The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a district court’s determination that three patents directed to data synchronization were indefinite as lacking sufficient disclosed structure to support a means plus function claim element, as impossible in terms of claim scope or not infringed. Synchronoss Technologies, Inc. v. Dropbox. Inc., Case Nos. 19-2196, -2199 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 12, 2021) (Reyna, J.)
Synchronoss filed suit against Dropbox for infringement of three patents relating to synchronizing data across multiple devices connected via internet, a synchronization agent management server, and transferring media data to a network coupled device. As to the first patent, the district court found that Dropbox did not infringe because the claims, as construed, required hardware, whereas Dropbox’s accused product existed entirely in software. The district court then found that all of the claims of the second patent were invalid as indefinite under § 112, paragraph 6, since various claim terms, including “user identifier module,” did not correspond to adequate structure in the specification. Finally, the district court found that the third patent was invalid under § 112 for including within its scope an impossibility, namely, “generating a [single] media file” that “compris[es] a directory of digital media files.” Synchronoss appealed all three findings.
The Federal Circuit first addressed the claim that the district court found to include impossible scope. The Court agreed with the district court, noting that Synchronoss’s expert admitted that it was impossible for a media file to contain a directory of media files. The Court rejected Synchronoss’s argument that a person of ordinary skill in the art would understand that the invention actually meant something different, and noted that Synchronoss’s proposal would result in re-writing the claims to preserve their validity.
The Federal Circuit next addressed the claim including the means plus function element found to contain terms lacking adequate structure antecedent in the specification. The Court applied a two-step process to construe the “user identifier module” term, first identifying the claimed function and then determining whether the specification disclosed sufficient structure for performing the claimed function. Adopting Synchronoss’s position that the claimed function was “identifying a user,” the Court found that the specification did not disclose sufficient structure corresponding to the claimed user identifier module. The Court noted that although Dropbox’s expert identified more than 20 different possible structures that could perform the claimed function, “it is not enough that a means-plus-function claim term correspond to every known way of achieving the claimed function; instead, the term must correspond to ‘adequate’ structure disclosed in the specification such that a person of ordinary skill in the art would be able to recognize and associate the structure with the claimed function.”
Finally, the Federal Circuit addressed the district court’s finding of non-infringement. At the district court, Synchronoss proposed a construction of the claim term “device” to include “software . . . residing on . . . hardware” and conceded that its claims could not cover “software completely detached from hardware.” The Court concluded that the “hardware” term limited the scope of the asserted claims to include a hardware component, but Dropbox only provided its customers with software. Synchronoss argued that Dropbox used the entire invention, but the Court cited to its opinion Centillion Data Sys. v. Qwest Commc’ns in which it held that “applying the software for the customer to use is not the same as using the system.”