Tag Archives: Written Description

35 U.S.C. 112 SPECIFICATION. (a) IN GENERAL.—The specification shall contain a written description of the invention, and of the manner and process of making and using it, in such full, clear, concise, and exact terms as to enable any person skilled in the art to which it pertains, or with which it is most nearly connected, to make and use the same, and shall set forth the best mode contemplated by the inventor or joint inventor of carrying out the invention.

Federal Circuit: How Not to Describe the Invention

By Dennis Crouch

X2Y Attenuators v. US International Trade Commission as well as Intel, Apple, & HP (Fed. Cir. 2014)

In this case, the Federal Circuit affirms a narrow construction of X2Y’s claim terms based upon a disavowal of scope. In the face of USPTO pleas for patentees to more particularly define claim terms, this case offers reasons for applicants to push-back against that approach.

The decision here fully and problematically supports the current patent drafting norms where the true nature and advances offered by inventions are hidden in order to avoid unduly limiting claim scope. Under standard patent drafting technique, no elements are described as necessary, critical, preferred, or even discouraged. And, “the invention” is never particularly defined or called-out. That strategy has the result of substantially decreasing the disclosure value of a patent.

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The founder of X2Y Tech was Mr. Anthony A. Anthony who passed away in 2012 while continuing to fight for royalty agreements from major manufacturers. During his life, Anthony obtained more than 100 patents covering a variety of electronic components and circuitry configurations.

X2Y’s claims require a set of electrodes but do not expressly indicate their relative configuration. The specification discusses a particular “sandwich” configuration of electrodes and the USITC found that the claims should be construed as also requiring the sandwich formation. On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirms – finding that the language of the specification requires that the claims be so limited.

Under Phillips v. AWH, the specification and prosecution history of a patent can provide insight into proper the claim interpretation. In addition to the scope-shading offered by Phillips, scope disclaimers or term definitions coming from the applicant can dramatically shift claim scope. However, the law requires that any disclaimer must be found in a clear and unambiguous statement made by the applicant.

In this case, the specification refers to the sandwich configuration as “universal to all the embodiments” and as “an essential element among all embodiments or connotations of the inventions.” The court finds these statements to represent a “clear and unmistakable disavowal of claim scope.” The standard for finding disavowal, while exacting, was met in this case.

To be clear, an important element of the decision here is that the disavowal is not tied to any particular claim language, but applies to all claims of the patent without regard to their express claim terms. In fact, the court goes even further and found that statements made in some family-member applications also apply to establish the disclaimer here.

The court notes that one mechanism for overcoming the disclaimer in a child application would be to expressly amend the claim scope so as to reject the disclaimer – of course that result may well have written description problems.

A unanimous majority opinion was filed by Judge Moore and joined by judges Reyna and Wallach. Judge Reyna also filed a separate concurring opinion discussing whether claim construction must come before determining whether a priority claim is proper.

Alice, Artifice, and Action – and Ultramercial

Guest post by Emily Michiko Morris, Associate Professor, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Anyone familiar with recent Supreme Court patent jurisprudence was perhaps disappointed but certainly not surprised by the Court’s latest decision, Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l. The Court once again left many questions unanswered and failed to provide a clear rubric for identifying patentable subject matter. When viewed within the broader context, however, Alice fits nicely within what is actually a long-standing pattern in § 101 cases. IF Ultramercial v. Hulu follows this pattern after its now second GVR, the Federal Circuit may finally affirm that the internet-mediate advertising method at issue there is unpatentable subject matter.

In What Is “Technology”?, I explain that as unmethodical as patentable subject matter often seems, two surprisingly consistent concepts explain how courts identify patentable subject matter. The article dubs these concepts “artifice” and “action.”

Artifice refers to the well-recognized requirement that patentable subject matter be the product of human ingenuity, not nature. Less appreciated is the fact that artifice requires more than just changes in structural or other physical characteristics; to be patentable, a claimed invention must also function in some new, non-naturally occurring way. We can see this latter point illustrated in the purification line of cases as well as Myriad, Funk Brothers, and Chakrabarty.

Much more obscure but more relevant to Alice is the concept of action. Roughly defined, action is the requirement of active rather than passive utility through operating, behaving, performing, or otherwise actively doing something; that is to say, an invention must be “self-executing.” Inventions that display, transmit, or even store information may satisfy the action requirement, but works such as laws of nature, mathematical algorithms, and “abstract ideas” are (perceived as) merely informational or descriptive in value and therefore unpatentably inert. Moreover, as Alice explains, the abstract idea category is not “confined to ‘preexisting, fundamental truth[s].’” By definition any purely informational or descriptive content, whether naturally occurring laws of nature and mathematical algorithms or human-made financial and economic methods, fails the action requirement. As the Court in Diamond v. Diehr put it, such works simply do not “perform[ ] a function which the patent laws were designed to protect.”

To the extent different tests appear to govern natural products versus laws of nature and abstract ideas, then, artifice and action – and more importantly, the circumstances in which each are likely to be invoked – account for these differences. Artifice obviously plays its largest role in cases involving products or laws of nature, whereas action is most important in cases involving abstract ideas and laws of nature. Nonetheless, patentability under § 101 requires both artifice and action.

Both Alice and Bilski illustrate what role action plays under § 101. The methods in both Alice and Bilski involved hedging risk during business transactions by relying on intermediaries, but more importantly, both methods served solely to inform parties about when they can safely transact. The Alice and Bilski opinions describe this as the abstract concept of intermediated settlement, but really it is just information – information about risk. As such, both methods were unpatentably inactive under § 101.

And although Alice differs from Bilski in that Alice’s method was computer-implemented, the Court found both methods to be unpatentable. Like artifice, action is also a scalar characteristic. Just as artifice depends on an invention’s perceived degree of alteration from nature, action depends on an invention’s perceived degree of activity, and despite Alice’s computer-implementation, the method was still not active enough under § 101.

Indeed, both Alice and Mayo emphasize the scalar nature of patentability under § 101. Under Mayo’s two-step test, a court first determines whether a claim is directed to a law of nature, natural phenomenon, or abstract idea. As the Alice Court observed, however, all inventions are directed to one of the patent-ineligible concepts at some level. The second and pivotal step is therefore to determine whether the claim demonstrates an “inventive concept” – that is, does the claim add elements “sufficient” and “enough” to establish patentable subject matter.

And to see that a sufficient “inventive concept” requires sufficient action, one need only look at how the Court treats computer-mediated elements with regard to patentability under § 101. Computers are widely regarded as “technological,” but much computer technology is “information technology,” and computer use primarily to manipulate data or other information thus adds no patentable action. Computer implementation in Alice’s method followed exactly this pattern – as the Court noted, the computer served only to create and maintain “shadow” accounts, obtain data, adjust account balances, and issue automated instructions. Accordingly, whether Alice claimed its invention as a method, system, or medium, the invention failed to provide an adequate “inventive concept” because it did not demonstrate sufficient action.

Under an artifice-plus-action standard, then, Ultramercial’s internet-mediated advertising method fails § 101. Ultramercial claimed a method of distributing copyrighted content for free in return for viewing an advertisement. The method is purely an exchange of informational and expressive content and performs no action whatsoever, and the claim’s cursory reference to the internet does nothing to add a “sufficient inventive concept.”

This is not to say, of course, that computer-implemented methods are never patentable subject matter. The Alice Court pointed out the difference between computers used purely for information processing and computers used to effect improvements in “any other technology or technical field,” or improvements in the function of the computer itself. Diehr’s computer-assisted rubber-curing process, for example, was adequately “technological” and therefore patentable, whereas the computer-implemented methods in Benson and Flook yielded “simply a number” and were therefore unpatentable. Per the view of the patent system, information processing is simply not “technological.” Similarly, computer or storage media that are distinguishable only by their informational or expressive content alone been held unpatentable if the content has no “functional” relationship with the device. The variable role that computers and other tangible devices can thus play in an invention may be why the Supreme Court rejected the machine-or-transformation test as the sole test for methods under § 101.

And while the discussion here focuses mostly on business methods, note that the Mayo two-step test as stated in Alice covers all patent-ineligible abstract ideas, laws of nature, and even phenomena of nature – all are subject to the same requirement that a claimed invention add “enough” to constitute a patentable inventive concept. For claims directed to phenomena of nature, “enough” means artifice and meeting the age-old test of “markedly different characteristics from any found in nature.” For abstract ideas, laws of nature, mathematical algorithms, mental processes, and all other forms of information, “enough” means action and demonstrating function beyond merely informing.

As simple as artifice and action may sound, however, patentable subject matter clearly remains a difficult and ambiguous issue. The difficulty lies in the scalar quality of both artifice and action and deciding where along these spectra any given new invention falls. The requisite degree of artifice and action has also varied over time as the liberality of patentable subject matter has waxed and waned, creating yet further uncertainty. Most significantly, where the line between patentable and unpatentable lies along the spectrum is entirely unclear. There are no bright-line rules and no magical claim elements that can guarantee patentability under § 101.

The Court has often (but not always, as our host Jason Rantanen has pointed out) expressed a preference for a “functional” approach to patent law, however: that is, a preference for standards over hard and fast rules. As stated in Bilski’s rejection of the machine-or-transformation test, to do otherwise would “make patent eligibility ‘depend simply on the draftsman’s art.’” True, the artifice-plus-action standard requires courts to make many judgment calls about where along the spectrum of artifice and action any given invention must fall before it can be considered patentable technology, but standards are often vague. Besides, patent law frequently must address these kinds of line-drawing exercises. The non-obviousness, utility, enablement, and even written description requirements all force courts to make judgment calls.

Compounding the difficulty is the fact that § 101 determinations are in the end based on nothing more than intuition. As I and a number of others have noted, none of the pragmatic justifications commonly cited in support of § 101, such as preemption and disproportionality explain how patentable subject matter determinations are actually made or, more importantly, why. Thus, although artifice and action consistently appear in patentable subject matter, the combination does not necessarily reflect the most efficient or “correct” way to define patentable subject matter. Rather, the combination merely reflects an underlying intuition about what constitutes technology. (In Intuitive Patenting, a companion article to What Is “Technology”?, I argue that there simply are no more objective bases on which to make these determinations.) Unfortunately, patentable subject matter’s intuitive nature leaves courts effectively unable to specify how they reached their determinations. This often leads to language that sounds more like non-obviousness, novelty, or utility than to § 101, but in the end, artifice and action are better explanations for these otherwise perplexing references.

The Written Description of a Trade Secret

By Dennis Crouch

New Castle Beverage, Inc. v. Spicy Beer Mix, Inc. (California App. Ct. 2014)

New Castle sells a “spice cup” known as the “Micheladas Antojitos.” The Styrofoam cups are factory-dipped in a secret spice blend that is “carefully selected to enhance the flavor of your favorite beer or cocktail .” While an employee of New Castle, Robert Montiel learned the “secrets” behind the spicy-mix-cup and later sold that information to Greg Murkijanian who began to develop a competing product known as Cheveladas. New Castle then sued for trade secret misappropriation under California law and demanded preliminary injunctive relief. (New Castle did not have any patent rights).

The trial court rejected the claim for preliminary relief and here the California appellate court affirms – finding that the trade secret mix was has not been sufficiently described in order to warrant protection.

Unlike patent rights, trade secrets need not be expressly defined on paper prior to the establishment of those rights. Rather, it is enough that a valuable and protectable secret exist. However, the law does typically require trade secret owners to provide some written description of its asserted trade secret at the point of enforcement.

The California Code of Civil Procedure provides that:

Any action alleging the misappropriation of a trade secret under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, before commencing discovery relating to the trade secret, the party alleging the misappropriation shall identify the trade secret with reasonable particularity subject to any orders that may be appropriate under Section 3426.5 of the Civil Code.

CODE OF CIVIL PROCEDURE SECTION 2019.210. See also, Mark Lemley, The Surprising Virtues of Treating Trade Secrets as IP Rights, 61 Stan. L.Rev. 311 (plaintiff should be required to “clearly define[ ] what [trade secret] it claims to own, rather than (as happens all too often in practice) falling back on vague hand waving”).

Here, the plaintiff only generally alluded to the “process of applying a secret solution to the inner and outer surfaces adjacent the lip of a beverage cup to permit a first mixture of spices to adhere to those surfaces.” According to the courts, that general allusion is insufficient to meet the burden required by California law .

The trial court questioned whether New Castle and Monugian had any trade secrets because of the lack of details in their trade secret designation and their failure to describe their trade secrets with sufficient particularity. The court expressed concern that “what we need is a description with sufficient particularity,” and the court asked, “If I were [to] grant your [requested] preliminary injunction on the record as it stands right now, how would we ever know whether it was violated or not?” On appeal, New Castle and Monugian do not address these concerns by making a well-reasoned argument that their trade secret designation was sufficiently specific to justify an injunction prohibiting use of their claimed trade secret information. New Castle and Monugian assert in their reply brief, without citing to any evidence, that “the sufficiency of the disclosure could have been resolved by simply viewing the device” and that “had the trial court viewed the device, the boundaries of an injunction would have been easier to fashion.” They do not explain, however, how a physical inspection of the device would reveal the precise nature and description of their secrets or guide the court in crafting an appropriate injunction, nor how such an inspection would be relevant to the alleged trade secrets in the spice mixture and blending.

