Patent “quality” has many different meanings. The primary focus of the PTO under Director Dave Kappos is on the timely issuance of “right sized,” valid patents. I would add an additional important focus of ensuring that the scope and coverage of each patent is relatively easy to determine. These measures of patent quality fit within broader goals of the patent system — incentivizing innovation and disclosure of those innovations within a competitive marketplace. The patent rules are intended work as something of a feedback system at varying levels of granularity, guiding innovators and applicants in ways that hopefully push us toward those ultimate goals.
I tend to model the patenting process is something of a negotiation between the PTO an the patent applicant. The PTO possesses the authority to grant or deny patent applications, but every word found in the patent is written or approved by the patent applicant. Obviously, the patent applicant’s role in this process is deep and substantial. A patent’s conception begins with words drafted by the patent applicant, not the examiner; amendments are made by the patent applicant, not the examiner, and, after approval by the patent examiner, is the patent applicant must approve the final issuance of a patent (with the payment of a fee).
The PTO’s current ideas on this front focus on ways to clarify the meaning of terms used in the claims and the resulting scope of the claims. Some of the initial ideas presented are traditional define-your-terms notions while others suggest that new mechanisms of information connectivity may offer solutions.
On these fronts, the PTO lists the following ideas and requests comments:
Clarifying the Scope of the Claims
Presenting claims in a multi-part format by way of a standardized template that places each claim component in separate, clearly marked, and designated fields. For instance, a template may facilitate drafting and review of claims by separately delineating each claim component into separate fields for the preamble, transitional phrase, and each particular claim limitation.
Identifying corresponding support in the specification for each of the claim limitations utilizing, for example, a claim chart or the standardized template described above. This practice could be particularly beneficial where claims are amended or where a continuing application (continuation, divisional, continuation-in-part) is filed.
Indicating whether examples in the specification are intended to be limiting or merely illustrative.
Identifying whether the claim preamble is intended to be a limitation on claim scope.
Expressly identifying clauses within particular claim limitations for which the inventor intends to invoke 35 U.S.C. 112(f) and pointing out where in the specification corresponding structures, materials, or acts are disclosed that are linked to the identified 35 U.S.C. 112(f) claim limitations.
Using textual and graphical notation systems known in the art to disclose algorithms in support of computer-implemented claim limitations, such as C-like pseudo-code or XML-like schemas for textual notation and Unified Modeling Language (UML) for graphical notation.
Clarifying the Meaning of Claim Terms in the Specification
Indicating whether terms of degree—such as substantially, approximately, about, essentially—have a lay or technical meaning and explaining the scope of such terms.
Including in the specification a glossary of potentially ambiguous, distinctive, and specialized terms used in the specification and/or claims, particularly for inventions related to certain technologies, such as software.
Designating, at the time of filing the application, a default dictionary or dictionaries (e.g., a technical dictionary and a non-technical dictionary) to be used in ascertaining the meaning of the claim terms.
As we all move forward with this process (over the years…), I am confident that we will begin to think of patents less and less like “documents” that printed and read, but more like digital information maps that provides a network of information about inventions. Part of this potential comes from linking claim terms to descriptions found elsewhere and direct mark-up that ties original text to post application changes and notations.
None of these changes would make patent quality easy – but they would likely help move us in the right direction.
The following is simply the text of the Supreme Court’s 1895 decision:
Consol. Electric Light Co v. McKeesport Light Co, 159 U.S. 465 (1895) [16_S.Ct._75]
Consol. Electric Light Co v. McKeesport Light Co, 159 U.S. 465 (1895)
This was a bill in equity, filed by the Consolidated Electric Light Company against the McKeesport Light Company, to recover damages for the infringement of letters patent No. 317,76, issued May 12, 1885, to the Electro-Dynamic Light Company, assignee of Sawyer and Man, for an electric light. The defendants justified under certain patents to Thomas A. Edison, particularly No. 223,898, issued January 27, 1880; denied the novelty and utility of the complainant’s patent; and averred that the same had been fraudulently and illegally procured. The real defendant was the Edison Electric Light Company, and the case involved a contest between what are known as the Sawyer and Man and the Edison systems of electric lighting.
In their application, Sawyer and Man stated that their invention related to ‘that class of electric lamps employing an incandescent conductor [e]nclosed in a transparent, hermetically sealed vessel or chamber, from which oxygen is excluded, and … more especially to the incandescing conductor, its substance, its form, and its combination with the other elements composing the lamp. Its object is to secure a cheap and effective apparatus; and our improvement consists, first, of the combination, in a lamp chamber, composed wholly of glass, as described in patent No. 205,144,’ upon which this patent was declared to be an improvement, ‘of an incandescing conductor of carbon made from a vegetable fibrous material, in contradistinction to a similar conductor made from mineral or gas carbon, and also in the form of such conductor so made from such vegetable carbon, and combined in the lighting circuit with the exhausted chamber of the lamp.’
The following drawings exhibit the substance of the invention:
The specification further stated that:
‘In the practice of our invention, we have made use of carbonized paper, and also wood carbon. We have also used such conductors or burners of various shapes, such as pieces with their lower ends secured to their respective supports, and having their upper ends united so as to form an inverted V-shaped burner. We have also used conductors of varying contours,—that is, with rectangular bends instead of curvilinear ones; but we prefer the arch shape.’
‘No especial description of making the illuminating carbon conductors, described in this specification, and making the subject-matter of this improvement, is thought necessary, as any of the ordinary methods of forming the material to be carbonized to the desired shape and size, and carbonizing it while confined in retorts in powdered carbon, substantially according to the methods in practice before the date of this improvement, may be adopted in the practice thereof by any one skilled in the arts appertaining to the making of carbons for electric lighting or for other use in the arts.’
‘An important practical advantage which is secured by the arch form of incandescing carbon is that it permits the carbon to expand and contract under the varying temperatures to which it is subjected when the electric current is turned on or off without altering the position of its fixed terminals. Thus, the necessity for a special mechanical device to compensate for the expansion and contraction which has heretofore been necessary is entirely dispensed with, and thus the lamp is materially simplified in its construction. Another advantage of the arch form is that the shadow cast by such burners is less than that produced by other forms of burners when fitted with the necessary devices to support them.’
‘Another important advantage resulting from our construction of the lamp results from the fact that the wall forming the chamber of the lamp through which the electrodes pass to the interior of the lamp is made wholly of glass, by which all danger of oxidation, leakage, or short-circuiting is avoided.’
‘The advantages resulting from the manufacture of the carbon from vegetable fibrous or textile material instead of mineral or gas carbon are many. Among them may be mentioned the convenience afforded for cutting and making the conductor in the desired form and size, the purity and equality of the carbon obtained, its susceptibility to tempering, both as to hardness and resistance, and its toughness and durability. We have used such burners in closed or hermetically sealed transparent chambers, in a vacuum, in nitrogen gas, and in hydrogen gas; but we have obtained the best results in a vacuum, or an attenuated atmosphere of nitrogen gas, the great desideratum being to exclude oxygen or other gases capable of combining with carbon at high temperatures from the incandescing chamber, as is well understood.’
The claims were as follows:
‘(1) An incandescing conductor for an electric lamp, of carbonized fibrous or textile material, and of an arch or horseshoe shape, substantially as hereinbefore set forth.’
‘(2) The combination, substantially as hereinbefore set forth, of an electric circuit and an incandescing conductor of carbonized fibrous material, included in and forming part of said circuit, and a transparent, hermetically sealed chamber, in which the conductor is inclosed.’
‘(3) The incandescing conductor for an electric lamp, formed of carbonized paper, substantially as described.’
‘(4) An incandescing electric lamp consists of the following elements in combination: First, an illuminating chamber made wholly of glass hermetically sealed, and out of which all carbon-consuming gas has been exhausted or driven; second, an electric-circuit conductor passing through the glass wall of said chamber, and hermetically sealed therein, as described; third, an illuminating conductor in said circuit, and forming part thereof within said chamber, consisting of carbon made from a fibrous or textile material, having the form of an arch or loop, substantially as described, for the purpose specified.’
The commercial Edison lamp used by the appellee, and which is illustrated below, is composed of a burner, A, made of carbonized bamboo of a peculiar quality, discovered by Mr. Edison to be highly useful for the purpose, and having a length of about 6 inches, a diameter of about 5/1000 of an inch, and an electrical resistance of upward of 100 ohms. This filament of carbon is bent into the form of a loop, and its ends are secured by good electrical and mechanical connections to two fine platinum wires, B, B. These wires pass through a glass stem, C, the glass being melted and fused upon the platinum wires. A glass globe, D, is fused to the glass stem, C. This glass globe has originally attached to it, at the point d, a glass tube, by means of which a connection is made with highly organized and refined exhausting apparatus, which produces in the globe a high vacuum, whereupon the glass tube is melted off by a flame, and the globe is closed by the fusion of the glass at the point d.
Upon a hearing in the circuit court before Mr. Justice Bradley, upon pleadings and proofs, the court held the patent to be invalid, and dismissed the bill. 40 Fed. 21. Thereupon complainant appealed to this court.
Attorneys: Leonard E. Curtis and Edmund Wetmore, for appellant; F. P. Fish, for appellee.
Opinion: Mr. Justice BROWN, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.
In order to obtain a complete understanding of the scope of the Sawyer and Man patent, it is desirable to consider briefly the state of the art at the time the application was originally made, which was in January, 1880.
Two general forms of electric illumination had for many years been the subject of experiments more or less successful, one of which was known as the ‘arc light,’ produced by the passage of a current of electricity between the points of two carbon pencils placed end to end, and slightly separated from each other. In its passage from one point to the other through the air, the electric current took the form of an arc, and gave the name to the light. This form of light had been produced by Sir Humphry Davy as early as 1810, and, by successive improvements in the carbon pencils and in their relative adjustment to each other, had come into general use as a means of lighting streets, halls, and other large spaces; but by reason of its intensity, the uncertain and flickering character of the light, and the rapid consumption of the carbon pencils, it was wholly unfitted for domestic use. The second form of illumination is what is known as the ‘incandescent system,’ and consists generally in the passage of a current of electricity through a continuous strip or piece of refractory material, which is a conductor of electricity, but a poor conductor; in other words, a conductor offering a considerable resistance to the flow of the current through it. It was discovered early in this century that various substances might be heated to a white heat by passing a sufficiently strong current of electricity through them. The production of a light in this way does not in any manner depend upon the consumption or wearing away of the conductor, as it does in the arc light. The third system was a combination of the two others, but it never seems to have come into general use, and is unimportant in giving a history of the art.
For many years prior to 1880, experiments had been made by a large number of persons, in various countries, with a view to the production of an incandescent light which could be made available for domestic purposes, and could compete with gas in the matter of expense. Owing party to a failure to find a proper material, which should burn but not consume, partly to the difficulty of obtaining a perfect vacuum in the globe in which the light was suspended, and partly to a misapprehension of the true principle of incandescent lighting, these experiments had not been attended with success; although it had been demonstrated as early as 1845 that, whatever material was used, the conductor must be inclosed in an art-tight bulb, to prevent it from being consumed by the oxygen in the atmosphere. The chief difficulty was that the carbon burners were subject to a rapid disintegration or evaporation, which electricians assumed was due to the disrupting action of the electric current, and hence the conclusion was reached that carbon contained in itself the elements of its own destruction, and was not a suitable material for the burner of an incandescent lamp.
It is admitted that the lamp described in the Sawyer and Man patent is no longer in use, and was never a commercial success; that it does not embody the principle of high resistance with a small illuminating surface; that it does not have the filament burner of the modern incandescent lamp; that the lamp chamber is defective; and that the lamp manufactured by the complainant, and put upon the market, is substantially the Edison lamp; but it is said that, in the conductor used by Edison (a particular part of the stem of the bamboo, lying directly beneaty the siliceous cuticle, the peculiar fitness for which purpose was undoubtedly discovered by him), he made use of a fibrous or textile material covered by the patent to Sawyer and Man, and is therefore an infringer. It was admitted, however, that the third claim—for a conductor of carbonized paper—was not infringed.
The two main defenses to this patent are (1) that it is defective upon its face, in attempting to monopolize the use of all fibrous and textile materials for the purpose of electric illuminations; and (2) that Sawyer and Man were not in fact the first to discover that these were better adapted than mineral carbons to such purposes.
Is the complainant entitled to a monopoly of all fibrous and textile materials for incandescent conductors? If the patentees had discovered in fibrous and textile substances a quality common to them all, or to them generally, as distinguishing them from other materials, such as minerals, etc., and such quality or characteristic adapted them peculiarly to incandescent conductors, such claim might not be too broad. If, for instance, minerals or porcelains had always been used for a particular purpose, and a person should take out a patent for a similar article of wood, and woods generally were adapted to that purpose, the claim might not be too broad, though defendant used wood of a different kind from that of the patentee. But if woods generally were not adapted to the purpose, and yet the patentee had discovered a wood possessing certain qualities, which gave it a peculiar fitness for such purpose, it would not constitute an infringement for another to discover and use a different kind of wood, which was found to contain similar or superior qualities. The present case is an apt illustration of this principle. Sawyer and Man supposed they had discovered in carbonized paper the best material for an incandescent conductor. Instead of confining themselves to carbonized paper, as they might properly have done, and in fact did in their third claim, they made a broad claim for every fibrous or textile material, when in fact an examination of over 6,000 vegetable growths showed that none of them possessed the peculiar qualities that fitted them for that purpose. Was everybody, then, precluded by this broad claim from making further investigation? We think not.
