Wasica Decision Reinforces Federal Circuit Guidance on Claim Construction

The Federal Circuit’s recent decision in Wasica Finance v. Continental Automotive Systems touched on a number of well-worn patent issues, but this article focuses on a few key claim construction principles discussed by the CAFC, including that the contents of the specification are highly relevant when performing claim construction, and a claim generally will not be construed in a manner that renders recited terms meaningless or superfluous.

Wasica is the result of the CAFC consolidating two appeals based on two IPRs arising from petitions filed with respect to Patent Owner’s U.S. Patent No. 5,602,524 (“the ‘524 patent”). The claims at issue were directed, generally, to a system for measuring tire pressure. In the system, each tire included a pressure measuring device and a transmitter, and each transmitter transmitted pressure data to a corresponding receiver. A transmission from a transmitter to a corresponding receiver also included an “identification signal” for identifying the transmitter that sent the transmission. A receiver receiving the identification signal stored the identification signal and processed transmissions only from the corresponding transmitter.

As to the first claim construction issue, Patent Owner argued that the PTAB erred in determining that a particular pressure sensor disclosed by the prior art taught a “pressure measuring device” because the pressure sensor only output a binary signal that indicated whether a measured pressure is abnormal. Patent Owner argued that the recited pressure measuring device, when properly construed, must output a tire’s pressure as a numerical value, and that such a numerical value cannot be represented by a single bit of a binary signal. The CAFC sided with the PTAB and rejected the claim construction presented by Patent Owner. The CAFC relied, in part, on the ‘524 patent, itself, which identifies a family of European patents as including examples of manners in which a sensor of the ‘524 patent may output a pressure signal. The CAFC decided that the family of European patents identified by the ‘524 patent disclose switch-based (e.g., binary) pressure sensors and non-numeric pressure signals. The CAFC pointed out that, in accordance with previous decisions, the CAFC generally does not interpret claim terms in a manner that excludes examples disclosed in the specification. Id. at 13.

As to the second claim construction issue, Petitioners argued that the proper claim construction for the term “bit sequence,” from claim 9, was a sequence of “one or more bits.” Patent Owner argued that the plain meaning of “sequence” implies at least two elements. The PTAB agreed with Patent Owner, but on appeal, the CAFC disagreed. The CAFC explained that the recited element required “at least a 4 bit sequence” which included 4 constituent bit sequences, and thus, interpreting a “sequence” as requiring at least two bits would result in a minimum size of 8 bits for the “at least 4 bit sequence.” The CAFC determined that such an interpretation would essentially rewrite “at least 4 bits” from claim 9 to “at least 8 bits.” The CAFC explained that it is highly disfavored to construe terms in a way that renders them void, meaningless, or superfluous. Id. at 28. As further support for reversing the PTAB’s decision regarding the patentability of claim 9, the CAFC pointed to a portion of the ‘524 patent interpreted by the CAFC as disclosing an embodiment in which a bit sequence included a single bit, thereby contradicting the at-least-two-bit interpretation of “bit sequence” sought by Wasica Finance.

In the end, the Patent Owner and Petitioner both took home partial victories, while the rest of us take home additional insight into the Court’s construction of claim limitations.

Federal Circuit is No Place to Make New Claim Construction Arguments

The Federal Circuit has consistently made clear that arguments not first made to the PTAB will not be considered on appeal. Google fell victim to this well-worn concept in Google Inc. v. SimpleAir, Inc., 2016-1901 (CAFC March 28, 2017), wherein the Federal Circuit decided, in a non-precedential opinion, that Google waived a claim construction argument that was not first presented to the Board. The Court also denied Google’s backup argument that, even under the Board’s claim construction, the art rendered the challenged claims unpatentable.