Obviously, without proof of a trade secret, no preliminary injunction could issue.

For those of us coming from the patent field, it easily makes-sense that someone wanting to protect information as a trade secret should be able to at least describe the information to the court in a way that is reasonably precise and complete. That burden is somewhat less than what is placed on patent applicants and is not applied until the point of enforcement. However, an important and unique element of this case is that the written description requirement noted above comes from California Civil Procedure law. It is unique to California law and not generally an aspect of the Uniform Trade Secret Act that has been adopted across the nation. See, Graves & Range, Identification of Trade Secret Claims in Litigation: Solutions for a Ubiquitous Dispute, 5 Nw. J. Tech. & Intell. Prop. 68 (2006).

California is absolutely on the right path here and some courts have caught-on: Engelhard Corp. v. Savin Corp., 505 A.2d 30 (Del.1986), DeRubeis v. Witten Technologies, Inc., 244 F.R.D. 676 (N.D.Ga.2007); Automed Techs., Inc. v. Eller, 160 F .Supp.2d 915 (N.D.Ill.2001); Dura Global Technologies, Inc. v. Magna Donnelly, Corp., 2007 WL 4303294 (E.D.Mich.2007); Del Monte Fresh Produce Co. v. Dole Food Co., Inc., 148 F.Supp.2d 1322 (S.D.Fla.2001); and Ikon Office Solutions v. Konica Minolta Business Solutions, 2009 WL 4429156, *4–*5 (W.D.N.C.2009); and Switch Comm’n Group v. Ballard, 2012 WL 2342929, *5 (D. Nev. June 19, 2012). Judge Cote wrote the following in her 2008 Sit-Up decision:

A corollary requirement of specificity for claimed trade secrets is inferable from this holding: If a particular piece of information, or a formula, is not entitled to trade secret protection because it is “so vague and indefinite” at the time it is divulged, then it cannot be granted protection as a trade secret by a court during litigation if it is “vague and indefinite.” Specificity is required at the moment of divulging so that the party to whom the secret is revealed understands the contours of the secret information and does not inadvertently or purposefully transgress its boundaries. Similarly, specificity is required before the court so that the defendant can defend himself adequately against claims of trade secret misappropriation, and can divine the line between secret and non-secret information, and so that a jury can render a verdict based on a discriminating analysis of the evidence of disclosure and misappropriation.

Sit-Up Ltd. v. IAC/InterActiveCorp., 05 CIV. 9292 (DLC), 2008 WL 463884 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 20, 2008). See also, Big Vision Private Ltd. v. E.I.DuPont De Nemours & Co., 2014 WL 812820 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 3, 2014); Triple Tee Golf, Inc. v. Nike, Inc., 485 F.3d 253, 265 (5th Cir.2007); SL Montevideo Tech., Inc. v. Eaton Aerospace, LLC, 491 F.3d 350, 354 (8th Cir.2007) (“[s]imply to assert [that] a trade secret resides in some combination of otherwise known data is not sufficient, as the combination itself must be delineated with some particularity in establishing its trade secret status”).

Federal Circuit: To Satisfy the Written Description Requirement, a patent “must at least describe some species representative” of the accused product.

By Dennis Crouch

AbbVie v. Janssen Biotech and Centocor Biologics (Fed. Cir. 2014)

This decision is important in the way that it confirms a strong Post-Ariad Written Description requirement – especially with regard to genus-species claim situations. The decision also includes a key (but preliminary) discussion on the preclusive effect of PTAB decisions and also attempts to justify Federal Circuit decisions that extend beyond questions necessary for the judgment. Hal Wegner has already classified this opinion – written by Judge Lourie – as “unnecessary judicial activism.”

In 2013, Abbot Labs spun-off AbbVie as a separate company with a focus on biopharmaceutical research and a current Market Cap of $90 Billion US (ABBV). In the split, AbbVie obtained ownership of a number of valuable patents. In this case, AbbVie asserted various claims of U.S. Patent Nos. 6,914,128 and 7,504,485. These patents broadly cover antibodies that can bind to and neutralize activity of human interleukin 12 (IL-12). These antibodies have been found useful in the treatment of autoimmune disorders, including psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.

A key asserted claim is listed as follows:

29. A neutralizing isolated human antibody, or antigen-binding portion thereof that binds to human IL-12 and disassociates from human IL-12 with a Koff rate constant of 1×10−2s−1 or less, as determined by surface plasmon resonance.

A jury found the claim invalid for lacking a sufficient written description, lacking enablement, and also for obviousness. AbbVie appealed the §112(a) claims (WD & enablement) and, as for obviousness, AbbVie argued that that issue should never have been decided by the district court since it had already been fully litigated during the prior interference contest. On appeal, the court affirmed – agreeing that the patent was properly held invalid for lack of written description and that the collateral estoppel did not apply to the obviousness question because the interference proceeding was not sufficiently “final” at the time of the complaint filing.

Written Description: In Ariad, the Federal Circuit confirmed that the written description requirement is separate and distinct from that of enablement and that it serves an important role of ensuring that the patent is based upon an actual describable invention and that the patent scope does not overreach beyond the scope of the inventor’s contribution.

Written Description
– Genus-Species: By design, patent claims generally cover a set of a variety of potential embodiments. Likely, most claims cover an infinite variety of potential embodiments each involving a minor tweak in one way or another. The courts have never required that all potential embodiments be disclosed – however, the written description doctrine has been applied to invalidate patent claims that do not disclose a sufficient representative sample of embodiments. This is generally known as part of a genus-species problem – with the operative question here being how many different species (embodiments) of an invention must be described in a patent document before the applicant can properly claim rights to the genus of all related species. A key case on point is Regents of the University of California v. Eli Lilly & Co., 119 F.3d 1559 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (Lourie, J.) that was also affirmed in Ariad Pharm., Inc. v. Eli Lilly & Co., 598 F.3d 1336, 1355 (Fed. Cir. 2010) (en banc; Lourie, J.) (“[No] bright-line rules govern[] the number of species that must be disclosed to describe a genus claim, as this number necessarily changes with each invention, and it changes with progress in a field.”). Rather than simply listing various embodiments, the usual approach is to also describe common structural features of the species.

Here, AbbVie’s generic claim can be classified as a set of human antibodies defined functionally by their high affinity and neutralizing activity to the human IL-12 antigen. However, AbbVie did not disclose any structural features common to the members of the genus. Rather, AbbVie’s patent described only one type of structurally similar antibodies rather than antibies representative of the full scope of the genus.

In the decision, Judge Lourie focuses particularly on the alleged infringing antibodies and notes that:

[While] AbbVie’s patents need not describe the allegedly infringing [compound] in exact terms . . . [t]he patents must at least describe some species representative of antibodies that are structurally similar to [the accused compound].

Because the patent document lacked any such structural description, the court confirmed that the corresponding claims were invalid under 112(a).

Functional Patent Claims Are Inherently Vulnerable: In discussing the case, Judge Lourie was clear that one problem here is that the invention was described in terms of its function rather than its structure. Lourie writes:

Functionally defined genus claims can be inherently vulnerable to invalidity challenge for lack of written description support, especially in technology fields that are highly unpredictable, where it is difficult to establish a correlation between structure and function for the whole genus or to predict what would be covered by the functionally claimed genus.

With functional claims, the patentee must establish “a reasonable structure-function correlation” either within the specification or by reference to the knowledge of one skilled in the art. Of importance, the court is clear that functional claim limitations are patentable, but, in order to be patentable, they must be linkable to structure by PHOSITA. An interesting distinction though is that, unlike many written description issues, the linkage between the function and structure need not necessarily be found in the patent document itself.

Patent attorneys will also note that Judge Lourie’s reference to “highly unpredictable” arts is designed to refer primarily to bio-related sciences. We shall see whether the subsequent case law is so limited.

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Collateral Estoppel applies to preclude a court from re-deciding issues. Generally collateral estoppel only applies when the same issue was actually litigated and decided by a final and binding judgment in a way that was essential to the judgment. It is also generally true that collateral estoppel applies even when the first case is still pending on appeal – so long as the original court’s judgment was a final judgment being appealed.

Here, a prior interference proceeding between the parties had resulted in a determination that the AbbVie claims were not-obvious. Following the PTAB interference decision, Centocor filed a civil action under 35 U.S.C. § 146 that was pending at the time the present infringement litigation began. In the present appeal, the Federal Circuit held that the PTO decision should not be considered a “final judgment for the purposed of collateral estoppel” since the district court decision was still pending and during that case the parties have the opportunity to expand the factual record. The court left open the possibility that collateral estoppel would apply once the decision is final and that collateral estoppel may have applied if Centocor had appealed directly under § 141 instead of filing a civil action.

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Because AbbVie did not appeal the substance of the obviousness question, the collateral estoppel question fully decided the case. However, in its decision, the court offered an explanation for its reasons for going ahead and deciding the written description question.

AbbVie did not substantively challenge the district court’s holding of obviousness of the asserted claims. It might therefore be concluded that we could affirm that court’s obviousness holding and proceed no further. However, as an “inferior” court, we are well-advised to review more than one issue raised before us on appeal, lest higher authority find error in any basis for a more limited review. Cardinal Chem. Co. v. Morton Int’l, Inc., 508 U.S. 83, 97–98 (1993) (“[T]he Federal Circuit is not a court of last resort. . . . [Its] decision to rely on one of two possible alternative grounds (noninfringement rather than invalidity) did not strip it of power to decide the second question, particularly when its decree was subject to review by this Court.” (emphasis in original)); see also Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. v. Cadbury Adams USA LLC, 683 F.3d 1356 (Fed. Cir. 2012) (affirming invalidity based on anticipation and obviousness); Verizon Servs. Corp. v. Cox Fibernet Va., Inc., 602 F.3d 1325 (Fed. Cir. 2010) (same); Union Pac. Res. Co. v. Chesapeake Energy Corp., 236 F.3d 684 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (affirming invalidity based on indefiniteness and lack of enablement). Because the written description issue constituted the principal basis of AbbVie’s appeal to this court, we proceed to consider the written description issue rather than affirm merely on any procedural defect or omission relating to the obviousness issue.

In her concurring opinion, Judge O’Malley did not sign-on to the “thoughtful written description analysis” of the majority – finding it not “necessary or dispositive ot the outcome of the case.”

Struggling with Nautilus: Patent Claims Through the Eyes of Non-Lawyer Technologists

By Dennis Crouch

This post goes on a tangent from the recent decision in Q.I. Press Controls v. Michelle K. Lee, USPTO Chief (Fed. Cir. 2014).

Quad/Tech’s Patent No. 6,867,423 covers a visual inspection system for identifying errors in printing press operation – such as paper misalignment or poor color. The invention basically has a digital camera with a ring non-strobe LED’s surrounding the lens. The camera is pointed toward the printing press operation. The prior art included cameras with ring-LED lighting as well as the use of cameras to monitor printing press activity. However, none of the prior art references combine both of these features. In the bulk of the claims, the “printing press” element is found only something akin to a field-of-use limitation found in the claim preamble. Thus, claim 1 is directed to “[a] visual inspection system configured to be in optical communication with a substrate of a printing press, said visual inspection system comprising: . . .” However, claims 61-72 refer more expressly to the printing press linkage within the body of the claim.

The court’s opinion (as we cover in a separate post) focuses on obviousness and written description. Here, I write about indefiniteness as it relates to these preamble limitations.

Is it a Technical or a Legal Document?: A usual rule of patent claim construction is that limitations found in the preamble of a claim – especially field-of-use limitations – do not limit claim scope. However, sometimes preamble terms are limiting as the Court explained in Pitney Bowes:

If the claim preamble, when read in the context of the entire claim, recites limitations of the claim, or, if the claim preamble is ‘necessary to give life, meaning, and vitality’ to the claim, then the claim preamble should be construed as if in the balance of the claim.

Pitney Bowes, Inc. v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 182 F.3d 1298, 1305 (Fed. Cir. 1999); M.P.E.P. 2111.02. Many claim construction questions involve drawing quite fine-lines of involving coverage scope. Preamble-limitations are different because we are often talking about importing an entire limitation into the coverage that was not previously there. By examining the body of court decisions, it is possible to elucidate a set of factors helpful in determining whether a particular preamble-limitation should be scope-limiting. But this is a pretty tricky issue and I don’t think that we should assume that inventors and technology developers would understand the particular circumstances of when certain preamble-limitations are limiting. Rather, those legal-technicality questions are typically the province of patent attorneys who work with the substance of the law on a daily basis.

It turns out this is important following the Supreme Court’s recent indefiniteness decision in Nautilus. In Nautilus, the Supreme Court provided a clear statement that patent claims are technical-in-nature and designed to be read by persons-having-ordinary-skill-in-the-art. For camera technology, someone of skill in the art might be a camera designer and in the indefiniteness context the indefiniteness question is whether the claim scope would be reasonably certain to the camera designer (after considering the intrinsic evidence).

