Every Penny Counts v. Wells Fargo Bank, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28106 (M.D. Fl. 2014).
In a ruling this week, Judge Merryday rejected Wells Fargo’s indefiniteness argument made in a pre-trial summary judgment motion. Like claim construction, indefiniteness is seen as a question of law that can be resolved by a district court judge. In fact, the Federal Circuit has written that “Indefiniteness is a matter of claim construction, and the same principles that generally govern claim construction are applicable to determining whether allegedly indefinite claim language is subject to construction.” Praxair, Inc. v. ATMI, Inc., 543 F.3d 1306, 1319 (Fed. Cir. 2008).
EPC’s invention is software for rounding-up credit and debit transactions to the nearest dollar and then putting the extra money to a special use. See U.S. Patent 8,025,217. Claim 1 of the ‘217 patent is listed as follows:
1. A system for accumulating credits from a customer account belonging to the customer and managed by an institution and placing the credits into a provider account, comprising:
an information processor; said information processor including a data store with data identifying the customer, the rounding determinant, the managed institution, and the account;
said data store including machine readable instructions authorizing the processor to access and read the customer account;
said data store including machine readable instructions to calculate rounders after receiving a plurality of payment transactions from the read customer account and to calculate an excess based on the rounders;
said data store including machine readable instructions to withdraw the excess from the customer account;
said data store including machine readable instructions to transfer the withdrawn excess to the provider account.
The indefiniteness issue with the claim is that the claim introduces two types of accounts – a customer account and a provider account – and then refers to “the account” without identifying which of the two accounts are being referenced. Wells Fargo argues that there are “at least four equally plausible interpretations” of “the account” – it could be the customer account, the provider account, both accounts, or some other account. Adding to the difficulty of interpreting the term, Wells Fargo highlights the fact that the patent itself is riddled with seeming typographical errors that make interpretation difficult. The court writes:
The patent is infested with scrivener’s (and other) errors, and the prospect of a missing “s” fits comfortably within the patterns discernible in the patent. For example, the patent states, “The actual transfer . . . concludes with the [transfer of] funds to each listed PC (provider account) . . . .” “PC” is used nowhere else in the patent, and the patent later clarifies that “PA” is the intended acronym for “provider account(s).” But even the creation of the correct acronym, “PA,” is tardy – by the time the patent defines the acronym, the patent has already deployed either “provider account” or “provider accounts” four times and “PA” twelve times. And after the “PA” acronym is created, the patent no longer uses the acronym but uses “provider accounts.” In other examples of error, the patent bungles nearly every acronym, conflates “i.e.” and “e.g.,” and writes “invention invention,” “FIG. 7A” (not “FIG. 7″ – no figure 7A exists), “FIG. 4B” (although Figure 4B exists, “FIG. 4C” is intended), step “8120” (not”120″), “2 $300.14″ (not “$300.14″), “pa id” (not “paid”), “saving s,” and “piece s.” These errors – which say nothing of the drafter’s grammatical and syntactical incompetence and bemusing judgment – confirm that “account” lacking an “s” by mistake accords with the level of compositional adroitness and dexterity that pervades the patent.
In sum, as used in claims 1 and 2, the phrase “the account” lacks definiteness. “[T]he account” might mean “the customer account,” “the provider account,” or otherwise; no informed and confident choice is available among the contending definitions.
Now, here’s the trick – after finding that the phrase lacks definiteness, the court next went on to hold that the phrase is not legally indefinite. Rather, there exist a spectrum of definiteness levels, and the forfeiture of patent rights due to indefiniteness (currently) requires extreme indefiniteness. Thus, a claim term that is only somewhat indefinite will not render its respective claim invalid as indefinite. And, because of the conceptual separation of most patentability doctrines, the lack of definiteness shown here will have no other adverse impact on the patent.
In particular, a claim term is only found indefinite if clear and convincing evidence sufficient to overcome the statutory presumption of validity proves that the claim is “insolubly ambiguous” and “not amenable to claim construction.” Taking that standard, the court could only find the claim sufficiently definite:
Although the entire patent is awkwardly drafted, the oppugned claim is simple. The specification is simple. The drawings are simple. The patent as a whole, notwithstanding the deficiencies, seems understandable; the claim seems understandable. In short, the indefiniteness of the term “the account” leaves no unmanageable gap in the information available for determining the scope of the claim. No practical incapacity or disabling uncertainty appears as a consequence of the fact that “the account” might mean one thing or the other. In sum, the extent of the indefiniteness in the term “the account” is inconsequential and falls far short of the “insoluble ambiguity” required to invalidate the claim.
Holding: Claim not invalid as indefinite.
This case tightly linked to the outcome in Nautilus. If the court changes the standard for determining indefiniteness there then we’ll likely see a modified holding here as well.
[Updated on 3/8/14 with updated information that opinion was written by Judge Merryday not Magistrate Judge McCoun. Via W.Pollack]