In Robert Bosch v. Snap-On (Fed. Cir. 2014), the Federal Circuit has held that two different claim elements “lack sufficiently definite structure” that must be interpreted under 35 U.S.C. 112(f) as means-plus-function elements and, because corresponding structures were not sufficiently disclosed in the patent document (as required by 112(f)), the associated claims were held invalid as indefinite. Here the claim elements in question are a ‘program recognition device’ that plugs into a car motor to see if its control software is out of date and also a ‘program loading device’ that updates the control software if necessary. U.S. Patent No. 6,782,313.
Functional claim limitations are in vogue. Part of the reason is that the current generation of computer-focused engineers have been trained in an object oriented approach that discusses solutions more in terms of results than in detailed algorithmic steps. That approach makes it easier to create new tools and devices by relying upon the building blocks created by others. But, the carryover to patent law remains somewhat tenuous.
Functional claim terms also offer a mechanism for achieving broader claim coverage and claim coverage that is more aligned with the scope of potential competitor activities and follow-on innovation. The use of functional language for that purpose has a century-long history in U.S. patent law and has been much debated at all levels, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
When the Supreme Court discussed the topic in its landmark 1946 decision of Halliburton v. Walker, the Court described functional claim terms as those that focus on results – “what it will do” – and not on the actual physical implementation. In Halliburton, the court held:
A claim which describes the most crucial element in a “new” combination in terms of what it will do, rather than in terms of its own physical characteristics or its arrangement in the new combination, is invalid.
Id. The result in Halliburton was that the claim was found invalid under as indefinite because the functional language there (an “echo receiving means”) did not provide sufficient notice of the scope of patent rights.
The Patent Act of 1952 left intact a strong definiteness requirement but overturned Halliburton by enacting what is now known as 35 U.S.C. 112(f). That provision expressly allows for an element to be claimed as a “means” for performing a “specified function” but without actually specifying the physical characteristics of how it works. However, 112(f) has an important and significant limitation that cabins-in the scope of any such means limitation to only cover corresponding embodiments described in the patent document, and their equivalents.
(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.
A second limitation on 112(f) is the court interpretation that purely functional claim elements that are not physically described in the specification are deemed indefinite and the corresponding claim invalid.
US patent attorneys have taken notice of these legal limits on means-plus-function claiming and have largely abandoned the form. Twenty years ago, most patents included claim terms written in means-plus-function form. Today, that figure is under 5%. But the strategy for many does not eschew functional claim elements, but rather to integrate functional limitations together with structural limitations with the result being broadly defined claim elements that avoids the limitations of 112(f).
The Big Middle Ground
Partially Functional Elements: The rules are clear for claim elements written in purely functional terms such as a ‘means for communicating’ without any claimed physicality. However, there exists a vast middle-ground for claim limitations that include some functionality and some physicality. These might include a ‘circuit for communicating’ or – as in the recent Bosch Case – a ‘program recognition device.’
In Robert Bosch v. Snap-On (Fed. Cir. 2014), the Federal Circuit has affirmed a lower court determination that two different functional claim elements are indefinite and thus that the associated claims are invalid. The patents relate a motor vehicle software-update tool. The claims include a ‘program recognition device’ that plugs into the motor control unit to see if the software is out of date and also a ‘program loading device’ that plugs into the motor control unit to upload new software. Easy enough. But, the specification includes no diagrams and no real structural detail about these ‘devices.’
The Federal Circuit has a fairly straightforward algorithmic approach to functional claims elements. The first step it to determine whether the element qualifies as “functional” and, if so, interpret the limitation under the rubric of Section 112(f). For the court, a functional claim element is one recites a functional limitation without “reciting sufficient structure for performing that function” or that fails to “recite sufficiently definite structure.” EnOcean GmbH v. Face Int’l Corp., 742 F.3d 955 (Fed. Cir. 2014). The court also uses a linguistic shortcut — claim elements drafted in the form “means for [performing a specified function]” are also presumed to be functional. Similarly, elements that do not use the word “means” are presumed to be structural. Importantly, Federal Circuit precedent indicate that these presumptions are “strong.” See Lighting World, Inc. v. Birchwood Lighting, Inc., 382 F.3d 1354 (Fed. Cir. 2004).
