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Nov 29

Federal Circuit Broadly Affirms PTAB’s Determinations on Analogous Art, Motivation to Combine References, and Obviousness of Claims

43132461 - close-up of person hands using stamper on document with the text approved

The level of deference the Federal Circuit gives to the Board’s IPR decisions has been surprising to many practitioners, considering the Court’s reputation for reversing district court decisions.  The trend of deference to the Board continues, as illustrated in Unwired Planet, LLC v. Google Inc., 2015-1810, -1811, Nov. 15, 2016.

Unwired involved one patent, U.S. 7,024,205.  The Board nullified the patent twice over, finding the claims obvious in an IPR, and lacking written description in a CBM proceeding.  Unwired involved a consolidated appeal of both.  The Federal Circuit affirmed the Board’s obviousness finding, and thus did not reach the CBM decision.

The ‘205 patent involved a system and method for providing cell phone users with prioritized search results based either on the user’s location, or based on other criteria chosen by the network administrator (the point of the latter is to allow search providers to prioritize results based on whether, for example, a restaurant has paid to be listed).  More particularly, the patent claims a scheme wherein the search results list a further-away provider before listing a different, closer provider (called “farther-over-nearer ordering” in the opinion).

Google presented a variety of prior art including basic references on providing search results in an electronic setting and also a 1997 book by Galitz discussing principles for interface design, including various techniques for ordering text information and menus.  On appeal, Unwired presented 3 arguments:  (1) Galitz was non-analogous art; (2) the prior art does not teach farther-over-nearer ordering; and (3) there was inadequate motivation to combine Galitz with the other art.

The Federal Circuit rejected all three arguments.  As to non-analogous art, the Court first noted that the field of endeavor of a patent is not limited to the point of novelty, the narrowest conception of the field, or the particular focus within a given field.  Because both Galitz and the patent dealt, broadly speaking, with the field of interface design, the Court determined a person of ordinary skill would have looked to Galitz.

Second, as to the prior art’s alleged lack of teaching, the evidence was clear that the prior art sometimes would have returned results with farther-over-nearing ordering, even though that wasn’t necessarily the goal of that prior art.  Nonetheless, that was legally sufficient:  “We reject this argument because combinations of prior art that sometimes meet the claim elements are sufficient to show obviousness.”  Lastly, the Court found sufficient evidence (including in the form of expert testimony) to believe that a person of ordinary skill in the art would have combined the references.  Here too, the Court presented a relatively broad (and challenger-friendly) reading of the law:  “Google also argues that it does not need to show that there was a known problem with the prior art system in order to articulate the required rational underpinning for the proposed combination.  We agree.”  This final point is consistent with KSR, as the opposite position (that the problem need to have been known) would seem perilously close to the TSM test rejected in KSR.

The Federal Circuit’s deference to the Board, and challenger-friendly reading of the law, in IPR appeals continues to encourage parties to pursue their positions through IPR petitions.