PTAB Reversed Based on Non-Analogous Art Theory

34108250_sAlthough In re Natural Alternatives LLC (Fed. Cir. August 31, 2016) is not an IPR appeal, it should be of interest to those who care about IPRs and PGRs because it reflects a successful appeal from the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) involving the fairly rare issue of non-analogous art.

Natural Alternatives (NA) owns US 6,080,330 (‘330), which claims compositions for deicing roads using less salt and fewer toxic chemicals than have traditionally been used for that purpose. NA licenses ‘330 to various manufacturers of road-deicing supplies. One of NA’s licensees decided to challenge the patent by filing a request for ex parte re-examination, which the PTO granted. Eventually the Examiner rejected all claims as obvious and the PTAB affirmed. NA appealed to the Federal Circuit (CAFC).

There were two “representative” limitations litigated before the PTAB and then the CAFC, and the key limitation in both claims was “desugared sugar beet molasses.” NA discovered that if you mix this particular molasses with any of a number of previously known deicing agents (mostly road salts), you enhance the salt’s deicing effectiveness, such that you get more deicing “bang” for the salt “buck.” This means that you can use less salt per winter, which is good because salt can corrode vehicles, pollute groundwater, etc. Before NA’s discovery, desugared sugar beet molasses was a waste product that was simply thrown away.

The crux of the PTO’s argument for prima facie obviousness was that PL 164018 (Zdzisław) disclosed an antifreeze containing sugar beet molasses (the parties disputed whether this molasses was desugared, but that point is not critical) and a prior art deicing agent (a class of alcohols). The principle difference between Zdzisław’s antifreeze and NA’s claimed composition are that NA’s claimed composition: (1) requires a particular ratio of molasses to deicing agent; and (2) at least some of NA’s claims require salt, not alcohol, as the deicing agent. The Examiner cited US 5,639,319 (Daly), which also used molasses and alcohol but in different ratios than used in Zdzisław. Daly uses the molasses/alcohol mix as a tire ballast (i.e., bulk weight loaded into a truck tire to make it more dense to improve driving on slick surfaces). Then the Examiner cited a study published in Public Works magazine to show that alcohol and road salt achieve essentially the same deicing effect. The PTAB considered that the range of molasses to alcohol ratios in Zdzisław and Daly—combined with the alleged interchangeability between alcohol and salt from Public Works—showed that it was nothing more than routine optimization to adjust the ratio of molasses and road salt to arrive at NA’s claimed deicing composition.

NA argued that it was not proper to combine antifreeze art (Zdzisław) and tire ballast art (Daly) because they are not analogous art fields. The PTAB took the position that both anti-freeze and tire ballast are things that you use in a car in the winter, and this made them part of the same general art field. The CAFC disagreed, citing In re Clay, 966 F.2d 656 (Fed. Cir. 1992). In Clay the PTO had argued that oil storage tanks and oil extraction rigs were all part of the same art field of “petroleum industry,” but the CAFC disagreed, holding that “petroleum industry” was too generic and abstract a way of framing the art fields in question. The panel in the present case similarly considered the things-you-do-to-a-car-in-winter view of analogous art to be too abstract. Because the PTO—which has the initial burden of establishing prima facie obviousness—had not offered a cogent explanation of why Zdzisław and Daly are analogous art, the CAFC held that prima facie obviousness was not established in the first instance, and therefore there was properly no rejection for NA to rebut. Therefore, the PTAB’s judgment was reversed.

“Substantial Evidence” Hurdle is Substantially Difficult to Overcome

56499061 - be deferential typography vector illustration

One of the less appreciated hurdles to a successful appeal of a Final Written Decision in an IPR proceeding is the “substantial evidence” standard of review the Federal Circuit applies to the Graham factors that underlie a determination of obviousness.  Although the ultimate determination of obviousness is a legal issue subject to de novo review, the underlying Graham factors are questions of fact, which receive the more deferential, substantial evidence standard of review.  In practice, the ultimate legal conclusion rises and falls with the Graham factors—particularly, whether the prior art teaches the claimed limitations (i.e., “the differences between the prior art and the claim at issue”).