The injustice of so holding is manifest in view of the experiments made, and continued for several months, by Mr. Edison and his assistants, among the different species of vegetable growth, for the purpose of ascertaining the one best adapted to an incandescent conductor. Of these he found suitable for his purpose only about three species of bamboo, one species of cane from the valley of the Amazon (impossible to be procured in quantities on account of the climate), and one or two species of fibers from the agave family. Of the special bamboo, the walls of which have a thickness of about 3/8 of an inch, he used only about 20/1000 of an inch in thickness. In this portion of the bamboo the fibers are more nearly parallel, the cell walls are apparently smallest, and the pithy matter between the fibers is at its minimum. It seems that carbon filaments cannot be made of wood,—that is, exogenous vegetable growth,—because the fibers are not parallel, and the longitudinal fibers are intercepted by radial fibers. The cells composing the fibers are all so large that the resulting carbon is very porous and friable. Lamps made of this material proved of no commercial value. After trying as many as 30 or 40 different woods of exogenous growth, he gave them up as hopeless. But finally, while experimenting with a bamboo strip which formed the edge of a palm-leaf fan, cut into filaments, he obtained surprising results. After microscopic examination of the material, he dispatched a man to Japan to make arrangements for securing the bamboo in quantities. It seems that the characteristic of the bamboo which makes it particularly suitable is that the fibers run more nearly parallel than in other species of wood. Owing to this, it can be cut up into filaments having parallel fibers, running throughout their length, and producing a homogeneous carbon. There is no generic quality, however, in vegetable fibers, because they are fibrous, which adapts them to the purpose. Indeed, the fibers are rather a disadvantage. If the bamboo grew solid, without fibers, but had its peculiar cellular formation, it would be a perfect material, and incandescent lamps would last at least six times as long as at present. All vegetable fibrous growths do not have a suitable cellular structure. In some the cells are so large that they are valueless for that purpose. No exogenous, and very few endogenous, growths are suitable. The messenger whom he dispatched to different parts of Japan and China sent him about 40 different kinds of bamboo, in such quantities as to enable him to make a number of lamps, and from a test of these different species he ascertained which was best for the purpose. From this it appears very clearly that there is no such quality common to fibrous and textile substances generally as makes them suitable for an incandescent conductor, and that the bamboo which was finally pitched upon, and is now generally used, was not selected because it was of vegetable growth, but because it contained certain peculiarities in its fibrous structure which distinguished it from every other fibrous substance. The question really is whether the imperfectly successful experiments of Sawyer and Man, with carbonized paper and wood carbon, conceding all that is claimed for them, authorize them to put under tribute the results of the brilliant discoveries made by others.
It is required by Rev. St. § 4888, that the application shall contain ‘a written description of the device, and of the manner and process of making constructing, compounding, and using it in such full, clear, concise, and exact terms as to enable any person, skilled in the art or science to which it appertains or with which it is most nearly connected, to make, construct, compound, and use the same.’ The object of this is to apprise the public of what the patentee claims as his own, the courts of what they are called upon to construe, and competing manufacturers and dealers of exactly what they are bound to avoid. Grant v. Raymond, 6 Pet. 218, 247. If the description be so vague and uncertain that no one can tell, except by independent experiments, how to construct the patented device, the patent is void.
It was said by Mr. Chief Justice Taney in Wood v. Underhill, 5 How. 1, 5, with respect to a patented compound for the purpose of making brick or tile, which did not give the relative proportions of the different ingredients: ‘But when the specification of a new composition of matter gives only the names of the substances which are to be mixed together, without stating any relative proportion, undoubtedly it would be the duty of the court to declare the patent void. And the same rule would prevail where it was apparent that the proportions were stated ambiguously and vaguely; for in such cases it would be evident, on the face of the specification, that no one could use the invention without first ascertaining, by experiment, the exact proportion of the different ingredients required to produce the result intended to be obtained. . . . And if, from the nature and character of the ingredients to be used, they are not susceptible of such exact description, the inventor is not entitled to a patent.’
So in Tyler v. Boston, 7 Wall. 327, wherein the plaintiff professed to have discovered a combination of fusel oil with the mineral and earthy oils, constituting a burning fluid, the patentee stated that the exact quantity of fusel oil which is necessary to produce the most desirable compound must be determined by experiment. And the court observed: ‘Where a patent is claimed for such a discovery, it should state the component parts of the new manufacture claimed with clearness and precision, and not leave a person attempting to use the discovery to find it out ‘by experiment.” See, also, Béné v. Jeantet, 129 U. S. 683, 9 Sup. Ct. 428; Howard v. Stove Works, 150 U. S. 164, 167, 14 Sup. Ct. 68; Schneider v. Lovell, 10 Fed. 666; Welling v. Crane, 14 Fed. 571.
Applying this principle to the patent under consideration, how would it be possible for a person to know what fibrous or textile material was adapted to the purpose of an incandescent conductor, except by the most careful and painstaking experimentation? If, as before observed, there were some general quality, running through the whole fibrous and textile kingdom, which distinguished it from every other, and gave it a peculiar fitness for the particular purpose, the man who discovered such quality might justly be entitled to a patent; but that is not the case here. An examination of materials of this class carried on for months revealed nothing that seemed to be adapted to the purpose; and even the carbonized paper and wood carbons specified in the patent, experiments with which first suggested their incorporation therein, were found to be so inferior to the bamboo, afterwards discovered by Edison, that the complainant was forced to abandon its patent in that particular, and take up with the material discovered by its rival. Under these circumstances, to hold that one who had discovered that a certain fibrous or textile material answered the required purpose should obtain the right to exclude everybody from the whole domain of fibrous and textile materials, and thereby shut out any further efforts to discover a better specimen of that class than the patentee had employed, would be an unwarranted extension of his monopoly, and operate rather to discourage than to promote invention. If Sawyer and Man had discovered that a certain carbonized paper would answer the purpose, their claim to all carbonized paper would, perhaps, not be extravagant; but the fact that paper happens to belong to the fibrous kingdom did not invest them with sovereignty over this entire kingdom, and thereby practically limit other experimenters to the domain of minerals.
In fact, such a construction of this patent as would exclude competitors from making use of any fibrous or textile material would probably defeat itself, since, if the patent were infringed by the use of any such material, it would be anticipated by proof of the prior use of any such material. In this connection it would appear, not only that wood charcoal had been constantly used since the days of Sir Humphry Davy for arc lighting, but that in the English patent to Greener and Staite, of 1846, for an incandescent light, ‘charcoal, reduced to a state of powder,’ was one of the materials employed. So also, in the English patent of 1841 to De Moleyns, ‘a finely pulverized boxwood charcoal or plumbago’ was used for an incandescent electric lamp. Indeed, in the experiments of Sir Humphry Davy, early in the century, pieces of well-burned charcoal were heated to a vivid whiteness by the electric current, and other experiments were made which evidently contemplated the use of charcoal heated to the point of incandescence. Mr. Broadnax, the attorney who prepared the application, it seems, was also of opinion that a broad claim for vegetable carbons could not be sustained, because charcoal had been used before in incandescent lighting. There is undoubtedly a good deal of testimony tending to show that, for the past 50 or 60 years, the word ‘charcoal’ has been used in the art, not only to designate carbonized wood, but mineral or hard carbons, such as were commonly employed for the carbon pencils of arc lamps. But we think it quite evident that, in the patents and experiments above referred to, it was used in its ordinary sense of charcoal obtained from wood. The very fact of the use of such word to designate mineral carbons indicates that such carbons were believed to possess peculiar properties required for illumination, that before that had been supposed to belong to wood charcoal.
We have not found it necessary in this connection to consider the amendments that were made to the original specification, upon which so much stress was laid in the opinion of the court below, since we are all agreed that the claims of this patent, with the exception of the third, are too indefinite to be the subject of a valid monopoly.
As these suggestions are of themselves sufficient to dispose of the case adversely to the complainant, a consideration of the question of priority of invention, or rather of the extent and results of the Sawyer and Man experiments, which was so fully argued upon both sides, and passed upon by the court below, becomes unnecessary.
For the reasons above stated, the decree of the circuit court is affirmed.
There has been a fair amount of controversy recently over commitments that patent holders make to license patents on terms that are “fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory” (FRAND). As I have previously written here and here, FRAND commitments generally arise when a patent holder wishes to assure the marketplace that it will not seek to block implementation of a common technology platform or product interoperability standard. Making such a public commitment encourages widespread adoption of these technologies, which is often beneficial for both the patent holder and the market. As such, it is important that these commitments be enforced.
The dominant theory that several U.S. courts and commentators have adopted to justify the enforcement of FRAND commitments is common law contract. The argument goes like this: the patent holder makes a promise to a standards-development organization (SDO) that it will license its essential patents to others on FRAND terms. The SDO accepts this promise as consideration for permitting the patent holder to participate in the relevant standardization effort. Hence, the common law elements of offer, acceptance and consideration are all present. Then, after the relevant standard is adopted and a vendor incorporates it into a product, the vendor can insist that the patent holder grant it a patent license on FRAND terms. Even if the vendor was not a member of the SDO, it can seek to enforce the patent holder’s promise as a third party beneficiary. This line of reasoning was accepted by the federal district courts in Microsoft v. Motorola (W.D. Wash. 2012) and Apple v. Motorola (D. Wis. 2012), by the Federal Trade Commission in its settlement with Google/Motorola, and by several commentators.
Nevertheless, as I discuss in a forthcoming article, common law contract is a poor fit for the enforcement of most FRAND commitments, and relying too heavily on it is likely to have unwelcome results. Contract law fails as a general-purpose FRAND enforcement theory on several grounds. First, the simplified offer-acceptance-consideration model laid out above does not reflect the actual manner in which most FRAND commitments are made. Most of these commitments are not set forth in an agreement between the patent holder and the SDO. Rather, they are contained in SDO policies, bylaws and other types of statements. In addition, many of these policies (including those adopted by leading SDOs such as IEEE) do not actually require the patent holder to commit to license its patents on FRAND terms, but only to disclose to the SDO the terms on which it will, or on which it intends to, license its essential patents. Moreover, FRAND commitments are typically a sentence or two in length, and fail to set forth any of the relevant details of the promised license agreement, whether they be royalty rates, grant-back requirements, terms on which the license may be suspended or terminated, and the like. As such, whatever “contract” is formed is likely void for want of detail, a mere “agreement to agree”. Finally, the attempt to extend third party beneficiary rights to every product vendor in the world, whether or not it competed in the relevant business, or even existed, when the promise was made, stretches this venerable doctrine beyond any sensible boundaries. As a result, except perhaps in a few cases in which standards are developed by small groups of firms that have actual contractual arrangements amongst themselves, common law contract is a poor choice as a general enforcement mechanism for FRAND commitments.
At least one Administrative Law Judge at the International Trade Commission has recently come to the same conclusion in the ITC’s case against Interdigital (337-TA-868, June 18, 2014), expressly ruling that the FRAND policy adopted by the European telecom SDO ETSI “is not a contract”, and merely “contains rules to guide the parties in their interactions with the organization, other members and third parties.” I couldn’t agree more.
I am not arguing, of course, that FRAND commitments should not be enforced. I feel quite the opposite, and have argued that these promises form an important subset of a larger category of “patent pledges” that ought to be enforced for the benefit of the market. However, there are many more sound and coherent theories for enforcing patent pledges, and FRAND commitments in particular, than common law contract. These include various antitrust and competition law approaches, which have been advanced by the FTC and others, as well as my personal favorite, a modified variant of promissory estoppel that I call “market reliance”. The market reliance theory is grounded in the fact that patent pledges are promises, whether or not they fulfill the requirements of common law contract, and promises ought to be enforced. The theory overcomes the requirement that specific and actual reliance be proved in promissory estoppel cases by introducing a presumption of reliance based on the “fraud on the market” theory used in Federal securities law.
But whichever theory eventually prevails for the enforcement of FRAND commitments and other patent pledges, it seems fairly clear that common law contract is useful, at most, in a small subset of these cases.
Superior Indus. is an interesting short non-precedential opinion from the Federal Circuit. Judge Clevenger wrote the opinion whose holding is simply a remand for clarification. However, the case raises important constitutional questions of justiciability and advisory opinions.
At the lower court, the parties argued over construction of the terms "channel beam," "C-shaped channel beam," and "elongate opening." After district court Judge Donovan Frank construed those terms, the patentee (Superior) admitted that it could not prove infringement. Judge Frank then awarded summary judgment of non-infringement without substantive opinion other than noting Superior's admission of liability.
On appeal, Superior challenged the claim construction of those disputed terms, but the Federal Circuit has refused to hear the case because it the record was unclear as to whether a modified claim construction would change the outcome.
It is impossible for us to determine from this opinion which of the thirteen contested claim constructions would "actually affect" the infringement analysis. This poses a risk that our review of at least some of the constructions would amount to an advisory opinion.
The implicit logic here begins with the reality that the dispute is over infringement and validity and the only reason to construe claim terms is when the asked-for construction impacts those dispute end-points. Claim construction decisions that do not impact the final outcome are then advisory opinions barred by both judicial practice and the US Constitution. Often courts must be their own counsel on justiciability questions such as these because they are not waivable even when agreed-to by both parties.
Wither Early Claim Construction?: If we take this logic back to the district court level, the opinion offers important prerequisite to a district court's claim construction – namely that no claim terms should be construed unless & until the district court determines that the construction is meaningful to the outcome of the case at hand. This plays-out with the pending patent reform bills as well that call for early claim construction. To the extent that those bills would force courts to make advisory opinions, they are unconstitutional. See Hayburn's Case, 2 U.S. 408 (1792) "neither the legislative nor the executive branches can constitutionally assign to the judicial branch any duties but such as are properly judicial, to be performed in a judicial manner."
