How will Nautilus affect indefiniteness at the PTO?

Guest post by Lisa Larrimore Ouellette (Visiting Fellow, Yale Law School Information Society Project) and Jonathan Masur (Deputy Dean and Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School).

In our new draft article, Deference Mistakes, we examine indefiniteness doctrine as one example of how decisionmakers sometimes mistakenly rely on precedents in inapposite contexts. So we were very interested in the Supreme Court’s reformulation of the indefiniteness standard in Nautilus v. Biosig on Monday, and particularly in how this decision will affect the indefiniteness standard applied in the examination context.

Pre-Nautilus, claims under examination at the PTO were supposed to be evaluated under a stricter indefiniteness standard than granted claims. In Exxon Research (2001), the Federal Circuit stated that to “accord respect to the statutory presumption of patent validity,” it would find granted patent claims indefinite “only if reasonable efforts at claim construction proved futile” and the claim was “insolubly ambiguous.”

The obvious corollary to the Federal Circuit’s holding in Exxon is that when the presumption of validity does not apply, the indefiniteness standard should be more stringent. The BPAI explicitly clarified this point in the precedential Ex parte Miyazaki (2008) when it held that examiners should use “a lower threshold of ambiguity” such that claims are indefinite if “amenable to two or more plausible constructions,” and the MPEP emphasizes this point.

As we describe in Deference Mistakes, however, the less stringent “insolubly ambiguous” standard was mistakenly imported into the examination context and repeatedly cited in BPAI and PTAB decisions even after Miyazaki. And once ambiguous claims are granted, they are entitled to the presumption of validity and are less likely to be struck down, notwithstanding that they were granted under a mistaken standard.  The affirmance of these patents on appeal following infringement proceedings likely led to the PTO granting even more indefinite patents, which were then upheld on appeal, a vicious cycle. And if these patents came to be seen as the new normal, that could have made the PTO even more permissive. The result could have been creeping decay of the PTO’s effective indefiniteness standard, with indefinite patents begetting ever more indefinite patents.

At first glance, Nautilus appears to fix this problem of two different legal standards that might be mistakenly applied in the wrong context. In footnote 10, the Supreme Court states that the “presumption of validity does not alter the degree of clarity that §112, ¶2 demands from patent applicants,” suggesting that the legal test for indefiniteness should be the same in the infringement and examination contexts. The Court expressly leaves open whether this evaluation of the claims involves subsidiary factual findings and whether deference is due to any such findings—issues the Court will return to next Term in Teva v. Sandoz. But however these fact-based issues are resolved, it seems that Miyazaki‘s articulation of the legal standard for indefiniteness is no longer good law (unless, of course, the Federal Circuit adopts this as the unitary test).

Doctrinally, this requirement of a unitary legal standard for indefiniteness seems clearly right: as the Supreme Court explained in Microsoft v. i4i, the presumption of validity required by §282 is an evidentiary standard that requires invalidity to be proven by clear-and-convincing evidence, and it is thus inapplicable to questions of law. Eliminating the dual standard also has the apparent benefit of preventing the kinds of overt mistakes we point out in Deference Mistakes.

As we explain in Deference Mistakes, however, eliminating the formal legal distinctions between “deference regimes” may not solve the problem where such deference arises from functional considerations. We worry that preventing the PTO from applying “a lower threshold of ambiguity” might inadvertently undermine the PTO’s current efforts to improve patent claim clarity. Although the EFF cheered Nautilus for being likely to “invalidate many more patents,” the Court suggested at p. 12 that the test “the Federal Circuit applies in practice” may be fine, so on remand the Federal Circuit may well use the same analysis under a new name. Even if indefiniteness is a purely legal question such that the presumption of validity has no formal effect, in practice courts may apply a relatively loose standard due to an understandable reluctance to impose the drastic penalty of invalidity just because a claim could have been written more clearly. In the examination context, where applicants have the ability to amend vague claims, the PTO’s efforts to demand greater clarity make sense. But if the looser indefiniteness standard from the infringement context is incorporated into the examination context—no longer as a doctrinal mistake, but as a legal requirement—it may subvert these efforts and exacerbate the problem of ambiguous patents.

Federal Circuit Implements Low Standard for Prima Facie Indefiniteness Rejection

In re Packard (Fed. Cir. 2014)

In a long-awaited decision, the Federal Circuit has affirmed the USPTO’s indefiniteness rejection of Thomas Packard’s claims under 35 U.S.C. § 112(b). However, the court refused to determine whether the “insolubly ambiguous” test is the proper standard for judging the indefiniteness of pre-issuance claims. Rather, the court merely held that a proper rejection by the USPTO (prima facie case) need not follow that standard:

We conclude that, when the USPTO has initially issued a well-grounded rejection that identifies ways in which language in a claim is ambiguous, vague, incoherent, opaque, or otherwise unclear in describing and defining the claimed invention, and thereafter the applicant fails to provide a satisfactory response, the USPTO can properly reject the claim as failing to meet the statutory requirements of § 112(b). The satisfactory response by the applicant can take the form of a modification of the language identified as unclear, a separate definition of the unclear language, or, in an appropriate case, a persuasive explanation for the record of why the language at issue is not actually unclear. On the facts before us, this holding suffices to uphold the rejection that occurred here.

The short per curiam decision is interesting in the way that it looks like an administrative law decision – finding that the USPTO has been tasked with the job of examining patent applications and must be given leeway to “make the congressionally created examination process work.”

The USPTO must be able to make the congressionally created examination process work so that it fulfills its purpose of producing patents whose claims meet the statutory standards. We earlier approved a procedural mechanism for the USPTO to use in doing this, which we refer to as the “prima facie case.” See In re Piasecki, 745 F.2d 1468 (Fed. Cir. 1984). “In the prosecution of a patent, the initial burden falls on the PTO [examiner] to set forth the basis for any rejection.” Hyatt v. Dudas, 492 F.3d 1365 (Fed. Cir. 2007). The USPTO thus meets its obligation to explain adequately the shortcomings it perceives so that the applicant is properly notified and able to respond. “Once the applicant is so notified, the burden shifts to the applicant to rebut the prima facie case with evidence and/or argument.” Id. . . .

The same approach to making the examination process work is an appropriate one for addressing the question of indefiniteness.

Here, the court does identify important differences between indefiniteness issues during prosecution (pre-issuance) as compared with post-issuance indefiniteness. In particular, because pre-issuance claims can be easily amended, it makes sense to have a system that encourages fixing claims before it is too late. Here, rather than addressing that issue through the indefiniteness standard, the court focuses on using process to provide flexibility.

We have elsewhere noted that indefiniteness rejections by the USPTO arise in a different posture from that of indefiniteness challenges to an issued patent. See Exxon Research v. US, 265 F.3d 1370 (Fed. Cir. 2001). It makes good sense, for definiteness and clarity as for other validity requirements, for the USPTO initially to reject claims based on a well-founded prima facie case of lack of clarity (in its several forms) based on the perspective of one of ordinary skill in the art in view of the entire written description and developing prosecution history. Then, if the applicant does not adequately respond to that prima facie case, to confirm that rejection on the substantive basis of having failed to meet the requirements of § 112(b).

Of course, the legal standard of indefiniteness is currently being challenged in the Nautilus case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Nautilus, Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc., 715 F.3d 891 (Fed. Cir. 2013), cert. granted, 82 U.S.L.W. 3195 (U.S. Jan. 10, 2014) (No. 13-369). A decision in Nautilus is expected in June 2014.

Looking at the particular facts here, Packard ignored a number of indefiniteness rejections and thus, the examiner’s rejections will stand:

The opinion included Judges O’Malley, Plager, and Taranto.

Judge Plager also filed a masterful concurring opinion that provides a more full explanation of the law of indefiniteness, the problematic shorthand of “insolubly ambiguous”, and a direct analysis of Packard’s claim terms. More on Judge Plager’s opinion in a later post.