Regarding the waiver issue, the Court gave context to the dispute by noting that the term at issue, “central broadcast server,” had been construed in three prior district court litigations. In each instance, the courts adopted a definition of the term that was identical to the construction ultimately applied by the PTAB. Although Google filed its IPR against the backdrop of those district court constructions, Google provided the Board with the district court definitions of the term, without offering any other suggested construction. Id. at 5-6 (“Google did not…insist or even request that the PTAB apply a differing construction.”). Google further conceded, at oral argument, that the district court constructions constituted the broadest reasonable interpretation in the IPR proceeding. As such, the claim construction argument Google attempted on appeal was deemed waived.

Regarding Google’s backup plan, the Court quickly dispatched with Google’s arguments, describing them as a “mischaracterization of the PTAB’s ruling, in attempt to create legal error.” Id. at 10.

In sum, this decision reminds Petitioners of the need to carefully weigh the entire record and choose their claim construction positions wisely. While it is hard to know all the litigation considerations that were present in this case, the BRI standard could have been a helpful distinction from the insufficient district court constructions to defeat the challenged claims.

Unreasonable Claim Construction Causes PTAB Reversal

 

In a fairly case-specific claim construction analysis, the Federal Circuit reversed the PTAB today in D’Agostino v. Mastercard, Int’l, 2016-1592, -1593 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 12, 2016), finding that the Board erred in determining the challenged claims to be unpatentable because, as a matter of logic, the prior art could not anticipate or render those claims.

The patent at issue involved methods of effecting secure credit-card purchases by minimizing merchant access to credit card numbers. In those methods, a limited-use transaction code is given to the merchant in the place of the credit card number. Of particular importance to the Court’s decision was a “single-merchant” limitation that required that, when such a transaction code is requested, the request limits the number of authorized merchants to one, but does not then identify the merchant because the claims required that such identification occurred only later. Id. at 7.

In its claim construction during the inter partes review trial, the PTAB adopted a construction that did not recognize the separation in time of the communication of the transaction code and the communication of the merchant’s identity. Id. at 5-6. As might be expected, the Court relied upon the specification of the subject patent, as well as its file history, to support this claim construction. See, e.g., id. at 6 (“The prosecution history reinforces the evident meaning of the single-merchant limitation…”).

In general, this decision represents another decision that patent owners can point to in support of the notion that the Board is not flawless in all of its decisions. This particular Board panel made errors that, according to the Federal Circuit, were fairly obvious in nature helping to undercut any notion of Board infallibility.

Federal Circuit Rejects Patentee’s Effort to Narrow Claim Scope

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One wrinkle of IPR practice is that patentees are often in the position of advocating a narrower claim scope than the challenger—just the opposite of what is usually seen in district court litigation.  The narrowing strategy is logical—particularly where there is very close prior art, a patentee may need to seek a narrow construction in the IPR to avoid the prior art, and then worry about infringement later.  However, the Federal Circuit decisions that restrict efforts by district court defendants to limit a claim to the preferred embodiment also functions to limit patentees in IPRs.  The Federal Circuit’s November 9, 2016 decision in Schoeller-Bleckmann Oilfield Equipment AG v. Churchill Drilling Tools US, Inc. is a good example of that dynamic.

Schoeller was an appeal from the PTAB’s decision that the challenged claims were anticipated and obvious.  The technology involved drilling apparatuses, and specifically a mechanism for allowing and restricting the flow of liquid through a drill string to activate and deactivate a downhole tool.  The only issue on appeal was whether the Board properly construed “ball-like portion.”  In the claim, that limitation was a part of a “deformable activator” that restricts fluid flow when engaged with a seat.

The issue presented was whether the Board properly construed the term as “a structure with at least one outer curve” (which would encompass a deformable ball), or whether the term was limited to the “deformable ring” shown in the patent’s figures (as advocated by the patentee).

The Federal Circuit affirmed the Board, finding the patentee’s narrowing effort was contrary to the Court’s repeated teaching that claim terms should not be limited to a preferred embodiment without a clear intent to redefine the term or a clear disavowal of claim scope, citing Thorner v. Sony as an example.  Looking particularly to the patent, the Court determined the specification allowed a ball as a species of the “ball-like portion” based on a specification passage stating “the dart can pull the ball downwardly.”  This case serves as a good reminder that a broad specification can actually hurt a patentee in an IPR.