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Judge Rader wrote a short concurring opinion tied to Superior's claim in question. Here, Superior's patent claims a dump truck that has a support frame that is "configured to support an end of an earthen ramp." The term is relevant because at least some of Masaba's accused products are not really designed to work on earthen ramps.
Judge Rader writes:
I agree with, and join in, the majority opinion. However, in reviewing the claim constructions articulated by the district court, I observe that it read a great deal into the claims in the process of construing them. Thus, I write separately to articulate a couple claim construction principles that may assist the district court on remand when it revisits its constructions. First, in claim construction, one must not import limitations from the specification that are not part of the claim. Deere & Co. v. Bush Hog, LLC, 703 F.3d 1349, 1354 (Fed.Cir.2012). Indeed, claims generally are not limited to any particular embodiment disclosed in the specification, even where only a single embodiment is disclosed. Innova/Pure Water, Inc. v. Safari Water Filtration Sys., Inc., 381 F.3d 1111, 1117 (Fed.Cir.2004). Second, and relevant to this case, a system claim generally covers what the system is, not what the system does. Hewlett–Packard Co. v. Bausch & Lomb Inc., 909 F.2d 1464, 1468 (Fed.Cir.1990); see also Roberts v. Ryer, 91 U.S. 150, 157 (1875) ("The inventor of a machine is entitled to the benefit of all the uses to which it can be put, no matter whether he had conceived the idea of the use or not."). Thus, it is usually improper to construe non-functional claim terms in system claims in a way that makes infringement or validity turn on their function. Paragon Solutions, LLC v. Timex Corp., 566 F.3d 1075, 1091 (Fed .Cir.2009).
This framework is an important addition to the ongoing debate over functional claim language.
Authentic makes branded apparel, and had a non-exclusive license from the US Army to make Army branded items. (Signed back in Aug 2010). One line of clothing was going to feature The Rock (Duane Johnson) with Army-Style clothing. (Seriously though, tie those shoes).
The license included a requirement that any sale/distribution must first receive the Army’s “advance written approval” subject to the Army’s “sole and absolute discretion.”
The Army refused an expansion of The Rock line of clothing; rejected other proposal; and also allegedly delayed in approving other initiatives. Eventually Authentic sued the Army for Breach in the Court of Federal Claims (CFC).
On appeal, the Federal Circuit has affirmed the CFC’s summary judgment favoring the Army — holding that the “sole and absolute discretion” provision controls. The license agreement also included specific “exculpatory clauses” that indicated no remedy would be available for the Army’s refusal to approve proposals:
[Authentic] shall not have any rights against [the Army] for damages or other remedies by reason of [the Army]’s failure or refusal to grant any approval [of product line or] advertising.
Slip Op. (quoting the agreement). Authentic argued that the Army has an obligation of good faith and fair dealing in its contracting, and that complete enforcement of these covenants would contravene those principles. On appeal, the Federal Circuit agreed that it would be improper for the Army to act in an arbitrary or bad-faith manner when denying approval. That said, count found the provisions otherwise enforceable:
At bottom, Authentic agreed to give the Army broad approval discretion. . . . Authentic agreed to bear the risk that the Army would exercise that discretion to Authentic’s detriment, at least so long as the government did not act arbitrarily or in bad faith, a matter which we discuss below. Authentic’s allegation that the detriment has indeed come to pass is simply not a reason to uproot the parties’ bargain.
Who is the source of goods: One reason that the Army did not approve various advertisements was that the Army did not want to be recognized as the source of the licensed goods. Authentic argued that source identification is the key function of trademark law and is implicit in its license to use the Army mark “for trademark purposes.”
On appeal, the Federal Circuit disagreed noting that the licensee is the source of goods, and identifying the Army as the source would be factually erroneous:
Authentic’s argument is based on rights that Authentic did not have, namely, an alleged “right to identify [the Army] as the source/sponsor of the licensed goods.” Under the law, because Authentic was itself the source of the licensed goods, Authentic could not have had the right to mislead consumers to believe that the Army was the “source.”
The court then went on to hold that a decorative use of a Mark can still count as a trademark-use for licensing purposes.
In view of the clear shift in the law toward allowing trademark licenses, we do not agree with Authentic that a “decorative” use of a trademark is necessarily divorced from the goodwill associated with the trademark such that it cannot be considered a licensed use “for trademark purposes.” We recognize, of course, that a purely decorative design may not qualify for trademark protection in the first place. . . . But, again, this appeal does not involve a challenge to the validity of the Army’s trademarks, but rather a question of what limitations the Army may place on the use by a licensee of trademarks that the Army already owns.
Bitmanagement distributes graphics-rendering software that the US Navy makes available to computers connected to the Navy Marine Corps Intranet. The Navy purchased these copies, but did not pay the full seat license fees for system-wide use. As part of the discussion between the parties, the Navy was supposed to (but did not) use licensing-tracking software (“Flexera”) to monitor and limit the number of simultaneous users of its system. After learning of that failure, Bitmanagement registered its copyright and then sued for copyright infringement.
Since the U.S. Gov’t is a defendant, the lawsuit was filed in the Court of Federal Claims (CFC) under 28 U.S.C. § 1498(b).
(b) [W]henever the [US] copyright in any work protected … shall be infringed by the United States … the exclusive action which may be brought for such infringement shall be an action by the copyright owner against the United States in the Court of Federal Claims [CFC] for the recovery of his reasonable and entire compensation as damages for such infringement.
Section 1498(b). The CFC agreed with Bitmanagement that it “had established a prima facie case of copyright infringement.” But, the lower court went on to excuse the Navy’s actions–finding an implied license to make/distribute copies. Bitmanagement Software GmbH v. United States, 144 Fed. Cl. 646 (2019).
Suing on Copyright vs. Contract: The Navy admitted that it did not fully live up to the implied agreement — it did not track/limit usage. On that point, the Navy suggested that potential breach should be pursued via a breach-of-contract claim, not a copyright claim. This is a convenient argument for the Navy because Bitmanagment did not allege breach of contract.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit sided with the copyright holder and found that the Navy’s failure to track/limit usage created an infringement claim. The line on this is fairly thin — the Federal Circuit makes a distinction between breaches of (a) “a condition that limits the scope” or instead is (b) “merely a covenant.” Slip Op. There is no infringement claim if the licensee breaches a mere covenant, but there will be a copyright claim that arises from breach of a condition. The court went on to explain that terms of a license “are presumed to be covenants, rather than conditions, unless it is clear that a condition precedent was intended.” Thus, “[n]ormally, a copyright owner who grants a license to his copyrighted material has waived his right to sue the licensee for copyright infringement and must instead pursue a claim for breach of contract.”
On appeal here, the court found that the use of Flexera to limit/monitor usage was a condition that induced Bitmanagment to enter the contract. The CFC did not reach the condition/covenant question, but did expressly conclude that Bitmanagment entered the contract “because Flexera would limit the number of simultaneous users … regardless of how many copies were installed on Navy computers.” On appeal, the Federal Circuit found this implied clause “critical to the basic functioning of the deal.”
Thus, the Flexera term was clearly a condition rather than merely a covenant. Unlike payment, which is typically considered a covenant, the use of Flexera at the time of copying was critical to the basic functioning of the deal. The timing of Flexera was key because the Navy’s tracking of BS Contact Geo users was intended to establish how many additional licenses the Navy would purchase. Without tracking, the Navy would have no basis to purchase more licenses and, consequently, Bitmanagement would have had no reason to enter into the implied-in-fact license. Unlike payment, which can feasibly come at any time after contract performance, Flexera was only useful if it could track, from the beginning, the number of Navy users.
Bottom line here: this provision is a condition and thus its breach opens the door to a copyright infringement claim. Because the CFC already found infringement but-for the license all that remains on remand is to determine the damages owed.
Regarding damages, the court also provided some guidance to the lower court:
Because Bitmanagement’s action is against the government, it is entitled only to “reasonable and entire compensation as damages . . ., including the minimum statutory damages as set forth in section 504(c).” 28 U.S.C. § 1498(b). This amount may not include non-compensatory or punitive damages. Contrary to Bitmanagement’s argument, it is not entitled to recover the cost of a seat license for each installation. If Bitmanagement chooses not to pursue statutory damages, the proper measure of damages shall be determined by the Navy’s actual usage of BS Contact Geo in excess of the limited usage contemplated by the parties’ implied license. That analysis should take the form of a hypothetical negotiation. As the party who breached the Flexera requirement in the implied license, the Navy bears the burden of proving its actual usage of the BS Contact Geo software and the extent to which any of it fell within the bounds of any existing license. See Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 352 cmt. a (Am. L. Inst. 1981) (“Doubts [about the extent of damages] are generally resolved against the party in breach.”).
Slip op. Note 5. I’ll pause here to note the oddity with regard to proving damages. Normally, the burden is on the IP holder to prove its damages.
= = = = =
I guess I don’t fully understand the law of implied contract. One reason justifying the finding of an implied contract was the fact that the parties were careful to avoid entering in an express contract. “Application of the preclusion rule was not warranted in this case for three primary reasons. First, Bitmanagement and the Navy were intentional in their decision not to enter into an express contractual relationship. As to the express agreements, the parties stipulated that “[t]here is no privity of contract between the United States and Bitmanagement.” J.A. 10057 ¶ 34. Instead, Bitmanagement and the Navy chose to use intermediary Planet 9 to conduct business.” Seems to me that both parties being careful to avoiding entering into an express contract suggests that there is also no implied contract.
= = = = =
The appellate panel’s reasoning for upholding the implied contract finding was that it gave substantial deference to the lower court’s factual finding. The opinion notes that Bitmanagement’s alternative position “is certainly supported by the record.” Although Plausible, the court affirmed because the CFC’s factual findings were “plausible … and thus is not clearly erroneous.” The deference here is huge — the court also noted “grave doubts” and that it was “dubious” as to whether there was any meeting of the minds. Still, did not disturb the CFC’s ruling on that point .
The majority opinion was written by Judge O’MALLEY and joined by Judge DYK.
Judge NEWMAN wrote a concurring opinion and would have found no implied contract.
I discern no license, implied or otherwise, for the Navy to make hundreds of thousands of copies of Bitmanagement’s commercial software product “BS Contact Geo.” The Navy made the copies using Bitmanagement’s keys and installation file, and admitted that it distributed the copies throughout the Navy, although without authorization, without license, and without payment. The Navy has not justified this improper copying; it violates the terms of its purchases of Bitmanagement’s product, and violates Bitmanagement’s copyright.
Ed. Note: Prof. Sapna Kumar has been working on international intellectual property law issues for decades. In fact, I believe we were students in the same international IP course at the University of Chicago way back when, along with Prof. Rantanen. I asked Prof. Kumar to provide some of her thoughts on how our international IP system is responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic. A draft of her recent on-point article is available online: Compulsory Licensing of Patents During the Pandemic.
By Sapna Kumar, Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center
Due to the global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines and treatments are in short supply and prohibitively expensive for many countries. For this reason, some scholars and foreign governments have argued that all IP rights should be suspended for such drugs for the duration of the pandemic. Others have made the more modest recommendation that countries be permitted to use compulsory licensing under TRIPS Article 31 to produce generic versions of needed drugs, in exchange for paying “adequate remuneration in the circumstances of each case” to the patent holder. This raises the question of whether patent rights are creating an impediment to getting people needed drugs during the pandemic.
The United States has not been particularly consistent in its attitude towards non-permissive government use of patented inventions and compulsory licensing. In the 1950s and 60s, it imported patented drugs from generic manufacturers to cut costs. During the anthrax scare in the early 2000s, after Canada licensed Bayer’s patented Cipro drug to a generic manufacturer, the U.S. government threatened to do the same to help negotiate a better price. Since 2010, there have been at least three cases of patent holders seeking compensation for the government’s unauthorized use of their defense-related inventions.
Notwithstanding the U.S. government’s regular unauthorized use of patented inventions, it has been quick to punish countries that use compulsory licensing to provide life-saving drugs to its citizens. When South Africa was suffering from the worst of the AIDS epidemic and seeking to import generic antiretroviral drugs, the Clinton administration placed South Africa on the Special 301 Report Watch List. Subsequent Democratic and Republican administrations have punished other countries seeking to utilize Article 31 to provide drugs to people who would otherwise go without treatment.
This brings us back to the current shortage of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Whether IP rights are harming patients and whether compulsory licensing can help depends, at least in part, on the type of drug at issue. Consider Gilead’s small-molecule drug remdesivir, which can be used as a COVID-19 treatment and was scarce during 2020. The Bangladeshi company Beximco was able to independently recreate remdesivir in just a few months. It began selling its generic equivalent in May, more than a month before any of the Gilead-licensed facilities began production. Other Bangladeshi companies soon began producing the generic, leading to a growing surplus that allowed Bangladesh to export to at least 21 other countries. As a Least-Developed Nation, Bangladesh is exempt from various TRIPS requirements, which allowed it to recreate the patented drug without retaliation.
Consequently, in the Summer of 2020, remdesivir was not scarce in Bangladesh, nor was it scarce in low- and middle-income countries that were able to buy from Gilead-licensed generic manufacturers beginning in late June. Yet during the same time period, the United States was facing an acute shortage and had to ration the drug. This tells us that the U.S. shortage was likely based on patent rights—Gilead failed to maximize all available production facilities and failed to grant countries like the United States access to drugs produced under license in countries like India. Had the government issued a compulsory license, it would have lessened the shortage.