Court: Claim Term Lacks Definiteness but is not Legally Indefinite

Every Penny Counts v. Wells Fargo Bank, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28106 (M.D. Fl. 2014).

In a ruling this week, Judge Merryday rejected Wells Fargo’s indefiniteness argument made in a pre-trial summary judgment motion. Like claim construction, indefiniteness is seen as a question of law that can be resolved by a district court judge. In fact, the Federal Circuit has written that “Indefiniteness is a matter of claim construction, and the same principles that generally govern claim construction are applicable to determining whether allegedly indefinite claim language is subject to construction.” Praxair, Inc. v. ATMI, Inc., 543 F.3d 1306, 1319 (Fed. Cir. 2008).

EPC’s invention is software for rounding-up credit and debit transactions to the nearest dollar and then putting the extra money to a special use. See U.S. Patent 8,025,217. Claim 1 of the ‘217 patent is listed as follows:

1. A system for accumulating credits from a customer account belonging to the customer and managed by an institution and placing the credits into a provider account, comprising:

an information processor; said information processor including a data store with data identifying the customer, the rounding determinant, the managed institution, and the account;

said data store including machine readable instructions authorizing the processor to access and read the customer account;

said data store including machine readable instructions to calculate rounders after receiving a plurality of payment transactions from the read customer account and to calculate an excess based on the rounders;

said data store including machine readable instructions to withdraw the excess from the customer account;

said data store including machine readable instructions to transfer the withdrawn excess to the provider account.

The indefiniteness issue with the claim is that the claim introduces two types of accounts – a customer account and a provider account – and then refers to “the account” without identifying which of the two accounts are being referenced. Wells Fargo argues that there are “at least four equally plausible interpretations” of “the account” – it could be the customer account, the provider account, both accounts, or some other account. Adding to the difficulty of interpreting the term, Wells Fargo highlights the fact that the patent itself is riddled with seeming typographical errors that make interpretation difficult. The court writes:

The patent is infested with scrivener’s (and other) errors, and the prospect of a missing “s” fits comfortably within the patterns discernible in the patent. For example, the patent states, “The actual transfer . . . concludes with the [transfer of] funds to each listed PC (provider account) . . . .” “PC” is used nowhere else in the patent, and the patent later clarifies that “PA” is the intended acronym for “provider account(s).” But even the creation of the correct acronym, “PA,” is tardy – by the time the patent defines the acronym, the patent has already deployed either “provider account” or “provider accounts” four times and “PA” twelve times. And after the “PA” acronym is created, the patent no longer uses the acronym but uses “provider accounts.” In other examples of error, the patent bungles nearly every acronym, conflates “i.e.” and “e.g.,” and writes “invention invention,” “FIG. 7A” (not “FIG. 7” – no figure 7A exists), “FIG. 4B” (although Figure 4B exists, “FIG. 4C” is intended), step “8120” (not”120″), “2 $300.14” (not “$300.14”), “pa id” (not “paid”), “saving s,” and “piece s.” These errors – which say nothing of the drafter’s grammatical and syntactical incompetence and bemusing judgment – confirm that “account” lacking an “s” by mistake accords with the level of compositional adroitness and dexterity that pervades the patent.

In sum, as used in claims 1 and 2, the phrase “the account” lacks definiteness. “[T]he account” might mean “the customer account,” “the provider account,” or otherwise; no informed and confident choice is available among the contending definitions.

Now, here’s the trick – after finding that the phrase lacks definiteness, the court next went on to hold that the phrase is not legally indefinite. Rather, there exist a spectrum of definiteness levels, and the forfeiture of patent rights due to indefiniteness (currently) requires extreme indefiniteness. Thus, a claim term that is only somewhat indefinite will not render its respective claim invalid as indefinite. And, because of the conceptual separation of most patentability doctrines, the lack of definiteness shown here will have no other adverse impact on the patent.

In particular, a claim term is only found indefinite if clear and convincing evidence sufficient to overcome the statutory presumption of validity proves that the claim is “insolubly ambiguous” and “not amenable to claim construction.” Taking that standard, the court could only find the claim sufficiently definite:

Although the entire patent is awkwardly drafted, the oppugned claim is simple. The specification is simple. The drawings are simple. The patent as a whole, notwithstanding the deficiencies, seems understandable; the claim seems understandable. In short, the indefiniteness of the term “the account” leaves no unmanageable gap in the information available for determining the scope of the claim. No practical incapacity or disabling uncertainty appears as a consequence of the fact that “the account” might mean one thing or the other. In sum, the extent of the indefiniteness in the term “the account” is inconsequential and falls far short of the “insoluble ambiguity” required to invalidate the claim.

Holding: Claim not invalid as indefinite.

This case tightly linked to the outcome in Nautilus. If the court changes the standard for determining indefiniteness there then we’ll likely see a modified holding here as well.

[Updated on 3/8/14 with updated information that opinion was written by Judge Merryday not Magistrate Judge McCoun. Via W.Pollack]


Apple Loses on Claim Construction and Indefiniteness

by Dennis Crouch

Ancora Tech. v. Apple Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2014)

Ancora’s patent covers a verification system to ensure that the software running on a computer are properly licensed.  U.S. Patent No. 6,411,941.  Following claim construction, Ancora stipulated to a summary judgment of non-infringement — agreeing that the district court’s construction of the claim term “program” was so narrow that Apple’s verification system did not fit within its bounds.  In particular, the examples from the original 1998 patent application all focused on application programs — ones that rely upon an operating system in order to run and thus exclude the (Apple) operating system itself.

Asserted claim 1 is written as follows:

1. A method of restricting software operation within a license for use with a computer including an erasable, non-volatile memory area of a BIOS of the computer, and a volatile memory area; the method comprising the steps of:
selecting a program residing in the volatile memory,
using an agent to set up a verification structure in the erasable, non-volatile memory of the BIOS, the verification structure accommodating data that includes at least one license record,
verifying the program using at least the verification structure from the erasable non-volatile memory of the BIOS, and
acting on the program according to the verification.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit rejected a narrow construction of the term “program”  — finding that the patentee gave no reason to move the term from its ordinary meaning in context.

A claim term  should be given its ordinary meaning in the pertinent context, unless the patentee has made clear its adoption of a different definition or otherwise disclaimed that meaning. . . There is no reason in this case to depart from the term’s ordinary meaning.

Although not stated in the opinion, I suspect that this is one case that would have turned-out differently under a deferential standard of review. However, in Lighting Ballast, the Federal Circuit reconfirmed that a district court’s claim construction is given no deference and instead reviewed de novo on appeal.
= = =
You’ll note that the claim also includes references to “volatile memory” and “non-volatile memory.”   In a cross-appeal, Apple argued that those terms were invalid as ambiguous under 35 U.S.C. 112(b).  The panel here easily rejected that argument:

The Supreme Court currently is considering how to refine the formulations for applying the definiteness requirement. See Nautilus, Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc., Sup. Ct. No. 13-369, cert. granted, 2014 WL 92363 (Jan. 10, 2014). In this case, we think that we can reject the indefiniteness challenge without awaiting the Court’s clarification. However other circumstances may be evaluated, it suffices to reject the challenge in this case that the claim language and the prosecution history leave no reasonable uncertainty about the boundaries of the terms at issue, even considering certain aspects of the specification that could engender confusion when read in isolation.

Most importantly, there is no dispute that the terms “volatile memory” and “non-volatile memory” have a meaning that is clear, settled, and objective in content. Both parties and the district court agreed that, as a general matter, “[t]o one of ordinary skill in the art, a volatile memory is memory whose data is not maintained when the power is removed and a non-volatile memory is memory whose data is maintained when the power is removed.” That meaning leaves the relevant public with a firm understanding of the scope of the claim terms, unless something exceptional sufficiently supplants that understanding.