Federal Circuit Demonstrates Willingness to Rein in PTAB’s Onerous Idle Free Rules Regarding Claim Amendments

cafc1Patentees have been generally frustrated with the Board’s unwillingness to grant motions to amend. The Board’s Idle Free case, and its progeny, have added a number of requirements to a motion to amend that are above and beyond the simple requirements set forth in the IPR implementing statute. While the Federal Circuit has, generally, stated that the Board can, via decisions like Idle Free, define the characteristics of IPR proceedings, some of those requirements are beginning to fall by the wayside. Another requirement was knocked down by the Court today in Veritas Techs. v. Veeam Software (August 30, 2016). No longer must a patentee show that added claim elements in a motion to amend are, individually, inventive over the known prior art.  The Federal Circuit’s rebuke of the Board on this point  gives patentees more hope for future amendments.

The Veritas IPR involved a patent covering systems and methods for restoring computer data.  As a first line of defense, the patentee argued for a narrow claim construction in an effort to avoid the prior art.  That argument was rejected by both the Board and the Federal Circuit, with citation to the broadest reasonable construction claim construction standard.  As a second line defense, the patentee presented a conditional motion to amend which explicitly added the patentee’s claim construction argument to the claims.  The Board also rejected that motion, a ruling the Federal Circuit characterized as “based on its insistence that the patent owner discuss whether each newly added feature was separately known in the prior art.”  Specifically, the Board had faulted the patentee for discussing only “the newly added features in combination with other known features.”  The Federal Circuit held that position to be arbitrary and capricious and thus in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

Specifically, the Court found several instances in the record where the patentee (or its expert) explained that prior art systems did not contain the newly added features.  The Court could “not see how the Board could reasonably demand more from Veritas,” particularly in light of the “long line of Supreme Court and Federal Circuit cases (including KSR) which note “that novel and nonobvious inventions often are only a combination of known individual features.”  In light of that precedent, the Court “fail[s] to see how describing a combination is meaningfully different from describing what is new about the proposed claims, even in comparison to the unamended claims.”

As a final note, the Court explained the recent grant of en banc rehearing in In re Aqua Products (concerning the allocation of burdens in IPR amendment practice) did not affect the issue in this case.  The Court thus remanded instead of waiting for the decision in Aqua Products.

Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Cuozzo Case

8345487_sWe should soon find out whether the Federal Circuit will again face reversal at the hands of the Supreme Court in a patent case. Today, the Court heard oral arguments in the case of In re Cuozzo, the first IPR decision to reach the highest court. The transcript of the proceeding can be found HERE. Reading the reaction of judges in oral argument can be a very dangerous game, but a few key observations can be noted:

First, while there were two issues on appeal, the issue of whether the Broadest Reasonable Interpretation claim construction standard is appropriate in IPR proceedings garnered almost all of the attention of the Court. Only Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor briefly touched upon the second issue of whether the Board’s decision to institute can be reviewed by an appellate court.

Second, Chief Justice Roberts seemed troubled by the use of BRI in PTO proceedings. More specifically, Chief Justice Roberts was particularly concerned that the PTAB and a district court could come to different conclusions regarding the meaning of a claim limitation. Among his questions that indicated his seeming posture against BRI include: “It’s a very extraordinary animal in legal culture to have two different proceedings addressing the same question that lead to different results” and “It just seems to me that that’s a bizarre way to…decide a legal question.” Also, after the Solicitor explained how a district court and the PTAB may come to different conclusions, the Chief Justice asked: “And this is under a statute designed to make the patent system more reasonable and more expeditious in reaching judgments?” If an opinion comes out against BRI, we would expect the Chief Justice to author it.