Compulsory licensing, however, is not a cure-all for drug shortages. Biologics, including vaccines, can be difficult to recreate without know-how that is protected by trade secrecy. Issuing a compulsory license won’t force companies to divulge the optimal manufacturing conditions for producing the drug. Moreover, compulsory licensing won’t increase a supply of a needed drug if there is a shortage of raw materials or manufacturing capability—as is currently the case with various COVID-19 vaccines.
Consequently, for the current pandemic, compulsory licenses or other mechanisms for circumventing patent rights are only going to be useful for countries that will not be receiving an adequate vaccine supply in the near future and that have access to needed raw materials and manufacturing facilities. For countries like the United States that have pre-purchase agreements and the means to buy more vaccines, a compulsory license may not be helpful in the near term, given the amount of time it would take to recreate the drug. But for at least some low- and middle-income countries, compulsory licensing could make it possible to save lives, especially if revaccination is periodically required.
Any move that is taken with regard to IP rights during pandemics must be done with an eye towards not threatening drug development for future pandemic responses. Suspending all IP rights for the duration of the pandemic will give pharmaceutical companies little incentive to develop new drugs when the next pandemic arises, absent a change in how we incentivize drug development. But the same is not true for compulsory licensing and government use of patents. There is scant empirical evidence that the practice harms innovation, given that adequate remuneration must be paid under TRIPS. This is particularly true for licenses issued by low-income countries, which spend little on drugs compared to high-income countries.
One lesson from the pandemic is clear: the United States needs to reassess its inconsistent approach towards government use and compulsory licensing of drugs and should reassess the lack of concessions that it asks for when it pours billions of dollars into private pharmaceutical companies. Current U.S. law does not make it easy enough for a willing third-party manufacturer to petition for a license to a scarce drug, as several prior drug shortages have illustrated. U.S. agencies also need to expressly address know-how in their contracts when providing funding for research. Federal funding recipients that develop a drug or treatment should be required to utilize out-licensing to generic manufacturers to keep pace with demand after an initial grace period, in exchange for fair compensation.
Finally, the United States needs to join the European Union in revisiting its ugly practice of punishing low- and middle-income countries that utilize compulsory licensing to provide life-saving drugs to its citizens. If South Africa or other countries are forced to utilize compulsory licensing to produce COVID-19 drugs, will we repeat the mistakes we made during the AIDS epidemic? Or will we recognize that a global pandemic represents the kind of extenuating circumstance that TRIPS Article 31 was meant to address?
…is still claim construction in my book. This is true even when the claim construction focuses less on the specific meaning of individual words or phrases and more on construing the invention as a whole.
One of the most enjoyable things about teaching a course like Patent Law, which I’m doing again this fall, is that you get to re-read all the old classics and work through them from first principles with students who are not (yet) locked in the dogma of accepted narratives. In other words, to see cases such as Mayo,Myriad, and Alice through fresh eyes, or to explore the evolution of post-Markman claim construction from Markman to Cybor to Phillips to Teva. Today we worked through some of the examples that the PTO has published–for those who aren’t aware, there’s a host of them on the PTO’s website.
As I’ve read through the patent eligible subject eligibility cases again, I’m struck by the extent to which the courts engage in what I can only describe as claim construction–but a very different type of claim construction than what’s contained in the countless opinions deciding the meaning of individual claim terms over the last two decades. Those cases address the meaning of individual terms or phrases in a patent claim, often in a way that is dispositive of an infringement, novelty or nonobviousness issue.
The different type of claim construction that I’m talking about is what courts necessarily do when conducting a patent eligible subject matter analyses (and perhaps nonobviousness and enablement as well): construe the invention from the claims rather than interpret a particular word or phrase. None of the judicial opinions talk about what they’re doing as claim construction, but that seems to me to be exactly what it is.
The idea that courts describe patent claims in words other than those of the claims themselves during patent eligible subject matter inquiries is nothing new–to the contrary, it’s a frequent complaint about the Supreme Court’s patent eligible subject matter cases. Usually, it’s referred to as determining what the claims are “directed to,” or, in the second part of the Mayo/Alice inquiry, the search for an “inventive concept.”
But if claim construction is understood as the translation of the words of a patent claim into text that will have meaning for the person deciding a legal issue such as infringement or validity, then discussions of the patent claims in the context of patent eligible subject matter analyses would seem to be exactly that. Alice offers an obvious example: there, the Supreme Court explained that “[o]n their face, the claims before us are drawn to the concept of intermediated settlement,” (an abstract idea, failing Mayo step 1), and that “viewed as a whole, petitioner’s method claims simply recite the concept of intermediated settlement as performed by a generic computer” (thus failing Mayo step 2). Put another way, the Court took the words of the claim, gave them legally operative meaning, and then assessed whether that legally operative meaning against the criteria of abstract idea and inventive concept. That’s claim construction.
I can see some pushback here from folks who think of claim construction solely as the process of determining the meaning of individual words or phrases in a claim–in other words, as questions of accuracy about the meaning of words. The sharp focus on the meaning of individual claim terms has dominated thinking about patent law for the last two decades, but I think it’s a mistake to view claims only as individual limitations. That approach is useful for inquiries such as literal infringement or novelty, but it’s of less use when conducting other types of patentability or validity analyses. I’m not suggesting that claim term interpretation is irrelevant to patent eligible subject matter or enablement inquiries–sometimes the meaning of individual terms matters quite a bit. But what I see courts doing again and again in the patent eligible subject matter cases is to read the claims to arrive at a construction of the invention, rather than resolve disputes about the meaning of particular terms.
My thinking in this area is heavily influenced by Andres Sawicki’s forthcoming article The Central Claiming Renaissance. Professor Sawicki argues that the Supreme Court’s re-invigoration of patent eligible subject matter has been accompanied by a rebirth of “central claiming”: the idea that “courts use both the specification and the claims to situate the inventor’s work in the context of the technological field to understand just what it is that the inventor contributed.” Id. at 10. Sawicki observes that the Mayo/Alice analysis necessarily requires a determination of the inventor’s contribution–and particularly, whether that is the type of thing that is patent eligible subject matter. Consistent with the idea of central claiming, he suggests that in identifying the inventor’s contribution, the Supreme Court looked mostly to the the specification when making this determination in Bilski, Mayo, and Alice, even as he acknowledges the important role the claims play in what the Court was doing. Id. at 23-35.
While I mostly agree with Professor Sawicki’s analysis of the Supreme Court’s patent eligible subject matter cases, I think the article gets over-invests in the concept of “central claiming.” As Sawicki recognizes, even when conducting the Mayo/Alice analysis, courts are still construing the actual claims, not the written description, to identify the invention. They draw on the written description, but so too does conventional claim term interpretation. I’m also hesitant because what’s involved isn’t “claiming;” it’s the process of construing an existent claim. That said, I don’t have any sticky words to describe this alternate approach to claim construction. The best I’ve come up with are “whole claim construction,” “invention-focused construction,” or “inventive contribution construction” as contrasted with “claim term interpretation.”
Why does it matter whether we call what the court’s doing “claim construction?” After all, a rose by any other name still smells as sweet.
There are a few reasons. First, the old adage that “the name of the game is the claim” is just as true when courts are construing the claims in a general sense as it is when courts are engaged in term-based constructions. As patent practitioners know, how the court articulates the claims for Mayo steps 1 and 2 matters–and can even be dispositive, as the recent case of Visual Memory LLC v. NVIDIA Corp. shows. Recognizing that the courts are engaged in type of claim construction has the benefit of focusing the parties’ arguments on an issue that may determine the outcome of the case.
A second benefit from recognizing that courts are engaged in claim construction in the patent eligibility inquiry is that the discussion can then turn to what constitutes an abstract idea. Sure, the court’s construction matters, but so too does the question of what an abstract idea actually is. Untangling these two issues–the construction of the claim and the meaning of “abstract idea”–may bring clarity to the second one.
A third reason why we should acknowledge that there’s a type of claim construction going on in patent eligible subject matter analysis is because the Federal Circuit’s opinions don’t. Recognizing that the courts are engaged in a type of claim construction raises an important question: we have a complex methodology and approach to interpreting claim terms; what then is the methodology for this other type of claim construction that the courts are doing? As the patent eligible subject matter jurisprudence develops, methodological variants are emerging that reflect sharp differences in the way that claims are being construed when conducting the patent eligible subject inquiry. Some of these divisions present the same types of issues as the conventional claim term interpretation cases raise, such as “how much weight to give the specification?,” while others present new divisions, such as the question of “at what level of generality the claims should be read?”
As a first pass at this idea, here are a few different ways that “invention-focused construction” can be done:
At one extreme is the ipsis verbis methodology: to repeat the words of the claim and nothing but. Only those words, and perhaps interpretations of some key terms, suffice. One might picture an attorney standing before a judge who repeatedly asks “what’s the invention?” while the attorney dutifully recites the words of the claim again and again, neither understanding why the other doesn’t get it.
At the other extreme is a claim construction untethered from the claims themselves. An example might be to construe a claim to a typewriter as being to a hot dog. While this example is absurd, the point is to illustrate that there is a range from ipsis verbis to a construction of the invention that has no connection to the claims.
Another dimension of the invention-focused construction involves the degree to which the construction hones in on the inventor’s contribution. To borrow from the USPTO’s gunpowder example, the “inventive concept” of a claim to “an intimate finely-ground mixture of 75% potassium nitrate, 15% charcoal and 10% sulfur” isn’t the individual ingredients; those already exist in nature. Rather, the “invention” is the combination of the ingredients, or the specific ratios, or that they are finely ground in the mixture.
Alternately, the court may treat the claim as a whole as the “invention,” not caring about which part of it constitutes the inventor’s contribution to the art. I struggle with applying this approach: how do you conduct an analysis of whether the invention is eligible subject matter when you aren’t focusing in on what is new?
In a new pilot program, the USPTO will offer expedited processing of patent applications that include a proper Glossary-of-Terms that define the terms used in patent claims.
Details: The pilot program is limited only to computer-related inventions (Tech Centers 2100, 2400, 2600, and the Business Methods area of 3600) and may be limited to 200 applications that petition to participate. The program runs from June-December 2014. At the time of filing, the application must include a glossary of terms within the specification that presents “positive statement[s] of what [each] term means. A glossary definition cannot consist solely of a statement of what the term does not mean, and cannot be open-ended.” The glossary is not required to define every word found in the claim set. However, it should provide definitions for key claim terminology, terms with a special definition, abbreviations, relative terms, terms of degree, and functional terminology (including means-plus-function limitations).
The pilot program is intended to provide some information about how patent applicants would use the glossaries and whether they will be useful in both better facilitating examination and result in patents with more clarity of scope. On the examination point, many patent attorneys complain that patent examiners apply unduly broad meaning to patent claim terms during the examination process. The glossary would ideally serve to head-off that initial confusion and round of prosecution that is often wasted in merely understanding the claims as submitted.
It will be interesting to see how patent applicants work within this new proposal.
Chicago Board Options Exchange, Inc. v. International Securities Exchange, LLC (Fed. Cir. 2012) Download 11-1267-1298 Panel: Rader, Wallach (author) and Fogel
If my own conversations are any indicator, many people who follow the Federal Circuit's claim construction jurisprudence have developed strong opinions about the longstanding members of the court. More of an unsolved puzzle are the more recent appointees. In Chicago Board Options Exchange, we get a glimpse into the newest member of the court's thoughts on claim construction in his debut patent law opinion. That opinion suggests an approach closely tied to the patent itself, analyzing the text of the document without reference to extrinsic sources.
Means plus function: One of the claim terms at issue in this appeal was "system memory means for storing allocating parameters for allocating trades between the incoming order or quotation and the previously received orders and quotations." Although the court noted that the parties expressly agreed during claim construction that this was a means-plus-function limitation, the court nonetheless dropped a footnote indicating that even had the argument not been waived, the presumption arising from the use of the word "means" was not overcome because the limitation "system memory means" articulates a function and nowhere includes a "specific and definite structure." Given this statement, it is possible that Judge Wallach may take a broad approach to 112(f), interpreting a wide array of terms to fall within its scope. Or I may be overreading the footnote, given that the claim element did include "means" after all.
In the end, however, the distinction did not matter, as the CAFC interpreted the corresponding structure of "system memory means" to be "system memory." After examining the specification to determine which structure was linked to the means-plus-function element's function, and applying the canon of claim construction that different terms convey different meanings, the court concluded that the "[t]he clearly linked structure associated with this function is “system memory.” Slip Op. at 13-14. It did not include the additional elements identified by the district court.
Looking at the Claims, then the Specification: The CAFC also construed several non-means-plus-function terms, taking a similar approach to each. For each term, the court first looked to the claim language itself to divine any meaning the claims might offer, then turned to the specification to examine whether it provided further support or rebutted the meaning as indicated by the claim. As in the preceding section, the court relied heavily on the different terms/different meanings canon of claim construction.
Specification disavowal: Although for most terms the court found that the specification either supported or did not rebut the meaning of the terms as established by the claims, the court found clear disavowal of claim scope for one term: "automated exchange." "The specification goes well beyond expressing the patentee’s preference for a fully automated exchange over a manual or a partially automated one, and its repeated derogatory statements about the latter reasonably may be viewed as a disavowal of that subject matter from the scope of the Patent’s claims." Slip Op. at 21. Thus, the district court correctly interpreted this term to mean "fully computerized, such that it does not include matching or allocating through use of open out-cry." Id.
