By Dennis Crouch
HTC v. IPCom (Fed. Cir. 2012)
IPCom is the German version of a “patent troll.” Or, as Lord Justice Jacob wrote in Nokia v. IPCOM, EWCA Civ 6 (2011), “IPCom is a ‘non practising entity’, i.e. a patentee with no business of its own in products covered by the patents.” The company is run by Bernhard Frohwitter, one of the most successful German patent litigators and backed by New York private equity. As suggested by this introduction, IPCom is pursuing patent battles against telecommunications device manufacturers around the world. [Even though I used the word "troll" here, I certainly believe that non-practicing entities should generally have a right to enforce their patents.]
In 2011, IPCom sued the Taiwanese company HTC Corporation in the US for infringement of its Patent No. 6,879,830. The patent covers an apparatus for solving the wireless communications problem of handing-over a data-stream connection to another base station as the wireless device travels geographically. The patent was originally owned by the German company Bosch who transferred rights to IPCom as part of a major IP asset purchase.
IPXL: The district court held the asserted claims invalid on summary judgment as indefinite under 35 U.S.C. §112. Following IPXL Holdings, L.L.C. v. Amazon.com, Inc., 430 F.3d 1377, 1384 (Fed. Cir. 2005), the district court rejected the claims as reciting an apparatus with method steps. On appeal, the Federal Circuit has reversed – holding that the lower court misconstrued the language of the claims.
I have reproduced a representative claim below, but the basic gist is that a mobile station apparatus is claimed that operates with a network. The network provides a number of functions regarding the handover process, including storing data, holding information in reserve, and then later deleting the information after the handover. The claim includes only one element for the mobile station – requiring that the mobile station comprises “an arrangement” for reversing the handover if it is unsuccessful.
Claim 1. A mobile station for use with a network including a first base station and a second base station that achieves a handover from the first base station to the second base station by: storing link data for a link in a first base station, holding in reserve for the link resources of the first base station, and when the link is to be handed over to the second base station: initially maintaining a storage of the link data in the first base station, initially causing the resources of the first base station to remain held in reserve, and at a later timepoint determined by a fixed period of time predefined at a beginning of the handover, deleting the link data from the first base station and freeing up the resources of the first base station, the mobile station comprising: an arrangement for reactivating the link with the first base station if the handover is unsuccessful.
In IPXL, the court held a claim invalid that was structured as an apparatus claim that also required the performance of method steps. Here however, the Federal Circuit interpreted the claim language as having an apparatus defined by its capability to perform a set of defined tasks. The legal distinction here is in whether the apparatus must perform the step or merely be capable of performing the step. In addition, the language discussing the function of the network does not create any problem because the claim itself is actually claiming a mobile station. Thus, the “prohibition on hybrid claiming” identified in IPXL does not apply to this case.
In interpreting the claim, the court relied on its old rule of construction that claim terms “are generally given their ordinary and customary meaning.” Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996). Using ordinary meaning as a starting point ,the court also walked through the specification and prosecution history in reaching its conclusion that the seeming action-items were directed to the network rather than the mobile device itself.
Prosecution History: One basis of HTC’s argument came from the prosecution history where the applicant referred to the six action elements in the claim as a “process” and the examiner called them “steps.” The Federal Circuit held that HTC (and the lower court) placed too much emphasis on those statements – especially because “in most cases” the examiner was referring to parallel method claims not at issue here. In looking at the prosecution history, the court also sent the reminder that prosecution history is less important in interpretation than claim and specification language. “Although the district court was correct in considering the prosecution history, the claim language and specification in this case are better sources for the correct construction.”
Because the court identified the source of error claim construction rather than indefiniteness, the case was reviewed
Means-Plus-Function and Waiver: HTC also offered a separate invalidity challenge based on the claimed “arrangement for reactivating.” HTC argued that – as a means-plus-function limitation – the scope of the term is defined by the corresponding structure found in the specification. Further, HTC argued that the specification did not include any supporting structure and that the claim must therefore be held invalid as indefinite. The district court rejected that argument – holding that the disclosed processor and transceiver served as the corresponding structure. On appeal, the Federal Circuit identified that holding as in error because the claimed function must be tied to a more particular structure. Here that structure would ideally be an algorithm that defines in some terms how the arrangement would work. See Aristocrat Techs. Austl. PTY Ltd. v. Int’l Game Tech., 521 F.3d 1328 (Fed. Cir. 2008).