Apple’s particular indefiniteness argument was based upon the fact that the specification refers to a “hard disk” as an example of volatile memory when, in reality, a hard disk is ordinarily thought of as quite the opposite.  According to Apple, those references so blur the meaning of volatile and non-volatile that the terms should be seen as indefinite.  The Federal Circuit rejected Apple’s argument for several reasons.

Under our claim-construction law, a clear ordinary meaning is not properly overcome (and a relevant reader would not reasonably think it overcome) by a few passing references that do not amount to a redefinition or disclaimer.

Under our claim-construction law, a clear ordinary meaning is not properly overcome (and a relevant reader would not reasonably think it overcome) by a few passing references that do not amount to a redefinition or disclaimer. . . . [Furthermore], it is well known that a computer’s hard disk is routinely used as “virtual” memory to provide temporary storage when there is insufficient RAM to complete an operation.

It will be interesting to see here if Apple asks petitions for certiorari on either de novo review or indefiniteness.

Indefiniteness at the PTAB

By Dennis Crouch

Ex parte Dan, 2014 WL 343818, Appeal No. 12-8847, APN 10/715,910 (PTAB 2014)

Monsanto’s patent application covers the growth of plant cells on a bed of lipoic acid in order to facilitate a GM transformation. Monsanto’s Examiner found the term “explant” indefinite under 112(2). The Board reversed that appeal – finding that the patent application has provided sufficient explanation of the term. In particular, the application had indicated is purpose as “a method for genetically transforming a plant cell, tissue or other suitable explant” and that the best conclusion from that statement is that explant are inherently comprised of cells.

The Board’s reasoning here (penned by Judge Jenks) makes clear that clear that the examiner’s burden in showing indefiniteness is quite high. The Board writes:

We find that Appellants have the better position. “The standard of indefiniteness is somewhat high; a claim is not indefinite merely because its scope is not ascertainable from the face of the claims.” Amgen, Inc. v. Hoechst Marion Roussel, Inc., 314 F.3d 1313, 1342 (Fed. Cir. 2003). Rather, “[a] claim is indefinite if, when read in light of the specification, it does not reasonably apprise those skilled in the art of the scope of the invention.” Id. Here, the Specification provides that the disclosed method is suitable for “transforming a plant cell, tissue or other suitable explant [material] and regenerating a transformed plant therefrom.” (Spec. 3, ll. 12-13.) Thus, the Specification refers to cells or tissues in relation to explant material, which is consistent with the use of the term explant in the art. Accordingly, we agree with Appellants that explants are essentially a collection of cells. As such, the transformation of an explant would involve transforming the underlying cells.

For its precedential support, the Board calls to the 2003 Amgen decision. The reliance on Amgen highlights a big difficulty with our current system of patent law jurisprudence – the direct application of infringement litigation case law on patent prosecution standards. Amgen was a decision where a patent had already been examined and issued and was being challenged in court. At that stage (infringement litigation), a court has no power to rewrite claims to and the strong presumption of validity associated with issued patents suggests that the proper approach is to have a “somewhat high” standard of indefiniteness. The story is completely different for cases pending before the USPTO. The vast majority of patent applicants amend their claims during the patent prosecution process in order to clarify loose language and avoid prior art. During this stage, the PTO should be given a strong hand to ensure that applicants meet the statutory requirement of “pointing out and distinctly claiming the subject matter which the inventor or a joint inventor regards as the invention.” Here we’re not talking about increasing or decreasing the scope of the patent, but rather requiring precision so that the boundary of the claims is recognizable. The nice thing about forcing this at the application stage is that applicants will have a full opportunity to amend their claims in a way that results in a valuable (but definite) patent.

Now, one result here is that Monsanto did end up clarifying in its argument that an explant is made-up of cells. In court, Monsanto would likely be bound by that argument. But the problem with having prosecution-based definitions is that they are difficult and expensive for a third-party to uncover.

Final point, the Board may have been willing to allow somewhat loose language here because it went-on to affirm a different rejection – that the claims were invalid as obvious.

Another Means-Plus-Function Patent: Invalid as Indefinite

By Dennis Crouch

Ibormeith IP v. Mercedes-Benz (Fed. Cir. 2013)

Ibormeith’s patent covers a “sleepiness monitor” intended to sense when a vehicle driver is getting sleepy. This is obviously an important topic that results in thousands of annual traffic accidents. Ibormeith’s solution is to monitor both the time-of-day (circadian rhythm inputs) and unusual steering movement (vehicle inputs) and then use an algorithm to determine the likelihood of sleepy driving. The result then could be to warn the driver by beeping or perhaps taking more automated control of the vehicle. The patent (No 6,313,749) was issued back in 2001 around the time when attorneys were coming-round to the notion that means-plus-function claims lead to trouble – either comedy or tragedy depending upon your point-of-view.

The patent statute allows for patent claims to be written as a “means for” accomplishing a particular function. 35 U.S.C. § 112(f). When written in claim form, a “means for” claim appears extremely broad because it suggests coverage of all possible means or mechanisms for accomplishing the stated goal. However, the statute says otherwise. Rather than covering all possible mechanisms, Section 112(f) requires that the limitation be construed to only cover the “corresponding structure … described in the specification and equivalents thereof.” Since 1994, the Federal Circuit has supported this narrow construction. See In re Donaldson, 29 USPQ2d 1845 (Fed. Cir.1994). As Judge Taranto writes in this case “The price of using this form of claim … is that the claim be tied to a structure defined with sufficient particularity in the specification.”

Taking all of this a step further, the courts have also repeatedly held that a patent is invalid as indefinite under Section 112(b) if a claimed “means” if no particular corresponding structure is disclosed in the specification. See, e.g., Function Media, LLC v. Google, Inc., 708 F.3d 1310, 1319 (Fed. Cir. 2013); Blackboard, Inc. v. Desire2Learn Inc., 574 F.3d 1371, 1382-83 (Fed. Cir. 2009).

Here, the patent claims at issue all include a “computational means” that figure out whether or not someone is sleepy. And, on summary judgment, the district court found the claims indefinite because the claimed computational means were not supported by structure in the specification. That decision has been affirmed in a unanimous opinion written by Judge Taranto. Oddly, adequate disclosure under § 112(b) is a question of law reviewed de novo on appeal. That lower standard still did not carry the day for the patentee.

As in so many cases, the claimed “means” is really an algorithm being run on a computer to accomplish some particular goal. The court has ruled that the algorithm needs to be one that is “sufficiently defined to render the bounds of the claim . . . understandable to the implementer.” Here, the specification defines a set of input variables and a “sleep propensity algorithm” that is the sum of those variables. The specification also indicates the potential for various warning thresholds associated with the sleep propensity algorithm. However, the specification does not include any real examples for how the algorithm would work.

For Judge Taranto, the decision is largely about litigation strategy. The patentee argued that the algorithm is very broadly defined by the specification. The point of that argument was to ensure broad claim scope. However, the results is a finding that the algorithm is not particularly defined and therefore that the claim is invalid.

With means-plus-function claiming, the narrower the disclosed structure in the specification, the narrower the claim coverage. To succeed in ultimately proving that the “computational means” elements cover the accused Mercedes products … Ibormeith’s [argued that the algorithm of] Table 10 … is broad enough to reach the accused products. With consequences of such importance, Ibormeith’s position as to Table 10’s breadth is fairly treated as a binding admission. . . . That position, however, fails in the necessary attempt to steer a course that permits proof of infringement yet avoids invalidity.

Judge Taranto’s analysis here makes sense within the context of litigation strategy and holding parties to their litigation admissions. The major problem with this approach, however, is that allows patentees to hold-in and maintain ambiguity until the point of litigation.

= = = = =

The patent at issue here is based upon the invention by Dr. Louise Reyner and Dr. Jim Horne who are both sleep researchers at Loughborough University in the UK and who won the Queen’s prize in 2007 for their work on road death reduction through their work on driver sleepiness research. In March 2010, the UK company Astid Ltd. recorded its ownership of the patent and that same day Ibomeith was formed that is one of Michael Connelly‘s companies.