Tying this back to the issue of preamble-limitations: An ordinary camera designer would not be familiar with the law of preamble-limitations and how they would apply in this case. And, this leaves us with a several of potential results. Perhaps (1) a claim is invalid as indefinite when its scope depends upon and substantially changes according to the particularities of the preamble-limitation doctrine. (2) An alternative tact is to assume that the Supreme Court’s PHOSITA has been advised by a skilled patent attorney and thus understands the law.

Patent Reform 2014: Removing Non-Practicing Entities from the USITC’s Jurisdiction

This is a Guest Post from attorney Ben Snitkoff who originally posted it on the blog Technically Legal. Technically Legal is a blog and podcast run by three technology-focused lawyers and their technology expert: David O’Brien, Dominik Rabiej, Ben Snitkoff, and David Lu.

Two Representatives have introduced a bill in the House aimed at preventing non-practicing entities (NPEs) from using the International Trade Commission (ITC) as a venue for patent disputes.

First, some background. The ITC is an administrative body charged with holding hearings and making adjudications regarding imports into the United States. In addition to its other duties, it may prevent the importation of items that infringe US patents, trademarks, or copyrights. However, in order to prevent importation of infringing articles, a complainant (or plaintiff) in the ITC must prove that there is a domestic industry protected by that IP.

Before 2006, injunctions were regular in patent cases in Federal District Court. If an NPE won a case against an operating company, the NPE would almost certainly get an injunction, causing substantial damage to that company. The risk of facing an injunction was a powerful force in driving operating companies to settle cases. If the alternatives are pay money or shut down, many companies would opt to pay.

After the eBay v. MercExchange case, obtaining an injunction in District Court became more difficult, particularly in cases where the plaintiff was an NPE. However, the ITC is a creature of statute, and doesn’t play by the same injunction rules. If a complainant wins a case in the ITC, they automatically get an importation ban against at least the parties found to infringe. However, in order to win the case, you must prove that there is a domestic industry in products protected by the patents the other parties infringe. The most obvious case is that the complainant makes a product protected by a patent, and the respondents are importing devices that infringe that same patent.

After revisions to the statutes that govern the ITC in 1998, complainants could prove that there was a domestic industry by showing that they made substantial investments to license other parties to their patents, or that people who have licenses also have products that practice the asserted patents.

In recent years, investigations filed by NPEs have accounted for a growing percent of investigations before the ITC, and the call for reform has been growing.

The bill introduced in the House purports to be that reform. However, whether the bill would be effective is questionable, particularly because there is no word yet of a corresponding bill introduced in the Senate.

There are several immediate problems with the bill. First, the bill attempts to modify the ability to rely on licensing by replacing the word “licensing” with:

substantial investment in licensing activities that leads to the adoption and development of articles that incorporate the patent, copyright, trademark, mask work, or design

This provision is, at best, inartfully drafted. “Articles that incorporate the patent” has no clear meaning in case law. Similarly, with “incorporate the . . . copyright.” This invites litigation over the meaning of the term when it could be more clearly stated as:

substantial investment in licensing activities that leads to the adoption and development of articles that practice the patent, embody the copyrighted work, or incorporate the trademark, mask work, or design

It is also not very clear what the drafters mean by “adoption and development” and why both actions are necessary, as long as there is “substantial investment” in those articles.

The bill proceeds to put in statute, with some modifications, some recent rule making changes in the ITC which allowed a preliminary investigation with respect to domestic industry. However, the short-description of the bill and the bill itself disagree on the timing. The 1-pager says that “once a preliminary investigation in initiated, requiring [sic] an early initial determination as to the DI standing of a complaint within 45 days.” However, the bill requires that “The Commission shall render its determination in the preliminary investigation under this paragraph not later than 45 days after the filing of the complaint.”

Typically, in ITC practice, an investigation is not initiated until thirty days after the complaint is filed. Additionally, forty-five days is less than half the time the Commission has previously allotted for these preliminary investigations. It seems virtually impossible to allow the parties to conduct discovery, submit briefing, hold a preliminary hearing, and issue a written opinion within either forty-five days of filing, or even forty-five days after a preliminary investigation was initiated.

Finally, even in cases where a complaint fully proves their case, the ITC may choose not to exclude certain articles for importation if it was not in the public interest. Those rare cases were traditionally limited to cases where public safety and welfare were endangered by an importation ban. This bill expands the public interest to include competitive conditions in the United States. This section appears to accomplish what it sets out to do, though the ITC’s Administrative Law Judges may be reluctant to hold that the importations of consumer luxury goods rise to a level of public interest so important as implicate these new guidelines.

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 to Employer: No Paper, No Assignment

By Dennis Crouch

Peregrine Semiconductor v. RF Micro Devices (S.D. Cal. 2014) (peregrine decision)

Interesting decision here involving patent ownership. Peregrine sued RFMD for infringement of several of its patents. However, during the course of the lawsuit the parties figures out that a former Peregrine worker – Robert Benton – should have been a named inventor on the asserted patents. Rather than siding with his former bosses, Benton instead assigned his rights to the defendant RFMD. The question in the case then is whether that assignment is proper or did the patentee already hold equitable title due to Benton’s employment.

Ownership of patent rights generally begin with the notion that the inventor begins establishing patent rights at the moment of conception. “The general rule is that an individual owns the patent rights to the subject matter of which he is an inventor, even though he conceived it or reduced it to practice in the course of his employment.” Banks v. Unisys Corp., 228 F.3d 1357 (Fed.Cir.2000). At the point of conception, the right is inchoate since no patent application has been filed or patent issued. However, courts typically allow assignment of that inchoate right through a written document. That rule could be seen in contrast to the traditional rule regarding other inchoate rights, such as a possibility-of-reverter, that could not be transferred inter vivos. In the 2011 Stanford v. Roche decision, the Supreme Court reiterated the basic law of inventor’s rights and the proposition that – absent an express assignment – an employer might not own its employees inventions even if those were accomplished during the course of the employment. “In most circumstances, an inventor must expressly grant his rights in an invention to his employer if the employer is to obtain those rights.” Bd. of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior Univ. v. Roche Molecular Sys., Inc., 131 S.Ct. 2188 (2011) (citing United States v. Dubilier Condenser Corp., 289 U.S. 178 (1933)).

Peregrine made two arguments as to why such a transfer occurred and that it held at least equitable title to Benton’s patent rights: (1) a contractual promise to assign; and (2) the hired to invent doctrine.

No Paper à No Express Assignment: Courts have long specifically enforced contracts to assign patent rights – requiring a contracting inventor to follow through with that promise as opposed to requiring only the ordinary contract remedy of expectation damages. Peregrine’s problem is that it has no written evidence of such a contract formation. Peregrine’s business practice is to require all employees to sign an “Employment and Assignment agreement,” but Benton testified that he had no recollection of executing any such written employment agreement or assignment during his time working at Peregrine. Here, the court seemed to be swayed as well by the Patent Act’s statute of frauds that require any assignment of patent rights to be in writing.

A patent owner who seeks to assign his interest in the patent must do so in writing. 35 U.S.C. § 261; Sky Techs. LLC v. SAP AG, 576 F.3d 1374 (Fed.Cir.2009) (citing Akazawa v. Link New Tech. Int’l, Inc., 520 F.3d 1354 (Fed.Cir.2008)). Peregrine admits that it does not have any documentation of an Employment and Assignment agreement or Policy Manual signed by Benton.

Although I suspect that the court made the right decision here, the statute-of-frauds theory has some failings. First, the statute requires that assignments be in writing, but does not expressly require that contracts-promising-assignment be in writing. Further, courts can still enforce a “lost grant” despite the statute of frauds so long as there is sufficient evidence to prove that the grant existed. Here, however, that evidence appeared to be lacking.

What Exactly Was he Hired to Invent?: Peregrine also argued that Benton had a duty to assign his patent rights based upon the (Federal?) common law “hired to invent” doctrine as well as the California Labor Code § 2860. In California, the statutory provisions of § 2860 are seen as coextensive with the common law doctrine and applies when an employee is “hired to invent something or solve a particular problem.” The doctrine focuses on the specificity of the task assigned to the employee. As Don Chisum writes, “[t]he primary factor in finding an employment-to-invent is the specificity of the task assigned to the employee.” Here, the court cited a 1960s California decision distinguishing between work “narrowly directed by the employer towards the resolution of a specific problem” and work that is “generalized within a field.” With only the former creating an obligation to assign. See Banner Metals, Inc. v. Lockwood, 178 Cal.App.2d 643 (Cal.Ct.App.1960).

In this case the court found that Benton’s work appeared to be wholly within the field of semiconductor development, but generalized within that field. Importantly, the court noted that Benton worked on a variety of products during his employment and also spent time on non-inventing activities such as marketing and customer support. As such, the court ruled that Benton is unlikely to be bound by the hired-to-invent doctrine.

Hired-to-invent cases will always be somewhat squirrely since they are ordinarily raised only as a backstop when the employer’s written agreement failed and, as such, there is not likely to be written evidence particularly defining the reason why an individual was hired. This case fits that description.

Preliminary Injunction: Now, this case is only at the preliminary injunction stage. Peregrine had motioned for a preliminary injunction and that injunction was denied based upon the likelihood that Peregrine will not be able to prove its ownership. The denial also offers Peregrine the opportunity to immediately appeal this case to the Federal Circuit.

Off-the-Record Examination: Is Conventional Wisdom Wrong?

By Dennis Crouch

Interview summaries. In a recent post, Professor Chao discussed the common practice of examiner interviews where the patent attorney discusses outstanding issues with the patent examiner. No transcript or recording of the discussion is kept, although there is a requirement that a summary of the interview and its results be written and placed within the file history. Professor Chao argues that the summaries are insufficient because all-too-often, a seemingly valid rejection simply vanishes following an examiner interview. For evidence, Chao also cites discussions at a recent Stanford Law School conference “where two prominent professors separately complained about how opaque the interview process was.”

Although Chao’s proposal has significant practicality problems, I also had the same sense of the problem — that the interview summaries create opacity in a process where transparency should rule. However, since Chao’s essay was posted, I have followed up with two “reality checks” that have raised my optimism on interviews.

First the rule — MPEP §713.04 walks through a number of elements that are required as part of an interview summary. These requirements include a fairly detailed list:

The complete and proper recordation of the substance of any interview should include at least the following applicable items:

(A) a brief description of the nature of any exhibit shown or any demonstration conducted;

(B) identification of the claims discussed;

(C) identification of specific prior art discussed;

(D) identification of the principal proposed amendments of a substantive nature discussed, unless these are already described on the Interview Summary form completed by the examiner;

(E) the general thrust of the principal arguments of the applicant and the examiner should also be identified, even where the interview is initiated by the examiner. The identification of arguments need not be lengthy or elaborate. A verbatim or highly detailed description of the arguments is not required. The identification of the arguments is sufficient if the general nature or thrust of the principal arguments can be understood in the context of the application file. Of course, the applicant may desire to emphasize and fully describe those arguments which he or she feels were or might be persuasive to the examiner;

(F) a general indication of any other pertinent matters discussed;

(G) if appropriate, the general results or outcome of the interview; and

(H) in the case of an interview via electronic mail a paper copy of the contents exchanged over the internet MUST be made and placed in the patent application file as required by the Federal Records Act in the same manner as an Examiner Interview Summary Form, PTOL-413, is entered.

The requirement is detailed, and the point is that interviews are not “off the record” even if not audio-recorded or transcribed. One problem with these requirements is that they lack an enforcement mechanism other than the examiner’s “careful review.” There is no direct way to challenge a patent issued because of an inadequate interview summary other than inequitable conduct — a defense that requires substantial proof of intent to commit fraud. Still, patent attorneys are bound by the ethics requirements to comply with the law in good faith and act with candor in all dealings with the USPTO — the result is that we should largely expect compliance with the required standards. Helping this along, the interview summary form now particularly asks applicants to describe the issues discussed, claims discussed, prior art discussed, and the interview substance.

Looking at the Interview Summaries: After reading through the rule, I then thumbed through a handful of interview summaries and have been happy to see that, in fact, the invention summaries are generally detailed pointing to the particular issues discussed and the resolution of those discussions. Now, the summaries are not as detailed as you might see in an office action rejection or subsequent response, but they do provide substantial context, meaning, and understanding.

To find these, I first downloaded the PAIR files for a random set of recently issued patents and then sorted them to find file histories where issuance/notice of allowance occurred fairly quickly following the interview since that represents the complained-of situation. The four below are simply the first for interview summaries that I looked-at:

Application No. 13/308105:

Attorney had proposed more restrictive claim language in accord with examiner’s determination of un-obvious claims over the prior art and also proposed withdrawn subject matter directed to encapsulated forms. Examiner to enter the amendment over currently pending claims with consideration to be given to a divisional for the encapsulated invention when presented. See examiner’s amendment for allowed claims of current case.

Application No. 12/875,772:

The examiner indicated amending the claims to more clearly identify “the first processor,” “the second processor”, and the “processing components” as depicted in figure 2 would overcome the prior art rejection in Key in view of Fukushima.

Application No. 13/117,944:

Prior art discussed: Bednar

Applicant called to discuss the invention and potential differences between the prior art and the disclosed invention. Applicant discussed a couple of amendments to the independent claim to attempt to overcome the current prior art. It was suggested to the Applicant to add a limitation to further define the spacer to be vibration dampening or made of a vibration dampening material in addition to the spacer extending past or beyond the cable slot toward the riser so that it is not only present in the cable slot and so it may support also add support the barrel. These limitations appear to be fully supported by the figures and do not appear to be present in the prior art reference as Bednar only shows the spacer/dampeners to be present in the cable slot portion of the barrel. These limitations will also require an updated search and therefore no determination of patentability has been made. When these amendments are filed the examiner will update the prior art search and reconsider the currently applied rejection.

Application No. 13/685,368

The examiner and applicant’s representative discussed a set of proposed Examiner’s amendments to place the application in condition for allowance. The amendments set forth clarity, proper antecedent basis, and suitable claim structure to overcome any issues with respect to 35 U.S.C. 101 and 112. The specifics of agreements reached are incorporated in the replacement listing of the allowed claims as set forth in the examiner’s amendment section of the attached notice of allowability. Consequently, the discussion and agreements reached resulted in the allowance of the instant application.

To my eyes, these interview summaries do a very good job of providing information to the world regarding the issued discussed, the conclusion drawn, and the reasoning for those conclusions. Of course, more detail is possible and may be preferable, but this small sample has gone a significant way toward changing my view of the off-the-record nature of examiner interviews.

Should the Claim Construction Standard for PTAB Post-Grant Proceedings Be Changed?

Guest Post by Bernie Knight. Knight is a partner at McDermott Will & Emery LLP and was USPTO General Counsel from 2010-2013.

Now that the new post-grant proceedings of the America Invents Act (AIA) have been underway for over a year, some have questioned whether the claim construction standard used by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) is the correct one.  Currently, proposed legislation in Congress would change the claim construction standard for PTAB post-grant proceedings from the broadest reasonable interpretation to the same standard used by district courts, i.e., one having a goal of preserving validity in deference to 35 U.S.C. Sec. 282.   Of course, outside of such legislation, the USPTO has the ability to change the claim construction standard by amending the regulations and the practice guide.  The question arises, would changing the claim construction standard improve the patent system?

The answer is no. Yet, with that said, there is a certain tension between the claim construction standard and the patent owner’s ability to amend claims in the new post-grant proceedings. Recent decisions of the PTAB have made it difficult for patent owners to amend their claims. When we decided to adopt the broadest reasonable interpretation claim construction standard, we did so under the assumption that patent owners would be able to amend their claims without significant impediments. This was a sound decision for the patent system and follow-on innovation because the claims would be amended with more precise language. It would then be easier for other companies and inventors in the same technology space to design around the amended claims. Simply put, the broadest reasonable interpretation claim construction standard seems like a fair standard in light of the patent owner’s ability to amend claims. Such an approach also seems good for the patent system and follow-on innovation.

A tension arises with this trade off because of recent decisions of the PTAB requiring the patent owner to establish that the amended claims are patentable not only over the cited prior art, but also any art of which the patent owner has knowledge. See, e.g., IPR2012-00027, paper 66 (Final Written Decision). In addition, the PTAB sometimes requires that the patent owner submit an expert declaration to establish the understanding of a person of ordinary skill in the art to determine whether the new claim limitations are obvious. At the urging of many patent owners, Congress is responding by proposing legislation that would change the claim construction standard for USPTO proceedings to the same standard employed by the district courts.

The PTAB has done a terrific job handling the onslaught of petitions that have been filed since enactment of the AIA.  It is reported that the USPTO has the third busiest patent docket in the country, after the Eastern District of Texas and the District of Delaware.   I had the pleasure of working with the PTAB in getting the final AIA rules issued and the proceedings implemented within the one year period mandated by Congress. So, here comes the “but.” This is a good time for the USPTO to look at the requirements for a patent owner’s amendment to make certain that because the claims are broadly construed, the patent owner still has a reasonable opportunity to amend the claims.

The regulations that we implemented provide that amendments will be allowed if they are supported by the written description in the application, the amendments are narrowing amendments and the amendments relate to a claim and ground upon which the proceeding was instituted. See 37 C.F.R. 42.121, 42.221. The patent owner must make an initial showing that the amended claims are patentable. The question arises how much support should be required from the patent owner at the time of the motion to amend claims and how much of the burden should be placed on the petitioner to show that the amended claims are unpatentable.

The additional requirements placed on the patent owner by the PTAB make it more difficult for a proposed amendment to survive a PTAB proceeding. An alternative approach might be to only require the patent owner to show that the amended claims are patentable over the prior art cited by the petitioner and relied on by the PTAB in instituting the proceeding. If the patent owner fails to disclose prior art that the patent owner has knowledge of and that can affect the validity of the claims, there may be a future inequitable conduct defense if the patent owner brings an infringement action. In addition, there may be a basis for an Office of Enrollment and Discipline complaint if evidence that is contrary to a position being taken at the USPTO is intentionally withheld by the patent owner. With respect to the need for expert witnesses to support the amendments, a possible alternative approach would be to place the burden on the petitioner to produce the expert to support an obviousness challenge to the new amended claims. The current PTAB decisions place that burden on the patent owner up front to disprove such an argument even before it is raised. More of the burden might be placed on the petitioner to show that the amended claims are unpatentable.

If the requirements for a patent owner amendment were less onerous, then a much stronger case can be made that the broadest reasonable claim construction standard should be retained. Without the ability to reasonably amend the claims, the broadest reasonable interpretation claim construction standard seems a bit unfair to the patent owner because the claims are broadly construed with little opportunity to amend.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of McDermott Will & Emery or its other partners.

In Memoriam: Prof. Sarah Tran

Up until last week, Sarah Tran was a law professor at SMU in Dallas where she taught patent law among other courses. She passed away this past week at the age of 34 from leukemia. A fund has been created for her two young children. [Tran Children Development Fund][Texas Lawyer Article].

In the patent field, I will remember Sarah most for her series of recent articles focusing on the power dynamic between the USPTO and the Federal Circuit. Patent Powers, 25 Harvard J. Law & Tech. 595 (2012); Administrative Law, Patents, and Distorted Rules, 80 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 831 (2012); Policy Tailors and the Patent Office, 46 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 487 (2013). The articles collectively argue that courts have been wrong to deny substantive rule-making authority and deferential review to the USPTO; and that the new USPTO powers found in the America Invents Act (AIA) add a further exclamation point to that conclusion. These articles have strong merit and will likely serve as one focal point in upcoming administrative patent law battles.  She was also a regular contributor to the fabulous Written Description blog.

– Dennis

Square Pegs, Round Holes: Guest Post by Mark Janis and Jason Du Mont

Guest Post by Jason J. Du Mont, Microsoft IP Fellow at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law and Mark D. Janis, Robert A. Lucas Chair of Law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law.

In Pacific Coast Marine Windshields Ltd. v. Malibu Boats, the Federal Circuit addressed a question of first impression: whether an applicant’s actions taken during prosecution of a design patent should be available for use when determining the design patent’s scope in subsequent litigation.  The court’s answer was yes.  While the answer may be unremarkable, the court’s unusual journey from question to answer raises broader questions about the wisdom of absorbing utility patent law’s judicially-derived doctrines into design patent law.

The applicant had filed a design patent application claiming “an ornamental design of a marine windshield with a frame, a tapered corner post with vent holes and without said vent holes, and with a hatch and without said hatch, as shown and described.”  The application included eleven drawings showing windshields with various numbers of vent holes, with and without hatches. During prosecution, the examiner imposed a restriction requirement and identified five patentably distinct groups in the application: windshields having “(1) four circular holes and a hatch; (2) four circular or square holes and no hatch; (3) no holes and a hatch; (4) no holes and no hatch; and (5) two oval or rectangular holes and a hatch” (internal citation omitted):

Image 1

The applicant elected group one without traverse (which showed four circular holes and a hatch), deleted the figures not associated with this embodiment, and eventually rewrote the claim in a more conventional form, claiming “[t]he ornamental design for a marine windshield, as shown and described.”  The application issued as D555,070.  The applicant later filed a divisional directed to group three, which issued as D569,782, but there were apparently no further divisionals.

Pacific Coast subsequently asserted the ‘070 patent against Malibu Boats, which was producing a windshield having three square vent holes, as depicted below:  

Image 2

Malibu Boats moved for summary judgment of non-infringement based on prosecution history estoppel.  The district court granted the motion and Pacific Coast appealed. 

No Distinct Doctrine of Equivalents for Design Patents

Prosecution history estoppel is a limitation on the doctrine of equivalents, so before it reached the district court’s prosecution history estoppel analysis, the Federal Circuit first had to determine whether the design patent law should recognize a doctrine of equivalents.  The court concluded that for design patents, literal infringement and infringement under the doctrine of equivalents are “intertwined,” pointing to the statute (35 U.S.C. § 289, which provides a remedy when another party “applies the patented design, or any colorable imitation thereof, to any article of manufacture for the purpose of sale” (emphasis added)), and the Gorham v. White case (which holds that infringement is based on substantial similarity). 

The court could have been more forthcoming as to what it means for the two infringement standards to be intertwined, but the key takeaway is clear: the design patent infringement analysis isn’t bifurcated into a literal infringement prong requiring identicality and an equivalency prong.  It relies on a test of substantial similarity based on the design’s overall impression. The court’s analysis signals that there’s no longer a need to speak of a distinct “equivalents” concept in design patent law; concepts of equivalency are built into the substantial similarity test.

 So Why Incorporate Prosecution History Estoppel?

Having recognized that design patent law includes no distinct doctrine of equivalents, the Federal Circuit could have declared that design patent law need not incorporate the utility patent law’s prosecution history estoppel jurisprudence.   The court could have formulated a prosecution history-based limiting doctrine that was customized to connect to design patent law’s “intertwined” infringement standard.  Or, the court could have even analogized to prosecution disclaimer, a simpler concept which limits literal claim scope and avoids entanglement with the presumptions and rebuttal routes of a post-Festo prosecution history estoppel doctrine.  See, e.g., Trading Techs. Intern., Inc. v. Open E Cry, LLC,  728 F.3d 1309 (Fed. Cir. 2013) (discussing the distinction).

Instead, the court stated that the “principles” of prosecution history estoppel applied to design patents, and resolved those principles into a three-step test: “(1) whether there was a surrender; (2) whether it was for reasons of patentability; and (3) whether the accused design is within the scope of the surrender.” It then relied on Festo and other utility patent cases in applying its test, concluding that “no presumption of prosecution history estoppel could arise” because there wasn’t any showing that the third part of the test was met.

Whatever this presumption is, it surely isn’t the Festo presumption.  Festo holds that a narrowing amendment that is substantially related to patentability triggers a presumption that the applicant surrendered all territory between the original and amended claim scope with regards to the claim limitation in question.  See, e.g., Duramed Pharma. v. Paddock Labs., Inc., 644 F.3d 1376 (Fed. Cir. 2011). There isn’t any third step calling for scrutiny of the accused device.   That inquiry would only be relevant to determining the scope of the estoppel—and that only comes into issue once it’s determined that the presumption of estoppel applies, and that the presumption hasn’t been rebutted. 

The court’s approach is likely to lead to confusion in design patent cases about how much utility patent doctrine really has been borrowed.  (It may also create some confusion in utility patent cases if it’s invoked there.  Doing so would be erroneous, in our view.)  This illustrates why it’s not always so easy, or desirable, to fling utility patent doctrine into design patent law.  The court could have avoided all of these doctrinal convolutions by steering clear of prosecution history estoppel jurisprudence and either drawing on simpler analogies or developing a test specific to design patents.

Applying the Court’s Three-Step Test

The Federal Circuit’s application of its three-step test further illustrates why borrowing from prosecution history estoppel doctrine may have been a bad idea.  In addition to diverging from the Festo presumption, the court’s rhetoric slips towards the element-by-element conceptions of equivalency and estoppel that govern in utility patent law, and away from conceptions of the design’s overall impression that design patent law mandates.

The court concluded that steps one and two of its test were met.  As for step (1), the applicant had deleted drawings directed to the patently distinct two-hole and no-hole embodiments, resulting in a surrender of scope, according to the court; and, as for step (2), deletions made in response to a restriction requirement were made for purposes of patentability and thus could trigger estoppel.  As the court pointed out, however, this latter point hasn’t been resolved in utility patent law.

Nevertheless, the court decided that step (3) (whether the accused design was within the scope of the surrender) wasn’t met, and that was enough for a reversal.  The defendant had chosen not to argue that the accused three-hole design was within the scope of the patentee’s non-elected designs.  Instead, the defendant asserted that because the patentee had elected designs having four holes (in the ‘070 patent-in-suit) and zero holes (in the ‘782 divisional), the patentee had surrendered any designs having a number of holes between zero and four.  The court was not persuaded, reasoning that the notion of surrendering an entire range “does not work in the context of design patents where ranges are not claimed, but rather individual designs.  Claiming different designs does not necessarily suggest that the territory between those designs is also claimed.”  These are crucial observations for limiting the impact of prosecution history estoppel, especially since the court didn’t address any other way of rebutting this presumption.

But the court left unaddressed the key question about applying step (3): what is the standard for determining whether an accused design falls within the scope of the surrender?  Some raw notion of “colorable imitation”?  A fully elaborated substantial similarity analysis in view of the prior art as per Egyptian Goddess?  Something else?

Moreover, by framing its analysis of the designs at issue by reference to the number of holes, the court encourages a mode of analysis that rests on individual design features, rather than the design’s overall impression.   There’s a deep disconnect here between utility and design patent law.  Equivalency (and, correspondingly, prosecution history estoppel) in utility patent law is to be applied on an element-by-element basis, but that doesn’t translate neatly to design patent law.   Here, where the embodiments differed by discrete, readily-identifiable features (such as the number of holes or hatches), perhaps the presence or absence of the features dictate one’s conclusions about the design’s overall impression.  We think this will not be so easy in most cases involving visually-complex designs.

More to Come …

The prospect that restriction and election practice will give rise to estoppel in design matters has significant practical consequences.  First, the implementation of the Hague will unquestionably lead to an influx of international applications that often contain plural embodiments—either explicitly allowed or because they are filtered from registration systems.  When coupled with distinctions in the determination of scope, between offices, the USPTO can expect to receive higher volumes of applications that may necessitate restrictions.  Second, the Federal Circuit’s In re Owens decision, and the USPTO’s apparent turn towards a more aggressive application of the written description requirement in design cases, may force design patent applicants to submit applications including large sets of drawings that depict numerous implementations of a design concept.  To the extent that these implementations are deemed patentably distinct embodiments, many applicants will find themselves facing restriction requirements.

That leads to the case’s key practical point:  if courts choose to apply Pacific Marine’s estoppel rule aggressively, practitioners may need to advise their clients to expect to file more divisionals—and, consequently, face higher prosecution costs.

Patent Reform 2013: Demand Letter Transparency Act of 2013

By Dennis Crouch

In many ways, a patent infringement demand letter is akin to a debt collection action. And, we know that debt collection is highly regulated under both Federal and State consumer protection laws. The current mood in Congress and amongst the state attorneys general is that patent demand letters should also be regulated to control their negative impact on the marketplace. The particular focus is on patentees who threaten litigation against the users of off-the-shelf technology (such as WiFi technology or Flat-Panel Screens) with little or no due diligence or pre-threat investigations. In some cases, patentees are threating litigation with no intention of actually filing suit and are hoping to use the high cost of patent litigation to drive settlement value rather than the underlying value of the patented invention.

Senators Leahy and Lee have proposed the Patent Transparency and Improvements Act (PTIA) of 2013 (S. 1720) as a quite weak form of regulation that would only address the most egregious cases of threats that operate as an unfair competition.

Now, Representatives Jared Polis (D-Co) and Tom Marino (R-Pa) have proposed their own legislation that would have more teeth. See the Demand Letter Transparency Act of 2013 (H.R.3540).  Download HR3540

H.R. 3540 includes a number of interesting features:

  • Any demand letter must include:
    • A listing of each claim being asserted and a listing of each accused device;
    • If indirect infringement is claimed, an explanation of the underlying direct infringement;
    • A description of the principle business of the party alleging infringement;
    • A list of other cases and review proceedings where the patent was asserted;
    • Identifying of any licensing term or pricing commitments associated with the asserted patent.
    • A listing of all people who have a direct financial interest in the outcome of the action, and a description of the agreements providing the legal basis for these financial interests; and
    • A statement to the recipient that 'You are not required to respond to this letter by law.'
  • A 20-demand-level threshold that raises heightened requirements, including the submission of demand information regarding the demands to the USPTO that will then be publicly available. (i.e., once a patentee sends out 20 demand letters, then it must begin complying with certain reporting requirements).
  • Failure to abide by the demand letter requirements would result in abandonment of the patent; other financial penalties; and also action by the FTC.
  • Under the statute, a demand letter is defined broadly as any "written communication directed to an unaffiliated third party stating or indicating, directly or indirectly, that the intended recipient or anyone affiliated with that recipient is or may be infringing a patent, or may bear liability or owe compensation to another because of such patent."

While the Leahy-Lee proposal is likely under-inclusive, H.R. 3540 is over-inclusive and would serve as a trap for unwary business leaders looking to license their company's technology. Two tweaks would bring focus: (1) only apply the demand letter requirements to instances where more than 20-demand letters have been sent-out; and (2) narrow the definition of demand letters so that some amount of written technology license negotiations can occur without raising the threat of abandonment (perhaps this could be done through some sort of safe-harbor).

Federal Circuit: Patent Claims Broadened During Prosecution Fail Written Description Requirement

By Dennis Crouch

Synthes USA v. Spinal Kinetics (Fed. Cir. 2013)

In a split opinion, the Federal Circuit has affirmed the jury verdict that Synthes’ asserted patent claims are invalid for lack of written description and has also affirmed the district court’s denial of SK’s request for exceptional-case attorney fees under 35 U.S.C. § 285. Judge O’Malley penned the majority opinion that was joined by Judge Prost. Judge Taranto dissented – arguing that the evidence presented at trial was – as a matter of law – insufficient to prove that the claims lacked adequate written description.

Synthes’ U.S. Patent No. 7,429,270 is directed to an intervertebral implant invented by a team of Swiss researchers. The original application was placed on file as an international application (PCT) in 2003. The U.S. national stage application was then filed in 2006. Five-years into prosecution, the patentee substantially amended the claims and added a new set of claims that were then asserted against SK. Claims 29-31. As part of these new claims, Synthes included the new terms “opening” and “plurality of openings” that had not been used previously in the patent application document. The original disclosure was directed more particularly toward grooves rather than the seemingly broader term openings. According to SK, Synthes added these limitations to the claims only after the accused SK product was on the market in a calculated attempt to shift the scope of the patent to cover SK’s improved technology. Under US patent law, that sort of intentional shifting of patent claim scope is permissible so long as the amended claim is sufficiently supported by the original disclosure. See See Liebel-Flarsheim Co. v. Medrad, Inc., 358 F.3d 898, 909 n.2 (Fed. Cir. 2004).

It is not surprising that the infringement litigation turned on the proper construction of the “plurality of openings.” As is usual for patent litigation, the patentee was working to find a “right-sized” patent that was broad enough to cover the accused product but narrow enough to still be valid. Here, the approach was to create a term “opening” in an implant-plate that was generic enough to both (1) be described by the disclosed radial plate grooves and (2) capture the elongated circle slots of the accused device. However, the jury sided with the accused infringer and found the claims invalid under the written description doctrine.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed – finding that the substantial evidence supported the jury verdict.

Sufficiency of written description requires that the original disclosure reasonably convey to PHOSITA that the inventor had possession of the claimed subject matter at the time of filing. The exact level of detail required depends upon “the nature and scope of the claims and on the complexity and predictability of the relevant technology.” See Ariad Pharms., Inc. v. Eli Lilly & Co., 598 F.3d 1336, 1351 (Fed. Cir. 2010) (en banc).

In affirming the jury verdict, the basically followed the precedent of Leibel-Flarsheim to find that increased breadth-of-claim was not supported by the more narrow original specification. In particular, the court noted that the original disclosure only included “groove” examples, not slots or openings on the plate. (“The written description, however, never discloses anything broader than using grooves to anchor the fiber system to the cover plates.”) That intrinsic evidence was then bolstered by expert testimony regarding the important differences between grooves, slots and other openings. Based upon this evidence, the court found substantial evidence for the jury verdict of invalidity.

[T]he jury was asked to determine whether the written description disclosure of “grooves” “reasonably convey[ed] to those skilled in the art that the inventor had possession of [an intervertebral implant that could utilize any sort of opening located anywhere on the cover plates to anchor the fiber system] as of the filing date.” Ariad, 598 F.3d at 1351. The jury did not believe so and, when all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the jury verdict, we must affirm that decision.

One tricky issue here is the various burdens. On review, the appellate court looks for substantial evidence (more than a mere scintilla) but the jury had to find clear and convincing evidence of invalidity.

Writing in dissent, Judge Taranto framed this case is one where the “structural claim language … is broader than the specific embodiments disclosed in the written description.” Of course, Federal Circuit precedent allows claims to be broader than the specific embodiments. See In re Rasmussen, 650 F.2d 1212, 1215 (CCPA 1981). According to Taranto, in this type of situation (alleged over-breadth), the challenger must show that the “particular difference” between the claim and the disclosure “has a material effect on whether the product or process would achieve the aims of the claims at issue, with materiality of the effect not the same as non-obviousness but related to predictability.” In other words, broader conceptions of the invention that would be predictable by PHOSITAs mind after reading the specification should be deemed to fit within the written description.

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On the concept of attorney fees under 35 U.S.C. § 285 – the court reiterated its rule sanctions against a losing patentee can only be imposed after a showing of clear and convincing evidence of either (1) litigation misconduct; (2) bringing the litigation in subjective bad faith; or (3) bringing objectively baseless litigation. Here, the appellate court agreed with the district court that SK had failed to demonstrate clear-and-convincing evidence of any one of those three justifications for fees.

Patent Invalid for Failure to Claim “What the Applicant Regards as His Invention”

by DennisCrouch

Juxtacomm-Texas Software v. Tibco Software, et al. (Fed. Cir. 2013)

In this case the Federal Circuit only offered one paragraph of substantive analysis:

The decisions of the district court … , construing the relevant claim language of U.S. Patent No. 6,195,662 and granting the motion for summary judgment of invalidity based on 35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 2, are affirmed on the basis of the district court's opinions. The language of the claims controls their construction, and the invention set forth in the claims "is not what the patentee regarded as his invention." Allen Eng'g Corp. v. Bartell Indus., Inc., 299 F.3d 1336, 1349 (Fed. Cir. 2002).

Under Allen Eng'g, section 112 ¶ 2 requires that the patent "set forth what the applicant regards as his invention and … do so with sufficient particularity and distinctness." (Section 112 has now been rewritten and § 112 ¶ 2 is renumbered as § 112(b)). In most cases, 112 ¶ 2 challenges focus on the requirement of "sufficient particularity and distinctness" in the form of a definiteness challenge. However, this case focuses on the first portion of the provision and finds that the patentee failed to claim "what the applicant regards as his invention." And, that failure results in the relevant claims being held invalid. The district court wrote:

Section 112 ¶ 2 contains two requirements: "first, [the claim] must set forth what the applicant regards as his invention and second, it must do so with sufficient particularity and distinctness, i.e., the claim must be sufficiently definite." Allen Eng'g Corp. v. Bartell Indus., Inc., 299 F.3d 1336, 1348 (Fed.Cir.2002) (internal quotes removed) (quoting Solomon v. Kimberly–Clark Corp., 216 F.3d 1372, 1377 (Fed.Cir.2000)). A claim is invalid under the first prong of 35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 2, when one of skill in the relevant art, reading the specification would not understand the invention set forth in a claim is what the patentee regarded as his invention.

Juxtacomm's basic problem in this case is that the plain interpretation of its asserted claims result in a system that the patent document itself does not describe.  The patent here is directed to a data transformation system and all asserted claims include some form of a "script processor for utilizing metadata from [a] metadata database to control data transformation within [a] systems interface and [to control] movement of said data into and out of a distribution system." The claim includes a limitation that a "script processor" that is designed "to control data transformation within said system interface." However, Juxtacomm's specification does not describe data transformation within the system interface. Based upon that difference, the court found an "irreconcilable contradiction" between the specification and the claims that renders the claims invalid under § 112 ¶ 2.

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A major question left unaddressed by the court here is the overlap between, on the one hand, this § 112(b) issue of "irreconcilable contradiction" when comparing the specification with the patent claim and, on the other hand, the requirement of § 112(a) that the specification set forth a written description of the claimed invention. For its part, the district court here suggested in a footnote that the two doctrines have substantial overlap – writing that "the Court would [also] find it exceedingly difficult to preserve the validity of the ′662 in light of the requirements set forth in 35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 1 … [since] the specification simply does not disclose [the claimed] invention."

It appears to me that the overlap is likely complete. However, there is one important procedural distinction – that the inquiry under § 112(a) is generally seen as a question of fact while the inquiry under § 112(b) is a question of law. See Enzo Life Sciences, Inc. v. Digene Corp., 305 F.Supp.2d 406 (Fed. Cir. 2004). All things being equal, questions of law tend to be easier to resolve earlier in the case – such as on summary judgment. However, questions of law are also ordinarily more vigorously reviewed on appeal.

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Read the CAFC Opinion and the District Court Opinion.

Trading Technologies v. Open E Cry: Doctrinal Formalism in Patent Law

By Jason Rantanen

Trading Technologies International, Inc. v. Open E Cry, LLC (Fed. Cir. 2013) Download Trading Tech v Open E Cry
Panel: Lourie (author), Plager, Benson (District Judge)

The traditional – and certainly most widely held – view in patent law is to view its issues as formally distinct doctrines; crystalline pillars supporting the temple.  This view emphasizes the formal distinction between patent law doctrines and rejects attempts to cross between them.  Each doctrine is an independent whole.  Trading Technologies v. Open E Cry exemplifies this view.  (It's worth noting that this opinion notwithstanding, some of the most successful patent litigators that I've met have succeeded by rejecting the formality of doctrines and building their litigation strategy around the intersticial spaces between the doctines.)

Trading Technology ("TT") owns a series of related patents generally pertaining to software for electronic trading on a commodities exchange.  The four patents at issue in this appeal claim priority based on an application that ultimately issued as Patent No. 6,772,132.  In an earlier appeal, Trading Technologies International, Inc. v. eSpeed, Inc., 595 F.3d 1340 (Fed. Cir. 2010), the Federal Circuit considered the correct construction of claims of the '132 patent that required a graphical user interface having a "static" display of market price information.  In eSpeed, the Federal Circuit held that "static," as used in the claims of the ’132 patents, "required a price column that moves only in response to a manual re-centering command."  In reaching this result, eSpeed concluded (among other things) that:

“[t]he inventors’ own specification strongly suggests that the claimed re-centering feature is manual” because the written description “only discusse[d] manual re-centering commands” and referred to “the present invention” as including a manual one-click re-centering feature.

While the earlier litigation was pending, TT filed the applications that matured into the patents involved in this suit. In those applications, TT introduced new claims that lacked the term "static" in any form.  As a result, three of the new patents had identical written descriptions to the '132 patent but claims that differed in one key way: they did not include "static" limitations.  (In the fourth patent TT pursued the strategy of filing a continuation-in-part; the result was that TT was able to add new disclosures). 

TT filed multiple actions based on this second round of patents. The district court consolidated the actions and subsequently grand summary judgment of invalidity of the four  new patents based on lack of adequate written description under 35 U.S.C. § 112(a).  The district court based its ruling on the earlier eSpeed opinion, concluding that eSpeed required holding the claims invalid for lack of written description. The Federal Circuit summarized the district court's action as follows:

According to the district court, eSpeed’s construction of “static” in the ’132 and ’304 patents turned “on the premise that the invention described in the specification was limited to static price axes that move only with manual re-centering.” Id. at 1045. Because the ’411 patent’s claims lacked that term and therefore appeared to cover displays with automatic re-centering, the district court concluded that any decision upholding those broader claims as supported by the same written description “would be at odds with the Federal Circuit’s binding findings in the eSpeed Decision.” Id. In granting the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the district court expressly declined to evaluate the parties’ evidence or make its own findings on the merits because the court determined “as a matter of law that the eSpeed Decision controls.”

Slip Op. at 12.  On appeal, the Federal Circuit rejected this reasoning, reversing the grant of summary judgment and remanding for further proceedings.  The court based its conclusion on the formal distinction between the doctrines of claim construction and written description, a distinction that it explained in detail:

Despite their similarities, however, claim construction and the written description requirement are separate issues that serve distinct purposes.

In construing claims, a court seeks to discern the meaning of a particular term used in one or more claims of a patent, based, inter alia, on evidence drawn from the specification, the surrounding claim language, the prosecution history, and relevant extrinsic sources….While guided by the specification, the focus of claim construction remains on defining a discrete claim term to better ascertain the boundaries of a claim. In contrast, the written description analysis considers the bounds of the specification itself. The written description requirement prevents patentees from claiming more than they have actually invented and disclosed to the public, as measured by the written description of the invention provided with their patent applications.

This case illustrates the distinction. In eSpeed, we were called upon to evaluate the proper construction of “static,” a term used in the claims of the ’132 and ’304 patents. Accordingly, we considered the evidence relevant to a proper reading of that term, starting with those patents’ common written description. eSpeed, 595 F.3d at 1353–55. Noting that the patents referred to one-click centering as part of the invention and did not discuss automatic re-centering, we concluded that the specification “strongly suggests” that a “static” price column would require manual re-centering. Id. at 1353–54. And even though the patents described price columns that “do not normally change positions unless a re-centering command is received,” ’132 patent col. 7 ll. 46–48 (emphasis added), we concluded that “the inventors jettisoned the word ‘normally’ during prosecution” by limiting the term “static” in response to an indefiniteness rejection, eSpeed, 595 F.3d at 1354. In sum, we concluded that the disputed claim term should be limited to require a manual re- centering command in the claims of the ’132 and ’304 patents.

But our decision in eSpeed did not thereby determine whether the same written description would also support different claims drawn to a non-“static” display. In particular, we did not make “findings regarding the specification . . . that are dispositive” as to the present written description challenge. See Summary Judgment Order, 852 F. Supp. 2d at 1044. On the contrary, we merely determined the best construction for a single disputed claim term, a term that is absent from the claims of the ’411, ’768, and ’374 patents now before us. That analysis did not require us to pass on the outer limits of the pa- tents’ written description, nor did we endeavor to do so. In fact, our prior examination of that written description did not even settle the limited claim construction issue then facing the court, see eSpeed, 595 F.3d at 1353–54 (concluding that the specification “strongly suggests” that the claimed re-centering feature is manual), much less conclusively find that the same written description could never support any claim to a display with a non-“static” price axis.

Slip Op. at 17-18.

Prosecution History Estoppel: The court also reversed grant of summary judgment of prosecution history estoppel, concluding that statements made in connection with the earlier '132 patent did not extend through to the subsequent patents in the same lineage in this case.  "Prosecution history estoppel can extend from a parent application to subsequent patents in the same lineage, Elkay, 192 F.3d at 981, as can a prosecution disclaimer, Omega Eng’g, 334 F.3d at 1333–34. But “arguments made in a related application do not automatically apply to different claims in a separate application.” Biogen, Inc. v. Berlex Labs., Inc., 318 F.3d 1132, 1139 (Fed. Cir. 2003)….In this case, the intrinsic record specific to the ’055 patent distinguishes eSpeed and compels a different result." Slip Op. at 24.

Disclosure: Several years ago, Dennis represented Trading Technologies in a previous case at the District Court level. That said, we haven't talked about the substance of these cases.

Judge Rader’s Obviousness Tutorial: Including the Conclusion that Older Prior Art is Less Credible and a Restatement that Objective Indicia of Nonobviousness Play a Critical Role

By Dennis Crouch

Leo Pharmaceutical Products, Ltd. v. Rea, 2013 WL 4054937 (Fed. Cir. 2013)

In a pre-AIA filing, Galderma challenged Leo’s U.S. Patent No. 6,753,013 in an inter partes reexamination before the USPTO’s now renamed Board of Patent Appeals. The patent claims a “storage stable and non-aqueous” pharmaceutical composition used to treat skin conditions such as psoriasis. Prior to the invention, it was well known that a combination of Vitamin-D along with a corticosteroid could form the basis of an effective treatment. However, no one had been able to manufacture a storage stable form of the combination. This was especially challenging because the stable forms of the active ingredients prefer different pH levels. To achieve the storage stable results, Leo added a solvent to the mixture. The claim identifies the solvent in a markush group that likely includes thousands of potential compounds. During the reexamination, Leo also added the particular limitation that “said pharmaceutical composition is storage stable and non-aqueous.”

In reviewing the case, the Board first construed these new terms “storage stable” and “non-aqueous” and then found the patent invalid as obvious over the prior art. On appeal, the Federal Circuit has reversed.

Claim Construction: The Federal Circuit continues, for the time being, to give no deference to PTO claim construction decisions. Here, the term “storage stable” was difficult to construe because it was never used during prosecution of the original patent application and only added during reexamination. However, the patent does discuss the composition’s “ability to resist degradation” according to test results presented in the specification and the PTO accepted that definition as proper. Noting that one of ordinary skill “would have reasonably looked to the described stability test as defining what was meant by ‘storage stable.'” On appeal, the Federal Circuit rejected that definition as impermissibly narrow and that instead allowed a broader definition. Although not elucidated by the opinion, the patentee is walking a fine line with this amendment between (1) having a sufficiently broad patent and (2) improperly adding new matter to the claims in violation of the written description requirement.

Obviousness: This decision may become a somewhat important obviousness case for patentees. The Board found the patent claims obvious in light of a combination of three prior art references. The Board basically found that it would have been obvious for someone of skill in the art to take the prior art combination of Vitamin-D and corticosteroids and add in the claimed solvent in order to achieve storage stability.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit faulted the Board for failing to give credence to the patentee’s identification of the problem (that a stable form should be designed). The prior art did not particularly recognize the problem but rather “either discouraged combining vitamin D analogs and corticosteroids … or attempted the combination without recognizing or solving the storage stability problems.” Leo also presented evidence that, at the time of the invention, researchers were being “warned that vitamin D should not be combined with other drugs requiring a low pH ( e.g., corticosteroids).”

[T]he record shows no reason for one of ordinary skill in the art to attempt to improve upon either Dikstein or Serup using Turi. The ordinary artisan would first have needed to recognize the problem, i.e., that the formulations disclosed in Dikstein and Serup were not storage stable. To discover this problem, the ordinary artisan would have needed to spend several months running storage stability tests Only after recognizing the existence of the problem would an artisan then turn to the prior art and attempt to develop a new formulation for storage stability. If these discoveries and advances were routine and relatively easy, the record would undoubtedly have shown that some ordinary artisan would have achieved this invention within months of Dikstein or Serup. Instead this invention does not appear for more than a decade.

Now, the Federal Circuit’s language here obviously includes some amount of doublespeak or could perhaps be described as slicing the bologna awfully thin since according to the court, researchers (1) recognized that vitamin D could not be stably combined with low pH drugs such as corticosteroids but (2) did not recognize that vitamin-D could not be stably combined with corticosteroids.

Old Prior Art: In the discussion, Judge Rader uses an interesting between-the-lines or perhaps behind-the-scenes analysis of the prior art:

First, the Board found motivation to combine Dikstein or Serup with Turi because one of ordinary skill would have used vitamin D to solve the well-known side effects of steroid treatment. However, combining Turi and vitamin D to address the side effects of a steroid treatment is only straightforward in hindsight. Turi was publicly available in the prior art for twenty-two years before the ′013 patent was filed, yet there is no evidence that anyone sought to improve Turi with vitamin D. According to the record, even when Serup published the well-known side effects of steroid-induced atrophy in 1994, no one—including Serup—sought to improve Turi by adding vitamin D to Turi’s corticosteroid composition. Serup even targeted the precise side effects that the Board believed would have motivated the addition of a vitamin D analog to Turi’s corticosteroid composition, yet Serup did not seek to improve Turi by adding vitamin D. . . .

The elapsed time between the prior art and the ′013 patent’s filing date evinces that the ′013 patent’s claimed invention was not obvious to try. Indeed this considerable time lapse suggests instead that the Board only traverses the obstacles to this inventive enterprise with a resort to hindsight. It took over a decade—after Dikstein’s disclosure of the benefits of combining vitamin D and corticosteroid treatments into one formulation—for Dikstein’s formulations to be tested for storage stability. And, until the advancement made by the inventors of the ′013 patent, no one had proposed a new formulation that would be storage stable. The problem was not known, the possible approaches to solving the problem were not known or finite, and the solution was not predictable. Therefore, the claimed invention would not have been obvious to try to one of ordinary skill in the art. Indeed ordinary artisans would not have thought to try at all because they would not have recognized the problem.

Under Judge Rader’s point of view here, older prior art should be seen as less credible in the obviousness analysis. The logic obvious improvements would have happened quickly and the long time span between improvements suggest that the improvement was not an obvious one. This logic is bolstered in cases such as this where research is ongoing in the area and a market has already developed.

Although the patentee claimed a wide variety of solvents, the Federal Circuit also found that there were many more potential solvents available to try and the PTO did not offer specific reasons why the ones selected would have been particularly obvious to try.

In addition, the Board found that a person of ordinary skill in the art would have been capable of selecting the correct formulation from available alternatives. Specifically, the Board found more than eight different classes of additives ( e.g., diluents, buffers, thickeners, lubricants). The Board also found more than ten different categories of composition forms ( e.g., liniments, lotions, applicants, oil-in-water or water-in-oil emulsions such as creams, ointments, pastes, or gels). “Based on these broad and general disclosures,” the Board reasoned that an artisan would have been able to “mak[e] choices about what ingredients to include, and which to exclude” in formulating a composition with a vitamin D analog and steroid. To the contrary, the breadth of these choices and the numerous combinations indicate that these disclosures would not have rendered the claimed invention obvious to try. See Rolls–Royce PLC v. United Techs. Corp., 603 F.3d 1325, 1339 (Fed.Cir.2010) (claimed invention was not obvious to try because the prior art disclosed a “broad selection of choices for further investigation”). . . . .

This court and obviousness law in general recognizes an important distinction between combining known options into “a finite number of identified, predictable solutions,” KSR, and ” ‘merely throwing metaphorical darts at a board’ in hopes of arriving at a successful result,” Cyclobenzaprine, quoting Kubin. While the record shows that, as early as 1995, the prior art indicated that both vitamin D analogs and corticosteroids were effective treatments for psoriasis, that same prior art gave no direction as to which of the many possible combination choices were likely to be successful. Instead, the prior art consistently taught away from combining vitamin D analogs and corticosteroids.

One important feature of PTO decision making is that Board conclusions of fact only require substantial evidence to be affirmed on appeal. Here, the Federal Circuit avoided that issue by indicating that all of its decisions were based upon the Board failure to properly apply the law to those facts. “In this case, however, with no material factual disputes, this court cannot share the Board’s analysis and application of the law to those facts.”

Objective Indicia of Non-Obviousness: Judge Rader writes:

The court now turns to the Board’s analysis of the objective indicia of nonobviousness. The Board reasoned that “the strong case of obviousness outweighs the experimental evidence and testimony about the advantages of the claimed composition.” Contrary to the Board’s conclusion, this court finds the objective indicia, in concert with the entire obviousness analysis, present a compelling case of nonobviousness. In fact, the objective indicia of nonobviousness highlight that the Board’s analysis regarding the combination of Serup or Dikstein with Turi was colored by hindsight.

Whether before the Board or a court, this court has emphasized that consideration of the objective indicia is part of the whole obviousness analysis, not just an afterthought. … When an applicant appeals an examiner’s objection to the patentability of an application’s claims for obviousness, the PTO necessarily has the burden to establish a prima facie case of obviousness which the applicant then rebuts. However, during inter partes reexamination, the Board is reviewing evidence of obviousness—including objective indicia—submitted by two adversarial parties for the claims of an issued patent. Thus, the Board should give the objective indicia its proper weight and place in the obviousness analysis, and not treat objective indicia of nonobviousness as an afterthought.

Objective indicia of nonobviousness play a critical role in the obviousness analysis. They are “not just a cumulative or confirmatory part of the obviousness calculus but constitute[ ] independent evidence of nonobviousness.” Ortho–McNeil Pharm., Inc. v. Mylan Labs., Inc., 520 F.3d 1358, 1365 (Fed.Cir.2008). This case illustrates a good reason for considering objective indicia as a critical piece of the obviousness analysis: Objective indicia “can be the most probative evidence of nonobviousness in the record, and enables the court to avert the trap of hindsight.” Crocs, Inc. v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, 598 F.3d 1294, 1310 (Fed.Cir.2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). Here, the objective indicia of nonobviousness are crucial in avoiding the trap of hindsight when reviewing, what otherwise seems like, a combination of known elements.

Unexpected results are useful to show the “improved properties provided by the claimed compositions are much greater than would have been predicted.” See In re Soni, 54 F.3d 746, 751 (Fed.Cir.1995) (internal quotation marks omitted). This record shows “extensive experimental evidence” of unexpected results that contradict the Board’s obviousness finding. J.A. 14. The Board concluded that the “unexpected results” claimed by Leo Pharmaceuticals were not surprising or unexpected. J.A. 19. However, substantial evidence does not support the Board’s conclusion.

During reexamination, the inventors of the ′013 patent submitted test results that analyzed the Dikstein and Serup formulations. The inventors found that the formulations disclosed by Dikstein and Serup result in significant degradation of the vitamin D analog and corticosteroid. See J.A. 1041–46 (testing formulations in Serup); J.A. 1625–27, 2152–2154 (testing formulations in Dikstein). The inventors also tested an improvement of Serup using Turi, by replacing Serup’s solvent with POP–15–SE, and still found significant degradation of the corticosteroid component. See J.A. 1045–46. These test results are a strong indication that the ′013 patent’s combination of known elements yields more than just predictable results.

In addition to evidence of unexpected results, Leo Pharmaceuticals provided other objective indicia of non-obviousness. For example, the commercial success of Leo Pharmaceutical’s Taclonex® ointment is a testament to the improved properties of the ′013 patent’s claimed invention. Taclonex® is the first FDA-approved drug to combine vitamin D and corticosteroids into a single formulation for topical application. While FDA approval is not determinative of nonobviousness, it can be relevant in evaluating the objective indicia of nonobviousness. See Knoll Pharm. Co., Inc. v. Teva. Pharm. USA, Inc., 367 F.3d 1381, 1385 (Fed.Cir.2004). Here, FDA approval highlights that Leo Pharmaceutical’s formulation is truly storage stable, something that the prior art formulations did not achieve.

The record also shows evidence of long felt but unsolved need, i.e., the need for a single formulation to treat psoriasis. The length of the intervening time between the publication dates of the prior art and the claimed invention can also qualify as an objective indicator of nonobviousness. See Ecolochem, Inc. v. S. Cal. Edison Co., 227 F.3d 1361, 1376–77 (Fed.Cir.2000). Here, the researchers were aware of the benefits of using both vitamin D and corticosteroids in the treatment of psoriasis as early as 1986. See, e.g., Dikstein col. 1, ll. 9–16. And Turi, upon which the Board relied to make its case, issued in 1978. Yet, it was not until the ′013 patent’s filing in 2000— twenty-two years after Turi and fourteen years after Dikstein-that the solution to the long felt but unsolved need for a combined treatment of vitamin D and corticosteroid was created. The intervening time between the prior art’s teaching of the components and the eventual preparation of a successful composition speaks volumes to the nonobviousness of the ′013 patent.

Here, the objective indicia—taken in sum—are the most “probative evidence of nonobviousness … enabl[ing] the court to avert the trap of hindsight.” Crocs, Inc., 598 F.3d at 1310. Viewed through the lens of the objective indicia, as opposed to the hindsight lens used by the Board, the ′013 patent would not have been not obvious over Turi in combination with Dikstein or Serup. Therefore, this court reverses the Board’s obviousness determination.

SkinMedica v. Histogen

By Jason Rantanen

SkinMedica Inc. v. Histogen Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2013) Download SkinMedica v Histogen
Panel: Rader (dissenting), Clevenger, Prost (author)

SkinMedica owns Patents No. 6,372,494 and 7,118,746, which relate to methods for producing pharmaceutical compositions containing "novel conditioned cell culture medium compositions,…[and] uses for the[m]."  A conditioned cell culture medium is an artificial environment that supplies the components necessary to meet the nutritional needs of the growing cells.  The conditioned medium at issue here also included extracellular proteins that, according to the patentees, may be useful for treating skin conditions such as wrinkles, frown lines, etc. 

The written descriptions of the '494 and '746 patents explain that a novel and important aspect of their invention is the difference between growing cells in two-dimensions and growing cells in three-dimensions. 

Claim 1 of the '494 patent:

1. A method of making a composition comprising:

(a) culturing fibroblast cells in three-dimensions in a cell culture medium sufficient to meet the nutritional needs required to grow the cells in vitro until the cell culture medium contains a desired level of extracellular products so that a conditioned medium is formed;

(b) removing the conditioned medium from the cultured cells; and

(c) combining the conditioned medium with a pharmaceutically acceptable carrier to form the composition.

(emphasis added by court).  At issue was the phrase "culturing…cells in three-dimensions."  The district court construed this phrase to mean "growing…cells in three dimensions (excluding growing in monolayers or on microcarrier beads."  Following claim construction, the district courted summary judgment of noninfringement for Histogen as it was undisputed that Histogen grew its cells on microcarrier beads. 

Limits on Ordinary Meaning: On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court's claim construction. The court first agreed with SkinMedica that "the ordinary meaning of “culturing . . . cells in three-dimensions” would reach the use of beads."  However,

If the specification reveals “a special definition given to a claim term by the patentee that differs from the meaning it would otherwise possess[,] . . . the inventor’s lexicography governs.”…. And if the specification reveals “an intentional disclaimer, or disavowal, of claim scope by the inventor,” the scope of the claim, “as expressed in the specification, is regarded as dispositive.”
Slip Op. at 13 (citations omitted).  An  high hurdle applies when dealing with implied rather than express redefinition, as an "implied redefinition must be so clear that it equates to an explicit one."  Id. at 29, quoting Thorner v. Sony Computer, 669 F.3d 1362, 1368 (Fed. Cir. 2012).  Here, according to the majority, the inventors did precisely that for "culturing…cells in three dimenations":

In the written description, the patentees plainly and repeatedly distinguished culturing with beads from culturing in three-dimensions. They expressly defined the use of beads as culturing in two-dimensions. And they avoided anticipatory prior art during prosecution by asserting that the conditioned medium produced by two-dimensional cultures was inferior and chemically distinct from the conditioned medium produced by three-dimensional cultures. Because none of the evidence called to our attention by SkinMedica would reasonably lead to a different reading of the intrinsic evidence, we find that the inventors clearly redefined the scope of “culturing . . . cells in three dimensions” by disclaiming the use of beads—which would otherwise be included in the ordi- nary meaning of that phrase.

Id. at 15.  In support of this conclusion, the majority opinion walks through a lengthy discussion of the text of the specification and prosecution history, addressing language such as "beads, as opposed to cells grown in three dimensions and the use of "i.e."  The result was a disavowal of beads from the scope of the claim term at issue:

"In sum, although the inventors never explicitly redefined three-dimensional cultures to exclude the use of beads, their implicit disclaimer of culturing with beads here was even “so clear that it equates to an explicit one. Without fail, each time the inventors referenced culturing with beads in the specification, they unambiguously distinguished that culture method from culturing in three-dimensions."

Id. at 27. 

Incorporation by Reference: One of SkinMedica's counter arguments was that the written description incorporated a voluminous technical treatise, Cell & Tissue Culture: Laboratory Procedures ("Doyle") in its entirety and that Doyle describes three-dimensional culturing with beads.  Among the majority's bases for rejecting SkinMedica's argument was the lack of any specific reference to Doyle:

Third, even if we assume that the passage from Doyle discusses what one of ordinary skill in the art might understand to be three-dimensional culturing with beads, the inventors’ general citation of Doyle does not indicate any reliance on that particular passage to define “culturing in three-dimensions” and to abandon the otherwise clear disclaimer of beads in the specification. When discussing cell culture methods, the patentees make the following reference to Doyle:

The cells may be cultured in any manner known in the art including in monolayer, beads or in three-dimensions and by any means . . . . Methods of cell and tissue culturing are well known in the art, and are described, for example, in [Doyle], supra; Freshney (1987), Culture of Animal Cells: A Manual of Basic Techniques, infra.

’494 patent col. 10 ll. 2–6.

It is clear from that passage that the inventors did not refer to Doyle in order to define what they meant by “three-dimensional culturing” in their patent. They did not indicate their reference to Doyle was for that purpose; nor did they even refer with any detailed particularity to the passages in Doyle that, according to SkinMedica, may have discussed three-dimensional culturing with beads. When the inventors wanted to use Doyle to explain the potential scope of terms they used, they did so specifically….We see no reason for such a non-specific reference to trump the clear disclaimer in the specification of culturing with beads.

Slip Op. at 35-36. 

Judge Rader's Dissent: Writing in dissent, Judge Rader disagreed that the patentee had met the "heavy presumption" in favor of the ordinary meaning of claim language.  Central to Judge Rader's opinion was the distinction between growing cells "on beads" and growing cells in three-dimensions using beads.  

Deference battle? Judge Rader's dissent also relied on testimony by SkinMedica's technical expert, Dr. Salomon.  The majority agreed with district court's decision to give Dr. Salomon's testimony "no weight"; in Judge Rader's eyes, "Dr. Salomon's testimony, when viewed as a whole, deserves great weight and respect."  Slip Op. at 47. 

Working out the Kinks in Post-Issuance Reviews: Versata v. SAP

By Dennis Crouch

The Versata saga provides an important case history showing the power of the new post-grant review procedures before the USPTO and the Office’s seeming new power to operate without fear of judicial review. However, over the next year the Federal Circuit will have its opportunity to review the PTAB’s controversial decisions.

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Versata’s hierarchical pricing engine software had strong sales in the mid 1990’s, that ended when SAP and others added the component to their product line – an extra add-on was no longer needed. SAP indicated that its software replaced the need for Versata’s add-on and actively discouraged customers from using Versata.

Versata’s In-Court Victories: Versata eventually sued SAP in 2007 and won a first jury verdict and then a second jury verdict (finding that SAP’s “patch” did not cure the infringement) with a $300 million + damage award. That final decision was later affirmed on appeal.

Petition for Post-Grant Review of Covered Business Method: Meanwhile, following the district court’s second finding of infringement (but prior conclusion of the aforementioned appeal), SAP filed a petition for Post Grant Review available to “Covered Business Methods” as part of the America Invents Act. SAP had clearly been anxious to use this approach and filed the PGR petition at its first opportunity on September 16, 2012 (the first day such petitions were allowed). CBM2012-0001.

If you remember, post-grant review (including CBM review) allows for challenge on “any ground that could be raised under paragraph (2) or (3) of section 282 (b) (relating to invalidity of the patent or any claim).” This has been interpreted by the PTO to include validity challenges raised under 35 U.S.C. § 101, 102, 103, or 112. But see Can a Third Party Challenge Section 101 Subject Matter Eligibility in the USPTO’s new Post-Grant Review Procedure?