The Federal Circuit’s August 9, 2016 opinion in In re: Warsaw Orthopedics illustrates the deferential nature of the substantial evidence standard.  According to the Federal Circuit, “substantial evidence” is “something less than the weight of the evidence more than a mere scintilla.”  In Warsaw, the claim limitation of interest was: “[i]nserting…a non-bone interbody intraspinal implant…, the length of said implant being sized to occupy substantially the full transverse width of the vertebral bodies of the two adjacent vertebrae, the length of said implant being greater than the depth of the disc space,…[and] the length of said implant being greater than the maximum height of said implant.”

The factual question was whether the prior art disclosed these limitations.  The prior art disclosed implants that were recessed within the vertebrae and which were substantially shorter than the full width of the vertebrae.  The PTAB nevertheless found it would have been obvious to one of ordinary skill that the prior art implant would be sized to conform to the disk space.  The Federal Circuit determined this was supported by substantial evidence, despite the fact that no expert testimony was referenced in the Federal Circuit opinion.  In doing so, the Federal Circuit indicates that an obviousness determination does not actually require each claimed limitation be met by the prior art, stating “To the extent that Warsaw argues the PTAB erred because it did not decide whether [the prior art] discloses dimensions that exactly meet the limitation ‘substantially the full transverse width’ in claims 1 and 17 of the ‘’97 patent, Warsaw misunderstands the governing law, see, e.g., Beckson Marine, Inc. v. NFM, Inc., 292 F.3d 718, 727 (Fed. Cir. 2002) (“[O]bviousness does not require the prior art to reach expressly each limitation exactly.”).

The Federal Circuit did, however, throw a bone to the patentee with respect to the PTAB’s cancellation of claim 17.  There, the Court agreed that the PTAB’s following explanation on one limitation did not sufficiently show its reasoning in reaching its decision:  “Jacobsen appears to disclose anchor wires (i.e., ‘elongated portions’) that are positions over adjacent vertebrae.’) (citing Figure 5).”  The reversal as to claim 17 may be a fleeting victory for the patentee, though, because the Federal Circuit remanded for further findings on the issue.

PTAB Reversed–Common Sense Improperly Used to Supply Missing Limitation in Obviousness Inquiry

10311096 - rejected stamp isolated on white backgroundIn a rare rebuke of the PTAB’s discretion, the Federal Circuit has outright reversed a finding of obviousness based on the Board’s misapplication of the law on the permissible use of “common sense” in an obviousness analysis.  The case, Arendi S.A.R.L. v. Apple Inc., Google Inc., and Motorola Mobility LLC (Aug. 10, 2016) involved a patent for providing coordination between a first computer program displaying a document and a second computer program for searching an external information source.  The invention allows a user to access and conduct a search using the second program while remaining in the first program; for example, a user using a data entry program can search a separate database for data in a certain field.  The limitation at issue was:  “performing a search using at least part of the first information as a search term in order to find the second information, of a specific type or types, associated with the search term in an information source external to the document, wherein the specific type or types of second information is dependent at least in part on the type or types of the first information.

The prior art involved a program that recognizes a phone number as a class of text.  The question on appeal was whether the Board erred in finding it would have been “common sense” to a person of ordinary skill in the art to search for the telephone number that is detected when the prior art’s “Add to address book” option is selected.

The Court found there was insufficient evidence to support such a resort to “common sense” here.  In doing so, the Court offered the reminder that when “common sense” is used to supply a missing limitation (as opposed to the more common use of providing a motivation to combine references), “it must…be supported by evidence and a reasoned explanation.”  Id. at 12. According to the Court, this was particularly so where, as here, the subject limitation was an important structural limitation that is not evidently and indisputably within the common knowledge of those skilled in the art.  In doing so, the Court distinguished precedent where “common sense” is used to supply a “peripheral” limitation in a claim.

In Arendi, the Court ultimately determined the challenger’s arguments were not specific enough to explain why the person of ordinary skill in the art would have found the subject limitation obvious.  As a result, the Court reversed the cancellation of the claims.

Federal Circuit Provides Ammunition to Patentees In Magnum Decision

cafc1Patent Owners gained a bit of a reprieve in the Federal Circuit’s recent decision in In Re Magnum Oil Tool Int’l, Ltd.decided on July 25, 2016. In several key respects, Patent Owners regained some footing in the otherwise daunting IPR process.