Is “Insolubly Ambiguous” the Correct Standard for Indefiniteness?

By Dennis Crouch

Nautilus v. Biosig Inst. (on petition for writ of certiorari 2013)

A major focus of attention in the current arena of patent reform is on the notice function of patent claims and, in particularly, the standard for definiteness. Most of the time, the scope of a patent's coverage is only known once a district court construes those claims. And, in many cases, that knowledge is really delayed until Federal Circuit review. A substantial portion of the blame in this area can be placed on patentees who intentionally draft claims of ambiguous scope. Of course, the Supreme Court has long recognized the policy benefits of allowing ambiguity in patent coverage. (See, Doctrine of Equivalents). Most technology users would prefer to understand the scope of claims before litigation and use that information to decide whether to obtain a license. However, the ambiguity (in combination with other factors) lead to the common practice of holding-out until a court construes the claims.

For indefinite claims, the statutory guidelines come from 35 U.S.C. § 112(b) that requires claims that "particularly point[] out and distinctly claim[] the subject matter which the inventor … regards as the invention." The doctrine of indefiniteness finds its statutory support from §112(b). And, when a claim is indefinite it is both unpatentable and invalid.

Once a patent issues, it tends to be quite difficult to invalidate that patent on indefiniteness grounds. The difficulty begins with the statutory presumption of validity under § 282 that requires clear and convincing evidence of invalidity. That difficulty continues with the standard for indefiniteness itself. In particular, the Federal Circuit has required that invalidity by indefiniteness requires proof that the challenged claim is ambiguous in a way that is "insoluble." In Biosig, the Federal Circuit similarly held that indefiniteness of an issued claim can only be found "if reasonable efforts at claim construction result in a definition that does not provide sufficient particularity and clarity to inform skilled artisans of the bounds of the claim."

In a new petition, John Vandenberg's team at Klarquist Sparkman has asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the Federal Circuit's standard on this point. Nautilus presents the following questions:

1. Does the Federal Circuit's acceptance of ambiguous patent claims with multiple reasonable interpretations—so long as the ambiguity is not "insoluble" by a court—defeat the statutory requirement of particular and distinct patent claiming?

2. Does the presumption of validity dilute the requirement of particular and distinct patent claiming?

Many of these same issues have been previously addressed by the Supreme Court in pre-1952 decisions. See, for example, United Carbon Co. v. Binney & Smith Co., 317 U.S. 228 (1942). In Union Carbide, the court wrote that:

The statutory requirement of particularity and distinctness in claims is met only when they clearly distinguish what is claimed from what went before in the art and clearly circumscribe what is foreclosed from future enterprise. A zone of uncertainty which enterprise and experimentation may enter only at the risk of infringement claims would discourage invention only a little less than unequivocal foreclosure of the field. Moreover, the claims must be reasonably clear-cut to enable courts to determine whether novelty and invention are genuine. . . . Whether the vagueness of the claim has its source in the language employed or in the somewhat indeterminate character of the advance claimed to have been made in the art is not material. An invention must be capable of accurate definition, and it must be accurately defined, to be patentable.

Interpreting the precursor to Section 112(b), 35 U.S.C. § 33 (1932). The old § 33 included the parallel requirement of claims that "particularly point out and distinctly claim the part, improvement, or combination which he claims as his invention or discovery."

In the Union Carbide, the court's problem with the claims was what it called functionality, writing: [T]he claims are but inaccurate suggestions of the functions of the product, and fall afoul of the rule that a patentee may not broaden his claims by describing the product in terms of function. Holland Furniture Co. v. Perkins Glue Co., 277 U.S. 245; General Electric Co. v. Wabash Corp., 304 U.S. 371. The particular claims at issue in Union Carbide are as follows:

1. Substantially pure carbon black in the form of commercially uniform, comparatively small, rounded, smooth aggregates having a spongy porous interior.

2. As an article of manufacture, a pellet of approximately one sixteenth of any inch in diameter and, formed-of a porous mass of substantially pure carbon black.

See U.S. Patent No. 1,889,429. Read the claims again and look for the functional limitations, then read the Supreme Court's decision.

In General Electric Co. v. Wabash Corp., 304 U.S. 364 (1938), the Supreme Court similarly took issue with the indefiniteness of issued patent claims.

The limits of a patent must be known for the protection of the patentee, the encouragement of the inventive genius of others, and the assurance that the subject of the patent will be dedicated ultimately to the public. The statute seeks to guard against unreasonable advantages to the patentee and disadvantages to others arising from uncertainty as to their rights. The inventor must inform the public during the life of the patent of the limits of the monopoly asserted, so that it may be known which features may be safely used or manufactured without a license and which may not.

. . . . Patentees may reasonably anticipate that claimed inventions, improvements, and discoveries, turning on points so refined as the granular structure of products, require precise descriptions of the new characteristic for which protection is sought. In a limited field, the variant must be clearly defined.

GE v. Wabash.

Reaching further back to the 19th century, the court wrote in Merrill v. Yeomans, 94 U.S. 568 (1876) that a patentee has no excuse for ambiguous or vague descriptions.

The growth of the patent system in the last quarter of a century in this country has reached a stage in its progress where the variety and magnitude of the interests involved require accuracy, precision, and care in the preparation of all the papers on which the patent is founded. It is no longer a scarcely recognized principle, struggling for a foothold, but it is an organized system, with well-settled rules, supporting itself at once by its utility, and by the wealth which it creates and commands. The developed and improved condition of the patent law, and of the principles which govern the exclusive rights conferred by it, leave no excuse for ambiguous language or vague descriptions. The public should not be deprived of rights supposed to belong to it, without being clearly told what it is that limits these rights. The genius of the inventor, constantly making improvements in existing patents,—a process which gives to the patent system its greatest value,—should not be restrained by vague and indefinite descriptions of claims in existing patents from the salutary and necessary right of improving on that which has already been invented. It seems to us that nothing can be more just and fair, both to the patentee and to the public, than that the former should understand, and correctly describe, just what he has invented, and for what he claims a patent.

Merrill (1876). These cases are in obvious tension with the Federal Circuit's current standard. However, there remains only a small chance that the Supreme Court will hear the case.

One key to the petition here is the argument that the Federal Circuit made it triply difficult to invalidate a claim on indefiniteness ground by (1) using the presumption of validity of § 282 to create stringent elements for the invalidity defense and then (2) also requiring clear-and-convincing evidence to prove those elements; all while (3) regularly ignoring the reality that indefiniteness is a question of law (as are patentable subject matter and obviousness).

FM v. Google: Means-plus-Function Indefiniteness and O2 Micro Challenges

By Jason Rantanen

Function Media, L.L.C. v. Google Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2013) Download FM v Google
Panel: Rader, Newman, Reyna (author)

Function Media sued Google for infringement of three related patents: 6,446,045; 7,240,025; and 7,249,059.  The patents involve a system for facilitating advertising on multiple advertising outlets (such as different websites) with different formatting requirements.  The district court granted summary judgment that the sole independent claim of the '045 patent was indefinite and a jury subsequently found that the asserted claims of the '025 and '059 patents invalid and not infringed.  The district court granted JMOL of validity of four claims but the noninfringement verdict stood.  FM appealed several issues including the indefiniteness ruling and raised a challenge based on O2 Micro

Indefiniteness: Claim 1 of the '045 patent reads as follows:

1. A method of using a network of computers to contract for, facilitate and control the creating and publishing of presentations, by a seller, to a plurality of media venues owned or controlled by other than the seller, comprising:

    a) providing a media database having a list of available media venues;
    b) providing means for applying corresponding guidelines of the media venues;
    c) providing means for transmitting said presentations to a selected media venue of the media venues;
    d) providing means for a seller to select the media venues; and
    e) providing means for the seller to input information;
    whereby the seller may select one or more of the media venues, create a presentation that complies with said guidelines of the media venues selected, and transmit the presentation to the selected media venues for publication.

