Means-Plus-Function Claims: Don’t Forget the “Way”

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a lower court’s findings of noninfringement, in part because the plaintiff had failed to prove the “way” element of the function-way-result test for a first means-plus-function claim, and because the specification lacked disclosure of a structure for the “way” to perform a second means-plus-function claim. Traxcell Techs., LLC v. Sprint Commc’ns Co., Case Nos. 20-1852, -1854 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 12, 2021) (Prost, J.); Traxcell Techs., LLC v. Nokia Sols. & Networks Oy, Case Nos. 20-1440, -1443 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 12, 2021) (Prost, J.)

Traxcell asserted several related patents against multiple defendants in parallel litigations. One of the patents related to self-optimizing network technology for making “corrective actions” to improve communications between a wireless device and a network (SON patent). The SON patent included two means-plus-function limitations. One of the other patents related to network-based navigation in which the network, as opposed to the wireless device, determined the device’s location (navigation patent).

Traxcell asserted the SON and navigation patents against Verizon and Sprint in one action and the SON patent against Nokia in another. In both cases, the magistrate judge entered a claim construction order construing several common terms of the asserted patents and determining that the claims of the SON patent were indefinite. The lower court adopted the magistrate’s recommendations and subsequently granted summary judgment for all three defendants on each of the patents. Traxcell appealed. The issues on appeal related to infringement and indefiniteness of means-plus-function claims.

First, Traxcell disputed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for Sprint on the SON patent, arguing that Sprint’s accused technology included a structural equivalent to the disclosed structure under the function-way-result test. The asserted claim required a “means for receiving said performance data and corresponding locations from said tower to correcting radio frequency signals of said radio tower,” the corresponding function of which was “receiving said performance data and corresponding locations from said tower and correcting radio frequency signals of said tower.” The Federal Circuit explained that the disclosed structure of this means-plus-function limitation was a “very detailed” algorithm in the patent. Citing more than two decades of precedent, the Court emphasized that infringement of means-plus-function claims requires proof of three things: That the accused structure performs the (1) identical function, (2) in substantially the same way (3) with substantially the same result, as the disclosed structure. Because Traxcell neglected to even address at least nine steps of the algorithm, i.e., the disclosed structure, with respect to Sprint’s accused system (opting instead to focus on the function and result), the Court affirmed the lower court’s finding of noninfringement.

Second, the lower court found another claim of the SON patent indefinite based on the specification’s failure to disclose the necessary structure for its means-plus-function limitation. Traxcell did not appeal the indefiniteness finding itself, but sought leave to amend the claim to cure the indefiniteness, the denial of which Traxcell raised on appeal. The Federal Circuit explained that a “means-plus-function claim is indefinite [...]

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NDA Forum Selection Clause Doesn’t Bar IPR in Response to Subsequent Infringement Suit

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the denial of a preliminary injunction that would have forced the accused infringer to seek dismissal of its petitions for inter partes review (IPR) based on a forum-selection clause in an earlier nondisclosure agreement (NDA). Kannuu Pty Ltd. v. Samsung Elects. Co, Ltd., Case No. 21-1638 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 7, 2021) (Chen, J.) (Newman, J., dissenting).

Kannuu is a start-up that develops media-related products, including certain remote control search-and-navigation technology. Samsung explored licensing the technology and entered into an NDA with Kannuu. The NDA included a forum-selection clause, which stated that any legal action “arising out of or relating to this Agreement or the transactions contemplated hereby must be instituted exclusively” in a New York state or federal court. The negotiations were unsuccessful. Several years later, Kannuu sued Samsung for alleged infringement of five patents relating to the same technology and alleged breach of the NDA. Samsung petitioned for IPR of the five patents, and two of the petitions resulted in institution. Kannuu filed for a preliminary injunction to force Samsung to dismiss the IPRs that had been instituted. The district court denied the preliminary injunction. Kannuu appealed.

The Federal Circuit determined that the district court had not abused its discretion in denying the preliminary injunction, distinguishing between an NDA (which relates to confidentiality) and a patent license agreement (which relates to patent rights). The Court explained that because the forum selection clause was in an NDA, patent infringement defenses did not “arise out of or relate to this Agreement or the transactions contemplated thereby.” In other words, the patent infringement defenses were too attenuated from the subject matter of the NDA to be governed by the forum selection clause therein. The Court noted that whether any patent claim was held invalid would not affect Kannuu’s breach of contract claim arising from an alleged breach of the NDA.

In dissent, Judge Pauline Newman reasoned that a patent license was one of the “transactions contemplated” by the NDA. Therefore, she would have found that the patent infringement defenses were within the scope of the forum selection provision of the NDA.

Practice Note: The Federal Circuit noted how a failed licensing negotiation commonly leads to a subsequent infringement suit. Parties should craft provisions of the NDA regarding forum selection and related issues (e.g., choice of laws) to explicitly include or exclude potential infringement litigation from their scope.




PTO’s Financial Benefits from IPR Don’t Render PTAB Unconstitutional

A split panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit concluded that the structure and functions of the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) survived yet another constitutional challenge, this time based on the PTAB’s fee and compensation structure, lack of director review over the institution decision and applicability of the Takings Clause. Mobility WorkX, LLC v. Unified Patents LLC, Case No. 20-1441 (Fed. Cir.) (Dyk, J.) (Newman, J., dissenting).

With the dust barely settled after the Supreme Court’s ruling in US v. Arthrex, Inc. that the PTAB’s rendering of final written decisions without director review violated the Appointments Clause, this case presented a whole new slate of potential deficiencies with the PTAB. Although none of these deficiencies were initially raised with the PTAB, the Court exercised its discretion to nonetheless consider the challenges based on publicly available records that it could judicially notice.