Standards are powerful market tools that enable products and services offered by different vendors to interoperate: think WiFi, USB, and the pervasive 3G and 4G telecommunications standards. Yet once standards are widely adopted, markets can become "locked-in" and switching to a different technology can be prohibitively costly. Because patent holders have the potential to block others from deploying technology covered by their patents, the industry associations that develop standards ("standards development organizations" or "SDOs") often demand a trade-off from the companies that participate in standards-development: you can have a say in the technical direction of the standard, but in return you must license your patents that are essential to the standard on "fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory" (FRAND) terms.
Last month, I discussed a series of statements released by Apple, Microsoft and Google seeking to clarify how they interpret FRAND licensing commitments. Both the U.S. Department of Justice and the European Commission looked carefully at these interpretations in evaluating Google's $12 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility, Apple's purchase of a number of Linux-related patents, and the $4.5 billion acquisition of Nortel's patent portfolio by a group including Microsoft, Apple, and RIM. The agencies concluded that these transactions did not present significant antitrust concerns, basing their reasoning in part on the interpretations of FRAND offered by Apple, Microsoft and Google.
Independently of these agency determinations, there continues to be significant disagreement among market participants over the meaning of FRAND. This disagreement arises both in reference to the level of royalties that should be considered "reasonable", and whether other tactics, such as seeking injunctive relief, are fair game when FRAND commitments have been made. Such disagreements have serious consequences because a commitment to grant a license on FRAND terms is not itself a license. A license to operate under a patent is not granted until the parties can agree on those "fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory" terms. So, if the parties can't agree on the terms of the FRAND license for a particular "standards-essential" patent, the frustrated licensee must either refrain from implementing the standard (and lose a significant market opportunity) or risk infringing the patent. The typical result: litigation.
To help get a handle on the current state of play in the courts, Table 1 offers a summary of some of the principal cases in which FRAND issues are currently being litigated in the U.S. and Europe. These disputes form only a part of the larger patent wars currently being waged across the smart phone industry. That wide-ranging litigation involves even more players and extends to patents that are not necessarily essential to the implementation of industry standards. But the more focused skirmishes over FRAND issues are important too, as some of the most basic technology needed to make mobile devices interoperate is covered by standards, and the terms on which "standards-essential" patents will be licensed will affect all players in the market, both large and small. Thus, while the scale, complexity and rapid pace of this litigation virtually guarantees that any summary will be incomplete and quickly outdated, I hope that it will be useful (at least temporarily) for those who want an overview of the current state of play regarding FRAND.
Table 1 – Current FRAND Litigation
Royalty rate, injunctions
Summary judgment hearing scheduled May 2012, trial scheduled Nov. 2012.
Moto currently enjoined from enforcing German injunctions
Injunctions, licensing conditions
EC investigation announced in Apr. 2012
N.D. Ill. & W.D. Wis.
Ill. trial scheduled June 2012; Wis. trial scheduled Nov. 2012
Defensive suspension, injunctions
Apple complaint filed Feb. 2012
Injunctions, failure to disclose
Summary judgment motion scheduled for hearing May 2012; mediation pending
Netherlands – Hague
EC investigation announced in Jan. 2012
ITC exclusion orders
Huawei complaint filed Oct. 2011
Microsoft v. Motorola (W.D.Wash, Case No. C10-1823-JLR): This case relates to Motorola patents covering the IEEE's 802.11 (WiFi) standards and the ISO/IEC's and ITU's H.264 video codec standards. In 2010, Motorola offered to license these patents to Microsoft at a proposed royalty of 2.25% of the end product (i.e., each Xbox 360, PC/laptop or smart phone implementing the standard). Microsoft did not take a license, sought declaratory relief that Motorola breached its FRAND obligations to the SDOs, and Motorola sued Microsoft for patent infringement. The crux of Microsoft's argument is that Motorola's license offer is inherently unreasonable because it is not tied to the value of Motorola's technical contribution and because it seeks to assess royalties on the price of a PC/laptop rather than Microsoft's contribution to that product (i.e., the Windows operating system). Microsoft has also contended that the absolute value of Motorola's royalty demand (about $4 billion, presumably across all product lines) is unreasonable and far exceeds the amounts that Microsoft pays to other holders of larger numbers of standards-essential patents. Motorola counters that its 2.25% royalty rate has been offered for many years and is well within industry norms (citing examples of royalty rates much higher than this). It also contends that Microsoft refused to negotiate in good faith, thereby repudiating its right to receive a FRAND license. In February, the District Court denied Microsoft's first motion for summary judgment, but each party has made additional motions for summary judgment relating to FRAND and breach of contract issues, which will be heard in May.
Last week, the court granted Microsoft a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order preventing Motorola from enforcing injunctions enjoining the sale of Microsoft products in Germany, a matter on which the Mannheim Regional Court is scheduled to rule shortly. Microsoft has requested that the International Trade Commission (ITC) similarly postpone ruling on Motorola's infringement claims until the Washington court has had the opportunity to rule on the FRAND matter.
European Commission Investigations. On April 3, the European Commission (after receiving complaints from Microsoft and Apple) announced that it initiated an investigation to determine whether Motorola violated European competition law by failing to comply with its FRAND commitments to standard-setting organizations. In particular, the EC has stated that it will investigate whether Motorola's attempts to obtain injunctions on the basis of standards-essential patents, and the licensing terms that it has offered, amount to an abuse of dominant position in violation of Article 102 of the EU Treaty. In January, the EC opened a similar investigation of Samsung to determine whether its attempts to obtain injunctive relief in various European patent actions pending against Apple violated Samsung's FRAND commitments to ETSI and otherwise ran afoul of EC competition law. The EC has actively investigated FRAND compliance in the past, most notably the allegedly excessive royalty rates charged by Qualcomm on the CDMA and WCDMA wireless 3G communications standards. The Qualcomm investigation, which was initiated in October 2007, was closed in November 2009 after Qualcomm reached settlements with the original complainants in the case.
Apple v. Motorola (N.D. Ill, Case No. 1:11-cv-08540, transferred in part from W.D. Wis., Case No. 10-CV-00662-BBC). Apple and Motorola have been embroiled in patent litigation over smart phones and other products since late 2010. Not all of the patents at issue relate to standardized technology, but in a few critical cases standardization and FRAND issues are front and center. Most significant is the dispute playing out in the Northern District of Illinois before Judge Richard Posner, sitting by designation. In that case, Apple argues that Motorola should be equitably estopped from enforcing certain patents relating to the ETSI GSM/WCDMA and UMTS/3GPP standards. The gist of Apple's complaint appears to be that Motorola did not offer to license Apple on terms that were FRAND. Yet Motorola maintains that it did, beginning in 2007, offer to license its patents to Apple at its customary rate of 2.25%. The dispute, then, revolves around the issue whether this licensing offer complies with Motorola's FRAND obligations to ETSI and possibly other SDOs and, if not, what remedies are available to Apple. Trial is scheduled for June. Trial in Illinois is scheduled in June. It appears that some, but not all, of the FRAND-related claims in this case remain in the Wisconsin court, which is scheduled for trial in November.
Apple v. Motorola (S.D. Cal., Case No. 12CV0355 JLS BLM). Last year the Apple-Motorola patent litigation spread to Germany and Motorola obtained an injunction against the sale of certain Apple products (e.g., iPhones) from the Regional Court (Landesgericht) of Mannheim (the injunction was recently suspended by the Higher Regional Court (Oberlandesgericht) in Karlsruhe pending further proceedings). Among the many patents being asserted by Motorola are two that are essential to the GPRS standard developed at the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). This February, Apple brought a declaratory judgment action against Motorola in the Southern District of California, alleging that Motorola violated its FRAND obligations to ETSI when it sought an injunction from the Mannheim court. Apple bases its FRAND claim on a license that Motorola previously granted to Qualcomm, the supplier of GPRS-based communication chips used in the iPhone. Based on the pleadings, it appears that under the Motorola-Qualcomm license Motorola covenants not to sue Qualcomm's customers (such as Apple) for using Qualcomm's GPRS-based chips. However, Motorola seems to have revoked Apple's immunity under the Qualcomm license, asserting that Apple's enforcement of different patents against Motorola triggered the "defensive suspension" provisions of that license. In the California suit Apple seems to claim that either Motorola's revocation of Apple's rights under the Qualcomm license, or its enforcement of patents against Apple in Germany, violates Motorola's FRAND obligations to ETSI. The case is still at an early stage, and Apple's FRAND-based arguments, as well as Motorola's defenses, will presumably be clarified in the future.
Apple v. Samsung (N.D. Cal. Civil Action No. 11-CV-01846-LHK). Apple is also involved in wide-ranging patent litigation with Samsung, maker of the Galaxy smart phone than runs Google's Android operating system. In the Northern District of California, Apple and Samsung are each asserting patents against each other. Apple has moved for partial summary judgment arguing that Samsung failed to disclose patents essential to the ETSI UMTS telecommunications standard used in the iPhone and iPad, that Apple is licensed under these patents pursuant to a cross-license between Samsung and Intel (the supplier of chipsets used in these Apple products), and that Samsung's FRAND commitments to ETSI prevent it from now seeking injunctive relief against Apple. Apple's FRAND argument is interesting, in that it relies on French law (which purportedly governs the ETSI IPR policy and declarations). Samsung counters that Apple only sought a FRAND license from Samsung after Apple initiated litigation, then rejected Samsung's FRAND license offer and "steadfastly refused to engage in meaningful FRAND negotiations" (Samsung's Opposition to Apple's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, Apr. 2, 2012, at 11). The sum of these actions, according to Samsung, is that Samsung's FRAND obligations should no longer prevent it from seeking an injunction against Apple under these circumstances. A hearing on Apple's motion is scheduled for May, 2012. The case is particularly noteworthy, as it involves not only FRAND issues, but also allegations that Samsung violated ETSI's patent disclosure rules (thus rendering Samsung's patents unenforceable), allegations reminiscent of those made inRambus v. Infineon, 318 F.3d 1081 (Fed. Cir. 2003), cert. denied, 124 S.Ct. 227 (2003), and Qualcomm v. Broadcom, 584 F.3d 1004 (Fed. Cir. 2008). This month, the parties agreed to submit at least part of the dispute to mediation.
Apple v. Samsung (District Court – Hague, Netherlands, Case numbers 400367 / HA ZA 11-2212, 400376 / HA ZA 11-2213 and 400385 / HA ZA 11-2215). In March, a district court in the Hague, Netherlands, denied Samsung's request for an injunction against Apple, basing its reasoning (according to newsreports – I do not have access to an English translation of the decision) on Samsung's commitment to grant FRAND licenses. The court apparently found that because Apple was willing to negotiate in good faith, Samsung's request for an injunction against the sale of Apple products in the Netherlands would not be sustained.
Huawei v. InterDigital (Del. Ch., No. 6974). InterDigital Communications has asserted eight patents relating to 3G telecommunications standards against Huawei in the ITC, seeking an exclusion order against the importation of infringing Huawei products into the U.S. Huawei alleges in an action brought in the Delaware Chancery Court that InterDigital has breached its commitments to ETSI and 3GPP by seeking to enforce its patents against Huawei products without first offering to enter into a FRAND license. Because an exclusion order is the only remedy that the ITC is authorized to grant, Huawei seeks to have the ITC action dismissed on this basis, as well as the establishment of a FRAND royalty rate for InterDigital's 3G patents.
In 2009, 3M filed sued – alleging that Tredegar’s elastomeric laminates (used for diaper waistbands) infringed four 3M patents. U.S. Patent Nos. 5,501,679; 5,5691,034, 5,468,428, and 5,344,691. After claim construction, District Court Judge Donovan Frank 3M stipulated to a finding of non-infringement. The appeal focuses on construction of the asserted claims.
In its decision, the Federal Circuit panel issued three different opinions – each offering different notions on the correct construction of the various claim terms and each offering some disagreement with Judge Frank’s initial opinion.
The most interesting opinion of the four is Judge Plager’s concurring opinion that focuses on the intentional ambiguity inserted into the claims by 3M. Judge Plager argues that courts should begin to apply the contract doctrine of contra proferentem and construe ambiguous terms against the drafter (i.e., the patent holder). Judge Plager writes:
I appreciate that there are four different patents involved, and that the particular technology for manufacturing the product is quite detailed, although the products themselves are fairly basic—the material at issue is used for example in diapers. Nevertheless, when claims are larded with terms such as “substantially,” “preferentially,” and “relatively,” and when it takes four judges and some seventy pages of densely written opinions to find meaning in these terms, there is considerable evidence of a failure by the claim drafters to be clear and precise, and, beyond that, of a shortcoming in the patent examination process that permits claims to be so drafted.
Sometimes such ambiguity is the result of sloppy drafting, and sometimes it appears that claims are drafted with a degree of indefiniteness so as to leave room to later argue for a broad interpretation designed to capture later-developed competition. The problem is exacerbatedwhen, as here, there is a conflicting or indeterminate written description and prosecution history with regard to the claim terms at issue. Claim construction then becomes a game of crystal ball gazing, not resolved until this court’s gaze is announced.
The particular claim construction issue that divides the three appellate judges provides a perfect example of the problem. The claim term, “continuous microtextured skin layer,” truly is perplexing. Does “continuous” apply to the microtexturing, the skin layer, or both? Does it mean the microtexturing is everywhere (except perhaps for manufacturing flaws), or can it cover only a part of the skin layer as long as that part is continuous? Relying on the Chicago Manual of Style, 3M argues that “continuous” and “microtextured” are adjectives that separately modify “skin layer,” and thus, the claim term does not require that the microtexturing itself be continuous. According to 3M, if the applicant wanted “continuous” to modify “microtextured,” the applicant would have used the adverb “continuously.”
