by Dennis Crouch
In Salazar v. AT&T Mobility LLC, the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment of noninfringement. Once again, the Federal Circuit was called upon to interpret the claim term “a,” this time to determine if Salazar’s claim requiring “a microprocessor” was limited to a single microprocessor. While “a ___” is usually interpreted to include “one or more ___,” the court upheld Judge Gilstrap’s narrower singular construction in this case, finding it limited by later references to “said microprocessor.”
Salazar’s US Patent No. 5,802,467 claims a communication system for interacting with multiple external devices. The system comprises “a microprocessor” that generates reprogrammable communication protocols, a memory device for efficient storage of command code sets retrieved by “said microprocessor,” a user interface for user selections and menu displays rendered by “said microprocessor,” and an infrared frequency transceiver coupled to “said microprocessor” enabling bidirectional communication with external devices.
AT&T systems may have the capability to achieve all these steps, but the defendant argued that each step utilized different processors or multiple processors. Thus, as the District Court explained, the dispute centered on “whether the claims require one microprocessor that is capable of performing the recited ‘generating,’ ‘creating,’ ‘retrieving,’ and ‘generating’ functions.” According to the district court construction, the patentee needed to identify a single processor that performed “all the functional (and relational) limitations recited for ‘said microprocessor.'” As a result, the court found no infringement. The Federal Circuit affirmed this decision on appeal.
While the indefinite article “a” is generally interpreted broadly as not limited to one item, this presumption can shift when necessitated by the patent documents. In this case, the patentee repeatedly used “said microprocessor” to refer back to the already claimed term in a way that “reinvokes [the] non-singular meaning” of the word “a.” Slip Op. (quoting Baldwin Graphic Sys., Inc. v. Siebert, Inc., 512 F.3d 1338 (Fed. Cir. 2008). According to the court, an alternative interpretation would ignore the meaning of “said.”
The key takeaway is that each time the claim uses “said microprocessor,” it refers back to the originally identified microprocessor. This interpretation prevented the argument that the claim covers the use of multiple microprocessors working together to achieve the described functionality. Non-infringement affirmed.
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The jury sided with the patentee on anticipation. AT&T also appealed this issue. However, the Federal Circuit declined to hear the question, holding that AT&T failed to move for a Rule 50(a) JMOL before the case was submitted to the jury, thus waiving its right to appeal the sufficiency of the evidence on that issue.