SAP’s petition challenged the patent claims as (1) directed toward unpatentable subject matter under §101; (2) lacking written description; (3) indefinite; and anticipated.

USPTO Grants Petition for Post Grant Review: In a January 2013 order, the USPTO’s Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) granted the petition after finding that the challenged claims are “more likely than not unpatentable.” In particular, the PTAB allowed the challenge to move forward on the Section 101 and 102 grounds.

The PTAB made two additional important rulings:

What is a Covered Business Method?: First, the Board ruled that the ‘350 patent claims qualified as covered-business-methods because the claims are directed to a method for the “management of a financial product or service” and are not “technological inventions.” The PTO’s working definition of “technological” is rather unhelpful in that it simply asks whether the claim recites a new “technological feature” or “solves a technical problem using a technical solution.” Relevant claims of the patent (U.S. Patent No. 6,553,350) are shown below (claims 17 and 26). And, you will note that the method claim 17 does not recite any steps that could not be done with pencil and paper.

Issue Preclusion / Collateral Estoppel Does Not Apply: The ordinary rule in federal courts is that preclusion applies following final judgment by a district court. The fact that an appeal is pending does not impact the finality of the district court judgment unless & until the appellate court takes some action. In Pharmacia, the Federal Circuit wrote that the “vast weight of case law” supports the notion that a judgment should be given its full preclusive effect even when an appeal is pending. Pharmacia & Upjohn Co. v. Mylan Pharm., 170 F.3d 1373 (Fed. Cir. 1999). Here, Versata argued that the PTO should follow that general rule and since SAP already had a full and fair opportunity to challenge the patent validity and had lost its federal lawsuit resulting in final judgment. The PTAB rejected Versata’s argument finding instead that it would would not respect any final judgment subject to a pending appeal to the Federal Circuit.

As the final judgment in the related Versata v. SAP litigation is currently on appeal to the Federal Circuit, we hold that the district court’s judgment is not sufficiently firm to be accorded conclusive effect for purposes of 37 C.F.R. 42.302 as it is still subject to reversal or amendment.

On this issue, it is interesting to note that the appeal brief filed by SAP did not challenge district court’s validity finding. Thus, although the district court decision in general could have been rejected on appeal (it wasn’t), there was simple no chance even in January 2013 that the appellate panel was going to opine on patent validity issues.

At this point, in January 2013, the PTAB was beginning its review of the ‘350 patent’s validity and, in parallel the Federal Circuit was considering SAP’s appeal that focused on noninfringement and remedy arguments.

No Challenge to PTO Decision to Grant Post-Issuance Review Petition: Versata also opened a third-front – filing suit in Virginia district court to overturn the PTO’s decision to grant the post-issuance review petition. In a recent decision, the Virginia court rejected that request in Versata Development v. Rea (as Director of USPTO) and SAP AG, 2013 WL 4014649 (E.D. Va. 2013) (no subject matter jurisdiction). The AIA indicates that the PTO’s determination of whether or not to institute post-grant proceedings are “final and nonappealable.” 35 U.S.C. 324. Versata argued that “nonappealable” in the statute should be seen as merely limiting direct appeals to the Federal Circuit and that its request for review was akin to a “civil action” under 35 U.S.C. 145 and not an “appeal.” Bolstering that argument is the language of 35 U.S.C. 329 and 141 that define appeal in post-issuance proceedings as appeals to the Federal Circuit. However, the district court rejected Versata’s argument and held that the court lacked jurisdiction under the statute and that, in any case, the decision to grant the review was only an interlocutory decision. It is unclear, but Versata may appeal this decision soon. [As an aside, the language of the district court opinion suggests that petition is denied

Federal Circuit Decision (Largely) Affirms Lower Court: The next event in this long saga came in May 2013 when the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s determination of infringement and the damages award. The only modification of the judgment was to ask the lower court to be more particular in injoining infringement without injoining sales of SAP products in general.

PTAB Final Judgment: The following month in June 2013, the PTAB came out with its final ruling holding that the patent claims are invalid under 35 U.S.C. §101 as unpatentably abstract. This decision obviously temporally follows both the district court decision and that of the Federal Circuit. Yet, the PTAB found itself to differ on both claim construction and validity.

In particular, the PTAB determined that it would apply the “broadest reasonable interpretation” (BRI) standard to claim construction during post-issuance proceedings even though the terms had already been construed by the district court in a final judgment. The PTO’s rational is that (1) it is not bound by the district court judgment since “appeals from this proceeding are exclusively the Federal Circuit rather than to district courts” and that (2) the patentee’s ability to amend claims during review suggests that BRI should apply.

In the 101 analysis, the panel found that the claimed method of determining a price using product group hierarchies was a “disembodied concept” capable of being performed mentally, on paper, or on a general purpose computer. The PTO final judgment did not substantially revisit the issues of preclusion or whether the PTO has standing to challenge the patent under Section 101.

At the PTAB, the current status is that the Board is considering a rehearing request by Versata with the primary new focus being on the Federal Circuit’s Ultramercial decision. Versata again raised the contention that §101 is not a permissible ground for post grant review. Versata writes “Because § 101 is not a condition for patentability, much less specified as such as required by 35 U.S.C. § 282(b)(2), it is not reviewable in a post-grant review (or CBM review).”

All these issues are likely to come to a head as the case is appealed to the Federal Circuit over the next year.

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Claims at Issue:

17. A method for determining a price of a product offered to a purchasing organization comprising: arranging a hierarchy of organizational groups comprising a plurality of branches such that an organizational group below a higher organizational group in each of the branches is a subset of the higher organizational group; arranging a hierarchy of product groups comprising a plurality of branches such that a product group below a higher product group in each of the branches in a subset of the higher product group; storing pricing information in a data source, wherein the pricing information is associated, with (i) a pricing type, (ii) the organizational groups, and (iii) the product groups; retrieving applicable pricing information corresponding to the product, the purchasing organization, each product group above the product group in each branch of the hierarchy of product groups in which the product is a member, and each organizational group above the purchasing organization in each branch of the hierarchy of organizational groups in which the purchasing organization is a member; sorting the pricing information according to the pricing types, the product, the purchasing organization, the hierarchy of product groups, and the hierarchy of organizational groups; eliminating any of the pricing information that is less restrictive; and determining the product price using the sorted pricing information.

26. A computer readable storage media comprising: computer instructions to implement the method of claim 17.

Judge Plager: Construe Ambiguous Terms Against the Drafter

3M Innovative Properties Companies v. Tredegar Corp (Fed. Cir. 2013)

In 2009, 3M filed sued – alleging that Tredegar’s elastomeric laminates (used for diaper waistbands) infringed four 3M patents. U.S. Patent Nos. 5,501,679; 5,5691,034, 5,468,428, and 5,344,691. After claim construction, District Court Judge Donovan Frank 3M stipulated to a finding of non-infringement. The appeal focuses on construction of the asserted claims.

In its decision, the Federal Circuit panel issued three different opinions – each offering different notions on the correct construction of the various claim terms and each offering some disagreement with Judge Frank’s initial opinion.

The most interesting opinion of the four is Judge Plager’s concurring opinion that focuses on the intentional ambiguity inserted into the claims by 3M. Judge Plager argues that courts should begin to apply the contract doctrine of contra proferentem and construe ambiguous terms against the drafter (i.e., the patent holder). Judge Plager writes:

I appreciate that there are four different patents involved, and that the particular technology for manufacturing the product is quite detailed, although the products themselves are fairly basic—the material at issue is used for example in diapers. Nevertheless, when claims are larded with terms such as “substantially,” “preferentially,” and “relatively,” and when it takes four judges and some seventy pages of densely written opinions to find meaning in these terms, there is considerable evidence of a failure by the claim drafters to be clear and precise, and, beyond that, of a shortcoming in the patent examination process that permits claims to be so drafted.

Sometimes such ambiguity is the result of sloppy drafting, and sometimes it appears that claims are drafted with a degree of indefiniteness so as to leave room to later argue for a broad interpretation designed to capture later-developed competition. The problem is exacerbatedwhen, as here, there is a conflicting or indeterminate written description and prosecution history with regard to the claim terms at issue. Claim construction then becomes a game of crystal ball gazing, not resolved until this court’s gaze is announced.

The particular claim construction issue that divides the three appellate judges provides a perfect example of the problem. The claim term, “continuous microtextured skin layer,” truly is perplexing. Does “continuous” apply to the microtexturing, the skin layer, or both? Does it mean the microtexturing is everywhere (except perhaps for manufacturing flaws), or can it cover only a part of the skin layer as long as that part is continuous? Relying on the Chicago Manual of Style, 3M argues that “continuous” and “microtextured” are adjectives that separately modify “skin layer,” and thus, the claim term does not require that the microtexturing itself be continuous. According to 3M, if the applicant wanted “continuous” to modify “microtextured,” the applicant would have used the adverb “continuously.”

3M makes an interesting argument to be sure. But the argument creates its own grammatical problems. For example, there is no comma between “continuous” and “microtextured.” And the Chicago Manual of Style also tells us that adjectives that separately modify a noun are generally separated by a comma, unless of course the second adjective is a unit with the noun being modified (which would favor Tredegar’s construction). The Chicago Manual of Style § 6.33 (16th ed. 2010). The applicant seems to have understood this comma concept, and in fact used it when referring in the written description to a “continuous, deeply textured, microstructured surface.” ‘034 patent, col.15 ll.2-3. But the nuances of comma usage, like 3M’s adverb argument, seem to me a tenuous foundation for an entire claim construction on which substantial liabilities may rest. See United States v. Palmer, 16 U.S. 610, 638, 4 L. Ed. 471 (1818) (noting that “the use of the comma is exceedingly arbitrary and indefinite”); United States v. Ron Pair Enterprises, Inc., 489 U.S. 235, 249, 109 S. Ct. 1026, 1035, 103 L. Ed. 2d 290 (1989) (characterizing a comma as a “capricious bit of punctuation”) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Much like the claim’s grammar, the written description provides little help deciphering the meaning of the disputed term. Certainly, the ‘034 patent has a lot of disclosure: nearly 30 columns of it. The patent has 33 different examples, 16 tables, and 24 figures. The patent’s problem does not lie in the quantity of its disclosure; it lies in the disclosure’s relevance to the language used in the claims.

The applicant knew or should have known that the claim term “continuous microtextured skin layer” was highly relevant to the patented technology. The applicant wrote the term nine times in the first eight claims. Strangely, however, the disclosure does not reflect this relevance. “Continuous microtextured skin layer” does not appear one single time in the written description. The written description provides no discussion of “continuous microtextured skin layer,” no definition. Language resembling the claim term appears here and there, but mutated versions of claim terms often confuse more than they elucidate.

While ultimately I have voted to join Judge Reyna for the reasons I explain shortly, Judge O’Malley in her dissent-in-part makes an argument for the opposite construction based on the prosecution history. The argument is not without merit, although again, I do not find the prosecution history a shining example of clarity.

Cases like this—claim construction issues such as this one—may well deserve application of a principle analogous to the contract doctrine of contra proferentem. See Williston on Contracts § 32:12 (4th ed.). When a term is ambiguous, a crystal ball matter, the ambiguity should be construed against the draftsman. (Or better yet, the claim should simply be invalidated as indefinite, though our court has not seen fit to go there as yet.)

Without labeling it as such, we have already used this principle to construe claims for compliance with 35 U.S.C. § 112. See Athletic Alternatives, Inc. v. Prince Mfg., Inc., 73 F.3d 1573, 1581 (Fed. Cir. 1996) (“Where there is an equal choice between a broader and a narrower meaning of a claim, and there is an enabling disclosure that indicates that the applicant is at least entitled to a claim having the narrower meaning, we consider the notice function of the claim to be best served by adopting the narrower meaning.”); see also A Theory of Claim Interpretation, 14 Harv. J.L. & Tech. 1, 81 (2000).

The contra proferentem principle would require the applicant to draft clear claims, using simple, direct sentences, proper grammar, and definitions in the written description where appropriate. It harmonizes with the notice function of patent law. It would result in applicants—and prospective patentees—investing more resources on the front end, during drafting, and less resources on the remedial end, during litigation. Better drafting of patent applications can only improve the efficiency of the patent system by clearly delineating a patentee’s property rights, thereby reducing wasteful and unnecessary litigation.

Specifically in this case, when I gaze in my crystal ball, I see, in addition to the verbal jousting, a district judge who struggled at length to make sense of the claims, and I see a patentee (more correctly a patent applicant) who had the last clear chance—infringement is after all a tort—to avoid this kind of unnecessary claim construction game. My crystal ball tells me to vote against the patentee’s construction of “continuous microtextured skin layer” and in favor of a competitor who should not have the risk of guessing wrong about what a claim term could possibly mean.

Judge Plager’s solution is gets to the heart of the matter – claim construction is problematic because patents and patent claims are so often drafted in ways that hide the invention rather elucidate the inventor’s contribution.