As an initial matter, in one of its first post-Cuozzo (Supreme Court edition) decisions, the Federal Circuit determined that, for issues that are central to the Board’s Final Written Decision, the Court is not prohibited by § 314(d) from reviewing those decisions just because they were also addressed in the Decision to Institute. The merits of a final written decision is reviewable, even though the issue was initially decided by the Board at the decision to institute stage. Id. at 12. In the context of the Magnum decision, this meant that the Court had jurisdiction to review all of Patent Owner’s arguments regarding the basis for the Board’s ultimate judgment of unpatentability, including rationale to combine references, even though the Board addressed those arguments in the decision to institute.

The key substantive issue in the case was whether the Board’s decision adequately established a prima facie basis of obviousness. Specifically, Patent Owner argued that no adequate motivation to combine the subject references was articulated. The issue stemmed from the fact that, in the petition, Petitioner put forth a detailed obviousness argument on one set of references (“Ground 1”), but took a more abbreviated approach with a second set of references (“Ground 2”), that “incorporated by reference” the motivation to combine from Ground 1.

In response, the PTO argued that when the Board institutes a ground, it necessarily finds that Petitioner has demonstrated a reasonable likelihood of success and that this finding operates to shift the burden of producing evidence of nonobviousness to Patent Owner. But, the Court rejected the PTO’s contention and clarified that the burden of persuasion is always on the Petitioner to prove unpatentability by preponderance and that burden never shifts to the patentee. The court reasoned that, due to the significant difference between the standards of proof at institution (likelihood of success) and at trial (preponderance), it is inappropriate to shift the burden to the patentee after institution to prove that the claims are patentable.

As to the ultimate conclusion of obviousness, the court concluded that, in light of Petitioner’s failure to explain why a skilled artisan would combine the Ground 2 references, the Board had no basis for its conclusion that Petitioner had met its burden of proving obviousness by preponderance under KSR.  The court emphasized that to satisfy its burden of proving obviousness, Petitioner cannot employ mere conclusory statements because such statements cannot satisfy Petitioner’s burden. Nonetheless, the PTO argued that the Board did not err in making an obviousness argument on behalf of Petitioner based on the Ground 2 references because this argument “could have been included in a properly drafted petition.” The court flatly rejected the PTO’s contention that the Board is free to adopt arguments on behalf of Petitioners that could have been but were not raised by the Petitioner during an IPR, noting again that Petitioner bears the burden of proof. The court acknowledged that the PTO has broad authority to establish procedures in IPR’s but clarified that the authority is not so broad to allow the PTO to raise, address, and decide patentability theories never presented by the Petitioner and not supported by record evidence. Instead, the court emphasized that the Board must base its decisions on arguments advanced by a party and to which the opposing party was given a chance to respond. Accordingly, the court held that the Board’s obviousness conclusion was not based on sufficient evidence since the Board relied on Petitioner’s conclusory statements and improperly argued on behalf of Petitioner why the Ground 2 references could be combined.

Lastly, the Court addressed the PTO’s argument that Patent Owner should have challenged the Board’s actions in the rehearing request. The court quickly disposed the PTO’s argument, stating that the plain language of 35 USC § 141(c) does not require a party dissatisfied with the Board’s final written decision to first raise the issue in a rehearing request before appealing the issue to the court.

In sum, Magnum is a ray of hope for Patent Owners that have become accustomed to most aspects of IPR practice being construed against them. The Court’s docket contains many upcoming cases that will allow us to learn whether this is an aberration, or a trend.

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

Toward a Bullet-Proof Petition – Motivation to Combine

white puzzle with one piece missing, on blueWhile 8 out of 10 Petitions seeking inter partes review are granted by the PTAB, there remain several key errors that unsuccessful Petitioners make. Among them is the failure to provide sufficient factual basis for a rationale to combine prior art references in an obviousness analysis. That issue arose, in an unsuccessful petition, in Kinetic Technologies, Inc. v. Skyworks Solutions, Inc., IPR2014-00529, where the Board found Petitioner’s motivation to combine arguments inadequate. The case involved US Pat. No. 7,921,320, directed to a single wire serial interface that may be used to control stand-alone power integrated circuits and other devices.  Decision at 3.

Petitioner, in arguing obviousness of the challenged claims, asserted that combining to two prior art references was a matter of combining know elements to yield predictable results, among other conclusory remarks. Petitioner did list several similarities in the circuits of the two references, and provided expert testimony, but did not provide much in the way of details. Id. at 14.

