by Dennis Crouch
The Federal Circuit recently vacated and remanded a pair of Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) decisions that had upheld patent claims owned by Corephotonics. Apple Inc. v. Corephotonics, Ltd., No. 2022-1350 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 11, 2023). The appellate court held the PTAB erroneously construed a disputed claim term by failing to appreciate the significance of “a” versus “the” in the claims. It also found the PTAB violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) by resting its obviousness determination on arguments and evidence not squarely raised by the parties.
The Dispute Over Dual-Lens “Portrait Mode”
The patent at issue, U.S. Patent No. 10,225,479 (‘479 patent), relates to using dual-aperture camera systems in smartphones to create aesthetically pleasing “portrait photos.” Specifically, the patent discloses combining images from a wide-angle “Wide” lens and a telephoto “Tele” lens to produce a fused image showing a sharp subject in front of a blurred background. Portrait mode is incredibly popular on Apple and Android phones and so the industry is eager to invalidate the patent held by Tel Aviv based Corephotonics.
Apple filed two petitions for inter partes review (IPR) challenging claims of the ‘479 patent as obvious based primarily on a prior art reference known as Parulski, which discloses a dual-lens digital camera but does not specify how image fusion occurs. U.S. Patent No. 7,859,588.
Claim Construction – The Significance of “A” vs. “The”
In the first proceeding (IPR2020-00905), the parties disputed the proper construction of the claim term “fused image with a point of view (POV) of the Wide camera.” Apple argued this term required maintaining either the Wide image’s perspective or position point of view in the fused image, while Corephotonics contended it mandated both Wide perspective and position. Patentees often argue for narrow constructions during IPR proceedings in order to avoid the prior art. Here, the patentee’s narrow construction won the day and the PTAB found Apple failed to show the claims were obvious under this narrower construction.
Examining claim construction de novo, the Federal Circuit concluded that the PTAB had erroneously construed the term too narrowly based upon use of the indefinite article “a POV” as well as intrinsic evidence from the patent specification.
The court first looked at the claim language in context, noting the claims recite “a point of view” rather than “the point of view” of the Wide camera, suggesting the fused image need only maintain one type of Wide point of view. While the specification discloses that “point of view” includes both perspective and position, the claims’ use of “a” rather than “the” was critical:
A reasonable reading of [the specification] is that Wide perspective and Wide position are two different types of Wide point of view. The claim term requires only that the fused image maintain ‘a point of view of the Wide camera,’ i.e., only one of the disclosed types of Wide point of view.
Slip Op. The court also explained that limiting the claims to require both Wide perspective and position would improperly exclude disclosed embodiments where the fused image has a “mixed” point of view, like Wide perspective but Tele position.
Taken together and in context, however, the intrinsic evidence supports that the claim term requiring a fused image maintaining ‘a point of view of the Wide camera’ requires only that the fused image maintain Wide perspective point of view or Wide position point of view, but does not require both.
With this broader construction, the Federal Circuit vacated the PTAB’s first decision and remanded for further analysis of whether the prior art disclosed the disputed limitation under the clarified standard.
While the Federal Circuit suggested the patentee could have defined “point of view” to require both perspective and position by using “the” in the claims, this may have been improper due to lack of antecedent basis. Generally, a new limitation should be introduced using an indefinite article like “a” rather than a definite article like “the.” The existence of this rule of patent claim drafting raises the question of how much interpretive weight should be given to a patentee appropriately following the rule. Here, the use of “a point of view” in the claims adhered to the common rule of using “a” to introduce a new limitation. The Federal Circuit relied heavily on this choice of article in reaching its broader construction. But because patentees are expected to follow this drafting rule, it is debatable whether such weight should be placed on the patentee’s decision to use “a” in accordance with standard practice rather than “the.” This highlights some tension between claim drafting best practices and reliance on subtle differences in claim language during claim construction. Of course, the patentee could have simply drafted claims that clearly stated the structure being claimed. Here, the Board noted that the disclosure was “not a model of clarity,” something that should weigh against the patentee.
Sua Sponte Findings Without Adequate Explanation or Opportunity to Respond
Apple appealed both PTAB decisions to the Federal Circuit.
The appellate panel held that resting a determination of nonobviousness primarily on typographical errors in Apple’s expert declaration, without prior notice to the parties, violated the APA. The court explained that while the PTAB can reject unreliable expert testimony, it must provide a reasoned explanation supported by evidence and base its decision on issues the parties had notice and chance to address. Those factors were not present here:
Corephotonics did not rely on [the expert’s] error in any of its arguments on the merits. And it did not contend that this error demonstrated that there would have been no reasonable expectation of success or that it alone was a sufficient basis to find all of Dr. Sasián’s analysis unreliable.
Slip Op. Further, while the PTAB identified additional errors, these inconsistencies were never raised by the parties and appeared to lack evidentiary support. The PTAB’s “explanations must be supported by substantial evidence, and its decisions must be reached only after the parties have been provided fair notice and an opportunity to be heard.” Because the PTAB focused on peripheral issues not squarely presented by the parties, it failed to resolve the core obviousness disputes actually raised.
On remand, the PTAB will have the chance to try again — and, more particularly, Apple will get another bite at the Corephotonics patent.