Third, Justices Kennedy and Breyer seemed more favorable to BRI, framing the issue as the PTO taking a second look at questionable patents that should not have issued in the first place. As such, BRI might be appropriate for this second look in IPR. For example, Justice Kennedy asked “Well, if the patent is invalid under its broadest, reasonable interpretation, doesn’t that mean the PTO should never have issued the patent in the first place, and doesn’t that give very significant meaning and structure to this process?” Relatedly, Justice Breyer commented that “what we’re trying to do with this process is to tell the Office, you’ve been doing too much too fast. Go back and let people who are hurt by this come in and get rid of those patents that shouldn’t have issued.” These questions were less clear on their intent than Chief Justice Roberts’ questions, but indicated an understanding of why BRI had been adopted.

Fourth, regarding the issue of judicial review of PTAB decisions to institute, Justice Ginsburg indicated agreement with the Federal Circuit’s reading of 35 USC 314(d), while Justice Sotomayor seemed skeptical. Justice Ginsburg asked about the purpose of that statute if not to prevent all review of the Board’s decisions. Petitioner argued that it was to preclude mandamus and prevent review of the denial to such a hearing. At the end of the hearing, Justice Sotomayor returned to this issue, and asked why Congress would tell the PTO not to institute trial except in limited circumstances “but nobody’s going to ever watch you to make sure that’s what you’re doing.” This latter exchange was more involved and left the listener with the distinct impression that Justice Sotomayor was troubled by the lack of judicial oversight of the PTO’s decisions to institute.

Lastly, seven of the eight sitting justices asked at least one question. As is typical in such arguments, Justice Thomas did not question counsel for either Petitioner or the Solicitor.

 

Federal Circuit Reverses Because PTAB Relied Upon Argument First Raised at Oral Argument

cafc1In a decision today from the Federal Circuit, in Dell Inc. v. Acceleron, LLC, 2015-1513, -1514 (March 15, 2016), involving US Patent No. 6,948,021, the PTAB was reversed because its Final Written Decision relied upon a new argument that was first raised by Petitioner in oral argument.

In the underlying IPR, the PTAB determined that claims 14-17 and 34-36 of the ‘021 patent had not been shown to be unpatentable, but determined that claims 3 and 20 were unpatentable. In today’s Federal Circuit decision, the Court affirmed the Board’s determination that claims 14-17 and 34-36 were not shown to be unpatentable, but reversed and remanded relative to the unpatentability determinations of claims 3 and 20.

With regard to claim 20, the Court took the Board to task for failing to give meaning to all of a claim’s terms. The claim term at issue requires a microcontroller with a connection to remotely poll a CPU module. Decision at 11. The Board’s construction, in effect, ignored the “remotely poll” limitation from the claim, meaning that the Board’s claim construction was unreasonable. Id. at 13.

The more groundbreaking aspect of the Court’s decision, however, relates to the Court’s remand of claim 3. The Court held that, because the argument upon which the Board relied was first identified by Petitioner in the oral argument, Patent Owner was denied a fair opportunity to respond to the basis of cancellation. Id. at 13. As such, the Board’s decision was vacated and remanded. This holding is interesting because previous PTAB Final Written Decisions relied upon new evidence and argument advanced for the first time in reply or on appeal, but the Court did not take issue with those PTAB decisions.

More specifically, Patent Owner argued in its Patent Owner response that the “caddies” required by claim 3 were not shown by the “articulating door” from the prior art, that was identified in the Petition. In its reply brief, Petitioner presented the new argument that the caddies were also shown in the prior art’s power-supply mounting mechanisms. At the oral hearing, Petitioner expanded on this argument, arguing that unlabeled “slides” from the prior art mounting mechanisms constituted the claimed caddies. In the Final Written Decision, the Board relied upon this new argument from the oral argument, determining that claim 3 was unpatentable based on the disclosure from the prior art of the slides.

The Court noted the statutory and regulatory bases for the requirement that the Board put a Patent Owner on notice of the bases upon which it determines a claim to be unpatentable. Id. at 13-14. In view of those requirements, “the Board denied [Patent Owner] its procedural rights by relying in its decision on a factual assertion introduced into the proceeding only at oral argument, after [Patent Owner] could meaningfully respond.” Id. at 14.

Because the oral argument does not provide Patent Owner with any opportunity to supply evidence, Patent Owner had no opportunity to comprehensively address this contention. In its Final Written Decision, the Board had dismissed Patent Owner’s argument that this “slide” argument was new, by concluding that Petitioner pointed to the “slides” in its reply. The Federal Circuit disagreed, finding that the key factual assertion was only specifically made at the oral hearing. Thus, in its holding, the Court pointed to the fact that Petitioner has not shown “that there can be no genuine factual dispute” on the issue of anticipation and, as such, vacated the Board’s cancellation of claim 3 remanded the case for further proceedings. Id. 

The Federal Circuit’s decision is a glimmer of hope for Patent Owners. The relatively unfettered discretion the Court has otherwise been affording the Board has (at least temporarily) been limited.

Patent Owner’s IPR Statements May Constitute A “Disclaimer” of Claim Scope In Litigation

33513289_sIt is well-established that a patent owner’s statements about a claim term made during prosecution can be viewed as a disclaimer of claim scope during the Markman phase of litigation. Similarly, clear and unambiguous statements made in the patent specification can restrict claim scope during litigation. Several district courts have now followed suit with regard to statements made by a patent owner in an IPR proceeding, including the District Court for the Northern District of California in the recent case Aylus Networks, Inc. v. Apple, Inc., Civil Action No. 13-cv-04700.

In Aylus, the patent-in-suit was directed to a media streaming architecture that permitted a user to coordinate the transfer of media content from an internet-based server to a physically-proximate media renderer. Aylus asserted the patent against Apple’s AirPlay feature of its iOS devices. Independent claim 1 recited a method of controlling and delivering media content by invoking “Control Point” logic and “Control Point Proxy” logic to cooperatively negotiate media content delivery under certain conditions. Claim 2, which depended from claim 1, recited that the “Control Point Proxy” logic is invoked to negotiate media content delivery under other conditions.

During the litigation, Apple filed a Petition for Inter Partes Review of the patent-in-suit. In its Preliminary Response, Aylus argued that claim 2 requires that “only” the Control Point Proxy logic is invoked under the conditions described in claim 2. Aylus was successful in avoiding institution of trial on claim 2.

In the litigation, the District Court later construed claim 2 to require that “only” the Control Point Proxy logic be invoked, which ultimately led the court to find non-infringement in favor of Apple on summary judgment. The district court’s claim construction was based upon traditional claim construction factors, including assessing the plain language of the claim and the teachings of the patent specification. The district court also relied upon Aylus’ arguments in its Preliminary Response in the IPR. The district court noted that IPRs are technically adjudicative proceedings, rather than prosecution, but nonetheless considered Aylus’ Preliminary Response statements to constitute a “prosecution disclaimer.”

Though there has been no Federal Circuit opinion on this topic yet, several district courts have viewed statements made during an IPR as disclaimers, akin to similar statements made in the specification and during actual prosecution, when it comes to claim construction during litigation.

Federal Circuit Issues a Rare Reversal on Behalf of Patent Owner in IPR

cafc1Yesterday, the Federal Circuit decided five appeals from as many IPR’s filed by Patent Owner PPC Broadband involving claim construction issues, most of which were decided in PPC’s favor. In a first appeal (2015-1364) taken from IPR2013-00342, the court agreed with PPC and held that the Board’s construction of “reside around” was unreasonably broad because the Board selected the broadest of several dictionary definitions (in the immediate vicinity of; near) and disregarded the definition (encircle or surround) that was consistent with the context provided by the claims, the specification, and the patented technology. This holding can be particularly useful to Applicants during prosecution when Examiners applying BRI select the broadest dictionary definition of a claim term and ignore the definition that is consistent with Applicant’s use of the term. The court also rejected the Board’s conclusion that the claim term “reside around” should be interpreted to mean something other than “encircle or surround” since the claim preamble recited a different term “surrounded” than the claim term “reside around.” The court clarified that such differentiation is less applicable where, as here, the preamble merely sets forth the general nature of the claimed invention and is not used to limit the claim.

