op. at 23.  In reaching this conclusion, it first looked to the dictionary definition of “induce,” observing that it means “to bring about, to cause.”  Id.  From this, it concluded that “[t]he object of the transitive verb ‘induce’ can either be a person or a thing, such as an activity or result.”  Id.  Here, it is the activity that is being “induce[d]”: “The statute is written such that an activity—”the combination”—is the object of “induce,” not a person.”  Id.  Thus, no third party is necessary.  Furthermore, “[h]ad Congress wanted to limit “induce” to actions contemplated by two separate parties, it could easily have done so by assigning liability only where one party actively induced another “to combine the [p]atented components.”  Id.  To bolster its conclusion, the majority drew upon its reading of the legislative history and what it divined as Congress’s intent in passing the statute.  The result is to effectively turn the word “induce” into word “cause.”

The majority’s pseudo-textualist analysis: I’m thoroughly unconvinced by the majority’s analysis.  Setting aside the majority’s reading of the legislative history, which Judge Prost criticizes in her dissent, its textual analysis is deeply flawed.  Proper textualism involves the consideration of the ordinary meaning of words, evaluated in context, and an application of the canons of statutory construction.  But just as in patent law, “ordinary meaning” doesn’t just mean “ordinary meaning.”  Rather, terms with a legal meaning (such as “person”) are given their ordinary legal meaning.   The problem with the majority’s analysis begins with its reliance on a general-purpose dictionary for a term that has a well-established legal meaning and goes downhill from there.

While “induce” might mean “to bring about, to cause” in the general-usage context, in the legal context—and particularly the patent law context—its meaning invariably involves a relationship between two separate persons.  I am not aware of any instances (but would be interested to learn of them) where courts have interpreted “induce”  as encompassing one’s own performance of the proscribed acts.  This is especially true with respect to 271(b), where both the Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court have written extensively about the requirements for the relationship to rise to the level of inducement.  One would not “induce” infringement of a patent by using a machine to carry out a claimed process; one would be liable for direct infringement.  To treat the word as if it were necessary to start from first principles, looking it up in a general purpose dictionary, is to ignore all of this well-established legal meaning.

As part of my background reading for this post, I took a look at Bryan Garner’s Black’s Law Dictionary.  Here’s his entry for “inducement” (there is no separate entry for “induce”), defining it as “The act or process of enticing or persuading another person to take a certain course of action”:

Garner 1999 InducementCongress did not have the benefit of Professor Garner’s text in 1984, when it passed 274(f); this definition comes from the 1999 version of Black’s.*  But my sense is that Garner’s definition is a lot closer to the legal meaning of “actively inducement” than “http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/induce.”  Slip Op. at 23.  And to the extent it is descriptive of the legal meaning, it unquestionably supports the interpretation as involving another person.

Edit to add a legal citation: “It is, however, well established that “[w]here Congress uses terms that have accumulated settled meaning under… the common law, a court must infer, unless the statute otherwise dictates, that Congress means to incorporate the established meaning of these terms.”  CCNV v. Reid, 490 U.S. 730 (1989) (quoting NLRB v. Amax Coal Co., 453 U.S. 322, 329 (1981)).

“Congress knows how to say…”: In addition to its dictionary definition, the majority also observed that Congress could easily have included the word “another” in the statute.  The main problem with this interpretative principle is that it only applies when it’s clear that Congress actually does know how to say something.  Typically, the principle is invoked in the context of a parallel statute in which Congress actually said it.  See, e.g., Limelight Networks, Inc. v. Akamai Technologies, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2111, 2118 (2014) (“As this provision illustrates, when Congress wishes to impose liability for inducing activity that does not itself constitute direct infringement, it knows precisely how to do so.”) (emphasis added).  Here, however, there is no such contrasting statute that contains that “something;” worse, the closest parallel—Section 271(b)—does not contain the word “another.”  Rather, it says simply “Whoever actively induces infringement of a patent shall be liable as an infringer.”

Edit to add a citation: “Ordinarily, ‘Congress’ silence is just that—silence.”  CCNV v. Reid (quoting Alaska Airlines, Inc. v. Brock, 480 U.C. 678, 686 (1987)).

Judge Prost’s Dissent: Judge Prost’s dissent identifies another problem with the majority’s interpretation: that interpretation is foreclosed by precedent.  “[W]e have never before held—in the context of either § 271(f) or § 271(b)—that a party can induce itself to infringe.  And for good reason: this conclusion runs counter to unambiguous Supreme Court precedent.”  Dissent at 2.

Twice the Supreme Court has held that inducement liability requires a third party. In interpreting the phrase “induces infringement” in § 271(b), the Supreme Court wrote that it requires “that the inducer lead another” or “persuade another.” Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB SA, 131 S. Ct. 2060, 2065 (2011) (emphases added). Additionally, in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., a case in the analogous copyright context, the Supreme Court stated that inducement is defined as “entic[ing] or persuad[ing] another” to infringe. 545 U.S. 913, 935 (2005) (emphasis added). The majority cannot point to a single case—from the Supreme Court or otherwise—that supports its contrary interpretation of inducement.

Id. at 2-3.

Judge Prost might go too far in arguing that the majority’s interpretation is foreclosed by precedent (As the majority points out, none of these cases directly confronted the question of whether one can “induce” oneself), but her underlying point is sound: these cases demonstrated that the meaning of “induce” is already well-established as requiring another person.

Multinational companies must be careful: As long as the accused party meets the “supplies…a substantial portion of the components” requirement, it will be liable for its own foreign combination of those elements.**   This has particular importance for multinational companies that engage in distributed manufacturing.  As a policy matter, the court’s decision pushes those companies towards one of two alternatives: purchasing their components from another (possibly US) supplier or simply making the components abroad.  Perhaps the lack of liability in this situation was an oversight in the statute, a statutory loophole.  But if so, the appropriate response would be—as was the case following Deepsouth—legislative action.  (I’m not convinced that it’s necessarily a loophole, but need to think further on that point.)

Every “essential” component is a “substantial portion of the components.”  The majority also interpreted the requirement that “all or a substantial portion of the components of a patented invention” be supplied, concluding that “substantial portion of the components” includes “a single important or essential component.”  Slip Op. at 27.  Here, that component was the Taq polymerase, a widely-used enzyme for polymerase chain reaction.  The court concluded that supplying Taq was enough based on the following evidence: “Without Taq polymerase, the genetic testing kit recited in the Tautz patent would be inoperable because no PCR could occur.  LifeTech’s own witness admitted that the Taq polymerase is one of the “main” and “major components of the accused kits.”  Id. at 32.  As the Taq example demonstrates, under the court’s interpretation any component of a patented invention is an essential component.  If one removes Taq, the kit won’t work; if one removes the primers, the kit won’t work; if one removes the nucelotide bases, the kit won’t work.  This has the potential to greatly expand liability under 271(f)(1).

Rendering 271(f)(2) superfluous: In my view, the majority’s textual analysis of  “substantial portion” suffers from similar flaws as its analysis of “induce.”   The deepest, however, is that by reading “substantial portion” as it does, the majority renders 271(f)(2) superfluous.  That section states:

(2) Whoever without authority supplies or causes to be supplied in or from the United States any component of a patented invention that is especially made or especially adapted for use in the invention and not a staple article or commodity of commerce suitable for substantial noninfringing use, where such component is uncombined in whole or in part, knowing that such component is so made or adapted and intending that such component will be combined outside of the United States in a manner that would infringe the patent if such combination occurred within the United States, shall be liable as an infringer.

Under the majority’s interpretation of “substantial portion,” 271(f)(1) reads:

“Whoever without authority supplies or causes to be supplied in or from the United States an important or essential component of a patented invention, where such components are uncombined in whole or in part, in such manner as to actively induce the combination of such components outside of the United States in a manner that would infringe the patent if such combination occurred within the United States, shall be liable as an infringer.”