3M makes an interesting argument to be sure. But the argument creates its own grammatical problems. For example, there is no comma between “continuous” and “microtextured.” And the Chicago Manual of Style also tells us that adjectives that separately modify a noun are generally separated by a comma, unless of course the second adjective is a unit with the noun being modified (which would favor Tredegar’s construction). The Chicago Manual of Style § 6.33 (16th ed. 2010). The applicant seems to have understood this comma concept, and in fact used it when referring in the written description to a “continuous, deeply textured, microstructured surface.” ‘034 patent, col.15 ll.2-3. But the nuances of comma usage, like 3M’s adverb argument, seem to me a tenuous foundation for an entire claim construction on which substantial liabilities may rest. See United States v. Palmer, 16 U.S. 610, 638, 4 L. Ed. 471 (1818) (noting that “the use of the comma is exceedingly arbitrary and indefinite”); United States v. Ron Pair Enterprises, Inc., 489 U.S. 235, 249, 109 S. Ct. 1026, 1035, 103 L. Ed. 2d 290 (1989) (characterizing a comma as a “capricious bit of punctuation”) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Much like the claim’s grammar, the written description provides little help deciphering the meaning of the disputed term. Certainly, the ‘034 patent has a lot of disclosure: nearly 30 columns of it. The patent has 33 different examples, 16 tables, and 24 figures. The patent’s problem does not lie in the quantity of its disclosure; it lies in the disclosure’s relevance to the language used in the claims.
The applicant knew or should have known that the claim term “continuous microtextured skin layer” was highly relevant to the patented technology. The applicant wrote the term nine times in the first eight claims. Strangely, however, the disclosure does not reflect this relevance. “Continuous microtextured skin layer” does not appear one single time in the written description. The written description provides no discussion of “continuous microtextured skin layer,” no definition. Language resembling the claim term appears here and there, but mutated versions of claim terms often confuse more than they elucidate.
While ultimately I have voted to join Judge Reyna for the reasons I explain shortly, Judge O’Malley in her dissent-in-part makes an argument for the opposite construction based on the prosecution history. The argument is not without merit, although again, I do not find the prosecution history a shining example of clarity.
Cases like this—claim construction issues such as this one—may well deserve application of a principle analogous to the contract doctrine of contra proferentem. See Williston on Contracts § 32:12 (4th ed.). When a term is ambiguous, a crystal ball matter, the ambiguity should be construed against the draftsman. (Or better yet, the claim should simply be invalidated as indefinite, though our court has not seen fit to go there as yet.)
Without labeling it as such, we have already used this principle to construe claims for compliance with 35 U.S.C. § 112. See Athletic Alternatives, Inc. v. Prince Mfg., Inc., 73 F.3d 1573, 1581 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“Where there is an equal choice between a broader and a narrower meaning of a claim, and there is an enabling disclosure that indicates that the applicant is at least entitled to a claim having the narrower meaning, we consider the notice function of the claim to be best served by adopting the narrower meaning.”); see also A Theory of Claim Interpretation, 14 Harv. J.L. & Tech. 1, 81 (2000).
The contra proferentem principle would require the applicant to draft clear claims, using simple, direct sentences, proper grammar, and definitions in the written description where appropriate. It harmonizes with the notice function of patent law. It would result in applicants—and prospective patentees—investing more resources on the front end, during drafting, and less resources on the remedial end, during litigation. Better drafting of patent applications can only improve the efficiency of the patent system by clearly delineating a patentee’s property rights, thereby reducing wasteful and unnecessary litigation.
Specifically in this case, when I gaze in my crystal ball, I see, in addition to the verbal jousting, a district judge who struggled at length to make sense of the claims, and I see a patentee (more correctly a patent applicant) who had the last clear chance—infringement is after all a tort—to avoid this kind of unnecessary claim construction game. My crystal ball tells me to vote against the patentee’s construction of “continuous microtextured skin layer” and in favor of a competitor who should not have the risk of guessing wrong about what a claim term could possibly mean.
Judge Plager’s solution is gets to the heart of the matter – claim construction is problematic because patents and patent claims are so often drafted in ways that hide the invention rather elucidate the inventor’s contribution.
The conventional approach to the fault elements1 of indirect and willful infringement is to speak of them in mens rea (or state of mind, if you prefer) terms. But describing fault this way is largely nonsensical when dealing with modern indirect and willful infringement. In my current work-in-progress, I suggest that the fault element of these doctrines should instead be conceived of as an objective inquiry that focuses on the degree of risk of infringement to a person in the accused party’s shoes. Given the Supreme Court's grant of certiorari this morning in Global-Tech v SEB, questioning whether we should even be talking about the issue in mental state terms seems particularly timely.
Inducement of infringement is the poster child for the problems associated with viewing the fault elements for certain doctrines in mens rea terms. For years, both the Federal Circuit and scholars struggled to define the state of mind necessary for inducement. Did it require intent to infringe a patent, or just intent to cause the underlying acts that constituted infringement? Even after the court settled this issue in DSU Medical, it continued to conceive of the requirement in mental state terms – in i4i v Microsoft, for example, the court stated that inducement requires that the accused party “knowingly induced infringement and possessed specific intent to encourage another’s infringement.” 598 F.3d 831, 851 (Fed. Cir. 2010). And perhaps the strongest evidence of how deeply this view is entrenched is the Court’s Question Presented in SEB, which assumes that the fault element must be described in mental state terms – asking whether the accused infringer must possess a certain “state of mind,” be it one of deliberate indifference or purposeful conduct.
In my paper, I offer several reasons why viewing the fault element of inducement in mental state terms is wrong. Among them are the following:
The “people” who are accused of inducement are not people at all. They are corporations. To speak of a corporation as having a specific state of mind is borderline meaningless. Is it sufficient that an engineer’s purpose is to infringe a patent? Or does one look to the legal department? Or must senior management “intend” to infringe a patent? These questions are particularly problematic in the patent infringement context, which involves assessments not just of factual consequences, but also of legal questions.
No one ever has the “purpose” of infringing a patent. Of course, one may purposefully engage in acts that constitute infringement. One may even purposefully copy another’s technology. But no one’s purpose is to infringe a patent.
Nor does the alternate mens rea concept of “knowledge” work. Knowledge is typically established when one is “substantially certain” of certain consequences. Given the uncertainties associated with patent law, one can virtually never be “substantially certain” that conduct infringes a patent short of a final judgment.
Indeed, the facts of past opinions involving inducement suggest that, notwithstanding the court’s framing of the legal issue, what is really required is the existence of an obvious, high risk that the relevant conduct infringes a particular patent – not actual knowledge that it infringes a patent or purpose to infringe a patent. Thus, although the fault element of inducement is commonly articulated as requiring “intent to infringe a patent,” I suggest that the normative standard that is actually being applied is one of recklessness.
Rather than continue to attempt to articulate the fault element of inducement as if it required a subjective mental state, I suggest that an objective inquiry akin to civil recklessness is more appropriate. Specifically, I argue that the better approach would be to ask whether, given the information known to the accused party at the relevant time, a high risk that the relevant conduct infringed a patent would be obvious to a person in the accused party’s place. Obviously, my articulation is by no means perfect (and I’m dealing with some of the imperfections in my paper), but I think it provides a more intelligible articulation of the fault element for inducement than currently exists.
1 By "fault element," I simply mean the component that transforms a doctrine into something other than a strict liability claim.
Alan Cox is an economist with over thirty years’ experience testifying in Antitrust and Intellectual Property matters. He holds a Ph.D. in Economic Analysis and Policy from the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He is an Affiliated Consultant at NERA Economic Consulting. In this guest post he provides his observations of the damages testimony in VLSI Technologies v. Intel. As noted in the letter from Professor Chao that Dennis posted earlier, key filings in this case are not publicly accessible (nor are the transcripts). – Jason
VLSI Technologies sued Intel for the alleged infringement of several patents. At trial VLSI asserted two patents: 7,523,373 (“the ‘373 Patent”), and 7,725,759 (“the ‘759 Patent”). VLSI asserted that the technology described in these patents was incorporated into 987 million Intel microprocessors of various models. On March 2, a jury in the Western District of Texas awarded VLSI $2.18 billion in damages for Intel’s pre-trial use of the patents.
The court allowed the public to listen to public portions of the trial by telephone. This article describes aspects of the testimony and attorney statements on damages as logged in contemporaneous notes.
The damages testimony in this trial is interesting for several reasons, including Plaintiff’s presentation of a regression analysis as the basis of its damages claim. Regression analysis is a sophisticated quantitative technique that is widely used in the academic literature, in making business decisions and in many areas of litigation, though it is seldom presented in patent trials. The data necessary to undertake regression analysis is generally unavailable in patent matters. As is often the case in the application of complicated statistical methods, the results can vary with inputs, underlying assumptions, data availability and other factors. While Intel did address possible problems or partiality in the application of the methodology, the defendant’s core attack on the regression analysis was its repeated assertion that the method has never been undertaken in the real-world process of licensing patents.
By way of additional background, it appears that ownership of the patents had changed hands at least twice as the result either of mergers or as part of a sale of the patents themselves, including the sale to VLSI. These transactions indicated a much lower value for the patents than was claimed by VLSI and awarded by the jury. The patented technology had been originally assigned to Freescale, an integrated circuit manufacturer spun off from Motorola, later purchased by another semiconductor manufacturer, NXP. Freescale was the owner of the patents at the time that Intel first allegedly infringed them. Finally, as Intel pointed out at trial, VLSI is a non-practicing entity that undertakes no research nor production and has two employees.
VLSI’s Regression Analysis
A regression is a statistical analysis that is used to estimate the impact of several variables on another variable. One use of the method, hedonic regression, measures the impact of product attributes on the price of that product. For example, hedonic regressions have been used to determine how prices of automobiles vary with changes in horsepower, gas mileage, brand, and other attributes. Hedonic regressions provide ratios that measure the amount by which prices will change with a change in one of these attributes. For example, such a ratio may be the percentage by which the price of a car increases with a percentage increase in horsepower.
In this case, VLSI’s affirmative damages case was presented by a Ph.D. economist, Ryan Sullivan. He applied regression analysis to estimate the impact of different attributes of Intel microprocessors on the price of those microprocessors. Most important was his estimate of the response of price to changes in microprocessor speed. His regression result indicated that a one percent increase in microprocessor speed increased the price of an Intel microprocessor by 0.764 percent, holding all other attributes of the microprocessor constant.
There was little discussion of the regression analysis at trial since VLSI clearly wanted to focus on demonstrating how the regression resulted in a large damage number and Intel did little to challenge the implementation of the methodology. In cross examining Dr. Sullivan, Intel’s attorneys did, however, challenge VLSI’s expert about his inclusion of some potential explanatory variables and the exclusion of others. Some of VLSI’s expert’s responses indicated that Intel may have had some effective points of attack of VLSI’s implementation of the regression methodology had it chosen to pursue them.
Calculating Damages from Regression Results
Next, VLSI’s damages expert used his regression results to calculate the total value that Intel purportedly received for the use of the two patents. For this he relied on VLSI’s technical experts who had testified that the ‘373 patent decreased microprocessor power consumption by 5.45 percent and that the ‘759 patent increased microprocessor performance by 1.11 percent. He also relied on a crucial assertion by VLSI’s technology experts that a one percent improvement in power consumption or a one percent increase in performance could be “valued as” a one percent increase in speed. Using those asserted equivalencies in the value of microprocessor speed, power consumption and performance, VLSI’s damages expert calculated the value of the benefit of the patented technology by multiplying these percentage improvements in power consumption and performance by the percentage increases in price attributable to increases in speed. Finally, he multiplied the resulting percentage increase in revenue by the total revenue that Intel had earned on the accused products.
This calculation can be restated concisely in summary mathematical form. VLSI’s damages expert undertook the following calculations:
Intel’s Increase in Revenue due to its use of the ’373 Patent =
Price-Speed RatioX% Reduced Power Use X$Accused Product Sales =
0.764X 5.45% X $Accused Product Sales
Intel’s Increase in Revenue due to its use of the ’759 Patent =
VLSI’s damages expert testified that there would be no increase in direct manufacturing costs from utilizing the patented technology and only a very small increase in selling and marketing costs. Since there were no incremental costs to subtract from the additional revenue allegedly earned from using the patented technology, the increase in profits was equal to the claimed increase in revenues.
The Outcome of the Hypothetical Negotiation
The next step was to determine how Intel and VLSI would share these benefits in a hypothetical negotiation, the fictional event that takes place on the eve of first infringement during which the litigants are imagined to reach agreement on a royalty. It is often customary to discuss the negotiating process over the sharing of benefits as being shaped by the relative bargaining power of the parties at the hypothetical negotiation. VLSI’s damages expert instead undertook an unusual calculation. He first calculated what he claimed was Intel’s contribution to the commercial success of its microprocessors. He then subtracted the amount of Intel’s contribution from his estimate of Intel’s increase in profits due to its use of VLSI’s patents.
To implement this division, VLSI’s damages expert started by claiming that Intel’s contribution to its success in generating the patent-related additional profit could be measured as the sum of certain costs divided by its total revenue. The reasoning that justified this approach was that these costs were incurred in the development and marketing of Intel chips. More specifically, he took the sum of Intel’s Selling and Marketing Costs (S&M); its General and Administrative Costs (G&A); and its Research and Development Costs (R&D) and then divided that sum by Intel’s total revenue. That is:
The result, 20.7 percent, was deemed to be Intel’s share of the estimated increase in profits that it earned from incorporating the patented technology into its microprocessors. The remaining 79.3 percent was, therefore, attributable to VLSI.