Nonetheless, Appellee-Petitioner Corning argued that the Board’s interpretation should be upheld because it covers many of PPC’s embodiments. PPC’s numerous claims of varying scope, disclosure of various embodiments, and consistent use of the term “around” in the patent came to PPC’s rescue. Citing these facts, the court rejected Corning’s argument that the broadest reasonable construction is the one that covers the most embodiments. Instead, the court emphasized that the BRI must be reasonable in light of the claims and specification and that the construction covering more embodiments than another does not render that construction reasonable.

In other consolidated appeals (2015-1361, 2015-1366, 2015-1368, and 2015-1369), while the court affirmed some and rejected some of the Board’s interpretations, the court offered guidance regarding objective considerations, particularly commercial success, which can help patent owner. PPC alleged, and presented multiple declarations in support, that its connectors are commercial embodiments of the claimed connectors. Corning did not dispute the allegation. Yet the Board found that PPC did not present persuasive evidence of commercial success. The court held that where, as here, the patentee has presented undisputed evidence that its product is the invention disclosed in the challenged claims, it is error for the Board to find to the contrary without further explanation, which was missing here. The court held that since the evidence shows that PPC’s connectors are the invention disclosed and claimed in the patent, it presumed that any commercial success of these products is due to the patented invention. The court noted that while such a presumption won’t apply in ex parte context, where the PTO cannot gather evidence supporting or refuting the patentee’s evidence of commercial success, it applies in contested proceedings like IPRs, where the petitioner has the means to rebut the patentee’s evidence.

Supreme Court to Review Two Key IPR Issues

8345487_sThe Supreme Court granted certiorari today on Cuozzo Speed Technology’s petition to review In re Cuozzo Speed Tech., 793 F.3d 1268 (Fed. Cir. 2015). Cuozzo presented two questions, and the Court has accepted both of them:

(1)   Whether the court of appeals erred in holding that, in IPR proceedings, the board may construe claims in an issued patent according to their broadest reasonable interpretation rather than their plain and ordinary meaning.

(2)   Whether the court of appeals erred in holding that, even if the board exceeds its statutory authority in instituting an IPR proceeding, the board’s decision whether to institute an IPR proceeding is judicially unreviewable.

If the Supreme Court reverses the Federal Circuit’s decision on either of those two grounds, the impacts on future IPR proceedings could be huge. Although there are certainly patent claims that are invalid regardless of whether the “broadest reasonable interpretation” (“BRI”) or the plain and ordinary meaning (the so-called “Philips” construction) is used, there are also claims where the choice of standard is itself outcome determinative. There are, therefore, numerous patentees who should prefer Philips, and potential challengers who should prefer BRI.

Perhaps even more intriguing, however, is the possibility of a reversal on the second question presented: whether the decision to institute is so completely unreviewable as the Federal Circuit has held in (e.g.)Cuozzo or more recently Achates Pub’g. v. Apple Inc., 803 F.3d 652 (Fed. Cir. 2015). Although the AIA lists a variety of situations in which IPR, PGR, and CBM are not available (35 U.S.C. §§ 315 and 325), the Federal Circuit has effectively insulated the PTAB’s decision to institute a trial from review. As such, even if the PTAB explicitly violates these statutory prohibitions, there is no mechanism by which the procedural defect can be remedied. A decision by the Supreme Court that 35 U.S.C. § 314(d) does not shield IPR institution decisions from review would dramatically shift the relative power balance between challengers and patentees in these AIA trial procedures. This blog will continue to follow this story as it develops.