by Dennis Crouch
In Cioffi v. Google, the Federal Circuit sided with the patentee, Cioffi — holding that the district court erred in its construction of the asserted patent claims and thus vacated the holdings non-infringement and invalidity via indefiniteness. (Non-precedential opinion). Now, Google has petitioned the court for an en banc rehearing asking the court to “strictly construe” claim amendments against the patentee.
1. When construing a patent claim, should courts generally consult the prosecution history as context for resolving ambiguities, or is prosecution history relevant only if it clearly and unmistakably disavows claim scope?
2. When a patent applicant has amended a claim to overcome the Patent and Trademark Office’s earlier disallowance of the claim, should a court strictly construe the amended claim language against the applicant, as the Supreme Court has held, or consider the amendment history to be relevant only to the extent that it clearly and unambiguously disavows claim scope, as this Court has held
The issues raised here are parallel to those raised in the failed Google v. Vederi petition for writ of certiori. In that case, the Google asked (but the Supreme Court refused to answer):
Whether, when an applicant for a patent amends a claim to overcome the PTOs earlier disallowance of the claim, a court should (i) presume that the amendment narrowed the claim and strictly construe the amended claim language against the applicant, as this Court has held; or (ii) presume that the claim scope remained the same and require that any narrowing be clear and unmistakable, as the Federal Circuit has held.
In my 2015 discussion of Vederi, I wrote that the following:
[T]he Federal Circuit has strayed significantly from Pre-1952 disclaimer law exemplified by cases such as Supply Co. v. Ace Patents Corp., 315 U.S. 126, 137 (1942); Keystone Driller Co. v. Nw. Eng’g Corp., 294 U.S. 42, 48 (1935); Smith v. Magic City Kennel Club, Inc., 282 U.S. 784, 789–90 (1931); I.T.S. Rubber Co. v. Essex Rubber Co., 272 U.S. 429, 443–44 (1926); and Hubbell v. United States, 179 U.S. 77, 84 (1900).
Google relies upon many of these as well as additional cases for its argument. It writes:
The Supreme Court has long held that amendments made to overcome disallowance must be strictly construed against the applicant and in favor of the public. E.g., Exhibit Supply Co. v. Ace Patents Corp., 315 U.S. 126, 136-37 (1942); Smith v. Magic City Kennel Club, Inc., 282 U.S. 784, 789-90 (1931); Hubbell v. United States, 179 U.S. 77, 84 (1900).
In its decision in the case, the Federal Circuit considered prosecution history statements and actions, but was ultimately swayed by a claim differentiation argument. “We do not find, moreover, that anything in the prosecution history overcomes the presumption created by these claim differentiation principles.” For me, an important question (that I cannot answer at this point) is whether Google’s legal argument is actually relevant to the facts-on-the-ground. That is, would this shift in the law also shift the outcome of the case? That question is critical.
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I’ll note here that the Federal Circuit’s recent decision in Columbia University v. Symantec appears roughly follow the suggestions outlined by Google here. That case, was decided by Chief Judge Prost along with Judges Dyk and Huges. It is not surprising to me that those three judges reached a different result than the Cioffi panel of Judges O’Malley, Plager, and Bryson.
For this petition, Google added known Supreme Court and appellate litigator Daryl Joseffer to the brief. Joseffer also filed the Google v. Vederi petition. The hiring of Joseffer suggests that Google will push this case to the Supreme Court if it fails at the Federal Circuit.
Asserted patents in the case are U.S. Patent Nos. RE43,103; RE43,500; RE43,528; and RE43,529.