By Dennis Crouch
In Lighting Ballast, the en banc Federal Circuit once again held that claim construction should be seen as a question of law that is reviewed de novo on appeal. In the end, this is probably a good result for the patent system – but not for any of the reasons given by the court.
Over the years, the high-rate of claim construction reversal has repeatedly been highlighted as a symbolic of problems with the patent system. Some thought that the problem lay in district court failures to conduct proper analyses, but over time, most of us have come to reject that explanation. Rather, my view is that claim construction is a difficult task and it is not surprising that, out of the myriad possible definitions that a term could be given, two courts would disagree on which definition is best. I actually see this issue pointing a spotlight toward a major problem with the patent system – perhaps the largest problem – that patents often fail to provide clear notice of what is and what is not covered by the various claims.
Deference would have only masked the problem. The reversal rate would have gone down and from that high level that traditional off-kilter signal would be missing. The real difference with deference would be that patent scope would be understood as of the district court decision rather than having to wait for an appeal. That may help some litigants, but still it is a fairly ridiculous patent system where the scope of claims are not well understood until determined by a judge.
Rather, the problem has to be addressed by the US Patent Office with a renewed focus on clarity of claim scope. President Obama’s administration has recognized this with their call to “ensure claims are clear and can be consistently enforced.” The rub is that the administration’s approach of (1) encouraging glossaries and (2) providing additional examiner training are unlikely to have any meaningful impact. The good thing then is that the Federal Circuit’s continued power means that these systemic problems won’t be buried.