The only differences between the two are that (f)(2) is limited to components that are “especially made or especially adapted for use in the invention and not a staple article or commodity of commerce suitable for substantial noninfringing use;” a knowledge of infringement requirement in (f)(2); and the “intending that such component will be combined” language of (f)(2) versus the “in such manner as to actively induce the combination” language of (f)(1).  The first two differences make (f)(2)’s scope narrower than that of (f)(1), and the third does not constitute a meaningful difference under the majority’s interpretation of “actively induces.”***  The result is that, under the majority’s interpretation, I can’t envision any conduct that would fall within (f)(2) that would not also fall within (f)(1).

*The older definition of “induce” from Black’s doesn’t provide much interpretative help in my view.  See Black’s Law Dictionary, Fourth Edition (West 1951) (defining “induce” as “to bring on or about, to affect, cause, to influence to an act or course of conduct, lead by persuasion or reasoning, incite by motives, prevail on”) (this definition was carried forward through at least the 1990 version). Part of my ambivalence is that without looking at the source of the definition, it’s not clear that another party isn’t required.  And once you look at the source of the definition, it’s apparent that the case wasn’t talking about the legal meaning of “induce” but it’s general purpose meaning.  See State v. Stratford, 55 Idaho 65 (Idaho 1934).

**Nor does the argument that the majority’s interpretation still imposes an “intent” requirement change the analysis.  The majority concludes that “actively induce the combination” means “merely the specific intent to cause the combination of the components of a patented invention outside the United States.”  Slip Op. at 23.  This is nothing more than a volitional conduct requirement: a person that combines the elements will necessarily have the “specific intent to cause the combination” except in very rare, very unusual circumstances.  And the jury instruction discussed above did not mention any requirement of intent.

***If “actively induce” were interpreted as requiring the participation of a third party, then there might be a difference between the two in that a reasonable reading of 271(f)(2) is that it covers one’s own combination of the components.

Side note: This appeal is one of the two that were at the heart of In re Reines; Ed Reines represents LifeTech.  In the other appeal, the district court’s judgment in favor of Promega was summarily affirmed in March.

Comments are welcome.  My comment moderation policy is in effect. 

The Federal Circuit and Judicial Transparency

By Jason Rantanen

Last week, in writing about the Federal Circuit’s grant of en banc review in SCA Hygiene Products v. First Quality Baby Products, I observed that the order was not yet available on the court’s website.  Upon checking again this morning, I noted that it continues to be unavailable.

As a general matter, I tend to favor the existence of the Federal Circuit and believe that the judges who sit on that court are largely just folks who are trying to do the best they can in deciding very challenging cases.  I don’t always agree with the judges’ reasoning, but I appreciate the difficulty of what they are called upon to do (as well as how much easier it is to criticize an analysis than it is to assemble an analysis).

Where I tend to be most disappointed is with those aspects of the court that do not operate at this high level; or even at a “pretty good” level.  In particular, I am routinely unimpressed with the lack of public transparency when it comes to information about the court’s decisions.  One example is the court’s statistics page, which contains data that can be difficult to interpret because no methodology is provided.  Worse, the variety of statistics that the court has publicly released has shrunk over the years.  The court used to provide data on the dispositions of patent infringement cases, for example; that data is no longer provided by the court.

Much greater than problems with the court’s statistical data, however, is the lack of transparency in connection with the court’s decisions themselves.  This is not to say that there is no information: the court deserves credit for deciding, several years ago, to post its opinions on the Federal Circuit webpage.   These opinions are published at http://www.cafc.uscourts.gov/opinions-orders/ throughout the day.  Since around the middle of 2007, the material released at this location has included summary affirmances under Rule 36, and for the past few years “selected” orders have been published there as well.

Unfortunately, no criteria for which orders are “selected” for publication on the website are provided, and extremely significant and important orders are sometimes not released there.  For example, even though the Federal Circuit’s announcements page contains an announcement about the grant of en banc review in SCA Hygiene and an invitation for amicus participation, the order itself (which contains the questions presented) is not available on the court’s website.  Instead, users are directed to download the order from PACER, a registration-required, fee-based system that is routinely criticized on access to justice grounds.  Surely, such an important order would be easily available to the interested public.  It is not.

In addition, as Hal Wegner recently pointed out in his email newsletter, the court’s public revelation of its decisions via PACER creates a second, possibly more significant, issue: those folks who do have PACER access will know about the court’s decisions before those who merely follow its public website.  This is because the decisions can appear on PACER up to two hours before they appear on the Federal Circuit’s website.  The result is that those who follow that particular docket on PACER will gain first knowledge about the outcome of the case, something that may have significant financial implications.

There are some actions that followers of the Federal Circuit can take if they want to stay on the cutting edge of the court’s dispositions.  First, the court has an RSS feed through which it announces releases of opinions on PACER.  You can subscribe to the RSS feed here: http://www.cafc.uscourts.gov/rss-opinions.php (thanks to Hal Wegner for the tip!).  I’m told, but haven’t yet confirmed, that this feed updates at the same time that an opinion is released on PACER.  Second, if you have access to a document monitoring service, such as BNA, you can set it to alert you when individual dockets are updated.  Again, I haven’t yet confirmed how “real time” the alert is.  Both approaches have drawbacks, but they do provide partial solutions.

But the bigger problem remains: the challenge of gaining access to all of the court’s theoretically “public” decisions.  PACER is not like, say, the USPTO‘s trademark search system, which a model of transparency and ease of use.  Instead, it is the electronic equivalent of the warehouse at the end of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the addition of a fee to open each box.  And the court’s recent elimination of the “daily disposition sheet” has only made it more difficult to even know what’s kept in that warehouse.

With all the technological and political issues surrounding PACER, figuring out how to open up all the court’s judicial decisions to greater public access is, perhaps, not an easy problem to solve.  But given the court’s ability to address complex issues of fact and law in its decisions, it’s rather disappointing that it hasn’t applied that same ability to releasing those decisions in a more transparent way.

One possible start might be to ensure that court opinions and orders are released simultaneously on the court’s website and PACER.  Another would be to post all the court’s orders on the website, not just those that are “selected.”  And a third would be to create an electronic, publicly-available historic set of all the court’s decisions, not just the incomplete set that is currently provided.  All three would  would go a substantial way to ensuring greater judicial transparency and to avoid any more embarrassing lapses like the SCA Hygiene snafu.

By the way – if you are looking for that particular order, you can download it here: SCA Hygiene en banc order

My moderation policy is in effect for comments on this post.  Off-topic, excessive and abusive comments will be removed.

Edit to add a reference to the elimination of the daily disposition sheet after the comment from Pilgrim.  Some additional minor edits for clarification.

Patent Cases Pending as of January 1, 2015

By Jason Rantanen

In November, I wrote about a decline in patent suits pending in district court.  Using Lex Machina, I recently put together an updated set of data that includes patent cases pending as of December 1 and January 1.  The figure below shows a continued drop in cases through November, followed by no real change in December.   The lack of movement for December is the result of a modest increase in new case filings and a substantial drop in terminations relative to the previous month.  (Keep in mind that the underlying data is highly dynamic: in December, for example, there were about 380 new case filings and about 400 terminations of existing cases.)

Pending Patent Cases 1-1-2015

Some folks have asked about the effect of co-pending PTO proceedings.  Lex Machina doesn’t presently offer a way to easily determine whether a proceeding is stayed pending an administrative proceeding at the PTO, so I can’t directly count these stays in the graph.  But my intuition is that they aren’t going to make an enormous difference.  Love & Ambwani report that between September 2012 and September 2014, courts granted litigation stays in 140 suits where there was a co-pending instituted inter partes review.  For comparison, the drop in pending I just don’t see these stays making a significant impact on the above graph regardless of whether they are counted as open cases or terminated cases.