The first challenge, already made in many other cases, was that the Federal Circuit remand for the director to consider a rehearing petition in view of Arthrex. This remedy, already afforded in other post-Arthrex challenges, was a simple grant. Yet, here, Mobility asked for something more, arguing that because the director did not resolve the inter partes review (IPR) within the 12-month statutory period, the director must confirm the claims or dismiss the IPR. The Court declined to rule on this issue, instructing Mobility to raise the issue on remand.

The issue receiving the most attention by the Federal Circuit was Mobility’s claims that the PTAB’s fee structure and bonus payments to administrative patent judges (APJs) based on their workload violated the Due Process Clause. According to Mobility, the APJs have a financial incentive to institute IPRs (i.e., significant fees), which provide a significant benefit to the agency. But the Court concluded that the APJs (even the leadership APJs) have only an attenuated role in budget control and thus have an insignificant interest in the financial health of the US Patent & Trademark Office as a whole. Because Congress holds the purse strings and the more significant budget responsibilities fall on the director and the president, the majority held that little connection existed between institution decisions and the agency’s overall financial health, which was consistent with the Court’s own precedent regarding reexaminations and other circuits’ precedents regarding executive agency fee collection. This attenuated connection differentiated the PTAB’s collected fees from Supreme Court cases that found due process violations based on the structure of certain executive courts presided over by a mayor who also held concomitant budget responsibilities.

Similarly, the Federal Circuit held that the APJs’ incentive to render a certain number of decisions—i.e., APJs receive bonus payments if they earn at least 84 decisional units, and the number of decisions is part of performance evaluation—did not provide an unconstitutional incentive to institute. The majority reasoned that ample alternative means existed for the APJs to earn their bonuses, namely, the ability to volunteer for non-America Invents Act (AIA) decisions (such as [...]

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Update: Absent Explicit Statutory Language? The American Rule Still Applies

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit updated its earlier opinion to remove language ascribing motive to a prolific inventor’s actions before the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO). Hyatt v. Hirshfeld, Case Nos. 020-2321; -2325 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 18, 2021) (modified Oct. 12, 2021) (Hughes, J.)

The original opinion noted that Gilbert Hyatt is known for his prolific patent and litigation filings (including hundreds of extraordinarily lengthy and complex patent applications in 1995 alone) and for often “adopt[ing] an approach to prosecution that all but guaranteed indefinite prosecution delay.” The modified opinion deletes language in the original opinion ascribing to Hyatt the motive of “in an effort to submarine his patent applications and receive lengthy patent terms.”

The Federal Circuit did not alter its earlier reversal of the district court’s grant of attorneys’ fees to Hyatt (since he was not the prevailing party) or its affirmance of the district court’s denial of the PTO’s request for expert fees (after finding “[a]ll the expenses of the proceedings shall be paid by the applicant” under 35 U.S.C. § 145, not specifically and explicitly shifting expert witness fees). The rest of the text of the opinion remains unchanged.




Oh the Horror: No Work for Hire in Friday the 13th Screenplay

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a summary judgment grant, ruling that an author was an independent contractor when writing the screenplay for a horror film and entitled to authorship rights, and therefore entitled to exercise his copyright § 203 termination right. Horror Inc. v. Miller, Case No. 18-3123 (2d Cir. Sept. 30, 2021) (Carney, J.)

Victor Miller is an author who has written numerous novels, screenplays and teleplays. Sean Cunningham is a producer, director and writer of feature films and is the general partner of Manny Company. Miller and Cunningham were close friends who began working together around 1976 and collaborated on five motion pictures in their first five years working together. Miller was a member of the Writers Guild of America, East (WGA) and was a signatory of their Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA), which was the collective bargaining agreement at the time.

In 1979, the success of the horror film Halloween inspired Cunningham to produce a horror film. Cunningham reached out to Miller and they orally agreed that Miller would write the screenplay for their upcoming project. The two came to an agreement using the WGA standard form. Miller then began developing the screenplay and the two worked closely together in discussing ideas for the film. Miller picked his working hours but was responsible for completing drafts based on the production schedule of the film. Cunningham had no right to assign additional works to Miller beyond the screenplay.

The dispute concerns whether, for Copyright Act purposes, Miller was an employee or independent contractor of Manny Company, of which Cunningham was the general partner. Cunningham argued that he taught Miller the key elements of a successful horror film, that he gave significant contributions and that he had final authority over what ended up in the screenplay. Miller agreed that Cunningham gave notes but stated that Cunningham never dictated what he wrote. The parties agreed that Cunningham did provide the ideas for making the movie killings “personal,” that the killer remain masked and that they kill a major character early. Miller received “sole ‘written by’ credit” as the screenwriter.

Horror Inc. (successor to Georgetown Horror) financed the project and was given complete control over the screenplay and film. Manny assigned its rights in the film and screenplay to Horror, which registered the copyrights. In the registration, Horror was listed as the film’s work made for hire author with a credit given to Miller for the screenplay. The initial film was a huge hit and has spawned 11 sequels.

In 2016, Miller attempted to reclaim his copyright ownership by invoking his termination rights under 17 U.S.C. § 203 and served notices of termination to Manny and Horror. The two responded by suing Miller and seeking a declaration that the screenplay was a “work for hire,” and therefore Miller could not give a valid termination notice. The district court granted summary judgment to Miller, stating that Miller was the author as he did not prepare the screenplay as [...]

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