As such, the Board was unpersuaded by Petitioner’s argument for motivation to combine. First, the Board gave little or no weight to the expert testimony, since it was virtually identical in content to the arguments presented in the petition, and lacked facts or data to support the opinion of the expert. Specifically, the Board criticized the expert declaration as filing to “expain the ‘how,’ ‘what,’ and ‘why’ of the proposed combination of references.” Id. at 15. To that end, the Board found that the expert did not explain how the references could be combined, or how such combination would yield a predictable result.  In the final criticism of the expert testimony, the Board noted that the expert failed to explain why the ordinary artisan would have combined elements from the two references in the specific way the ‘320 invention does.

Accordingly, the Board reminded Petitioner that there must be reasoning supporting combination of references in an obviousness challenge, and rejected Petitioner’s argument for motivation to combine references, stating that the argument lacked articulated reasoning with rational underpinning. Id. at 16. As such, the Board determined that Petitioner failed to demonstrate a reasonable likelihood that it would prevail in establishing the challenged claims as unpatentable.

Another IPR Petition Comes Up Short for Failing to Adequately Show Rationale to Combine

9710318_sMany Patent Owners are finding success in undermining the challenge grounds of a Petition by arguing that the Petition fails to make an adequate showing that a person of ordinary skill in the art would have combined the relied-on references. That was the case in Zimmer Holdings, Inc. and Zimmer, Inc. v. Bonutti Skeletal Innovations LLC, involved US Pat. No. 7,837,736, where the Board rejected a Petition due to an inadequate combination argument.

Relying on expert testimony, the Petitioner argued that it would have been obvious to the ordinary artisan to substitute a “dovetail joint” described in one reference (Beuchel) for the “abutment and recess” structure described in a second reference (Walker) to arrive at the ‘736 invention.  Specifically, the expert testified that the “dovetail” joints of Beuchel perform the same function as the “abutment and recess” of Walker—i.e., “constrained movement of meniscal components relative to the tray in mobile bearing knee implants.”  With that predicate, the expert posited that substituting the “dovetail” joints in place of the “abutment and recess” joints was simply a matter of design choice.

The Board disagreed, because Beuchel’s “dovetail” joints had substantially different structure and function than Walker’s “abutement and recess.”  Decision at 20–21.  Specifically, Beuchel’s “dovetail” joint functioned to limit or prevent rotation, while Walker’s “abutment and recess” functioned to facilitate rotation.  Decision at 21.  Accordingly, the Board found that Petitioner failed to support its substitution argument with “adequate articulated reasoning with rational underpinnings.”  Decision at 21 (citing In re Gal, 980 F.2d 717, 719 (Fed. Cir. 1992) (design choice is not a sufficient rationale for obviousness where the structure recited in claim and the function it performs are different from the prior art).  Accordingly, the Board declined to institute review.  Id.

Rationale from Denied Ground Used By PTAB In Final Written Decision

13329201_s (1)Lost a challenge ground in the Board’s Decision to Institute? The Board has given some hope that such denied grounds may still of use in an IPR proceeding in McClinton Energy Group, LLC v. Magnum Oil Tools International, Ltd., IPR2013-00231, involving US Pat. No. 8,079,413. In this decision on a motion for rehearing, the Board affirmed the propriety of its use of rationale from a denied ground from the Petition to support a final decision of unpatentability.

Earlier in the proceeding, the Board instituted inter partes review of the challenged claims based on six grounds of unpatentability, each of which was based on three references (References A, B, and C). The Petition also contained numerous grounds of unpatentability based in part on a fourth reference (Reference D), all of which were denied by the Board. Decision at 3-4. In the Petition, to support an argument that one of skill in the art would combine references A, B, and C, Petitioner made reference to the rationale for combining of references from denied-grounds relying on Reference D. The Board then relied upon this rationale in determining that all challenge grounds were unpatentable.

In the Motion for Rehearing, Patent Owner argued that by incorporating this argument from a denied ground, the Board was including a new ground of unpatentability in the final written decision and Patent Owner was therefore denied due process. Id. at 4.  The Board disagreed, pointing out that Patent Owner addressed the rationale at issue in the Patent Owner Response. That the same rationale to combined was used in both a sustained challenge ground and a denied challenge ground was not enough to change the thrust of the grounds of unpatentability. Accordingly, the fact that the Board adopted the rationale to combine references presented in a denied-ground of the petition in a granted-ground in final written decision does not create a new ground of unpatentability.  Id. at 5.