Thanks to my research assistant, Alex Lodge, for collecting the data for the above chart. 

Comment policy: At the suggestion of a few folks, I will try an active moderation policy on this post.  Posts containing name calling, character attacks, or an unnecessarily aggressive tone will be deleted, as will excessive commenting.

Guest Post by Prof. Chiang: A Response to Hrdy and Picozzi

Professor Tun-Jen Chiang is an Associate Professor of Law at the George Mason University School of Law.  Below, he responds to Camilla Hrdy and Ben Picozzi’s commentary on The Interpretation-Construction Distinction in Patent Law.  As with the previous two posts in this series, the real name policy applies to comments on this post. 

Thanks to Jason and Dennis for inviting me to post, and to Jason for the extremely flattering introduction. I should make clear at the outset that I am only speaking for myself, not my coauthor, on this blog, though of course the article represents our joint views.

A brief recap for those who have not read (or only skimmed) the article. The article’s primary claim is conceptual. The claim is that in making decisions pursuant to text, courts necessarily engage in a two-step process: (1) they read the text and try to discern its linguistic meaning, i.e. the meaning of the language, qua language, to members of the intended audience, and (2) they determine the legal effect of the text by rendering a decision. We call the former “interpretation” and the latter “construction.” The key point is that linguistic meaning and legal effect are not always the same, and therefore uncertainty over the legal scope of patent claims does not necessarily arise because of linguistic ambiguity.

A couple of clarifications at the outset. The first is that our definition of “construction” is simply giving text a legal effect—it does not care whether that legal effect is consistent with statute, precedent, and text or not. Camilla’s articulation (where judges “‘construe’ the claims according to their normative beliefs about what the claims’ legal effect should be”) potentially gives the impression that we define construction as only when judges act as super-regulators who engage in free-floating first-order policy analysis. This is not correct. Even the most restrained judge who makes decisions strictly in accordance with statute, precedent, and/or claim text engages in construction, because his decisions necessarily give the claim text a legal effect.

Second, our claim is conceptual, not normative. Our claim is not that interpretation is good or that construction is bad; our claim is that both are intrinsic to the activity of claim analysis, so there is really no “good” or “bad” about the matter. And because our claim is conceptual, our doctrinal prescriptions are very limited. We do not opine, for example, whether courts should give more or less weight to dictionaries, or specifications, or anything else.

The sum is that we are not trying to push a textualist or plain meaning agenda, and we are not trying to suggest that judges who engage in construction are judicial activists who ought to be impeached. Our goal is to simply provide more clarity in analysis and a better diagnosis for what ails patent claims. Specifically, we argue that the uncertainty in patent claims is not caused by linguistic ambiguity, but by methodological disagreement among judges about whether to construe claims according to the patentee’s actual inventive contribution, or instead according to the linguistic meaning of claim text written by the patentee (which is likely to be broader than the real invention).

It is at this point that Hrdy and Picozzi’s response comes in. Hrdy and Picozzi agree with us that methodological disagreement, rather than linguistic ambiguity, underlies disagreements over claim construction. But, they argue, the root source of methodological disagreement in patent law is more narrow than in other areas of law. That is, according to Hrdy and Picozzi, in areas such as constitutional law, “judges are relatively free to interpret and construct the text based on their prior beliefs about which policy outcomes or which form of interpretive methodology (e.g., textualism or anti-textualism) is superior.” But in patent law, they argue, judges are constrained by the Patent Act, and so disagreements over claim construction do not stem from free-floating beliefs about desirable policy outcomes, but instead are tethered to more mundane and legalistic disagreements about the proper statutory construction of the disclosure requirements of 35 U.S.C. § 112. In particular, they argue that “judges’ approaches to claim construction closely followed—and were likely influenced by—their constructions of section 112(a)’s written description requirement and section 112(b)’s definiteness requirement.”

It might perhaps surprise Hrdy and Picozzi to discover that I agree that judges’ approaches to claim construction largely parallel, and are likely influenced by, their positions on § 112. Yet I do not think this defeats my argument. As an initial matter, I would note that, even if Hrdy and Picozzi are correct that disagreements over claim construction stem from narrow legalistic disagreements about the proper understanding of § 112, that would not contradict the core claims of the article—the basic point that disputes about claim analysis are mostly disputes about legal methodology rather than linguistic meaning would still stand. In that sense Hrdy and Picozzi’s argument is less a refutation and more in the nature of a follow-on contribution. But I also think there is a deeper disagreement: Implicit in Hrdy and Picozzi’s con-law-is-different argument seems to be the contention that disagreements about § 112 are not based on beliefs about desirable policy but instead are narrow, mundane, and legalistic debates unencumbered by ideological priors. I think this contention is flawed and that their evidence is more consistent with an alternative hypothesis, namely that judges show a consistent pattern across several doctrinally-distinct issues—claim construction, § 112(a), § 112(b)—because they are influenced by their underlying beliefs about desirable policy (specifically, beliefs about desirable patent scope) in all of them. Judges who favor broad patents tend to construe claims broadly and read § 112 narrowly; judges who favor narrow patents tend to do the opposite. Rather than proving that patent law is not like con law, I submit that the Hrdy and Picozzi’s evidence tends to show that it is.

 

Federal Circuit to Review Defense of Laches in Patent Law

By Jason Rantanen

This morning, the Federal Circuit issued an Order granting en banc review in SCA Hygiene Prods. Aktiebolag v. First Quality Baby Prods., LLC.  (Dennis’s  commentary on SCA here: http://patentlyo.com/patent/2014/09/federal-supreme-holding.html.) The central issue involves the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (holding that laches does not apply to copyright infringement occurring within the window provided by the statute of limitations) on patent law.

The issues presented:

(a) In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 134 S. Ct. 1962 (2014) (and considering any relevant differences between copyright and patent law), should this court’s en banc decision in A.C. Aukerman Co. v. R.L. Chaides Constr. Co., 960 F.2d 1020 (Fed. Cir. 1992), be overruled so that the defense of laches is not applicable to bar a claim for damages based on patent infringement occurring within the six-year damages limitations period established by 35 U.S.C. § 286?

(b) In light of the fact that there is no statute of limitations for claims of patent infringement and in view of Supreme Court precedent, should the defense of laches be available under some circumstances to bar an entire infringement suit for either damages or injunctive relief? See, e.g., Lane & Bodley Co. v. Locke, 150 U.S. 193 (1893).

The order is not yet available on the Federal Circuit’s website, but can be read here: Download SCA en banc order. Thanks to Hal Wegner for bringing it to my attention.

Guest Post by Camilla Hrdy on The Interpretation-Construction Distinction in Patent Law

Camilla Hrdy is the Center for Technology, Innovation & Competition Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Law School Information Society Project.  Below, she comments on The Interpretation-Construction Distinction in Patent Law by Professors Chiang and Solum. The “real name” rule applies to comments on this post.

Uncertainty and unpredictability in claim construction outcomes is one of the most important problems in patent litigation today. But patent law isn’t the only context in which judges struggle to determine the meaning of legal texts. In a recent article in the Yale Law Journal, The Interpretation-Construction Distinction in Patent Law, T.J. Chiang and Lawrence Solum argue that construing a patent is no different from any other form of legal analysis performed by judges, whether in constitutional law, statutory law, or contract law. As in these contexts, judges proceed in two distinct stages when determining the legal meaning of a patent’s claims. First, they “interpret” the claims’ linguistic meaning. Second, they “construe” the claims according to their normative beliefs about what the claims’ legal effect should be. According to Chiang and Solum, uncertainty in claim construction outcomes is caused mainly by judges’ disagreements in the “construction” phase, not the “interpretation” phase. In other words, judges disagree over policy, not language.