At issue was the italicized "means for transmitting" claim element, which the district court held to be indefinite because the specification did not disclose a structure for carrying out the claimed function, as required by 35 U.S.C. § 112(f) [previously referred to as 112[6]).  

On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling, emphasizing the requirement that an algorithm must be disclosed when using a means-plus-function claim involving software.   "When dealing with a “special purpose computer-implemented means-plus-function limitation,” we require the specification to disclose the algorithm for performing the function."  Slip Op. at 9.  For this claim element, at least, no algorithm was disclosed: "Here, there is no specific algorithm disclosed in prose, as a mathematical formula, in flow charts, or otherwise. FM cites to several places in the specification that it contends describe the software. These citations all explain that the software automatically transmits, but they contain no explanation of how the [Presentation Generating Program] software performs the transmission function."  Id. at 10.  "At most, the ’045 Patent specification discloses that the structure
behind the function of transmitting is a computer program that transmits. Beyond the program’s function, however, no algorithm is disclosed. As in Blackboard, the PGP is “simply an abstraction that describes the function” to be performed. 574 F.3d at 1383." Id.

Nor could FM rely on the knowledge of a PHOSITA: "Having failed to provide any disclosure of the structure for the “transmitting” function, FM cannot rely on the knowledge of one skilled in the art to fill in the gaps."  Id. at 11.  It was irrelevant that a person of ordinary skill could devise some method to perform the function: that goes to enablement, not to definiteness.  

Comment: Ironically here, it was probably the use of the narrowing "means" language that ultimately resulted in the holding of indefiniteness.  If the patentee had instead just referenced "a computer controller transmitting said presentation" (similar to what it did in Claim 1 of the '025 patent), it almost certainly would have survived an indefiniteness challenge.  See Mark A. Lemley, Software Patents and the Return of Functional Claiming (forthcoming in Wisconsin Law Review) at 41-42 (arguing that the Federal Circuit imposes no limit on the functional nature of software claim elements unless they use "means," thus negating the compromise established by 112(f)).  

O2 Micro: In addition to challenging several of the district court's claim constructions (which the CAFC affirmed), FM argued that the court improperly sent issues of claim construction to the jury in contravention of O2 Micro v. Beyond Innovation, 521 F.3d 1351 (Fed. Cir. 2008).  The Federal Circuit rejected FM's arguments, limiting O2 Micro to the rare circumstance when arguments about different claim scopes are actually presented to the jury.  "We disagree with FM that claim construction was decided by the jury because the district court’s construction was correct, and the district court never refused to construe any disputed terms.  Moreover, as with the other terms, FM never objected to any supposed improper argument or testimony."  Slip Op. at 26.  Absent this situation, the issue was whether Google made improper arguments to the jury, an issue on which FM bore an extremely high burden that it could not carry.

Means-Plus-Function: Invalid as Indefinite

by Dennis Crouch

Ergo Licensing v. CareFusion 303 (Fed. Cir. 2012)

In a split opinion, the Federal Circuit has affirmed a lower court ruling that Ergo's asserted claims are invalid. Judge Moore explains in her opinion, that the claims are indefinite under 35 U.S.C. § 112 (2) because the means-plus-function limitations are not supported by any corresponding structure disclosed in the specification.  Judge Linn joined Judge Moore's opinion.  Judge Newman dissented. 

Describing, Enabling, and Defining: 35 U.S.C. § 112 (1) requires that a claimed invention be fully described and enabled. In addition, the claims must be drafted in a manner that particularly identifies the scope of rights being claimed.  35 U.S.C. § 112 (2).  Although overlapping, these three requirements—written description, enablement, and definiteness—are separate and distinct requirements. Thus, a claim may fail the definiteness requirement even though the invention sought to be patented was fully described in the original specification in "full, clear, concise, and exact terms" and in a way that "enables any person skilled in the art … to make and use the same."

Means-Plus-Function: Patent claims ordinarily recite particular "structure, material, or acts" as elements that both provide for the inventive step and limit the scope of rights. 35 U.S.C. § 112 (6) allows a patentee to alternatively draft limitations as "a means or step for performing a specified function without the recital of structure, material, or acts in support thereof." To a lay reader, these means-plus-function claims appear quite broad. For instance a claimed "means for connecting elements A and B" seemingly covers any method or structure that accomplishes the claimed function. However, the statute itself require that means-plus-function claims be given a much more limited scope. Under § 112 (6), a means-plus-function claim "shall be construed to cover the corresponding structure, material, or acts described in the specification and equivalents thereof." Thus, to know the meaning of a claimed "means for connecting," we must look to the patent specification to see what particular connecting means were disclosed and the scope of the claim would be limited only to those disclosed structures and their equivalents. The result here is that means-plus-function claims typically have a scope that is much narrower than one might expect on the initial reading.

Undefined Means: In recent years, a number of means-plus-function claims have been invalidated as lacking definiteness under § 112 (2). (I.e., invalid as indefinite). Courts follow the following approach: (a) The statute requires that a means-plus-function element be defined according to corresponding structure found in the specification. (b) If no corresponding structure is found then the term cannot be defined and (c) is therefore invalid as indefinite.

This case offers yet another example of claims being held invalid based upon means-plus-function claim elements that lack corresponding structure in the specification. The claims recite a "control means for controlling [an] adjusting means." The patentee argued that its disclosure of a general purpose computer was sufficient structure because a computer would be able to accomplish the task-at-hand. On appeal, the court rejected the patentee's argument and affirmed that such a computer was insufficient structure since a general purpose computer could not accomplish the function required by the claim. The court wrote that the patentee could have satisfied the requirement by additionally including the algorithm that the computer would use to accomplish its task."

If special programming is required for a general purpose computer to perform the corresponding claimed function, then the default rule requiring disclosure of an algorithm applies. It is only in the rare circumstances where any general-purpose computer without any special programming can perform the function that an algorithm need not be disclosed.

Thus, the means-plus-function limitation has no corresponding structure in the specification because "there is no algorithm described in any form for the function of 'controlling the adjusting means.'" As a result, the claim is invalid as indefinite.

In an extended dissent, Judge Newman argued that the ruling amounts to a formalistic technicality that is unfair to patentees – especially when the enablement and written description tests are not offended by the claim.

Disfavored by Patentees: Because of their narrow scope and high-likelihood of invalidity, "means for" claiming has been on a steady decline for the past two decades. The chart below shows a time series of the percent of patents that include at least one "means for" claim limitation. (Note – my search was for "means for" and so some MPF claims are not counted). These days, the only ones being caught in this trap are either (1) being poorly advised or (2) attempting to improperly extend the scope of their patent beyond what was actually invented. In my view, prudent patent applicants today never rely on MPF claims as their broadest or strongest claims. However, many still find some role for those claims and it is important to recognize that means-plus-function claim scope varies dramatically on the international level.

Device for: The majority opinion suggests the next frontier of challenge – patent claims that rely heavily on functional language but that do not use the magic "means" language. Here, the court at least suggests that an equivalent claim drafted as a "device for controlling" would have been invalid under the same analysis. The court wrote "The [hypothetical] recitation of 'control device' provides no more structure than the term 'control means' itself, rather it merely replaces the word 'means' with the generic term 'device.'"

BPAI: First Decide Indefiniteness, then Subject Matter Eligibility

Ex parte Adelman, Appeal 2010-011767 (BPAI 2012)

As part of what seems a sign of change, the BPAI in recently refused to decide a patent appeal on statutory subject matter grounds and instead found Adelman’s claims invalid under a new grounds of rejection — indefinite under 35 U.S.C. § 112, 2nd paragraph.  The Board noted that the indefiniteness of the claims meant that the subject matter eligibility question could not be “reasonably understood without resort to speculation.”