PTAB Discusses Nexus in Secondary Considerations Argument

plan CThere have been many attempts by Patent Owners to rebut a prima facie case of obviousness by pointing to secondary considerations of non-obviousness. To date, such efforts have been unsuccessful. Like the largely unsuccessful motion to amend practice, the best practitioners can hope for is to learn from the shortcomings of other attempts and hope to eventually hit upon the magic formula that leads to a successful presentation of such secondary considerations. In that light we discuss the Final Written Decision in Kyocera Corp. and Motorola Mobility, Inc. v. Softview, LLC, IPR2013-00007 and IPR2013-00256, involving US Pat. No. 7,461,353, wherein the Board addressed several types of failed secondary considerations arguments. The ‘353 patent relates to a scalable display of internet content.

Patent Owner made several arguments involving objective indicia of non-obviousness, all of which were rejected as not being linked to the claimed subject matter: First, Patent Owner argued that the praise it received from competitors was evidence of non-obviousness.  The Board disagreed, finding that the praise Patent Owner received from a competitor was not in praise of the ‘353 claimed subject matter or product, but rather in praise of a company-vision speech by Patent Owner’s CEO.  Therefore, there was no nexus between the secondary consideration and the claimed subject matter. Order at 31.

Second, Patent Owner argued that the commercial success of products (iPhone and Android devices) incorporating the claimed subject matter of the ‘353 patent is evidence of non-obviousness.  However, Patent Owner was unable to prove that commercial success of the iPhone and Android devices which incorporated the claimed matter of the ‘353 patent was a result of the presence of the ‘353 invention in devices (a requirement for a valid commercial success non-obviousness argument).  In fact, expert testimony supported the idea that numerous factors contribute to the commercial success of iPhone and Android devices, not just one factor such as the ‘353 claimed subject matter. Therefore, the Board again found no nexus between the secondary consideration and the claimed subject matter. Id. at 32.

With Patent Owner’s arguments for secondary indicia of non-obviousness failing on lack of nexus to the claimed subject matter, the Board found all challenged claims of the ‘353 patent to be unpatentable.

PTAB Disqualifies Art as Being Non-Analogous to Claimed Invention

13111368_sA limited number of cases, to date, have dealt with the issue of analogous prior art in an obviousness analysis. In Schott Gemtron Corp. v. SSW Holding Co., IPR2014-00358, the Board addressed this type of issue, finding in favor of Patent Owner that the art-at-issue was not analogous and, thus, disqualifying its use in the IPR proceeding.

The ‘561 patent relates to shelving which has a hydrophobic top surface arranged in a pattern to contain spills. At issue in the petition was whether Petitioner had established that a reference which relates to microscope slides was analogous art.  The Board noted two factors in this determination, either of which is sufficient to establish a reference as analogous:

  • if the reference is from the same field of endeavor as the claimed subjected matter, regardless of the problem addressed; or
  • if the reference, even though not within the field of the claimed invention, is reasonably pertinent to the problem with which the inventor is involved.

Further, the Board noted that the purpose of the claimed invention and the purpose of the prior art reference are important to the inquiry of whether the reference is analogous art.

That the reference was not in the same field of endeavor as the ‘561 claimed invention was not in dispute.  Both parties agreed that shelving and microscope slides were not in the same field.  However, Petitioner argued that the reference was reasonably pertinent to the problem faced by the inventor of the ‘561 patent.  Specifically, Petitioner argued that both the reference and the ‘561 patent pertained to the problem of how to contain a liquid in a predetermined area using a thin structure that extends minimally from a surface.

Patent Owner argued that the reference was not analogous because the reference (related to microscope slides) did not pertain to containment of spills (construed as “an accidental or unintentional release of liquid” by the Board) because liquids are intentionally put on microscope slides.  The Board agreed with Patent Owner, citing the recitation of a “spill containment” pattern in the ‘561 claims and considerable support for a spill containment feature in the ‘561 specification.  Therefore, the reference and the ‘561 invention did not address the same problem.

Further, the Board explained that even if the reference qualified as prior art, it was different enough from other cited references that one skilled in the art would not have been familiar enough with the reference to combine it with others to mount a successful obviousness challenge.  Therefore, the Board dismissed the obviousness challenge.