In a response in the Yale Law Journal Forum, Ben Picozzi and I argue that the “interpretation-construction distinction” does not fully capture how judges construe patent claims because it does not take into account the difference between the statutory context in which claim construction occurs and the constitutional context in which the interpretation-construction distinction evolved. In constitutional analysis, judges are relatively free to interpret and construct the text based on their prior beliefs about which policy outcomes or which form of interpretive methodology (e.g., textualism or anti-textualism) is superior. In contrast, when judges construe the terms of a patent, they must do so in light of the requirements of the Patent Act – in particular, 35 U.S.C. § 112. Section 112 imposes several requirements for minimum disclosure and definiteness. If a patent does not meet these requirements, judges are obligated to find it invalid under one of several doctrines.

We agree with Chiang and Solum, as well as other commentators such as Thomas Krause and Heather Auyang, that significant policy disagreements underlie judges’ divergent views on the legal meaning of patent claims, and that one of the major debates is whether claims should be interpreted broadly, according to how a patentee wrote them, or narrowly, according to what the judge finds to be the “real invention.” But in our view, these debates are based on judges’ disagreements over the precise levels of disclosure and definiteness that section 112 requires. Simply put, what Chiang and Solum call “claim construction” versus “claim interpretation” is actually statutory construction. In our response, we analyze the major claim construction cases that Chiang and Solum use as examples of their theory and show that in each of these examples, the judges’ disagreement over the meaning of the claims at issue was motivated by their disagreement over the meaning of the statute. Specifically, judges’ approaches to claim construction closely followed—and were likely influenced by—their constructions of section 112(a)’s written description requirement and section 112(b)’s definiteness requirement.

Our disagreement with Chiang and Solum is not just theoretical. It is highly relevant for the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in Teva v. Sandoz, where the Court will decide what standard the Federal Circuit must apply in reviewing district courts’ claim construction decisions. Is claim construction a purely legal question that must be reviewed de novo? Or should at least some aspects of claim construction be reviewed under the more deferential “clear error” standard ordinarily applied to district courts’ factual findings? Most commentators—and the Solicitor General—argue that many issues that arise in claim construction, such as expert testimony on the level of ordinary skill in the art, are factual issues that should be reviewed deferentially. Chiang and Solum disagree, arguing that claim construction should be treated as a question of law and reviewed without deference. The reason they give for their somewhat unusual stance is their view that many important disputes over claim meaning involve construction, not interpretation of claims. If district courts were free to engage in construction without significant oversight from courts of appeal, this would increase, not reduce, uncertainty in outcomes, with “hundreds of district court judges across the nation each following their own individually preferred methodologies in the individual cases that come before them.”

We agree with Chiang and Solum’s conclusion that some purely legal questions underlie judicial disagreements over the meaning of patent claims and that many of these questions are in need of appellate review. But this is because they are questions of statutory construction. Judges disagree over issues like the contours of section 112’s disclosure and claim definiteness requirements, and consequently disagree over the proper construction of claims.

On this view, granting deference to district courts with respect to questions that do not involve statutory construction would not necessarily increase uncertainty and disuniformity in claim construction outcomes. Moreover, even if the Federal Circuit must review many facets of district courts’ claim construction decisions under the more deferential clear error standard, the Federal Circuit could still do much to increase certainty by resolving a number of outstanding statutory debates. For instance, does section 112(a), which the Federal Circuit has held contains a separate written description requirement, also require claims to be construed according to what the inventor “actually invented,” as Judge Lourie and other members of the court have suggested in several claim construction decisions? Does section 112(b), as construed by the Supreme Court in Nautilus v. Biosig, require courts to review more expert evidence in order to determine whether a patent’s claims would inform those skilled in the art “with reasonable certainty” about the scope of the invention?

If the Federal Circuit or the Supreme Court cannot resolve such issues, then Congress should amend the statute to provide greater clarity. This is how patent law has historically progressed and, we believe, is how lawmaking should work within a well-functioning statutory framework. Chiang and Solum’s analysis is a good start, but it doesn’t take this framework into account. Doing so would lead to conclusions that are less pessimistic and more complete.

Comments on the “Real Name” Experiment

By Jason Rantanen

I’ve created this post so that folks can comment on the “real names only” rule that I’m applying in the Interpretation-Construction Distinction threads.  I’ll continue to delete posts under pseudonyms in that thread.

As a point of clarification: Your “real name” is the name that you would use when filling out documents that include the language “under penalty of perjury.”

And a second clarification: I’m only applying this rule to this series of posts.  It is *not* a general policy change.

 

The Interpretation-Construction Distinction in Patent Law

By Jason Rantanen

Last week, I wrote about my view that patent rights are malleable; that is, their scope and strength can be altered by the parties who interact with them after their issuance.  Malleability is different from ideas that patent rights are simply uncertain; that the scope and strength of patents that revolve around chance or indeterminacy, as it involves changes to the patent right rather than resolution of an unknown variable.

In connection with that work, I’ve recently had several valuable exchanges with Professor Tun-Jen Chiang, whose ability to articulate theoretical concepts in patent law is possibly without equal.  This is not to say that I agree with Chiang’s perspectives; I frequently do not.  But his work bears strong traces of both Richard Epstein and Timothy Dyk in the rigor of its analysis and lucidity of its explanations.

One of Professor Chiang’s most recent works, The Interpretation-Construction Distinction in Patent Law, 123 Yale L. J. 530 (2013), co-authored with Professor Lawrence Solum, takes head-on the issue of indeterminacy in claim scope.  Chiang and Solum argue that this indeterminacy is not so much due to linguistic ambiguity as it is to “a conflict about the underlying goal of claim construction: is it to give effect to the linguistic meaning of text, or is it to tailor patent scope to the real invention?”  Id. at 536.  This conflict, they argue, involves two fundamentally different goals, and determining claim meaning is an incoherent inquiry when judges move between them.  The result is indeterminacy not due to linguistic ambiguity but due to an inability to resolve whether to apply linguistic analysis in the first place.

I’ve provided the abstract below; the full article is here: http://www.yalelawjournal.org/article/the-interpretation-construction-distinction-in-patent-law

The ambiguity of claim language is generally considered to be the most important problem in patent law today. Linguistic ambiguity is believed to cause tremendous uncertainty about patent rights. Scholars and judges have accordingly devoted enormous attention to developing better linguistic tools to help courts understand patent claims.

In this Article, we explain why this diagnosis is fundamentally wrong. Claims are not often ambiguous, and linguistic ambiguity is not a major cause of the uncertainty in patent law today. We shall explain what really causes the uncertainty in patent rights, how the erroneous diagnosis of linguistic ambiguity has led the literature off track, and what will get us back on track to solving the uncertainty problem.

Tomorrow, Camilla Hrdy will guest-blog about her response to The Interpretation-Construction Distinction in Patent Law.  For this series of posts, we’ll be doing something a bit different for comments.  Only comments with the author’s real name will be permitted; all others will be removed.

The Malleability of Patent Rights

By Jason Rantanen

Folks who write about patents commonly explain the concept by drawing an analogy to real property rights, with the metes and bounds of a patent set out in the claims rather than a deed description.  Drawing upon this analogy, a common critique of by scholars such as Jim Bessan and Mike Meurer is that patent boundaries are much less clear than those of deeds.  Related to this uncertainty in scope is the fact that the very existence of the rights themselves is hardly certain.  While issued patents come with a presumption of validity, it is only that: a presumption.  Patent claims can be and are invalidated by courts.  Commentators have used various terms to describe these attributes, terms that when unpacked mean somewhat different things.  Indeterminacy and probabilistic rights are two of the most common.  Regardless of the terminology, the core idea is that that patent rights are characterized by a degree of uncertainty.

