ClassCo v. Apple (Fed. Cir. 2016)
In response to being sued for patent infringement, Apple filed for inter partes reexamination of ClassCo’s Patent No. 6,970,695. That litigation (originally filed in 2011) has been stayed pending the resolution here. Although the patent had survived a prior reexamination, this time the Examiner rejected the majority of the patent claims as obvious; the PTAB affirmed those rejections; and the Federal Circuit has now re-affirmed.
The patent relates to a “caller announcement” system that uses a phone’s speaker (rather than screen or separate speaker) to announce caller identity information. The system includes a “memory storage” that stores identify information being announced.
The examiner identified the prior art as U.S. Patent No. 4,894,861 (Fujioka) that teaches all of the claimed elements (of representative claim 2) except for use of the phone’s regular audio speaker (rather than a separate speaker) to announce a caller’s identity (claimed as the “audio transducer”). A second prior art reference was then identified as U.S. Patent No. 5,199,064 (Gulick) that taught the use of the audio transducer for providing a variety of call related alerts.
On appeal, ClassCo argued that the combination of Fujioka and Gulick was unreasonable because it would involve changing the function of the known elements. The Federal Circuit disagreed writing that:
KSR does not require that a combination only unite old elements without changing their respective functions. . . . Instead, KSR teaches that ‘[a] person of ordinary skill is also a person of ordinary creativity, not an automaton.’ And it explains that the ordinary artisan recognizes ‘that familiar items may have obvious uses beyond their primary purposes, and in many cases a person of ordinary skill will be able to fit the teachings of multiple patents together like pieces of a puzzle.
Slip opinion at 8 (quoting KSR). The court goes on to explain that a combination of known elements can be obvious even the elements don’t fit perfectly together like puzzle pieces. Rather, the approach is “flexible” in its pursuit of determining whether the combination would have been “predictable” – i.e., obvious.
Although KSR rejected a strict application of a motivation-to-combine, the court consistently required at least an explanation of that motivation. Here, the court found that “substantial evidence” supports the PTO conclusions since some of the benefits were suggested by both prior art references.
Secondary Indicia: During reexamination, ClassCo had also presented evidence of industry praise for its products covered by the patent. That evidence was disregarded by the PTO as, inter alia, not
commiserate commensurate with the scope of the claims. 🙂 In particular, the Board noted that the industry praised particular embodiments but did not praise other potential embodiments. On appeal, the Federal Circuit rejected those conclusions. The court found that some of the evidence praised ClassCo features that were not available in the prior art and that were “within the scope” of the representative claims.
[T]he Board found the evidence not commensurate in scope with these claims on the ground that they are too broad, encompassing other embodiments. But “we do not require a patentee to produce objective evidence of nonobviousness for every potential embodiment of the claim.” Rambus. Rather, “we have consistently held that a patent applicant ‘need not sell every conceivable embodiment of the claims in order to rely upon evidence of [objective indicia of nonobviousness].’” In re Glatt Air Techniques, 630 F.3d 1026 (Fed. Cir. 2011) (quoting In re DBC, 545 F.3d 1373 (Fed. Cir. 2008)).
Although the Board erred in its approach to objective indica, that was harmless error since the prior art evidence was strong. “We nonetheless agree that the value this evidence possesses in establishing nonobviousness is not strong in comparison to the findings and evidence regarding the prior art under the first three Graham factors.” Obviousness affirmed.
Although a different product, the following ClassCo video review is a fun throw-back: