The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a district court decision and found that an asserted inventor not named in the application was not a joint inventor because in the context of the entire invention his contribution was too insignificant to constitute joint inventorship. HIP, Inc. v. Hormel Foods Corp., Case No. 22-1696 (Fed. Cir. May 2, 2023) (Lourie, Clevenger, Taranto, JJ.)
Hormel owns a patent directed to precooking bacon and meat pieces. The patent claims a two-step method that involves a preheating step using a microwave oven, infrared oven or hot air, and then a higher-temperature cooking step. Prior to filing its patent application, Hormel and HIP entered into a joint agreement to develop an oven for the two-step cooking process. Hormel evaluated an HIP oven and learned, among other things, that preheating the bacon via a microwave oven prevented condensation from washing away the salt and flavor. HIP’s David Howard suggested an infrared oven (already known in the art) as a possibility for use in the preheating step. Hormel subsequently filed a patent application that did not name Howard as a joint inventor. HIP sued Hormel alleging that Howard was a joint inventor. The district court found that Howard was a joint inventor based solely on his alleged contribution of infrared preheating. Hormel appealed.
The inventors listed on an issued patent are presumed to be the only true inventors. Thus, a party must prove a claim to correct inventorship by clear and convincing evidence. A joint inventor must do the following:
- Contribute in a significant manner to the conception or reduction to practice of the invention
- Make a contribution to the claimed invention that is not insignificant in quality when that contribution is measured against the dimension of the full invention
- Do more than explain well-known concepts or the current state of the art.
The Federal Circuit found that Howard’s alleged contribution of using an infrared oven for preheating the bacon was insignificant in quality when measured against the full invention, which it found to be clearly focused on preheating with a microwave oven. Preheating with an infrared oven was briefly mentioned in passing as an alternative to a microwave oven in the patent’s specification and in a single dependent claim. In contrast to using an infrared oven, the patent claims, specification and figures all prominently featured using a microwave oven for the preheating step. All the independent claims required or allowed using a microwave oven for the preheating step. The specification also repeatedly referred to preheating with a microwave oven, including in the background of the invention and the summary of the invention sections. Further, the examples and corresponding figures included procedures using a microwave oven to preheat, but no mention of using an infrared oven to preheat. Accordingly, the Court found that Howard’s infrared oven suggestion was insignificant in light of the full invention.
The Federal Circuit did not address the other requirements for joint inventorship, reasoning that since all three factors must be met to be a joint inventor, doing so was unnecessary. Similarly, the Court noted that the question of whether Howard’s contribution was corroborated with evidence was moot because the contribution was insufficient to qualify him as a joint inventor.