In my most recent long-form work, I describe another important characteristic of patent rights: their malleability.  By malleable, I mean that the scope and strength of the right can be changed after the patent is issued through an array of mechanisms, thus allowing actors operating within the patent system the ability to change the very contours of the right.  In other words, not only can patent rights involve something akin to a roll of the dice or an inability to definitively pin down their scope, but the outcome of that roll or the contours of the uncertainty can be changed by the actions of the parties involved.  An obvious example is the role that skilled counsel play in litigation, but that’s not the only way that patent rights can be altered after issuance.

Over the past few months, we’ve seen quite a few manifestations of this malleable nature of rights; most recently in the Federal Circuit’s decision this morning in Content Extraction v. Wells Fargo Bank invalidating an issued patent on section 101 grounds.  The rise in importance of Section 101 is in large part the result of individual actions pushing and pulling on patent rights using those tools at their disposal, as attorneys develop creative new ways to deploy the legal precedent and policy arguments.  The consequence in this case is that the patent rights are eliminated well after the patent issued.  There are, of course, better examples of malleability than invalidation: claim construction is the one that most quickly comes to mind.

Ultimately, it’s not clear to me that malleability is a desirable characteristic.  Although there are individual doctrines where malleability may be necessary, I have yet to come up with a good theoretical justification for it on a broad scale.

Read The Malleability of Patent Rights here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2540356.  The article is still a draft, so well thought out comments and responses are particularly welcome.

Promega v. Life Tech: Enablement and Open Claim Elements

By Jason Rantanen

Promega Corp. v. Life Tech. Corp. (Fed. Cir. 2014) Download Promega v Life Tech
Panel: Prost (dissenting-in-part), Mayer, Chen (author)

This decision is interesting for its enablement analysis, which revolves around the term “comprising,” and for its holding on 271(f) liability for international inducement (the portion of the opinion as to which Chief Judge Prost dissented).  I’ll write more about the 271(f) issue in a subsequent post.

A few core technical details are useful for understanding this opinion.  The patents at issue relate to DNA, and specifically to the amplification of particular “short tandem repeats” (STR) loci.  These loci are important because they can be used to create a DNA “fingerprint” unique to each individual.  These fingerprints are valuable in both criminal forensics and health sciences research.

To create these DNA fingerprints, the STR loci must first be “amplified,” which essentially means copying the DNA many times over.  While the technology for DNA amplification described in the patent (polymerase chain reaction) was well known at the time of the patent application (1994), amplifying multiple STR loci at the same time (called “multiplexing”) remained challenging.  A central problem with multiplexing was the extreme difficulty in predicting what would happen when a new locus was added to the multiplex.  The multiplex might work or it might not, depending on the interactions between the new locus, the existing loci, and primers used in the reaction.   The patents-in-suit do not purport to solve this problem generally; rather, they identify specific combinations of loci that will successfully co-amplify.

Enablement and The Use of “Comprising”: The set of claims for which enablement was an issue all contained the term “comprising” before the set of loci (not just after the preamble).  Claim 23 of one of the patents-in-suit  is representative:

23. A kit for simultaneously analyzing short tandem repeat sequences in a set of short tandem repeat loci from one or more DNA samples, comprising:

A single container containing oligonucleotide primers for each locus in a set of short tandem repeat loci which can be co-amplified, comprising HUMCSF1PO, HUMTPOX, and HUMTH01.

(The “HUM” terms refer to specific loci.)  It’s black letter patent law that “comprising” is an “open” term; in other words, the claims encompass both products that are limited to the specific elements recited in the claims as well as those that contain those elements.  Here, that meant that the claims encompassed both “products that use no loci other than those listed in the claims” as well as “any other loci combination containing those three recited loci–whether that combination includes 13, 1,1300 or 13,000 STR loci.”  Slip Op. at 7.  Life Tech moved for summary judgment, which the district court denied because “the asserted claims need not enable ‘unrecited elements.'”  Id. at 14.

Applying the concept of commensurability, the Federal Circuit reversed.  “The enablement requirement ensures that ‘the public knowledge is enriched by the patent specification to a degree at least commensurate with the scope of the claims.'”   Slip Op. at 14 (quoting Nat’l Recovery Techs v. Magnetic Separation Sys., 166 F.3d 1190 (Fed. Cir. 1999)).

Here, the scope of the claims was not “less than or equal to the scope of enablement.”  Id.  First, the unstated STR loci combinations are not merely “unrecited elements;” “they are part of the claim scope.”  And not only are they are part of the claim scope, they are an important part.  Promega itself repeatedly argued the unpredictability point to the patent office during prosecution of the claims-in-suit to support their patentability over the prior art and during the litigation itself in defense of their nonobviousness.  “Promega explained that without a preexisting publication or teaching, a skilled artisan ‘could not predict with any certainty whether a given set of loci would co-amplify successfully together.'”  Slip Op. at 17.

These arguments proved fatal given the broad scope of Promega’s claims.  This case was similar to MagSil v. Hitachi, and Wyeth v. Abbott,  and the Federal Circuit concluded that “the teachings of Promega’s patents would not have enabled a skilled artisan at the time of filing to identify significantly more complicated sets of STR loci combinations that would successfully co-amplify–such as those found in LifeTech’s STR kits–without undue experimentation.”  Slip Op. at 18.  Ultimately, “Promega’s ‘difficulty in enabling the asserted claims is a problem of its own making.'”  Id. at 18, quoting MagSil.

So does the court’s treatment of “comprising” mean that every claim using this transitional phrase is invalid.  In a word, No.  In more words:

It is true that when used in the preamble of a claim, the term “comprising” permits the inclusion of other steps, elements, or materials in addition to the elements or components specified in the claims. [] As we stated in Gillette Co. v. Energizer Holdings, Inc., 405 F.3d 1367, 1371 (Fed. Cir. 2005), open claims “embrace technology that may add features to devices otherwise within the claim definition” (emphasis added). But the relevant usage of “comprising” here is not the one recited in the preamble. Rather, it is within the specific claim limitation that lists combinations of successfully co-amplifying STR loci, combinations whose identification and discovery Promega itself asserts is a complex and unpredictable endeavor. While the term “comprising” in a claim preamble may create a presumption that a list of claim elements is nonexclusive, it “does not reach into each [limitation] to render every word and phrase therein open-ended.” [] Promega’s claims differ from customary “open-ended” claims in that Promega’s usage of “comprising” in its “open loci set” limitation, as construed, expands the claims at a key limitation in order to cover what are indisputably advances in this unpredictable art. Under the circumstances here, the numerous embodiments covered by Promega’s claims cannot be merely regarded as “unrecited elements” in a standard “open-ended” claim.

Slip Op. at 20-21.

Iowa Innovation, Business & Law Center

By Jason Rantanen

As most of you know, I am an associate professor of law at the University of Iowa College of Law, in Iowa City, Iowa.  One of my initiatives this past semester was a relaunch of the Iowa Innovation, Business & Law Center’s website.

The IBLC is a joint faculty venture that focuses on intellectual property, antitrust and corporate law topics.  We host nationally renowned speakers, provide enrichment programming for our students, and support our innovative courses in these areas.  The latter includes our popular Iowa Medical Innovation Group seminar, in which teams of five to eight students from the business, law, medical and engineering schools design and develop a new medical technology.  (One of the advantages of being affiliated with a major research hospital is that we can offer interdisciplinary programs like this.)

The relaunched website contains additional details about our programs in innovation and business law, as well as occasional stories about our current students and alumni.  We also run new articles on a regular basis, so if you are an Iowa alum it may be worth a few moments’ time to stop in occasionally and see what’s happening in innovation & business law at Iowa.  Our alumni play a tremendous role in the law school and I’m always happy to hear from them.