The patent application is owned by Go Daddy Group and claims a “system for designating membership in an online business community.”  Claim 1 includes two elements, both written in means-plus-function (MPF) language.  The first element is a “means for designating a plurality of Members…” and the second is a “means for providing … a membership designator.”  In reading the specification, the Board concluded that the claimed functions lacked any corresponding structures in the specificication.  “The Specification therefore fails to disclose an algorithm corresponding to the recited function at issue in independent claim 1, such that one of ordinary skill in the art could determine the scope of independent claim 1.”

In several cases, courts have designated subject matter eligibility as a “threshold” concern.  Here, however, the Board held that they were compelled to first consider indefiniteness — citing In re Steele, 305 F.2d 859, 862 (CCPA 1962) (A prior art rejection cannot be sustained if the hypothetical person of ordinary skill in the art would have to make speculative assumptions concerning the meaning of claim language.) and In re Wilson, 424 F.2d 1382, 1385 (CCPA 1970) (“If no reasonably definite meaning can be ascribed to certain terms in the claim, the subject matter does not become obvious-the claim becomes indefinite.”).

Rembrandt v. AOL: Licensing and Indefiniteness

By Jason Rantanen

Rembrandt Data Technologies, LP v. AOL, LLC (Fed. Cir. 2011) Download 10-1002
Panel: Gajarsa (Linn), Linn, and Dyk

In 2008, Rembrandt sued Canon and Hewlett-Packard, among others, for infringement of Patent Nos. 5,251,236 and 5,311,578.  Rembrandt contended that Canon and HP infringed by marketing office products containing modem chips capable of implementing International Telecommunications Union protocol V.32.  The modem chipsets in the accused products are manufactured by a third party, Conexant.

At the trial court level, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the basis that because Conexant was a licensee of the '236 and '578 patent, Rembrandt's rights were exhausted and it could not recover from Canon and HP.  The court further held that claims 3-11 of the '236 patent were invalid for indefiniteness as they improperly mixed method and apparatus elements and that claims 1-11 (all of the asserted claims) were invalid for indefiniteness for failing ot disclose algorithms corresponding to functions set out in the claims.  Rembrandt appealed.

Patent Rights Exhausted Through Prior License
The patents-in-suit were originally owned by AT&T, who granted a license to Rockwell International in the late 1980's.  Under a 1995 side letter, AT&T also granted Rockwell the right to sublicense "to any future divested present business of Rockwell."   That license was subsequently assigned to a reorganized Rockwell ("New Rockwell"), and then to Conexant as part of a spin-off of its modem business.  The patents themselves changed hands several times through a series of divestitures and acquisitions until  finally owned by Rembrandt.

On appeal, Rembrandt argued that patent exhaustion did not apply because Conextant was not a valid licensee under the terms of the agreements.  Looking to the terms of the contact, the CAFC held that contrary to Rembrandt's argument, sublicensing did not require AT&T's consent as long as it occured as part of a divestiture of Rockwell's present business.  Nor did the general rule that "the law does not recognize any right of a nonexclusive licensee to assign the license or to further sublicense" apply because the contract expressly allowed for such sublicenses to be granted.   

The CAFC also applied a pro-licensee interpretation of the scope of the license.  In connection with the sublicense provision, the 1995 Side Letter limited that right "only to the extent applicable to products and services sold by the future divested business prior to its divestiture."  Rembrandt contended that this meant the specific models being sold by Rockwell in 1996, when it divested its semiconductor business to New Rockwell.   The CAFC disagreed.  Looking to the 1988 and 1995 agreements, the court noted that neither refers to specific models of modems, instead specifying product types in general, functional terms.  Thus, because Old Rockwell sold modems prior to the transfer to New Rockwell, and because New Rockwell sold V.34 protocol-compliant modem chipsets prior to the divestiture to Conexant, the court concluded that the sublicensing conditions were satisfied. 

The CAFC also addressed three separate indefiniteness issues.  The court first affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment that claims 3-11 of the '236 patent were indefinite because they contained both apparatus and method claims.  "[R]eciting both an apparatus and a method of using that apparatus renders a claim indefinite under section 112, paragraph 2."  Slip Op. at 15, quoting IPXL Holdings, L.L.C. v., Inc., 430 F.3d 1377, 1384 (Fed. Cir. 2005).  Rembrandt's only argument in response was to request that the court insert apparatus language into claim 3, from which claims 4-11 depended.  Unsurprisingly, the court declined to do so.  "[T]he correction suggested by Rembrandt is "not minor, obvious, free from reasonable debate or evident from the prosecution history.'"  Slip Op. at 17 (quoting district court opinion).

Rembrandt fared somewhat better on claims 1 and 2.  The district court invalidated these claims (as well as claims 3-11), construing them to contain several means-plus-function elements and holding them indefinite due to the patent's failure to disclose an algorithm able to perform the recited functions. 

The CAFC disagreed that two of these elements were drafted in means-plus-function form.  Although the elements contained the word "means," that created only a presumption that the limitation was drafted in means-plus-function format.  "This presumption can be rebutted if the claim limitation itself recites sufficient structure to perform the claimed function in its entirety."  Slip Op. at 19.  That determination involves a 'one skilled in the art' analysis:  "When determining whether a claim term recites sufficient structure, we examine whether it has an understood meaning in the art."  Id.  

Here, there was no dispute that two of the claim elements, "fractional rate encoding means" and "trellis rate encoding means" recited sufficient structure.  Rembrandt's expert testified that these terms were used in publications and published patents in the early 1990's and were self-descriptive to one of ordinary skill in the art, testimony that went undisputed by the parties.   Thus, these elements recited sufficient structure by themselves to overcome the presumption of treatment under § 112, ¶ 6.

The CAFC did recognize a dispute over two other terms, "buffer means" and "combining means."  Here, the panel appears to have agreed with the district court's interpretation of these elements being in means-plus-function format.  However, the panel could not agree that the specification failed to disclose algorithms for these elements.  Remrandt's expert testified that the figures, text, and table in the '236 patent disclose complete algorithms to a person skilled in the art; Canon argued that they did not.  Thus, the court reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment of invalidity of claims 1 and 2 of the '236 patent.

In re Katz (part 2): Indefiniteness of computer processes

By Jason Rantanen

In re Katz Interactive Call Processing Patent Litigation (Fed. Cir. 2011)
Panel: Newman, Lourie, Bryson (author)

In addition to the discussion of complex patent litigation management procedures, summarized yesterday, In re Katz is also notable for its analysis of the indefiniteness of computer processing-type means plus function elements.

The patents at issue relate to interactive call processing and conferencing systems.  Ten of the selected claims include "means for processing"-type limitations.   For example, claims 96, 98, and 99 of the asserted '863 patent recite a "means for processing at least certain of said answer data signals."  Applying WMS Gaming, Inc. v. International Game Technology, 184 F.3d 1339 (Fed. Cir. 1999) and Aristocrat Technologies Australia Pty Ltd v International Game Technology, 521 F.3d 1328 (Fed. Cir. 2008), the district court found the claims indefinite because the specifications disclosed only general purpose processors without disclosing any of the algorithms used to perform the claimed functions.   

The Federal Circuit agreed with the district court's analysis of three claims.  Under Federal Circuit precedent, "a computer-implemented means-plus-function term is limited to the corresponding structure disclosed in the specification and equivalents thereof, and the corresponding structure is the algorithm."  Slip Op. at 18, citing Harris Corp. v. Ericsson Inc., 417 F.3d 1241, 1253 (Fed. Cir. 2005).  "[B]y claiming a processor programmed to perform a specialized function without disclosing the internal structure of that processor in the form of an algorithm, Katz’s claims exhibit the 'overbreadth inherent in open-ended functional claims,' … in violation of the limits Congress placed on means-plus-function claims in section 112, paragraph 6."  Slip Op. at 19 (internal citation omitted).  Thus, claims 21 and 33 of the '551 patent and claim 13 of the '065 patent, which claim a “processing means . . . for receiving customer number data entered by a caller and for storing the customer number data . . . and based on a condition coupling an incoming call to the operator terminal, the processing means visually displaying the customer number data” but do not disclose an algorithm that corresponds to the “based on a condition coupling an incoming call to the operator terminal” function are invalid for indefiniteness.

