PTAB Reversed for Failing to Explain “Why” a Person of Skill Would Modify the Prior Art

Judge's BenchIt is no secret that patent owners have, on average, struggled at the PTAB over the last three and a half years.  Some practitioners say that a reason for this result is that the Board many times takes an aggressive approach in the assessment of “obviousness” under Section 103.  Yesterday, the Federal Circuit issued its decision in Black & Decker, Inc. v. Positec USA, Inc., which may signal a change in that tide.

Positec challenged Black & Decker’s US Patent No. 5,544,417, which is directed to a manner of mounting a motor in the housing of a string trimmer.  In particular, the ‘417 patent discloses the use of a “motor mounting plate” supported by the string trimmer’s housing such that the motor does not contact the interior surface of the housing.  The motor is fixedly secured to the motor mounting plate.

The Board upheld the validity of claims 7 and 10 directed to a vegetation string trimmer, but found that claims 16 and 17, directed to a method of assembling an outdoor power tool, were unpatentable under 35 USC Sec. 103 in view of Mack alone.

The Federal Circuit reversed the Board’s finding of obviousness, finding that it “is not sufficient” under Section 103 to merely find that a person skilled in the art “could have” or “would have known” to do something.  The Board must “explain why one of skill in the art would have adapted or replaced Mack’s motor mounting yoke to ensure that the motor did not move relative to the motor mounting structure.  The Board did not do so.”  (emphasis added).  “Our precedent requires that the Board explain a rationale why a person of ordinary skill would have modified Mack’s motor.”  Citing, Ball Aerosol & Specialty Container, Inc. v. Limited Brands, Inc. 555 F.3d 984, 993 (Fed. Cir. 2009).  The Federal Circuit further noted that Positec offered mere attorney argument, not evidence, to explain why a person of ordinary skill would have “fixedly secure[d]” the motor.

Perhaps this case will result in more rigorous analyses of the rationale for proposed combinations and/or modifications to prior art in the context of Section 103 assessments.  In any event, this case is a positive for patent owners.

*By way of disclaimer, Harness Dickey represented Black & Decker in the IPR and the Federal Circuit appeal