Commil v. Cisco: Cert Granted as to Invalidity and Inducement Issues

By Jason Rantanen

Today, the Supreme Court granted certiorari on one of the questions presented in Commil v. Cisco.  (The order).  The question presented:

(1) Whether the Federal Circuit erred in holding that a defendant’s belief that a patent is invalid is a defense to induced infringement under 35 U.S.C. § 271(b);

Commil’s brief also presented a second question that the Court did not take:

(2) whether the Federal Circuit erred in holding that Global-Tech Appliances, Inc. v. SEB S.A. required retrial on the issue of intent under 35 U.S.C. § 271(b) where the jury (A) found the defendant had actual knowledge of the patent and (B) was instructed that “[i]nducing third-party infringement cannot occur unintentionally.”

Further discussion:

  • My summary of the Federal Circuit opinion is here: LINK
  • Dennis’s commentary on the cert petition is here: LINK

Ericsson v D-Link: Standards, Patents, and Damages

By Jason Rantanen

Ericsson, Inc. v. D-Link Systems, Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2014) Download Ericsson v D-Link
Panel: O’Malley (author), Taranto (dissenting-in-part), Hughes

Standard Essential Patents (SEPs) are an integral part of the modern technological landscape.  As an example, Ericsson, the patent holder in this case, alleged that the patents at issue were essential to a common Wi-Fi standard, 802.11(n); thus all 802.11(n) compliant devices infringe the patents.  Due to their nature (they cover technologies whose widespread use can be as at least as much due to the adoption of the standard as the incremental value of the invention), SEPs pose particular issues when dealing with the question of remedies.

Two well-recognized problems are hold-up and royalty stacking.  “Patent hold-up exists when the holder of a SEP demands excessive royalties after companies are locked into using a standard. Royalty stacking can arise when a standard implicates numerous patents, perhaps hundreds, if not thousands. If companies are forced to pay royalties to all SEP holders, the royalties will “stack” on top of each other and may become excessive in the aggregate.”  Slip Op. at 7-8.  Organizations that develop standards, such as IEEE, typically address these potential problems by seeking pledges from their members “that they will grant licenses to an unrestricted number of applicants on “reasonable, and nondiscriminatory’ (‘RAND’) terms.”  Id. at 8.  Ericsson promised to offer such licenses for its 802.11(b) SEPs.

Background: In 2010, Ericsson filed an infringement suit against D-Link, accusing it of infringing a set of its 802.11(b) SEPs.  Ericsson prevailed at the district court, with a jury finding infringement of three patents, rejecting a validity challenge to one, and awarding Ericsson $10 million in damages (a royalty rate of $0.15 per product).  Based on the jury award, the judge found $0.15 per product to be an appropriate running royalty.  On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed enough of the district court findings as to liability for the issue to be one of damages.  (Judge Taranto dissented as to one of the infringement conclusions but agreed with the rest of the majority opinion).

Damages and SEPs: The below paragraph from the court’s opinion summarizes its key holdings on damages:

In sum, we hold that, in all cases, a district court must instruct the jury only on factors that are relevant to the specific case at issue. There is no Georgia-Pacific-like list of factors that district courts can parrot for every case involving RAND-encumbered patents. The court should instruct the jury on the actual RAND commitment at issue and must be cautious not to instruct the jury on any factors that are not relevant to the record developed at trial. We further hold that district courts must make clear to the jury that any royalty award must be based on the incremental value of the invention, not the value of the standard as a whole or any increased value the patented feature gains from its inclusion in the standard. We also conclude that, if an accused infringer wants an instruction on patent hold-up and royalty stacking, it must provide evidence on the record of patent hold-up and royalty stacking in relation to both the RAND commitment at issue and the specific technology referenced therein.

Slip Op. at 56.  The first sentence is probably the most widely applicable, and arguably applies beyond the RAND context.  It is legal error to simply recite the Georgia-Pacific factors in a set of jury instructions.  Courts must be cognizant of which factors actually apply in a given situation.  “Although we recognize the desire for bright line rules and the need for district courts to start somewhere, courts must consider the facts of record when instructing the jury and should avoid rote reference to any particular damages formula.”  Slip Op. at 50.

Of course, legal error in a jury instruction does not mandate reversal; that error must still be prejudicial.  Here, the errors were significant and in combination sufficiently prejudicial.  For example, some Georgia-Pacific factors are directly contrary to the RAND commitment, such as factor 4, “'[t]he licensor’s established policy and marketing program to maintain his patent monopoly by not licensing others to use the invention or by granting licenses under special conditions designed to preserve that monopoly.’ Georgia-Pacific, 318 F. Supp. at 1120. Because of Ericsson’s RAND commitment, however, it cannot have that kind of policy for maintaining a patent monopoly.”  Slip Op. at 48.

Another important piece of the court’s holding is its clarification of what the patent remedy must relate to in the context of SEPs: the “incremental value of the invention not the value of the standard as a whole or any increased value the patented feature gains from its inclusion in the standard.”  In other words, just as modern devices incorporate many different technological components, so too do standards include multiple technologies.  “Just as we apportion damages for a patent that covers a small part of a device, we must also apportion damages for SEPs that cover only a small part of a standard.”  Id. at 52.

Finally, on patent hold-up and royalty stacking, an accused infringer can obtain such an instruction but there must be record evidence: “The district court need not instruct the jury on hold-up or stacking unless the accused infringer presents
actual evidence of hold-up or stacking. Certainly something more than a general argument that these phenomena are possibilities is necessary.”  Id. at 54.

Williamson v. Citrix: Means-plus-function, presumptions, and “nonce” words

By Jason Rantanen

This opinion is notable because it involves an emerging split in the Federal Circuit’s  jurisprudence on “X plus function” claim language.  At the heart of the split is the presumption that arises from the non-use of the word “means” in a claim.  Under the majority’s ruling in this case, that burden is extremely difficult to overcome; a holding that furthers the tension with the Federal Circuit’s recent decision in Bosch v. Snap-On.

Williamson v. Citrix Online, LLC (Fed. Cir. 2014) Download Opinion
Panel: Moore,* Linn (author), Reyna (dissenting)

6155840The patent in this case is part of the bankruptcy estate of the @Home Corporation, a late 1990’s venture to provide cable internet and later, a content portal.  (Those of you who were online in the late 1990’s may remember the company or the multi-billion dollar merger of @Home and Excite in 1999).    Shortly after the dot-com bubble burst, @Home collapsed and entered bankruptcy proceedings.  The plaintiff in this case, Richard Williamson, acts as trustee for the At Home Bondholders’ Liquidating Trust and has brought a series of patent infringement suits against major technology companies in an effort to recover assets for the debt holders.

Patent No. 6,155,840 describes and claims “[a] system for conducting distributed learning among a plurality of computer systems coupled to a network.”  Williamson brought an infringement suit against an array of defendants, including Citrix, Microsoft, Adobe, Cisco, and IBM.  At the district court, the defendants obtained a favorable claim construction at the district court on three key terms, two in independent claims 1 and 17 and one in independent claim 8, leading to a stipulation of noninfringement of claims 1-7 and 17-24 and of invalidity due to indefiniteness of claims 8-12.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed the district court’s claim constructions for both groups of claims.  The reversal as to the first group (1-7 and 17-24) is not particularly noteworthy.  There, the majority concluded that the district court erroneously imported an extraneous limitation into the claims: the claim element called for “a graphical display representative of the classroom” and the district court construed this as requiring a “pictorial map illustrating an  at least partially virtual space in which participants can interact, and that identifies the presenter(s) and audience member(s) by their locations on the map.”  “While the specification discloses examples and embodiments where the virtual classroom is depicted as a “map” or “seating chart,” nowhere does the specification limit the graphical
display to those examples and embodiments.”  Slip Op. at 10.  The proper construction  is “a graphical representation of an at least partially virtual space in which participants can interact.”

