ABT Systems and University of Central Florida v. Emerson Electric (Fed. Cir. 2015)
The patent at issue here is owned by UCF and covers a circulating fan system. U.S. Patent No. 5,547,017. Co-Plaintiff (licensee) ABT is the company started by Armin Rudd who is the named inventor on the ‘017 patent.
Prior art systems, such as the one in my house allow for the circulation fan to be left-on even when the air conditioning system is off in order to better distribute conditioned air. The improvement offered by Rudd is to turn on the fan only periodically “after a preselected time period.” That intermittent approach would save “energy and power.”
A jury found that Emmerson’s high-end “Big Blue” thermostats infringe and awarded $300,000 in damages based upon a royalty of $2.25 per unit. The jury also held that Emerson had failed to prove the claims invalid as obvious.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit has reversed – finding that the district court should have granted JMOL on obviousness.
Invalidating a Patent on Obviousness: The question of obviousness asks whether the “differences between the subject matter sought to be patented and the prior art are such that the subject matter as a whole would have been obvious at the time of the invention was made to a person having ordinary skill in the art to which said subject matter pertains.” 35 U.S.C. 103(a)(pre-AIA). In KSR v. Teleflex, the Supreme Court held that a “combination of familiar elements according to known methods” that “yield[s] predictable results” is likely invalid as obvious.
Here, elements of the patented system were all known in the art as was the motivation of improving circulation at reduced cost. Likewise, one prior art reference disclosed a “single-shot” fan operation that came on one-time after a heating/cooling cycle and another disclosed period fan-only cycles at times when there was no call for heating. The question then is whether it would have been obvious to create the claimed system of periodically activating and deactivating the fan after a predetermined time following a cooling cycle. Applying KSR, the Federal Circuit found that the law requires an obviousness finding.
Commercial Success: ABT had also argued that the commercial success and long-felt need of the invention should provide enough weight to prove the invention nonobvious. Objective evidence of nonobviousness, such as commercial success, long-felt need, failure of others, copying, and unexpected results can each provide evidence for the analysis. On appeal, however, the Federal Circuit was not persuaded that ABT had proven its case. In particular, ABT did not present evidence particularly linking product commercial success to the claimed periodic fan operation. Likewise, there was no particular evidence presented that Emerson’s infringing product market was being driven in any way by the recycling feature. ABT does have a number of patent licensees that weigh in favor of nonobviousness. However, the Federal Circuit held that those licenses were insufficient to overcome the convincing case of obviousness coming from the prior art.
Holding: Patent Claims Obvious