Patentee’s Teaching Away Argument Fails to Overcome Substantial Evidence of Unpatentability

An obviousness challenge can be overcome by showing the prior art teaches away from the claimed invention.  However, “teaching away” is a question of fact and thus subject to the substantial evidence standard in appeals from IPR decisions.  It is thus difficult to overcome a PTAB determination on this issue, as exemplified in Meiresonne v. Google, Inc., No. 2016-1755 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 7, 2017).

In Mereisonne, Google challenged four patent claims based on a two-reference obviousness argument.  The parties agreed that, together, the references taught every limitation of the claims.  The only issue on appeal was whether the secondary reference taught away from the claimed invention by criticizing an element of the invention.  The Federal Circuit affirmed the PTAB’s decision that it did not, finding substantial evidence supported the PTAB’s determination.

More particularly, the claims were directed to computer systems that users could use to identify suppliers of goods and services over the internet (basically, a directory).  The directory website included (1) a plurality of links to supplier websites, (2) a supplier description near the corresponding supplier link, (3) a title portion that describes the class of goods or services on the website, and (4) a rollover window that displays information about at least one of the suppliers corresponding to a link.

The rollover element was central to the dispute.  The prior art (Finseth) taught a visual index for a graphical search engine that provides “graphical output from search engine results or other URL lists.”  Finseth explained that many web directories included only cursory or cryptic text about the website in the results.  Finseth thus taught the use of thumbnail or other representational graphic information to accompany hyperlink results.  The primary reference, Hill, also explained that such abstract text was often “gibberish” and advocated visiting the actual site instead of relying on the abstract text accompanying the hyperlink.

The Federal Circuit agreed this criticism was not sufficient to teach away from the claimed rollover window (which corresponded to the prior art abstract test).  Despite the prior art’s criticisms, it did not that abstract text was useful in culling through results.  The Court also found that even if abstract text was often not useful, the prior art said that other links’ abstract text was useful.  Thus, the prior art did not sufficiently discourage the person of ordinary skill from following the path set out in the reference, and did not lead the person in a direction divergent from the path taken.