Ex parte Breed, Appeal No. 2012-003990 (PTAB 2014)
On June 2, 2014, the Supreme Court decided Nautilus, Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc., 134 S.Ct. 2120 (2014) lowering the standard for negating patentability due to indefiniteness. The new test requires that the claim scope be “reasonably certain” to one skilled in the art at the time of the patent.
On June 4, 2014, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) issued its first decision interpreting Nautilus. David Breed is a prolific inventor and is named on more than 300 patents and is one of the inventors of the airbag. More recently, Breed has collaborated with Acacia Research Corp to enforce his patents.
The application at issue in this case is part of a large family of at least seven issued patents that claim priority back to a 2000 provisional application and is directed to a highway monitoring system that provides reports and information on road conditions. Application No. 12/020,684.
Claim 1 is a system claim that includes a whereby clause indicating that “whereby roadway conditions from multiple roadways can be obtained and processed at the remote facility.” The examiner rejected the claim as indefinite based upon the “can be” limitation and the PTAB has now affirmed that finding:
Patent applicants face powerful incentives to inject ambiguity into their claims, a temptation that needs to be mitigated by the courts. See Nautilus, Inc. v. Biosig Instr., Inc., 2014 WL 2440536 at *7, __ U.S. __ (June 2, 2014). Patent drafters are in the best position to resolve ambiguities in their claims. See Halliburton Energy Servs., Inc. v. M-I LLC, 514 F.3d 1244, 1255 (Fed. Cir. 2008). Section 112 places the burden of precise claim drafting on the applicant. See In re Morris, 127 F.3d 1048, 1056-57 (Fed. Cir. 1997).
. . .
Claim 1 recites that roadway conditions from multiple roadways “can be” obtained and processed at the remote facility and “can be” directed from the remote facility to other vehicles. The Examiner rejected claim 1 as indefinite. The Examiner stated that it is not clear if Appellants intended the “can be” claim limitation to be optional or that the phrase should be interpreted as a definite statement. . . .
Appellants now argue that the features following the “can be” phrases should be interpreted as optional and, as such, the claim is not indefinite. The verb form of the word “can” carries multiple meanings in the English language. It can be used to indicate a physical ability or some other specified capability. It can also be used to indicate a possibility or probability.
During examination of a patent application, pending claims are given their broadest reasonable construction consistent with the specification. In re Am. Acad. of Sci. Tech Ctr., 367 F.3d 1359, 1364 (Fed. Cir. 2004). In the instant case, Appellants have not directed us to any language in the Specification that supports a construction of “can be” that yields a particular and distinct meaning in claim 1. Instead, Appellants merely urge us to adopt one of two plausible interpretations. . . .
We agree with the Examiner that “can be” is indefinite, because it is susceptible to more than one plausible construction. It is unclear whether the limitation refers to a capability that is required to be present in the invention or whether it refers to a system capability that is a mere possibility that is not required. In other words, it is unclear whether a vehicle monitoring system can practice the invention of claim 1 by satisfying all of the other limitations of claim 1, without necessarily being required to possess the capability to obtain and process roadway conditions at a remote facility or to direct information from a remote facility to other vehicles on a roadway.
During prosecution, a claim is properly rejected as indefinite if it is “amenable to two or more plausible claim constructions.” Ex parte Miyazaki, 2008 WL 5105055 at *5 (BPAI Nov. 19, 2008) (precedential). The Miyazaki standard for indefinite rejection is justified, at least in part, because the applicant has the opportunity and the obligation to define his or her invention precisely during prosecution before the PTO.
Here, Appellants’ use of the phrase “can be” renders claim 1 indefinite and we sustain the Examiner’s rejection of claim 1 under 35 U.S.C. § 112(b).
The PTAB also quoted the Supreme Court’s nose-of-wax statement from its 1886 decision:
Some persons seem to suppose that a claim in a patent is like a nose of wax which may be turned and twisted in any direction, by merely referring to the specification, so as to make it include something more than, or something different from, what its words express. The context may, undoubtedly, be resorted to, and often is resorted to, for the purpose of better understanding the meaning of the claim; but not for the purpose of changing it, and making it different from what it is. The claim is a statutory requirement, prescribed for the very purpose of making the patentee define precisely what his invention is; and it is unjust to the public, as well as an evasion of the law, to construe it in a manner different from the plain import of its terms. This has been so often expressed in the opinions of this court that it is unnecessary to pursue the subject further.
White v. Dunbar, 119 U.S. 47, 51-52 (1886) (emphasis added by PTAB).
I think that the decision here is correct and the USPTO is right to force the patent applicant to nail-down the particular scope of the invention being claimed. One interesting counter-point comes from the Supreme Court’s notion that definiteness requires examination of the prosecution history – here Breed argued that the term meant “optional,” but the PTAB here indicates that it is not sufficient to merely indicate which of two possible interpretations is the correct – rather a claim amendment is in order to solidify and provide express notice of that applicant decision.