Here, although the terms were not claimed in “means” form, the court found that they lacked structure and therefore were functional. In walking through its analysis, the court first looked at the claim words ‘program recognition device’ and ‘program loading device’ and found no structure other than the ‘nonce’ word device. Then, looking at the specification, the court found:
[The] ‘313 patent’s specification does not contain a single reference to the structure of the “program recognition device” itself; all of the proffered citations from the specification merely explain its function. For example, the statement that the external diagnostic tester is “equipped” with the “program recognition device” that “querie[s] and recognize[s]” program versions in the control unit is nothing more than a functional description. This passage is devoid of structure. Likewise, the passage that explains how the external diagnostic tester uses the “program recognition device” to automatically check which program version is currently on the control unit only describes the connection of the external diagnostic tester to the control unit in the vehicle. The specification is, therefore, also silent about any interaction between the “program recognition device” and other components of the system, including the external diagnostic tester. Contrary to what Bosch contends, the specification does not teach how the “program recognition device” receives and processes signals, as the words “signal” and “process” are not even in the specification. . . .
Because the claim terms lack structure, the court determined that they fall under the rules of 112(f) [112p].
The claim terms, construed in light of the specification, fail to provide sufficiently definite structure to one of skill in the art. The claim terms “program recognition device” and “program loading device” invoke § 112, ¶ 6.
The problem for Bosch in this case is that the same analysis of the specification above also supports the conclusion that the claimed function lacks structural description in the specification. And, as a result, the court found the claims invalid as indefinite.
Since we have concluded that both claim terms invoke § 112, ¶ 6, we now must attempt to construe the terms by identifying the “corresponding structure … described in the specification” to which the claim term will be limited. Welker Bearing Co., 550 F.3d at 1097. “If there is no structure in the specification corresponding to the means-plus-function limitation in the claims, the claim will be found invalid as indefinite.” Biomedino, LLC v. Waters Techs. Corp., 490 F.3d 946, 950 (Fed.Cir.2007). On this point, however, little needs to be said. Bosch did not argue to this court that, even if the claim language at issue is within § 112, ¶ 6, the language is definite because the specification sufficiently discloses corresponding structure. See Appellant’s Br. 51–52. And we also see no such disclosure.
Indeed, as already discussed in Part III.B, in the limited number of instances that the specification even mentions these claim terms, it offers no further guidance about their structures. Therefore, we conclude that “program recognition device” and “program loading device” are indefinite. Since these terms are found in the only independent claim of the ‘313 patent, we conclude that all claims in the ‘313 patent are invalid.
An important element of the court’s analysis here is that it is all seen as a question of law reviewed de novo on appeal. Thus, although the appellate panel largely agreed with the lower court’s original decision in this case, that decision was given no deference in the analysis. Further, the strong presumption of validity requiring clear and convincing evidence was also entirely ignored here because that evidentiary requirement is directed toward questions of fact not questions of law.
A second important and interesting element of the court’s decision here is that it does not cite the Supreme Court’s most recent foray into indefiniteness – Nautilus v. BioSig (2014) (requiring reasonable certainty). Likewise, the court did not cite Halliburton. In fact, the court has not cited Halliburton for almost 20 years and it has never cited the case other than to criticize the decision or indicate that it has been legislatively overruled by 112(f).
The case here is also in tension with those cited above: EnOcean, Lighting World, and Inventio. however, the court here took steps to distinguish those cases based upon the ‘fact’ that Bosch’s patent application failed to provide structure in the specification to guide one skilled in the art in understanding the ‘device’ limitation. In the other cited cases, the specification included examples and diagrams sufficient to transform the seeming ‘nonce’ words into ones with structural meaning.
What will be interesting here will be to see whether this case is the beginning of a movement in a new direction. This case’s path to the Supreme Court is most likely if the Federal Circuit first grants an en banc rehearing request.