Judge Reyna disagreed in part.  In his view, “the specification and prosecution history make clear that the ‘graphical display representative of a classroom’ terms are properly construed as requiring a visually depicted virtual classroom.”  Dissent at 2 (emphasis added).  Judge Reyna reached this conclusion based on the specification and prosecution history’s distinguishing of the invention from the prior art based on the presence of this additional element.  [Given Judge Reyna’s views, it sounds like these claims may be invalid under the majority’s claim construction].

The Section 112 Issue: The more significant portion of the opinion involves the second group of claims, which implicate issues of claim construction, functional language, and indefiniteness.  The district court construed the element “distributed learning control module for…” as being a § 112, ¶ 6 [now § 112(f)] means-plus-function element.  Because there was no corresponding structure for the claimed function disclosed in the specification, the claim was indefinite.  (I’ve highlighted the relevant section of the claim in the image above).

On appeal, the majority concluded that it was error to treat “distributed control module” as a means-plus-function claim term.  Under the court’s precedent, the failure to use the word ‘means’ in a claim limitation creates a strong presumption that 35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶ 6 does not apply.  And rebutting this presumption requires meeting a very high standard: “it must be demonstrated that ‘skilled artisans, after reading the patent, would concluded that [the] claim limitation is so devoid of structure that the drafter constructively engaged in means-plus-function claiming.’ Inventio AG v. ThyssenKrupp Elevator Ams. Corp., 649 F.3d 1350, 1357 (Fed. Cir. 2011).’ ” Slip Op. at 13 (my emphasis added). “A claimed expression cannot be said to be devoid of structure if it is used “in common parlance or by persons of skill in the pertinent art to designate structure, even if the term covers a broad class of structures and even if the term identifies the structures by their function.” Lighting World, 382 F.3d at 1359–60.

Applying this “devoid of structure” standard, the majority concluded that the presumption was not rebutted.  There are at least some meanings of “module” that connote structure.  “The district court, in characterizing the word “module”
as a mere nonce word, failed to appreciate that the word ‘module’ has understood dictionary meanings as connoting either hardware or software structure to those skilled in the computer arts.”  Slip Op. at 14.  In addition, the full term, “distributed learning control module,” is part of a structure, “distributed learning server,” and interconnects and intercommunicates with that server.  “These claimed interconnections and intercommunications support the conclusion that one of ordinary skill in the art would understand the expression “distributed learning control module” to connote structure.”  Id. at 16.  The specification, too, suggests that “distributed control module” is not “devoid of structure.”

“Module” is a ‘nonce” word: Dissenting Judge Reyna would have agreed with the district court that the language triggered Section 112, para. 6.  “Module” is simply a substitution for “means”; the effect is the same, as the claim limitation follows the term with “for” and three functions performed by the “distributed learning control module”:

This claim limitation is in the traditional means-plus-function format, with the minor substitution of the term “module” for “means.” The claim language explains what the functions are, but does not disclose how the functions are performed.[] In this case, the term “module” is a “nonce” word, a generic word inherently devoid of structure.

Dissent at 5.  In support of this conclusion that “module” is tantamount to “means,” Judge Reyna cites sources recognizing that terms such as  “module for” may invoke Section 112, para 6, including the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure.  Furthermore, the majority’s citation of sources indicating that “module” can connote hardware, software, or both does not provide structure: “It refers only to a “general category of whatever may perform specified functions.”  Id. at 6, quoting Bosch v. Snap-On.  None of the addition material relied on by the majority provides any structural significance.

The Intra-Circuit Split: Setting aside the issue of whether the Federal Circuit’s current algorithmic approach to indefiniteness of functional language conflicts with  Supreme Court precedent, an issue that Dennis and I have written about, this opinion reflects one of two different approaches to interpreting “X plus function” language in claims. (When “X” is something other than “means” or “step.”).

The majority’s holding in this case is an extension of a line of cases applying a very high threshold for “X plus function” language to trigger application of § 112, ¶ 6.  To rebut the presumption in these cases, the “X” must simply “connote” structure to a person of ordinary skill in the art (and arguably under the way the standard is applied in Williamson, merely be capable of connoting structure).  Put another way, the presumption is only rebutted if the claim term is “devoid” of structure.

The Federal Circuit’s recent opinion in Bosch v. Snap-On, which Dennis wrote about in October, reflects the second approach, which applies a less-strict threshold for   rebutting the presumption.  In Bosch, the court described the analysis as asking “if the claim language, read in light of the specification, recites sufficiently definite
structure to avoid § 112, ¶ 6…The question is whether the claim language names
particular structures or, instead, refers only to a general category of whatever may perform specified functions.”  Bosch at 7 (emphasis added).  There, the court concluded that “program recognition device” and “program loading device” did lack sufficient structure; the term “device” was a “nonce” word.  The result was the opposite of Williamson: § 112, ¶ 6 was triggered and, because there was no corresponding structure the specification, the claims were indefinite.

For purposes of direct comparison, I’ve pasted the statements of the law from these two cases below.

From Williamson v. Citrix:

In Personalized Media Commc’ns, LLC v. International Trade Commission, 161 F.3d 696 (Fed. Cir. 1998), and again in DePuy Spine, Inc. v. Medtronic Sofamor Danek, Inc., 469 F.3d 1005 (Fed. Cir. 2006), we stated that the failure to use the word “means” in a claim limitation created a rebuttable presumption that 35 U.S.C. § 112, para. 6 did not apply. See Personalized Media, 161 F.3d at 703–04; DePuy Spine, 469 F.3d at 1023. This presumption is “a strong one that is not readily overcome.” Lighting World, Inc. v. Birchwood Lighting, Inc., 382 F.3d 1354, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2004). To rebut this strong presumption, it must be demonstrated that “skilled artisans, after reading the patent, would conclude that [the] claim limitation is so devoid of structure that the drafter constructively engaged in meansplus-function claiming.” Inventio AG v. ThyssenKrupp Elevator Ams. Corp., 649 F.3d 1350, 1357 (Fed. Cir. 2011). A claimed expression cannot be said to be devoid of structure if it is used “in common parlance or by persons of skill in the pertinent art to designate structure, even if the term covers a broad class of structures and even if the term identifies the structures by their function.” Lighting World, 382 F.3d at 1359–60.

From Bosch v. Snap-On:

Although both “program recognition device” and “program loading device” are presumed not to invoke § 112, ¶ 6, we must next turn to the issue of whether this “strong” presumption against means-plus-function claiming is overcome. See Lighting World, Inc. v. Birchwood Lighting, Inc., 382 F.3d 1354, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2004). In undertaking this analysis, we ask if the claim language, read in light of the specification, recites sufficiently definite structure to avoid § 112, ¶ 6. Inventio, 649 F.3d at 1357. The question is whether the claim language names particular structures or, instead, refers only to a general category of whatever may perform specified functions. See Laitram Corp. v. Rexnord, Inc., 939 F.2d 1533, 1536 (Fed. Cir. 1991) (“[t]he recited structure tells only what the means-for-joining does, not what it is structurally”). In the latter case, § 112, ¶ 6 then commands a construction of the limitation as referring to specification identified corresponding structures and their equivalents.

***

The real problem in my mind, however, is less the split over the strength of the presumption against triggering Section 112(f) when the words “means” (or “step”) are not used, and more the conflict with Nautilus.  Even if Section 112(f) is not triggered, the claim could still be indefinite under the “reasonable certainty” standard for indefiniteness.  In other words, the presumption simply goes to whether or not Section 112(f) is triggered; it does not address the deeper question of what happens when Section 112(f) is not triggered.