After identifying the error, the appellate panel refused to reverse because HTC had failed to properly preserve an objection for the appeal. The problem: At the trial court, HTC had argued that more hardware disclosure was necessary beyond the “processor and transceiver,” while on appeal, HTC (and in the reply brief) shifted its argument to focus on the need for an algorithm. The appellate court held that this late-stage argument was too late.
To be clear, HTC had argued that the means-plus-function limitation was indefinite because it lacked sufficient corresponding structure in the specification. HTC’s error was that it identified the patent’s problem as lacking sufficient description of the hardware that would perform the claimed function while the Federal Circuit saw the patent’s problem deriving from lacking a sufficient description of the algorithm that would perform the claimed function. The Federal Circuit’s point was that no more hardware need be disclosed so long as the algorithm is there. This result is a bit odd for a few reasons. The practical reason for this failing is likely that these issues were litigated before the Federal Circuit’s 2008 decision on point. However, from a factual standpoint I suspect that HTC is absolutely correct – the lack of disclosed structure could-have been entirely solved by further disclosure of specific hardware designed to achieve the claimed function and without any further disclosure of the particular algorithm. Thus, the disclosure of a video graphics processor would likely serve as sufficient structure for a computer graphic processing function with a known solution even without disclosing the particular algorithm used for the processing. In the same way a nail could serve as the structure of a fastening claim even without a description of the particular process for hammering the nail into place. Likewise here, a particularly designed and disclosed circuitry could serve as the structure for achieving the claimed reactivating function even without disclosing its process flow per se. The fact that the Federal Circuit here chooses a different structure that should-have-been disclosed does not suggest that HTC waived its argument that the claimed function lacked sufficient structure. This leads me to a second and broader point about the accused infringer’s role in the invalidation process. It is not normally the accused infringer’s role to identify what the patentee should have invented or disclosed. Rather, invalidity is more simply based on a showing that the patentee did not do enough. In this sense, the accused infringer takes on a role parallel to a food critic who can identify poorly presented food even if she herself cannot cook. In my world, this is akin to my own low level spelling prowess. I usually know when a word is misspelled. However, I can only rarely posit the correct spelling formulation without assistance. Thus, the Court’s ruling here leaves a bad taste because it puts a new burden on accused infringers to take the additional step of identifying what the patentee should have said in the patent and then binds them to their suggested counterfactual.
Harmless Error on Remand: The Federal Circuit identified an error in the lower court’s judgment but, because of waiver, did not require the lower court to re-open this issue on remand. Odds are that the lower court will not stick to its original opinion that has now been adjudged legally incorrect. Instead the court will more likely assert its discretionary power to take a fresh look at the issue of indefiniteness. This is especially likely if the district court broadly considers Supreme Court precedent such as Leer v. Adkins and the associated policy that “bad patents” should be invalidated even if that means bending some of the norms of civil procedure.
Court of Appeals: For Judge O’Malley (the opinion’s author), the waiver portion of the opinion appears to be written as a reminder to patent litigators that the Federal Circuit is a Court of Appeals rather than a trier of fact or court of first instance. This legal reality continues to be lost on some of her colleagues on the appellate bench.
Means-Plus-Function in Combination: A final MPF issue that could also create trouble for IPCom involves the fact that the Federal Circuit’s new construction of the claim includes only one element and that element is a means-plus-function language. The basis for means-plus-function claiming is found in 35 U.S.C. § 112¶6. That paragraph includes an apparent limitation that MPF elements are available only in “a claim for a combination.” The result: single element claims may not use MPF language to define that lone element. In re Hyatt, 708 F.2d 712 (Fed. Cir. 1983).