By Dennis Crouch
ClearValue v. Pearl River Polymers (Fed. Cir. 2012) (Opinion by Judge Moore, joined by Judges PROST and SCHALL)
This case presents a classic law school hypothetical of an invention that is anticipated but likely not obvious. According to the appellate panel, the prior art fully discloses and enables the invention but also teaches that the proposed invention is impractical and does not work well. As discussed below, however, the anticipation holding itself is somewhat controversial because it is based upon the conclusion that a broad range disclosure found in the prior art ("less than 150 ppm") anticipates the narrower range found in the claims ("less than 50 ppm").
A jury found ClearValue’s patent valid and infringed and the district court denied the defendants motions to set the patent verdict aside. On appeal the Federal Circuit reversed based upon the appellate court's own factual finding that a single prior art reference teaches and enables each element of the asserted patent claim.
Background: The patent at issue is directed to a process for clarifying water using a flocculated suspension of aluminum along with high molecular weight quarternized polymers. The listed inventor, Richard Haase continues to be an owner of the patent and also CEO of ClearValue. Haase has filed more than 50 water purification and energy related patents and is also a graduate of the University of Missouri (ChemE + Mathematics + Economics). The defendant, Pearl River was once ClearValue’s customer but later began making its own version of the patented process. ClearValue and Haase sued for patent infringement and for trade secret violation (for using the process without authority even before he filed for patent protection).
Anticipation versus Obviousness: The appeal focused on anticipation. Pearl River argued that all of the elements of CV's asserted claim were previously disclosed in U.S. Patent No. 4,800,039 (Hassick). The jury found otherwise. As a matter of procedure, a jury's verdict must be supported by "substantial evidence." If not, it must be set aside either by the district court or on appeal. At trial, the defendants had presented their case that Hassick taught each element of the claimed invention while the plaintiffs pointed only to "teaching away" found in patent. Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, "teaching away" is legally irrelevant to the question of anticipation. See Celeritas Techs., Ltd. v. Rockwell Int'l Corp., 150 F.3d 1354, 1361 (Fed. Cir. 1998). Rather, under 35 U.S.C. § 102 a claim will be anticipated and therefore invalid if a single prior art reference describes "each and every claim limitation and enable[s] one of skill in the art to practice an embodiment of the claimed invention without undue experimentation." Quoting Am. Calcar, Inc. v. Am. Honda Motor Corp., 651 F.3d 1318, 1341 (Fed. Cir. 2011).
Genus Species Anticipation: The only gap in the prior art disclosure was that Hassick generally disclosed "low-alkalinity systems (i.e., 150 ppm or less)" and "alkalinity of between 60-70 ppm" while the asserted patent claimed "alkalinity less than or equal to 50 ppm." In its 2006 Atofina decision, the Federal Circuit addressed a similar genus-species situation involving a narrow claimed temperature range and a broader temperature range found in the prior art. Atofina v. Great Lakes Chem. Corp., 441 F.3d 991 (Fed. Cir. 2006). In Atofina, the court held that a broad genus range disclosure in the prior art did not anticipate the narrow species range claimed. There, both the hypothetical “person having skill in the art” (PHOSITA) and the patentee agreed that there was something special or “critical” about the claimed temperature range. The court distinguished this case from Atofina based upon its factual conclusion that “there is no allegation of criticality or any evidence demonstrating any difference across the range.” Based upon the logical analysis that the narrow range is not critically different from the broad range, the Federal Circuit held that the claimed narrow range was fully disclosed by the broad range and therefore is unpatentable.
Comment – Whither Obviousness: Interesting notion: The mechanism that the court used to distinguish this case from Atofina are very much akin to obviousness principles — looking essentially for synergy or unexpected results that make the narrow range qualitatively different from the broad range. It seems to me, however, that if these obviousness principles can be used to extend the anticipatory scope of prior art, then other obviousness principles (such as teaching away) should also be relevant.
Trade Secret Negated by Prior Art?: The Texas jury found Pearl River liable for trade secret misappropriations. However, the district court rejected that conclusion based upon an implicit admission by ClearValue that all of the elements of the alleged trade secret were publicly known at the time and found in the Hassick reference. On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed without further analyzing the extent that public availability of knowledge in the form of a third-party prior art document is sufficient to disqualify the knowledge as a trade secret. I am not an expert on Texas trade secret law, but the at least the Restatement of Torts is clear that a trade secret “may be a device or process which is clearly anticipated in the prior art.”