By Jason Rantanen
Richard A. Williamson v. Citrix Online, LLC (Fed. Cir. 2015) Download Opinion
Panel: Moore, Linn (author), and Reyna. Part II.C.1. decided by the court en banc.
Judge Reyna concurred as to the conclusion of indefiniteness, but maintained his dissent as to a claim construction issue decided by the panel. Judge Newman dissented as to Part II.C.1.
In the original panel opinion in Williamson v. Citrix (discussed here), the majority held that the use of the word “module” does not invoke the means-plus-function language of 35 U.S.C. § 112, para. 6, and thus the claim was not indefinite under the Federal Circuit’s § 112, para. 6 precedent. In reaching that conclusion, the majority held that because the claim did not use the word “means,” there was a “strong” presumption that § 112, para. 6 does not apply. Citrix sought en banc review. (Disclosure: I joined an amicus brief encouraging the court to grant en banc review due to the intra-circuit split on this issue).
This morning the Federal Circuit withdrew the earlier opinion and substituted a new one, with an en banc section addressing the means-plus-function issue. The en banc court reversed the precedent creating a “strong” presumption, holding that the standard is “whether the words of the claim are understood by person of ordinary skill in the art to have a sufficiently definite meaning as the name for structure.” Slip Op. p. 16. If the words of the claim do not meet that standard, § 112, para. 6 (now § 112(f)) applies.
35 U.S.C. § 112, para. 6 states:
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.
Although there is a presumption based on the presence or absence of the word “means,” that presumption is rebuttable:
In making the assessment of whether the limitation in question is a means-plus-function term subject to the strictures of § 112, para. 6, our cases have emphasized that the essential inquiry is not merely the presence or absence of the word “means” but whether the words of the claim are understood by persons of ordinary skill in the art to have a sufficiently definite meaning as the name for structure.
Id. at 14. Under Federal Circuit precedent from the 1990’s, “the presumption can be overcome and § 112, para. 6 will apply if the challenger demonstrates that the claim term fails to “recite sufficiently definite structure” or else recites “function without reciting sufficient structure for performing that function.” Id. (citing Watts v. XL Sys., Inc., 232 F.3d 877, 880 (Fed. Cir. 2000).
Subsequent cases raised that presumption first to a “strong” one (Lighting World), then to a “strong one that is not readily overcome” (Inventio), and then to an even higher bar: “[w]hen the claim drafter has not signaled his intent to invoke § 112, ¶ 6 by using the term ‘means,’ we are unwilling to apply that provision without a showing that the limitation essentially is devoid of anything that can be construed as structure” (Flo Healthcare Solutions) (emphasis added by court).
The court considered this heightened standard and eliminated it:
Our consideration of this case has led us to conclude that such a heightened burden is unjustified and that we should abandon characterizing as “strong” the presumption that a limitation lacking the word “means” is not subject to § 112, para. 6. That characterization is unwarranted, is uncertain in meaning and application, and has the inappropriate practical effect of placing a thumb on what should otherwise be a balanced analytical scale. It has shifted the balance struck by Congress in passing § 112, para. 6 and has resulted in a proliferation of functional claiming untethered to § 112, para. 6 and free of the strictures set forth in the statute. Henceforth, we will apply the presumption as we have done prior to Lighting World, without requiring any heightened evidentiary showing and expressly overrule the characterization of that presumption as “strong.” We also overrule the strict requirement of “a showing that the limitation essentially is devoid of anything that can be construed as structure.”
The standard is whether the words of the claim are understood by persons of ordinary skill in the art to have a sufficiently definite meaning as the name for structure. Greenberg, 91 F.3d at 1583. When a claim term lacks the word “means,” the presumption can be overcome and § 112, para. 6 will apply if the challenger demonstrates that the claim term fails to “recite sufficiently definite structure” or else recites “function without reciting sufficient structure for performing that function.” Watts, 232 F.3d at 880. The converse presumption remains unaffected: “use of the word ‘means’ creates a presumption that § 112, ¶ 6 applies.” Personalized Media, 161 F.3d at 703.
Applying the pre-Lighting World standard, the court concluded that the term “distributed learning control module” was governed by § 112, para. 6. That term is part of a larger passage that is “in a format consistent with traditional means-plus-function limitations. It replaces the term ‘means’ with the term ‘module’ and recites three functions performed by the ‘distributed learning control module.'” Slip Op. at 17. That term – module – is “a well-known nonce word that can operate as a substitute for ‘means’ in the context of § 112, para 6.” Id. “Generic terms such as ‘mechanism,’ ‘element,’ ‘device,’ and other nonce words that reflect nothing more than verbal constructs may be used in a claim in a manner that is tantamount to using the word ‘means’ because they ‘typically do not connote sufficiently definite structure’ and therefore may invoke § 112, para. 6.” Id. And here, “the word ‘module’ does not provide any indication of structure because it sets forth the same black box recitation of structure for providing the same specified function as if the term ‘means’ had been used.” Id. at 19. Nor was there any other evidence that indicated that the term recited sufficiently definite structure.
The consequence of concluding that § 112, para. 6 applies was that the court moved to the second step of the means-plus-function construction: looking to the specification for corresponding structure. Because the specification did not disclose adequate corresponding structure, the claim was indefinite.
Judge Reyna concurred in the conclusion reached by the court en banc, but expressed concern that the court’s approach sidesteps “underlying fundamental issues involving the development of functional claiming law since 1952 when 35 U.S.C. § 112, paragraph 6 was passed.” Concurrence at 3-4. Judge Reyna also dissented as to a claim construction issue decided by the panel.
Judge Newman dissented from the en banc ruling in Section II.C.1. In Judge Newman’ view, the result of the court’s decision is clear: “additional uncertainty of the patent grant, confusion in its interpretation, invitation to litigation, and disincentive to patent based innovation.”
Update: Prof. Risch offers his thoughts on Williamson on the Written Description blog: http://writtendescription.blogspot.com/2015/06/the-past-and-future-of-functional.html