The asserted outcome of the hypothetical negotiation was then simply the result of multiplying 79.3 percent by the increase in Intel profits, described above. VLSI’s damages expert estimated the amount of money that a reasonable royalty would have generated before trial, a figure presumably close to the over $2 billion awarded by the jury. VLSI’s damages expert claimed that Intel would have been willing to pay such a royalty because it faced strong competition and needed the competitive edge that the patented technology provided to maintain its market position.
The presentation of damages as a single payment for past infringement did create a potential problem for VLSI. During the trial, Intel asserted that VLSI’s expert had not presented a per unit royalty in his pre-trial disclosure and should not be allowed to present a per unit royalty in court. A ruling in Intel’s favor may have made future royalties unavailable. As it happened the court ruled in VLSI’s favor on this point.
VLSI’s Anticipation of Defendant’s Critiques
In its direct testimony on damages, VLSI addressed several additional critiques that had been raised by Intel in pretrial filings, reports or deposition testimony. First, VLSI’s damages expert was asked in his direct testimony about Intel’s claim that VLSI and its experts had not identified any comparable real-world licenses that resulted in payments as high as those that he was claiming to be reasonable; that is, in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. They also asked him about the much lower patent values implied from the purchase of Freescale and the sale of the patents to VLSI, mentioned above.
VLSI’s damages expert responded that none of those real-world licenses and sales were analogous to the hypothetical license in this case. He asserted that licensors in real-world licensing negotiations do not have comprehensive knowledge of the importance of the patents that are under negotiation. Similarly, purchasers of the ‘373 and the ‘759 patents would not have known of the value of the patents to Intel or even the extent of the use of the patented technologies. Any of the earlier transactions involving the patents would not, he claimed, have incorporated Intel’s expectations and experience of the benefits of using the technology. VLSI frequently claimed through this and other witnesses that only Intel would have understood the value of the patented technology that it was exploiting.
VLSI’s damages expert characterized the hypothetical negotiation, by contrast, as one in which both side’s “cards were facing up.” Consequently, the licensor, Freescale, would have been fully informed of everything that Intel knew about the usefulness and value of the licensor’s technology. VLSI appeared to claim that the information that was available to Freescale in the up-facing cards included information about sales, profits and other outcomes after the date of the hypothetical negotiation. VLSI’s damages expert indicated that the royalty rates found in Intel’s purported real-world comparable licenses were analogous to what Tom Brady was paid as a rookie before he had demonstrated his abilities as a quarterback in a professional football league. According to VLSI, what was relevant at the time of the hypothetical negotiation was equivalent to what Tom Brady was paid during the peak of his career, not on what was known about him before his rookie year. The use of the analogy appears to indicate that VLSI viewed the hypothetical negotiation as being informed by events and outcomes that took place after Intel’s earliest infringement, sometimes rationalized by reference to the “Book of Wisdom.”
He was also asked about the evidence that the technology was not used by any other company other than Intel, not even by Freescale and NXP, the semiconductor manufacturers who had previously owned the patents. He described that point as merely a “red herring” since use by the patent owner was not the only determinant of the value of the patents. As a basis for this point, he cited the Georgia-Pacific factors that call for consideration of the extent to which the infringer has made profitable use of the invention.
Damages-Related Testimony from Other VLSI Witnesses
Before the Plaintiff’s damages expert was called, a VLSI technical witness presented the results of a “patent scoring” exercise undertaken by Innography, an IP management firm. According to Innography’s scoring, the two patents at trial were in the top 10 percent of patent value. VLSI’s introduction of this result may contradict its key point that only Intel had sufficient information to have some understanding of the value of the technology since Innography could presumably only make such a claim from public data.
Defense Response on Damages
Intel had apparently provided expert reports on damages from at least three expert witnesses. These included: a Professor of Operations, Information, and Decisions at Wharton with a Ph.D. in Management from MIT; a CPA with extensive experience as an IP damages expert; and an electrical engineer with 20 years of experience as a licensing executive with IBM. VLSI moved to have the CPA’s “cumulative” opinions excluded as being redundant and “an improper attempt to bolster” the opinions of Intel’s other damages experts. Whatever the court’s ruling on this and other motions to exclude, Intel called only the former licensing executive, Hanc Huston, to rebut VLSI’s damages expert.
Most of Intel’s damages testimony was not available on the public telephone feed because it involved confidential information primarily related to the comparable licenses that he had identified. Intel’s damages expert brought up the point that the patented technology had not been used by any of the assignees of the patents and that VLSI had not identified anyone else who had used the technology. He asserted that, in his experience, such lack of use of a patent was indicative of its low value and would have driven down the royalty paid on a licensed patent. He also testified that he had never heard of hedonic regression being used in patent licensing negotiations.
He also disagreed with VLSI’s assertion that only Intel had the information necessary to comprehend the extremely high value of the patented technology. He pointed out that the patent itself was public knowledge and that VLSI and others could have reverse engineered Intel to understand the extent that its technology was being used.
After discussing 18 licenses that he had determined were comparable, VLSI’s damages expert concluded that a reasonable royalty for Intel’s use of the technology described in the two patents totaled $2.2 million.
On cross-examination, Intel’s damages expert was asked about a policy at IBM to license patents for a one percent royalty per patent up to a maximum royalty of five percent. VLSI pointed out, in cross and in closing, that a one percent per patent royalty was more than the amount that VLSI was asking in damages. He was also asked about specific licenses and settlements between IBM that involved payments in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Testimony of VLSI’s Rebuttal Damages Expert
The final witness on damages was Mark Chandler, the president of another IP management firm, who was called to rebut Intel’s damages testimony. He criticized Intel’s damages expert as relying on the “indirect evidence” of royalty rates from purportedly comparable licenses as opposed to the evidence of Intel’s success with the accused products. He also repeated the claim made by VLSI’s affirmative damages expert that none of the previous transactions were indicative of the outcome of the hypothetical negotiation. Those transactions, he asserted, could not have taken into account the value of the technology to Intel. He further criticized Intel’s expert’s process for identifying ostensibly comparable licenses, indicating that his method was based on technical considerations without consideration of the commercial value of the licensed patents or any other economic considerations.
This expert also indicated that Intel’s damages expert had calculated per patent royalty rates by merely dividing the reported royalty in his purportedly comparable licenses by the number of patents being licensed. Such an average, he testified, fails to take into account the range of values of the licensed patents. He further testified that Intel’s expert had “cherry-picked” from among over 300 licenses that were part of the record in this case, ignoring licenses that resulted in payments of hundreds of millions of dollars with at least one being over a billion dollars.
This expert also claimed that Intel had ignored “direct evidence” of the value of the patents, the value of the use that Intel had made of the patents and the additional profits allegedly derived therefrom. He repeated the claim that, unlike in the real world, in the hypothetical negotiation the parties would be “playing with their cards up” and have full knowledge of the value of the patents to each other.
The trial in VLSI Technologies provided not only a dramatic outcome but useful insights in the presentation and rebuttal of a damages case. Interested observers can look forward to further motions, orders and appeals that should provide additional information about the technology and the appropriateness of the award.
Disclosure: I have no involvement with any of the parties or the law firms at this time. I have had no involvement in this litigation. I have never worked with VLSI. I have worked on at least one litigated matter with Wilmer Hale. I have consulted for Intel twice and testified for them once over my entire career but, to repeat, have no involvement with Intel at this time.
I believe the clincher in this case is the fact that TVnGO’s patent claims use language not found anywhere within the patent specification. The result, claims invalid as indefinite. — Dennis Crouch
TVnGO v. LG Electronics (Fed. Cir. 2021) (nonprecedential) [Opinion]
Patentee TVnGO sued LGE–alleging that its Smart TV’s infringed U.S. Patent Nos. 8,132,220, 9,124,945, 9,392,339, 9,407,969, and 9,794,621. The district court found all asserted claims across the five related patents invalid as indefinite under 35 U.S.C. 112. On appeal, the Federal Circuit has affirmed. Opinion by Judge Prost, joined by Judge Reyna and Senior Judge Schall.
Section 112(b) of the Patent Act requires “one or more claims particularly pointing out and distinctly claiming” the invention. The language is only slightly modified from historical statutes:
Patent Act 1836: “But before any inventor shall receive a patent for any such new invention or discovery he … shall particularly specify and point out the part, improvement, or combination, which he claims as his own invention or discovery.”
Patent Act 1870: “[B]efore any inventor or discoverer shall receive a patent for his invention or discovery, he … shall particularly point out and distinctly claim the part, improvement, or combination which he claims as his invention or discovery.”
The addition of claims in the 1836 Act was designed to provide notice to the world as to the scope of the patent right following an on-point complaint from the U.S. Supreme Court (and others). See Evans v. Eaton, 20 U.S. 356 (1822). Over the years, the Supreme Court focused more on the importance of claims for publicly demarking the property line. See Winans v. Denmead, 56 U.S. 330, 347 (1853) (Campbell, J., dissenting); Merrill v. Yeomans, 94 U.S. 568, 573 (1876) (The patent laws “leave no excuse for ambiguous language or vague descriptions. The public should not be deprived of rights supposed to belong to it, without being clearly told what it is that limits these rights.”). The 1952 Act did not appear to change these general rules but rather attempted to clean-up the requirement slightly by grammatically separating the disclosure requirements 112¶1 from the claim requirements 112¶2. In his contemporary commentaries, P.J. Frederico explained that “the clause relating to the claim has been made a separate paragraph to emphasize the distinction between the description and the claim, and the language has been modified.” P.J. Frederico, Commentary on the New Patent Act (1952). In 2011, the statute was renumbered so that Sections 112¶1 and 112¶2. are now Sections 112(a) and 112(b).
The newest Supreme Court case on point is Nautilus, Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2120 (2014). In Nautilus, the court explained that claims must provide reasonable certainty as to the claim scope:
[W]e read § 112, ¶ 2 to require that a patent’s claims, viewed in light of the specification and prosecution history, inform those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention with reasonable certainty. The definiteness requirement, so understood, mandates clarity, while recognizing that absolute precision is unattainable.
Id. Previously, the Federal Circuit had invalidated claims on definiteness only when claims are unable to be construed are “insolubly ambiguous.” The Supreme Court found that standard allowed claims that “lack the precision § 112, ¶ 2 demands.”
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The claims here all generally relate to producing an overlay of logo icons and small window-in-window content on a TV screen. All of the claims include the phrases “overlay activation criterion” or “overlay activation signal.” One problem here is that the those terms were not found in the original disclosure but rather added during prosecution. A second problem is that neither of these have any ordinary meaning to one skilled in the art (even though each word is individually known, the combination is not known to PHOSITA). A third problem is that the different patents appear to use the terms in slightly different ways — even though all have the same original specification. The court indicated that it was unclear whether the signal/criterion was focused on the icon-overlay or on the content-overlay or on both.
Here, a person of ordinary skill would encounter two claim phrases without an ordinary meaning in the art. Upon consulting the specification, he or she would not find those phrases. And when attempting to glean their meaning from the patent’s use of “activates” and “activating,” he or she would find that “the patents teach two different results”—i.e., display of IP content associated with an already displayed overlay versus display of an overlay in the first place—without reasonable certainty as to which reading is correct. The asserted ’339, ’945, and ’621 patent claims are therefore indefinite.
Slip Op. Note here that the court’s ruling could have gleaned further definitional information from the claims that state expressly that the “overlay activation criterion” is used “to cause the display screen to display the overlays” and that the “overlay activation signal” is used to “generat[e] display drive signals causing the
TV screen to display the overlays.”
The other two patents provided more specific description of the terms within the claims, but also expressed what the court called intra-patent inconsistencies (within the patent). The particularly inconsistency was the source of the activation criteria — was it from the internet or from the user’s devices.
On the one hand, the independent claims indicate that an “overlay activation criterion” is … provided “over the Internet” and “transmitted to the user’s premises.” But the dependent claims, on the other hand, state that “said overlay activation criterion includes . . . a user command information,” indicating that an “overlay activation criterion” can come from a user’s premises via the remote control. Comparing ’220 patent claims 1 and 9
Slip Op. According to the court, this internal inconsistency further sealed the deal. Invalidity Affirmed. I would note that the proffered inconsistency appears easily reconcilable in that the “activation criterion” and “user command” can come from two different sources. But, that is a distinction I had to guess at and create in my head ex post — not something offered by the patent documents.
The Federal Circuit has denied en banc rehearing in the interesting case of Authentic Apparel Group, LLC v. US. In the case, the court enforced an agreement that was pretty-dang-close to a naked trademark license — holding that use of a mark for decoration on clothing still counts as a trademark-use for licensing purposes.
In view of the clear shift in the law toward allowing trademark licenses, we do not agree with Authentic that a “decorative” use of a trademark is necessarily divorced from the goodwill associated with the trademark such that it cannot be considered a licensed use “for trademark purposes.” We recognize, of course, that a purely decorative design may not qualify for trademark protection in the first place. . . . But, again, this appeal does not involve a challenge to the validity of the Army’s trademarks, but rather a question of what limitations the Army may place on the use by a licensee of trademarks that the Army already owns.
Slip Op. In its rehearing petition, the licensee asked the following:
Whether a trademark owner can lawfully transfer an interest in only the “aesthetic aspects” of its trademark pursuant to a license without simultaneously transferring the goodwill of the business in which the mark is used, or that part of the goodwill of the business connected with the use of and symbolized by the mark.
Back in August 2019, the USPTO published a notice requesting public input on the interplay between patent law and artificial intelligence (AI). In October, the USPTO expanded its notice to extend the inquiry to include copyright, trademark, and other IP rights. The PTO has now extended that deadline for comments until January 10, 2020. 84 FR 66176.
Questions for the public:
1. Should a work produced by an AI algorithm or process, without the involvement of a natural person contributing expression to the resulting work, qualify as a work of authorship protectable under U.S. copyright law? Why or why not?
2. Assuming involvement by a natural person is or should be required, what kind of involvement would or should be sufficient so that the work qualifies for copyright protection? For example, should it be sufficient if a person (i) designed the AI algorithm or process that created the work; (ii) contributed to the design of the algorithm or process; (iii) chose data used by the algorithm for training or otherwise; (iv) caused the AI algorithm or process to be used to yield the work; or (v) engaged in some specific combination of the foregoing Start Printed Page 58142activities? Are there other contributions a person could make in a potentially copyrightable AI-generated work in order to be considered an “author”?
3. To the extent an AI algorithm or process learns its function(s) by ingesting large volumes of copyrighted material, does the existing statutory language (e.g., the fair use doctrine) and related case law adequately address the legality of making such use? Should authors be recognized for this type of use of their works? If so, how?
4. Are current laws for assigning liability for copyright infringement adequate to address a situation in which an AI process creates a work that infringes a copyrighted work?
5. Should an entity or entities other than a natural person, or company to which a natural person assigns a copyrighted work, be able to own the copyright on the AI work? For example: Should a company who trains the artificial intelligence process that creates the work be able to be an owner?
6. Are there other copyright issues that need to be addressed to promote the goals of copyright law in connection with the use of AI?
7. Would the use of AI in trademark searching impact the registrablity of trademarks? If so, how?
8. How, if at all, does AI impact trademark law? Is the existing statutory language in the Lanham Act adequate to address the use of AI in the marketplace?
9. How, if at all, does AI impact the need to protect databases and data sets? Are existing laws adequate to protect such data?
10. How, if at all, does AI impact trade secret law? Is the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA), 18 U.S.C. 1836 et seq., adequate to address the use of AI in the marketplace?
11. Do any laws, policies, or practices need to change in order to ensure an appropriate balance between maintaining trade secrets on the one hand and obtaining patents, copyrights, or other forms of intellectual property protection related to AI on the other?
12. Are there any other AI-related issues pertinent to intellectual property rights (other than those related to patent rights) that the USPTO should examine?
13. Are there any relevant policies or practices from intellectual property agencies or legal systems in other countries that may help inform USPTO’s policies and practices regarding intellectual property rights (other than those related to patent rights)?
As you may know, the Phillips case, which is presently awaiting decision en banc, is expected to be the next major decision impacting the issues of claim construction.For those who are interested, here is a rundown of some of the Amicus Briefs that were filed in the appeal:
1. United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO): The Patent Office took the position that dictionaries should not be a primary reference for claim construction, in part because they are not used by examiners during prosecution. The PTO brief was filed jointly with the DOJ and FTC.
2. Intellectual Property Owners (IPO): The IPO brief, argues that the primary evidence of claim meaning should be found in the patent specification and prosecution history. If a court must resort to extrinsic evidence to determine claim meaning, there should be no pre-determined hierarchy of importance. The Court should only consider claim construction evidence in the record on appeal. The IPO brief was written by Paul Berghoff and Josh Rich of MBHB LLP.
3. Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF): Judges should invalidate and Patent Office Examiners should reject ambiguous claims. Claims should be given their broadest possible construction during prosecution and narrowest reasonable meaning thereafter.Professor Joshua Sarnoff is the Counsel of Record on the EFF brief.
4. American Bar Association: Neither the specification nor dictionary should have primacy. Invalidity should play no role in claim construction, as that approach is contrary to the public notice function. The Appellate Court should defer to findings of fact made during claim construction.
5. American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA): The fundamental standard that should govern claim construction is that a claim term must be construed from the perspective of a person of ordinary skill in the relevant art at the time the patent issued seeking to understand the term’s meaning from a study of the entire intrinsic record.
6. Intel, IBM, Google, Micron, and Microsoft: Where those construing patent claims focus on dictionary meanings of claim terms without an appropriate grounding in the specification and prosecution history, there is a danger the interpretation of patent claims will differ markedly from the true scope of the invention they seek to define. Indeed, there are so many different dictionary definitions for any given word that it is impossible to predict with any confidence what meaning a court will choose. The Intel brief was written by Stanford professor Mark Lemley.
7. Federal Circuit Bar Association (FCBA): Dictionaries should not be the primary focus of claim construction. Claim construction may require findings of fact, which should be reviewed for clear error.
8. International Trade Commission Trial Lawyers Association (ITCTLA): The specification and prosecution history should control. When dictionaries are used, technical dictionaries should have a rebuttable preference over general dictionaries. Claim language should not be narrowly construed for the sole purpose of avoiding invalidity. The claim interpretation should not be limited to only the embodiment described in the specification. Expert testimony should be allowed and evaluated as would any other piece of evidence. Deference to the trial court’s claim construction may be appropriate in some cases.
9. Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO): Specification first. Dictionaries second, when specification does not establish meaning of claim terms. Claims should never be narrowly construed for the sole purpose of avoiding invalidity.
11. Professors Wagner & Miller: The professors argue that the patent document should be the primary and preferred source of claim meaning — as long as it is clear, specific, and objective. Where the term is not clearly defined in the patent document, there should be a heavy presumption in favor of the ordinary meaning of the term. Dictionaries are not a panacea, but they offer the best opportunity to provide a term’s ordinary meaning with clarity, certainty, and predictability.
12. Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT): Dan Ravicher of PUBPAT argued that "claim construction should never be impacted by considerations of validity." Consistent with Markman, subsidiary factual determinations by the trial court during claim construction should be reviewed for clear error.
13. Intellectual Property Law Association of Chicago (IPLAC): Courts may look to the plain meaning of claim terms but asserts that dictionaries should in general be subordinate to the patent specification and other intrinsic evidence when determining what is meant objectively by challenged claim terms. Dictionaries may be considered, but the guiding light must be what the hypothetical ordinarily skilled artisan would have understood by the claim terms – not in a vacuum, and not armed with only a technical or general purpose dictionary, but also with the full panoply of intrinsic evidence. Courts may receive expert witness testimony on this determination. Edward Manzo wrote the brief for IPLAC, and was given assistance by Brad Lyerla, Dean Monco, Pat Burns and Tim Vezeau.
14. Association of Corporate Counsel: Public notice is best served by first looking at claims, specification and prosecution history. Dictionaries should not be the primary source for claim construction. Because the guiding inquiry is the meaning of terms to those of ordinary skill in the relevant art, relevant technical dictionaries should usually be consulted before general dictionaries.
15. Infineon: The public notice function of patent claims is best served by looking first and foremost to the intrinsic specification, not an extrinsic dictionary definition, to interpret claim terms.
16. Boston Patent Law Association: Dictionaries should not be the primary source of claim construction because they do not stay current, are not necessarily authoritative, and because meaning is not always found in books. Validity and claim construction should be kept separate.
18. Medrad, Inc: Claim construction should be based upon the intrinsic evidence (spec, drawings, cited prior art, and prosecution history).
19. NYC Association of the Bar: Dictionary definitions should not provide the primary source of meaning or a separate restriction on claim coverage. Validity should be considered during claim construction. Expert testimony can provide important information. Deference to the trial court’s claim construction findings is blocked by procedural and practical obstacles.
26. Sughrue Mion: Claims should be interpreted as of the time of filing or earlier. The patent document provides the best notice of the claim’s meaning. Deference should be accorded to a trial court’s factual findings underlying claim construction.
Eli Lilly and Company v. Erfindergemeinschaft UroPep GbR, SCT Docket No. 18-1515 (Supreme Court 2019)
Lilly’s new petition for writ of certiorari asks an easy question:
Whether a single-step patent claim that describes its point of novelty solely in functional terms violates the rule against functional claiming set forth in Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Co. v. Walker, 329 U.S. 1 (1946).
The question as posed is easy to answer. Any patent claim that describes its point of novelty solely in functional terms is invalid violates the rule set forth in Halliburton. Of course, Halliburton was abrogated by the 1952 Patent Act with the adoption of what is now known as 35 U.S.C. 112(f):
Element in Claim for a Combination. — An element in a claim for a combination may be expressed as a means or step for performing a specified function without the recital of structure, material, or acts in support thereof, and such claim shall be construed to cover the corresponding structure, material, or acts described in the specification and equivalents thereof.
Note here that the 1952 patent act only discussed the treatment of functionally claimed elements in “a claim for a combination.” The real question here is whether Halliburton is still good law for “single-step patent claims.” I’m betting the Supreme Court would say yes — A claim with a single element would be invalid if that element was claimed solely in functional terms.
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The petition reads a bit like a mystery novel.
A few months [after Lilly obtained FDA approval to market tadalfil for BPH treatment], respondent—a shadowy non-practicing entity based in Germany—filed the patent application that ultimately became the patent at issue here,
claiming priority to an application from 1997.
Here, UroPep’s patent covers a one step method of treatment/prophylaxis claim for BPH. The one step is as follows:
administering to a person in need thereof an effective amount of an inhibitor of phosphodiesterase (PDE) V [excluding eight particular compounds].
Back in 1997, PDE V inhibitors where already known, and tadalafil in particular was known to be a PDE V inhibitor. The 1997 priority document mentions ten different PDE V compounds, but does not mention tadalafil, and the claim excludes eight of those ten.
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Lilly’s question presented includes an important and disputed presumption — that the claim “describes its point of novelty solely in functional terms.” In its decision, the district court held that the claimed step of administering a PDE V inhibitor was not wholly functional.
Even if means-plus-function analysis would apply to a product claim to “an inhibitor of PDE V,” it does not apply to a method claim reciting a method of administering that substance to a patient.
District Court Decision. The jury then awarded $20 million in damages. On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed without opinion (R.36) — setting up this current petition.
To be clear, the district court analysis here asks whether this fits under 112(6), not whether it comports with Halliburton. That case states that a claim which “describes [its] most crucial element … in terms of what it will do, rather than in terms of its own physical characteristics … is invalid as a violation of Rev.Stat. § 4888 [indefiniteness].” In General Elec. Co. v. Wabash Appliance Corp., 304 U.S. 364 (1938), the court similarly wrote invalidated claims where the inventor “uses conveniently functional language at the exact point of novelty.”
There are several ways that these cases could be applied here. Example: (A) Since PDE V inhibitors were already known, their existence was not the point of novelty. Rather, the point of novelty is administering those known drugs in order to treat a particular condition — and that “administering” portion of the claim was not described functionally. (B) Another way of thinking here is that the novelty of the claim is administering a particular drug — but we don’t know the details of that particular drug is because it is described functionally.
By Dennis Crouch Chief Judge Rader recently argued that no patentable weight should be given to claim terms focusing on how a device is “configured to” perform a particular task. See Superior Industries v. Masaba (Fed. Cir. 2014) (concurring opinion). The Chief writes:
A system claim generally covers what the system is, not what the system does. Hewlett–Packard Co. v. Bausch & Lomb Inc., 909 F.2d 1464 (Fed.Cir.1990). Thus, it is usually improper to construe non-functional claim terms in system claims in a way that makes infringement or validity turn on their function. Paragon Solutions, LLC v. Timex Corp., 566 F.3d 1075 (Fed. Cir. 2009).
In Superior Industries, the patentee had claimed a dump truck with a “support frame . . . configured to support an end of an earthen ramp.” On remand, the district court will need to determine again whether that language should be interpreted as a positive claim limitation.
One problem with Judge Rader’s opinion is that other judges do not uniformly agree with his perspective. The diversity of court opinion compounds an already difficult process of understanding what potential structures are covered by function-focused claim terms. A third compounding difficulty is the rapid rise in the use of functional claim terms.
The Patent Act expressly provides for the use of functional claim language — written in means-plus-function format. 35 U.S.C. §112(f). The statutory requirements of §112(f) began being more strictly enforced in the mid-1990s and, as a consequence, means-plus-function limitations have fallen from favor. Meanwhile, patentees have caught-on to using “configured to” language as a rough equivalent of a means-plus-function claim term but carefully drafted in order to avoid actually falling under the ambit of that provision. The benefit then for patentees is that the functional language is broad and not limited to particular structural embodiments.
The chart below shows the percentage of issued patents that include at least one “configured to” claim limitation within an independent claim. This dramatic transformation of claiming strategy raises the importance of cases such as Nautilus v. Biosig Instruments (pending Supreme Court case on the proper standard for indefiniteness) and Lighting Ballast (pending en banc decision on claim construction deference with a focus on functional claim terms should be interpreted as falling within 112(f)).
In Ex Parte Miyazaki, 89 USPQ2d 1207 (B.P.A.I. 2008), the Board of Patent Appeals revived the old precedent of Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Co. v. Walker, 329 U.S. 1 (1946) in holding that purely functional claim language is not allowable unless done within the scope of 112(f).
This general prohibition against the use of “purely functional claim language” (and the more specific Halliburton rule) has not been completely eliminated. Rather, “purely functional claim language” is now permissible but only under the conditions of 35 U.S.C. § 112, sixth paragraph, i.e., if its scope is limited to the corresponding structure, material, or act disclosed in the specification and equivalents thereof.
In Miyazaki, the problematic claim language was “a sheet feeding area operable to feed at least one roll of paper, at least one sheet of paper and at least one stiff carton toward a printing unit.” In Halliburton, the problematic claim language was “a tuned acoustical means which performs the functions of a sound filter.” In each case, the claims were found indefinite.