by Dennis Crouch
Caterpillar v. ITC & Wirtgen (Fed. Cir. 2020)
Caterpillar filed a complaint with the International Trade Commission (ITC) against Wirtgen — arguing that the German manufacturer was importing infringing devices into the US. However, the ITC found the claims invalidated by the company’s pre-filing sales. On appeal here, the Federal Circuit has affirmed.
Caterpillar’s U.S. Patent No. 7,140,693 covers a milling machine with retractable wheels (or tracks). The invention here was originally created by engineers at the Italian company Bitelli in the late 1990’s. Caterpillar purchased Bitelli in 2000, the priority patent application was not filed (in Italy) until April 2001, followed by the PCT in 2002. Bitelli had already been selling embodiments of the invention even before 2000.
Pre-AIA patent law included some geographic limits on prior art. The on-sale bar in particularly only applied to sales in the United States.
A person shall be entitled to a patent unless — (b) the invention was … sale in this country, more than one year prior to the date of the application for patent in the United States.
35 U.S.C. 102(b) (pre-AIA). Since this is a pre-AIA patent, the pre-AIA laws apply.
During litigation, patent claims are presumed valid unless proven invalid with clear and convincing evidence. Here, Wirtgen presented records showing the sale of two Bitelli SF 102 C machines were sold to a U.S. Customer. One in June 1999 and the other in July 2000. The machines were apparently delivered to the Bitelli factory gates in Italy, and the customer may have brought them to America. The July-2000 machine (or at least a machine bearing that serial number) is actually located in the U.S., but there are no historic records of its location prior to 2018.
In finding the patent claims invalid, the ITC concluded the deliveries in Italy were still “directed to the United States” in a manner sufficient to satisfy the “in this country” prong of the on sale bar “by at least July 2000.”
On appeal, the Federal Circuit has affirmed.
Sale to US Company Not Enough: Wirtgen argued that “Under black-letter law, a sale to a U.S. company is an invalidating sale under § 102(b).” On appeal, the Federal Circuit rejected that contention — “our cases do not hold that the mere fact that the sale was made to a United States company is sufficient” to be “in this country.”
Sale Directed to the US is Enough: A foreign sale can be consider a US sale if it constituted “commercial activity directed to the United States.” Here, the court found substantial evidence to support that conclusion for the 1999 invoice:
- Buyer located in US;
- Invoice suggests that US Tariffs were due (although the same tariff number is used in EU and other countries around the world);
- Sale in US dollars;
- Description of the machine in US;
- the VAT assessment was at 0% rate — the rate used for export out of Italy and the EU. (20% for items staying in Italy); and
- No other evidence indicating that the purchase was for use anywhere but the US.
Based upon all of this, the Federal Circuit affirmed that sales were in the US for the purposes of the on-sale bar. Note here that the court’s conception of “directed to” analysis here is similar to the Supreme Court’s test for personal jurisdiction. A key difference though is that the on sale bar is a statutory provision and the geographic limitation has been eliminated for post-AIA (2011) patents.
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In this case, the the Italian patent application was filed in April 2001, followed by a PCT in 2002 and then the U.S. national stage in 2003. The ITC decision concluded that July 2000 was “more than a year before the application for the ‘693 was filed.”
These facts, considered collectively, are clear and convincing evidence that the Bitelli SF 102 C was “on sale in this country” by at least July 2000, more than a year before the application for the ‘693 patent was filed, thus qualifying as prior art under section 102(b).
Calendarios will note that July 2000 is less than one year before the Italian priority date of 2001. The problem is that the pre-AIA US statute granting priority for foreign national filings expressly excluded on-sale and public-use activity from the priority claim:
[A foreign-filed application] shall have the same effect as the same application would have if filed in this country on the date on which the application for patent for the same invention was first filed in such foreign country, if … filed within twelve months …; but no patent shall be granted on any application for patent for an invention which had been patented or described in a printed publication in any country more than one year before the date of the actual filing of the application in this country, or which had been in public use or on sale in this country more than one year prior to such filing.
35 U.S.C. 119(a) (Pre-AIA). Thus, for the on-sale and public use bar, the Italian national filing does not count as priority. A separate provision on the code allowed the PCT date to still count. Thus, for Caterpillar, the critical date is April 2001 — 1 year before the PCT filing date.
Important additional note, these quirks were eliminated in the AIA. Public uses and on-sale activity in Italy now count as prior art. And, the Italian priority filing counts for all purposes.
[Note – I updated this statute after re-reading pre-AIA Section 119.]
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Odd side-note. Figure 1 of the patent document includes two versions – one with wheels 1 and one with tracks 1a. The priority documents only included the drawing with wheels (as shown above). During prosecution, the examiner objected to claims directed toward tracks rather than wheels (Cat’s preferred emobidment as shown in the photo below), and the patentee added the new drawing 1a in the midst of prosecution with the statement that “no new matter has been added by these amendments.” The examiner accepted the amendment without further comment. I’m rusty on Italian reading, but I believe that the Italian priority document does mention tracks, but only as follows:
As alternatives to wheels on the machine, track units can be applied and henceforth the word “wheel” may be replaced with the word “track unit.”