*The panel originally included former Chief Judge Rader.  Upon his retirement, Judge Moore was appointed to join the panel.

Guest Commentary by Prof. Peter Menell: Appellate Review of Patent Claim Construction and Institutional Competence

Guest commentary by Peter S. Menell.  Professor Menell is Koret Professor of Law and at UC Berkeley School of Law and Director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology. Professor Menell filed an amicus brief along with Professors Jonas Anderson and Arti Rai in Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc. v. Sandoz Inc., 13-854. That brief can be accessed at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id= 2457958.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard argument six weeks ago in Teva Pharmaceuticals USA v. Sandoz, a case addressing the scope of appellate review of claim construction rulings. While less headline-grabbing than recent cases addressing the patentability of business methods, computer software, and DNA, Teva nonetheless confronts a critical issue that has long plagued the patent adjudication system.

Nearly two decades ago, the Supreme Court sought to promote more effective, transparent patent litigation through its ruling in Markman v. Westview Instruments that “the construction of a patent, including terms of art within its claim, is exclusively within the province of the court.” While carefully avoiding characterizing claim construction as a pure question of law, the court nonetheless removed interpretation of patent claims from the black box of jury deliberations by holding that the Seventh Amendment right of trial by jury did not extend to patent claim construction and that trial judges were better equipped than juries to resolve the mixed fact/law controversies inherent in construing disputed patent claim terms. The decision ushered in a new patent adjudication era in which judges construe patent claims before trial through a process that has come to be known as a “Markman” hearing.

Notwithstanding this shift, the transparency that the Supreme Court sought has only been partially achieved and the quality of claim constructions falls short on evidentiary and analytical rigor. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s sharply divided 1998 en banc decision in Cybor Corp. v. FAS Technologies held that claim construction is purely a legal issue subject to de novo appellate review, downplaying the Supreme Court’s more nuanced description of claim construction as a “mongrel practice.”

The Cybor decision dissuaded district judges from holding evidentiary hearings regarding the meaning of disputed claims and discouraged judges from explaining their reasoning. As several district judges have candidly acknowledged, why go through all of that trouble if the Federal Circuit is going to construe the terms de novo on appeal? Claim construction reversal rates and consternation among district (and some Federal Circuit) judges rose precipitously following Cybor. And although the Federal Circuit has twice revisited this issue en banc since Cybor and reversal rates have subsided (but not as a result of more transparent records), the controversy has festered, leading to the Supreme Court’s review.

Why the Fuss?

Patent law requires that claim terms be construed from the standpoint of persons of ordinary skill in the technical art using the patent specification and prosecution history (intrinsic evidence) as well as pertinent scientific and technical sources (extrinsic evidence) where necessary as of the time of the patent filing.

Federal district judges are thus thrust into challenging, but not unfamiliar, territory. As in other areas of their docket — such as products liability, toxic torts or even criminal cases turning on forensics — in which they are called upon to resolve factual disputes about scientific and technological matters, judges have at their disposal a familiar toolbox — presentation of evidence and expert testimony. And when district courts assemble a record and explain their reasoning, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a)(6) provides that their determinations “must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and the reviewing court must give due regard to the trial court’s opportunity to judge the witnesses’ credibility.”

Patent claim constructions add a few additional twists to this well-established general judicial framework. Even if a district judge found that a patent claim term meant “X” to skilled artisans as of the effective patent filing date, the court would still have to construe the term to mean “Y” if the intrinsic evidence established that the patentee intended such a specialized meaning. Furthermore, many disputes about patent claim meaning turn not on meaning within the technical art but rather on claim drafting conventions. Thus, courts must pay special attention to the intrinsic evidence. But the understandings of skilled artisans will be pertinent in many claim constructions, and such subsidiary factual determinations should be subject to deference under general judicial rules as well as trial judges’ proximity to the extrinsic evidence.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court should adopt a hybrid appellate standard for claim construction: Factual determinations underlying claim construction rulings should be subject to the “clearly erroneous” standard of review, while the Federal Circuit should retain de novo review over the ultimate claim construction decision. In this manner, district court judges, in their capacity as fact-finders, could better surmount the distinctive challenges posed by the technical, mixed fact/law controversies inherent in patent claim construction. The Federal Circuit would ensure that trial judges’ constructions comport with the intrinsic evidence supporting the patents.

Parsing the Supreme Court Argument

The Teva argument began with a colloquy regarding what constitutes a “subsidiary fact” and how it relates to the ultimate claim construction determination. Midway through Teva’s opening argument, Justice Samuel Alito expressed doubt that departing from the de novo standard was worth the candle. He noted that a recent empirical study could not find any case in which a shift from the de novo standard to clear error review of factual determinations would have affected the appellate review outcome.

In an unintended manner, Justice Alito’s query highlights the reason de novo review of factual determinations raises serious concerns for a justice system. The study to which he refers does not and cannot establish the “fact” that it is purported to prove. Its analysis — which is not revealed or scrutinized in the Supreme Court colloquy — boils down to the following logic: (1) three-judge panels of the Federal Circuit will be better than a single generalist district court judge at applying the appellate court’s rules of claim construction; and (2) because most claim construction reversals (77.1 percent) are unanimous, a shift to a clear error standard would not change the outcome of any cases. The first point ignores the distinctive role of judges in fact-finding, a pillar on which our court system is based. The second point does not prove that no cases would come out differently. It also overlooks the norm that appellate judges rarely dissent unless they disagree on legal questions.

More fundamentally, according greater deference to trial courts through clear error review would encourage district judges to use focused evidentiary hearings (in conjunction with the technical tutorials that are common) to substantiate the basis for their claim constructions, thereby promoting more systematic, well-founded claim construction analysis. Contrary to the study to which Alito referred, we have reason to expect clearer substantive analysis, more settlements following claim construction and trial, more effective appellate review, and fewer reversals and remands in a parallel universe in which Rule 52(a)(6) applies to claim constructions — not business as usual in the Cybor regime.

The Court also probed how deference on subsidiary facts would affect uniformity in patent interpretation. At a basic structural level, it is difficult to see how to achieve such uniformity to the extent that claim construction has a factual component. Under Blonder-Tongue Labs., Inc. v. Univ. of Ill. Found., 402 U.S. 313 (1971), the Federal Circuit’s interpretation of a patent in one case cannot be asserted offensively by the patentee in a later infringement action against other defendants to the extent that there are disputed factual underpinnings. At most, that prior adjudication can bar the patentee from seeking an alternative interpretation under judicial estoppel principles. Because the patent system has no mechanism for conclusively establishing patent scope with regard to all potential infringers where subsidiary factual disputes exist, the certainty that flows from appellate interpretations is not ironclad, as subsequent defendants can potentially bring new evidence or more effective advocacy to bear on claim meaning. Nonetheless, district courts routinely consider prior interpretations of patent claim terms in conducting claim construction. Moreover, concerns about the clarity of patent claims are more appropriately addressed through improvements to the patent prosecution process, post-grant review and reexamination, consolidation of claim construction through multi-district litigation, and adjustments to substantive claim construction jurisprudence.

Back to Basics

The Teva case poses a fundamental question going to the heart of the American justice system. Should factual determinations underlying patent claim construction be subject to substantially less deference (or more distrust) than the factual determinations made in every other area of federal adjudication? In view of the Supreme Court’s efforts over the past decade to bring patent adjudication more in line with general civil litigation principles, it is difficult to see why the Court would make an exception here. Combining deferential review of factual findings with de novo review of the overarching claim construction determination — focused on ensuring that claim construction comports with the intrinsic evidence and that the trial court followed generally applicable rules of claim construction — would enhance the quality of claim constructions, produce a more capacious and transparent appellate record, and provide the appropriate appellate safeguard.