Pyrrhic Victory: IPR Petition Denied Because Claims Indefinite

14253925_sPatent Owner won a Pyrrhic victory in Facebook v. TLI Communications, IPR2014-00566, wherein the Board denied the Petition, but for a reason that calls into question the future viability of the patent-in-suit. Namely, the Board found that it could not construe the means-plus-function claim limitation at issue and, as such, the claim is indefinite and not amenable to construction.

More specifically, the Board sought to construe “means for allocating classification information” from the patent-at-issue. Order at 7. Petitioner stated that the specification did not disclose any algorithm for performing the allocating function. Id. at 10. Of course, a lack of sufficient disclosure of structure, pursuant to 35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶ 6, renders a claim indefinite, and thus not amendable to construction. Id. 13. The Board quoted the Federal Circuit on this point: “If a claim is indefinite, the claim, by definition, cannot be construed.” Enzo Biochem, Inc. v. Applera Corp., 599 F.3d 1325, 1332 (Fed. Cir. 2010). Because the claims were not amenable to construction, the Board was unable to conclude that there is a reasonable likelihood that Petitioner would prevail in its challenge of claim and dependent claims therefrom, and Institution was denied. Paper 14 at 18.  As such, Patent Owner’s patent survives…for now.

Dissents and Concurrences Popping up in IPR Proceedings

974041_sThe PTAB has been remarkably consistent to date in its decisions regarding the variety of issues in inter partes review practice. Issues both simple and complex have typically been resolved by one panel and future panels, deciding the same type of issue, fall in line. Of late, however, we have begun to see some divergence in views among the various panels, both in terms of one panel disagreeing with an earlier panel, and even some disagreement within a single panel. This latter situation presented itself in two recent Final Written Decisions in Vibrant Media, Incorporated v. General Electric Company, IPR2013-00172 and Smith & Nephew, Inc. v. Convatec Technologies, Inc., IPR2013-00097.

Vibrant Media involved US Pat. No. 6,092,074 and, more particularly, claims 1-12 of that patent. All three members of the PTAB panel determined that claims 1-8 and 12 were unpatentable. A disagreement between those panel members arose, however, relative to claims 9-11. Claim 9 is directed to a computer system comprising multiple steps.  Claims 10 and 11 depend from Claim 9 and add further steps to the system. The three judges agreed that the claims recited both an apparatus and method steps, an improper combination pursuant to 35 USC § 112, ¶2. But, while the majority acknowledged that mixed system and method claims would not be in compliance with 35 USC § 112, ¶2 for infringement purposes, it did not believe such infirmity in the claims prevented it from reaching the patentability of those infirm claims. The alternative would have been to terminate the IPR as to those claims. Order at 9. The dissent criticized this decision, arguing that an obviousness analysis could not be performed on indefinite claims, as a comparison of the invention as a whole to the prior art would be impossible given the indefinite scope of the claims.  Id. at 51-52. The dissenting judge would have terminated the proceeding relative to claims 9-11, not ruling on their patentability.

Smith & Nephew, involving US Pat. No. 6,669,981, was notable for a disagreement regarding a claim construction, resulting in a concurring opinion from one of the PTAB panel members. The ‘981 patent pertains to methods of enhancing the photostability of silver in antimicrobial materials for use in wound dressings and other medical devices. Of particular interest in the proceeding was a concurrence-in-part, which disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of the claim term “photostable”.  The ‘981 specification defined the term “photostable” as a “controlled colour change to a desired color with a minimal change thereafter.”  Decision at 62.  At issue for in the concurrence was the definition of “desired color.”

The majority interpreted “desired color” to encompass any color which is desirable for any purpose, including aesthetic purposes. The concurrence thought this definition was too broad based on what was known in the art, and that “desired color” should reflect the technical viewpoint that color is a measure of photostability. Id. at 62. Specifically, the concurrence pointed to prior art which taught that purple was not a “desired colour” because the color purple was chemically indicative of the degradation of the antimicrobial properties of the wound dressing.  Accordingly, the concurrence believed that “desired colour” should not include purple, but rather be restricted to the art-recognized color of grayish-white.  Id. at 63. Further, the concurrence disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of “minimal” change (in color), believing (unlike the majority) that a change in color of the wound dressing from a desired color to and undesired color would not be a “minimal” change.  Id. at 64. But, despite the disagreement in claim construction, the concurrence ultimately agreed with the outcome of the analysis the majority reached on the merits.

Board Refuses to Subject Indefinite Claims to Inter Partes Review Trial

In a rare denial of a petition seeking inter partes review, the Board denied a petition filed by against a Universal Electronics patent in a case styled as Universal Remote Control, Inc. v. Universal Electronics, Inc., IPR2013-00152 (Paper No. 8), involving US Patent No. 5,614,906.

In total, four claims of the ‘906 patent were challenged, pursuant to 8 grounds of unpatentability.  Based on the Board’s claim construction for a key term of the patents, many of the grounds were denied because the prior art was deemed to be missing a limitation of the challenged claims.

Most interesting in the Board’s decision, however, was its denial of the grounds relating to Claim 16 – a claim that contained numerous means-plus-function limitations.  In attempting to construe three means-plus-function limitations of that claim, the Board found, in each instance, that there was no structure disclosed in the specification that corresponded to the function recited in the claim.  See, e.g. Order at 12.  In effect, the Board determined that the claims were hopelessly indefinite.

A Petitioner cannot, of course, challenge the validity of a patent claim under 35 U.S.C. § 112.  How did the Board reconcile this indefinite claim with a request for a finding that the claim was unpatentable under §§ 102 and 103?  They denied the Petition!

“A lack of sufficient structure under 35 U.S.C. § 112, sixth paragraph renders a claim indefinite, and thus not amenable to construction.”  Order at 20.  As such, the Board concluded that the information presented in the Petition does not show that there is a reasonable likelihood that the Petitioner would prevail in its challenge.

It is worth noting that the claim at issue in this decision had already been found indefinite by the district court, as a matter of law.  Two weeks prior to the filing date of the petition, the court in the underlying litigation issued an order invalidating the claim.  While it is unclear why the Petitioner would seek to challenge in the inter partes review a claim that had already been invalidated, the Board’s decision was likely significantly impacted by this court decision.