Press Pause: De Novo Review Not Always Required for Obviousness

By on April 6, 2023
Posted In Patents

A divided panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the Patent Trial & Appeal Board’s finding that certain challenged claims were nonobvious after applying the substantial evidence test to resolve a dispute regarding the scope and content of the prior art that the Board had resolved as a purely factual question. Roku, Inc. v. Universal Elec’s, Inc., Case No. 2022-1058 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 31, 2023) (Reyna, Stoll, JJ.) (Newman, J., dissenting). In her dissent, Judge Newman stated that even though the issue on appeal related to an underlying factual finding, the ultimate issue of obviousness remains a question of law that requires de novo review.

Universal Electronics owns a patent directed to a universal control engine (within a universal remote) that allows for communication between a “controlling device” (i.e., remote) and an “intended target appliance” (e.g., TV, DVD player). The universal control engine uses different communication methods “according to the optimal method of communication for each target appliance and command,” such as Consumer Electronic Control (CEC) commands or infrared (IR) commands.

The Federal Circuit majority first noted that the disposition of the appeal rested on a single, narrow factual issue: whether the prior art’s list of command codes that are formatted to be transmitted via different communication methods is the same as the list of different communication methods recited in the challenged claims.

The panel majority began by recognizing two relevant standards of review to be used when resolving an obviousness inquiry. First, the Federal Circuit noted that it reviews “underlying factual findings” for “substantial evidence.” Substantial evidence review considers whether a “reasonable fact finder could have arrived at the [Board’s] decision.” The Court specified that the underlying findings of fact relevant to an obviousness inquiry include the Graham factors, which comprise “the scope and content of the prior art,” among others. Next, the Court acknowledged that “[t]he ultimate question of obviousness is a legal question that it reviews de novo.”

The panel majority noted that both Roku and Universal persuasively argued their positions related to the scope and content of the prior art, that “the factual dispute . . . was highly contested and closely decided,” and that substantial evidence supported the Board’s finding. On that basis, the Federal Circuit affirmed the Board’s holding that Roku failed to show that the challenged claims were obvious. The Court declined to perform de novo review of the ultimate question of obviousness, reasoning that because Roku only raised factual questions on appeal (i.e., whether the prior art taught a particular claim element), the Court only needed to consider whether the Board’s determination on that issue was supported by substantial evidence.

In her dissent, Judge Newman disagreed with the majority decision to abstain from a de novo review of obviousness notwithstanding the majority’s conclusion that the underlying findings of fact were supported by substantial evidence. Judge Newman argued that both forms of review are appropriate—and required—in cases such as this. In her de novo review, Judge Newman concluded that the challenged claims were obvious because universal remotes and communicating commands via CEC, IR and other methods were well known at the time of the invention and the prior art described a “database of CEC and IR command codes.” Judge Newman noted that the parties did not dispute that a person of ordinary skill in the art would understand that the CEC and IR command codes taught in the prior art were the same as the CEC and IR command codes disclosed in the challenged patent.

Judge Newman thus argued that de novo review was necessary and would have resulted in reversal of the Board’s decision.

Kyle Sorenson, PhD
Kyle Sorenson, PhD, focuses his practice on patent litigation, patent prosecution, due diligence and licensing. Read Kyle Sorenson's full bio.