The CAFC reached the opposite result on the remaining seven claims – not on the ground that the patent disclosed the requisite algorithms, but on the basis that no algorithm was necessary because the claim elements may simply claim a general process computer:

[i]n the seven claims identified above, Katz has not claimed a specific function performed by a special purpose computer, but has simply recited the claimed functions of “processing,” “receiving,” and “storing.” Absent a possible narrower construction of the terms “processing,” “receiving,” and “storing,” discussed below, those functions can be achieved by any general purpose computer without special programming.  As such, it was not necessary to disclose more structure than the general purpose processor that performs those functions. Those seven claims do not run afoul of the rule against purely functional claiming, because the functions of “processing,” “receiving,” and “storing” are coextensive with the structure disclosed, i.e., a general purpose processor.

Slip Op. at 20-21. 

The CAFC also reviewed the district court's grant of summary judgment on other issues of indefiniteness, as well as written description, obviousness, claim construction, and noninfringement, largely affirming.  Of these issues, patent litigators may want to take note of the court's comment that when dealing with written description issues it is permissible for the court to construe claims whose meaning has not been placed in dispute, "as claim construction is inherent in any written description analysis."  Slip Op. at 27.  Using this seemingly innocuous statement, the CAFC rejected Katz's argument that it was denied the opportunity to demonstrate specification support or proffer expert testimony on the written description issue because it "should have been clear to Katz that the construction of the claims was important to the written description analysis." 

Precedential BPAI Opinion Rejects Functional Claim Elements as Indefinite and Not Enabled

logoEx parte Rodriguez, 08-0693 (BPAI 2009) (Precedential) fd080693.pdf 

In its first precedential decision since February 2009, an expanded BPAI panel has applied the Federal Circuit's 2008 Aristocrat decision in rejecting applicant's means-plus-function (MPF) claims as indefinite for failing to provide any corresponding structures in the specification other than a general purpose computer. From Aristocrat:

For a patentee to claim a means for performing a particular function and then to disclose only a general purpose computer as the structure designed to perform that function amounts to pure functional claiming. Because general purpose computers can be programmed to perform very different tasks in very different ways, simply disclosing a computer as the structure designated to perform a particular function does not limit the scope of the claim to "the corresponding structure, material, or acts" that perform the function, as required by section 112 paragraph 6.

In Aristocrat, the Federal Circuit made clear that reference to "appropriate programing" was not sufficient to transform a general purpose computer into a specific structure for 112p6 purposes. Rather, the court indicated that an algorithm for operating the computer should also be provided in the specification.

Here, the Rodriguez claim 10 included several MPF elements such as "means for generating a random system configuration file." However, the specification did not include an algorithm for generating the file apart from a statement that "[a]ppropriate software coding can readily be prepared by skilled programmers." Based on that failure the claim was found invalid as indefinite.

The Appellants have failed to disclose any algorithm, and thus have failed to adequately describe sufficient structure, for performing the functions recited in the means elements contained in claim 10 so as to render the claim definite. Accordingly, claim 10 is unpatentable under 35 U.S.C. 112, second paragraph, as indefinite. Aristocrat, 521 F.3d at 1333.

The remaining claims did not use standard MPF claim language. However, the Board found that the remaining claims all included elements that were properly interpreted as MPF because they claimed functional elements without any "noun denoting structure." (Citing Lighting World & Linear Tech). The claim elements in question include a "system configuration generator," "system builder," and "simulation verification environment." (et al.). These are the same functional elements found in claim 10 – and thus were found indefinite for failing to provide any corresponding structure in the specification.

In many ways, this MPF structure requirement runs parallel to the written description doctrine. It may well be that one of ordinary skill in the art could easily generate a random system configuration file without undue experimentation. That potential fact is irrelevant for MPF definiteness analysis. Rather, the question for definiteness of a MPF claim is whether a corresponding structure is described in the specification.

The Board did also rejected the claims for lack of enablement under Miyazaki because the functional claim language was not "commensurate in scope with an enabling disclosure." As the use of MPF claims has dropped, this third portion of the opinion may be the most important.


  • The patent application is owned by LSI and entitled "Automated random verification of complex and structurally-variable systems."
  • Rejected Claim 1 is listed below. 

  1. 1. An apparatus comprising: a system configuration generator configured to generate a random system configuration file of a structurally variable and complex system; a system builder configured to build a system level netlist in response to said random system configuration file; and a simulation verification environment configured to verify said structurally variable and complex system in response to said system level netlist, wherein said simulation verification environment is configured to provide automatic random verification of said structurally variable and complex system in response to said random system configuration file.

BPAI Precedential Opinion on Rejecting Software Means Claims

Ex parte Catlinpic-32.jpg (BPAI 2009)(precedential) fd073072.pdf.

The first-time around, the BPAI found some of Catlin’s claims patentable. On rehearing (requested by the SPE), the BPAI reversed course – finding the means-plus-function claims indefinite under 35 USC § 112.

Catlin’s claim one reads as follows:

1. A method for implementing an on-line incentive system, said method comprising the steps of:
providing, at a merchant’s web site, means for a consumer to participate in an earning activity to earn value from a merchant; and
transferring value from said merchant to said consumer for participation in said earning activity, if said consumer qualifies, without re-directing said consumer away from said merchant’s web site, whereby said consumer’s focus of activity remains at said merchant’s web site.

The Patent Act allows a patentee to claim inventive elements using “means plus function” language. A means plus function term is construed to cover the corresponding structures as described in the specification as well as any equivalents. This rule of construction means that seemingly broadly written means limitations are often quite limited in practice — especially when the specification is not thoroughly drafted.

If no corresponding structure can be identified in the disclosure, then the claim will be found “invalid as indefinite.”

Here, the claim recites a “means for a consumer to participate in an earning activity to earn value from a merchant.” On rehearing, the BPAI could not find any corresponding structure in the specification. In particular, the Board was looking for an algorithm for performing the claimed function.

[W]e have thoroughly reviewed the Appellants’ Specification and have not been able to locate an adequate disclosure of structure, material, or acts corresponding to the functions of allowing a consumer to participate in an earning activity and earn value from an earning activity. In particular, the Specification does not disclose any specific algorithm that could be implemented on a general purpose computer to allow a consumer to participate in an earning activity and earn value from an earning activity.

Holding: Claims indefinite.

During prosecution, claims are indefinite when amenable to multiple plausible constructions

Ex parte Miyazaki (BPAI Precedential 2008)

In a rare precedential opinion, the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (BPAI) has re-defined the standard for a §112 indefiniteness rejection during patent prosecution. The BPAI’s definition for pre-issuance indefiniteness focuses on ‘plausible’ indefiniteness and varies dramatically from the Federal Circuit’s standard of ‘insolubly ambiguous.’ The BPAI argues that a lower threshold of ambiguity is justified pre-issuance because it gives the PTO power to ensure that claims are “precise, clear, correct, and unambiguous.”

As such, we employ a lower threshold of ambiguity when reviewing a pending claim for indefiniteness than those used by post-issuance reviewing courts. In particular, rather than requiring that the claims are insolubly ambiguous, we hold that if a claim is amenable to two or more plausible claim constructions, the USPTO is justified in requiring the applicant to more precisely define the metes and bounds of the claimed invention by holding the claim unpatentable under 35 U.S.C. § 112, second paragraph, as indefinite.

The expanded indefiniteness examination runs parallel to the PTO’s approach of broadly construing claims during prosecution. Both tactics are intended to better ensure that issued patents can be counted-on as being valid patents.

The Federal Circuit’s insolubly ambiguous standard is premised on the strong presumption of validity associated with an issued patent. The BPAI grounds its lower threshold in the notion that patent applications have no presumption of validity.

