On January 6, 2021, US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) Director Andrei Iancu, Commissioner for Patents Andrew Hirshfeld and Chief Administrative Patent Judge Scott Boalick issued a memorandum to the members of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board to align the Board’s approach when deciding indefiniteness issues under 35 USC § 112 in America Invents Act (AIA) post-grant proceedings more closely with district court proceedings. The memo was issued under the PTO director’s authority to set forth binding agency guidance to govern the Board’s interpretation of statutory provisions. The memo cited to similar recent changes to the approach to claim construction in such proceedings, and stated that aligning “the indefiniteness approach [used] in AIA post-grant proceedings [to district court proceedings] will promote consistency and efficient decision making among coordinate branches of government that decide similar issues in co-pending proceedings.” The instructed approach, per the Supreme Court of the United States’ 2014 decision in Nautilus, applies to post grant review (PGR) and inter partes review (IPR) proceedings, but not to indefiniteness (or claim construction) issues decided outside the context of AIA reviews.
Post-AIA 35 USC § 112(b) (and pre-AIA § 112, second paragraph) require that “[t]he specification shall conclude with one or more claims particularly pointing out and distinctly claiming the subject matter which the inventor or a joint inventor regards as the invention.” Claims not meeting this requirement are invalid for indefiniteness and may be determined indefinite during PTO examination, on appeal from examination and during AIA post-grant proceedings. In 2014 the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit approved the PTO’s long-standing approach to assessing indefiniteness during patent prosecution in its per curiam In re Packard decision that “[a] claim is indefinite when it contains words or phrases whose meaning is unclear.” At the time, this approach was used agency-wide to analyze questions of indefiniteness, in complement with the office’s broadest reasonable interpretation approach to claim construction.
Despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Nautilus that a claim is unpatentable for indefiniteness if the claim, read in light of the specification delineating the patent and the prosecution history, fails to inform, with reasonable certainty, those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention, the PTO reaffirmed its intent to follow Packard in examination (whether original, appeals or reexamination). In 2018, in the interest of consistency and efficiency, the PTO changed its claim construction standard for post-grant trial proceedings to review a claim of a patent, or a claim proposed in a motion to amend, from the broadest reasonable interpretation to the same Phillips standard that would be used to construe the claim in a district court action.
The memorandum noted that there has been some confusion as to whether the Packard or Nautilus standard should apply in AIA proceedings. While parties to such proceedings argued for one or the other, neither the Board nor the Federal Circuit ruled as to which standard applied. Now, in the interest of clarity, consistency and efficiency, and to “lead to greater uniformity and predictability, improve the integrity of the patent system, and help increase judicial efficiency,” the PTO has decided to align its approach for AIA proceedings with that of the district courts, and has directed that Nautilus is the correct approach for analyzing indefiniteness in AIA post-grant proceedings.
Practice Note: While there are many considerations involved as to when and whether to file parallel Board and district court proceedings, the PTO’s decision to adopt the Nautilus indefiniteness standard in AIA proceedings should remove some uncertainty as to the Board’s lens for interpreting certain claims. Board proceedings are typically a more expedient and economical alternative to district court. Although civil jury trials are largely delayed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Markman decisions (often including rulings on claim term indefiniteness) may not be—behooving parties to examine IPR, PGR, covered business method and substitute claims carefully.