Read the BPAI Miyazaki Opinion: /media/docs/2008/12/fd073300.pdf

“Indefiniteness is a Matter of Claim Construction”

Praxair v. ATMI (Fed. Cir. 2008)

Praxair’s patents cover pressurized storage containers for potentially hazardous gasses. The patents teach safety mechanisms to help prevent accidental rapid discharge. Of the three patents asserted against ATMI, the Delaware district court found two unenforceable due to inequitable conduct during prosecution. The asserted claims of the third patent were held invalid as indefinite under 35 U.S.C. §112¶2. On appeal, the Federal Circuit reversed-in-part.

Inequitable Conduct: Each patent applicant has a duty to act with “candor, good faith, and honesty” when prosecuting patent applications. Material breach of this duty can result in any resulting patents being held unenforceable due to inequitable conduct. Proof of inequitable conduct has been divided into two parts – requiring “clear and convincing evidence that the applicant (1) made an affirmative misrepresentation of material fact, failed to disclose material information, or submitted false material information, and (2) intended to deceive the [PTO].” Quoting Cargill v. Canbra Foods, Ltd., 476 F.3d 1359 (Fed. Cir. 2007).

Direct evidence is rarely available to prove intent to deceive the PTO when the patent applicant is accused of withholding material information. Rather, the intent element is typically inferred by the proof that the material withheld was highly material; that the applicant knew (or should have known) of the materiality; and that the applicant has no credible excuse for withholding information.

Highly Material Based on Statements in Prosecution: Looking at Praxair’s ‘115 patent, the court did not see the withheld prior art as highly material on its own. However, the reference became highly material based on Praxair’s statements during prosecution. Specifically, the reference became highly material when Praxair told the PTO that the prior art does not teach the elements found in the withheld art. Testimony of the inventors proved that they knew that those elements were, in fact, in the prior art.

Because those same prosecution statements were not submitted during prosecution of Praxair’s ‘609 patent, the Federal Circuit held that the withheld references could not be considered highly materiality.

“At the time the four statements discussed were made during the prosecution of the ‘115 patent, there had already been a notice of allowability indicating that all claims of the ‘609 patent would be issued. ATMI has not established, or even asserted, that the statements in the prosecution of the ‘115 patent somehow infected the prosecution of the ‘609 patent. Absent the four statements, the district court did not make any finding of intent with respect to the withholding of RFO art during the prosecution of the ‘609 patent.”

Thus, the Federal Circuit affirmed the unenforceability holding as to the ‘115 patent, but reversed as to the ‘609 patent. On remand, the lower court will reconsider infringement of the ‘609 patent based on a claim construction error.

Indefinite Claims:

“Indefiniteness is a matter of claim construction, and the same principles that generally govern claim construction are applicable to determining whether allegedly indefinite claim language is subject to construction. Datamize, LLC v. Plumtree Software, Inc., 417 F.3d 1342, 1348 (Fed. Cir. 2005). Indefiniteness, like claim construction, is a question of law, and we review a district court’s entry of summary judgment on the issue of indefiniteness de novo.”

Claims are generally only found indefinite if they are “insolubly ambiguous, and no narrowing construction can properly be adopted.” Here, the district court found the claim term “port body” of the third patent to be indefinite because it was “not described, labeled, or coherently discussed in the patent.” On appeal, however, the Federal Circuit reversed that finding – holding instead that the patent’s specification was adequate although not eloquent.

“Although the discussion of the port body in the ‘895 patent’s specification may not be a model of clarity, the specification adequately explains that the port body is a housing that sealingly engages the outlet of the cylinder and defines the fluid discharge path.”

Extrinsic evidence: As with claim construction, the use of extrinsic evidence in determining definiteness is only secondary if applicable at all. In this case, the patentee’s expert was unable to point to any specific portion of the structure that could be considered the “port body.” On appeal, the Federal Circuit rejected that factual element as lacking impact on the legal question of indefiniteness.

“Even if we were to agree that Dr. Fronczak was unable to reach a single consistent construction of the port body, such extrinsic evidence would not prove the ‘895 patent invalid, since indefiniteness is a legal rather than a factual question.”

Indefiniteness holding reversed.

Dissenting in part, Judge Lourie saw no inequitable conduct with either patent. In particular, Judge Lourie noted that the evidence of intent to deceive the PTO was quite weak.

“While a smoking gun may not be needed to show an intent to deceive, more is needed than materiality of a reference. The district court did not find anything further here. In addition, the court did not engage in any balancing of materiality and intent as is required by our precedent.”

Computer Implemented Means-Plus-Function Element Must be Supported by Specific Algorithm in Specification

ScreenShot014Aristocrat Technologies Australia (ATA) v. International Gaming Technology (IGT) (2007-1419) (Fed. Cir. 2008)

ATA and IGT have two parallel cases pending before the CAFC. This appeal focuses on whether ATA’s asserted claims are invalid as indefinite. (U.S. Pat. No. 6,093,102). The other pending case questions whether the PTO properly revived ATA’s unintentionally abandoned national stage application. (U.S. Pat. Nos. 7,056,215 and 7,108,603) [See Patently-O discussion of revival case].

This case focuses on a patent covering an electronic slot machine patent that allows players to pre-select which combination of symbol locations will be used to determine a winner.

Claims Indefinite: The district court held the claims invalid as indefinite under 35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 2. Its opinion focused on the claimed means-plus-function element “game control means” — finding the term indefinite because the specification did not provide “structure” to perform the claimed functions.  The specification did include the statement that the control means could be a microprocessor-based gaming machine with “appropriate programming.” However, the lower court focused on the absence of any “specific algorithm” or “step-by-step process for performing the claimed functions.”

On appeal, the CAFC affirmed, holding that computer implemented means-plus-function claims must include “more than simply a general purpose computer or microprocessor.”  The purpose of the requirement, according to Judge Bryson’s opinion, is to avoid overbroad “pure functional” claims.  Because of the ubiquity of general purpose computers, a bare microprocessor cannot be considered a sufficiently specific structural disclosure:

For a patentee to claim a means for performing a particular function and then to disclose only a general purpose computer as the structure designed to perform that function amounts to pure functional claiming.

Within PHOSITA’s Ability: The algorithm missing from ATA’s disclosure is almost certainly within the ability of an ordinary game programmer.  In fact, I believe that it would only take me (a law professor) only a few hours to create a rough algorithm showing how the ATA software program could operate.  Judge Bryson shot-down that argument: Structure for a means-plus-function element must be provided in the specification regardless of whether the structure is already well known in the art.

What is Required: “Source code” is not required to be disclosed, nor is a “highly detailed description of the algorithm.”  However, a computer oriented application using means-plus-function claims must “at least disclose the algorithm that transforms the general purpose microprocessor to a “special purpose computer programmed to perform the disclosed algorithm.” (Quoting WMS Gaming)


Means-Plus-Function Element Found Indefinite Without Corresponding Structure

Biomedino v. Waters Technology (Fed. Cir. 2007).

Biomedino holds a patent for removing psychoactive drugs from a blood sample for toxicology studies. The district court found the patent invalid as indefinite under 35 U.S.C. 112 ¶ 2. In particular, the lower court held that the recited limitation "control means for automatically operating [a] valving" was indefinite because the specification did not include any structure corresponding to the means-plus-function language.  On appeal, the CAFC affirmed.

35 U.S.C. 112 ¶ 6 allows a patent applicant to broadly claim a "means" for performing a specific function. That claim, however, must be backed-up by a patent specification that describes "some structure which performs the specified function."

Here, the patentee had indicated that the invention “may be controlled automatically by known differential pressure, valving and control equipment.” This disclosure was, however, insufficient.

[A] bare statement that known techniques or methods can be used does not disclose structure. To conclude otherwise would vitiate the language of the statute requiring “corresponding structure, material, or acts described in the specification.

In addition, the court held that the structure must be disclosed in the specification even if one of skill in the art could implement a structure without such a disclosure.

Invalidity affirmed.