Covered Business Method Threshold Review Is Not Appealable

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that in view of the Supreme Court of the United States’ 2019 decision in Thryv v. Click-to-Call, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board’s threshold determination that a patent qualifies for covered business method (CBM) review is closely tied to the institution decision and is therefore not appealable. SIPCO, LLC v. Emerson Electric Co., Case No. 18-1635 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 17, 2020) (Chen, J.)

SIPCO owns a patent directed to a communication device that uses a two-step communications path, where a remote device first communicates through a low-power wireless connection to an intermediate node, which in turn connects to a central location. Emerson filed a CBM petition arguing that the claims were obvious over the prior art. The Board instituted a CBM review and issued a final written decision finding the challenged claims obvious over the prior art. SIPCO appealed.

SIPCO argued that the Board overstepped its authority to institute a CBM review because the patent was directed to a “technological invention” and was statutorily excluded from CBM review. The Federal Circuit initially found that the Board’s threshold analysis was flawed because it focused solely on the second portion of the “technological invention” definition set forth in 37 CFR § 42.301(b). The Court vacated the Board’s decision and remanded for it to consider both parts of the definition, and to reconsider whether the patent qualified for CBM review (IP Update, Vol. 22, No. 20).

Emerson filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the Supreme Court, arguing that the Board’s decision to institute a CBM review is not appealable under the “no appeal” provision of 35 USC § 324(e). The Supreme Court granted the petition, vacated the Federal Circuit opinion and remanded for further consideration in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Thryv, which found that the one-year time bar for instituting an inter partes review is bound up with the decision to institute and therefore is not appealable under a similar “no appeal” provision.

On remand, the Federal Circuit found that Thryv made clear that the Board’s threshold determination as to whether a patent qualifies for CBM review is a decision that is non-appealable. Availability of the CBM review process is conditioned on whether the patent qualifies for CBM review, and patents that are directed to “technological inventions” are excluded from CBM review. The Court concluded that the determination of whether a patent qualifies for CBM review is inextricably tied to the decision to institute and is thus not appealable. Turning to the merits, the Court found the Board’s claim construction correct and its obviousness determination supported by substantial evidence.

Practice Note: In a footnote, the Federal Circuit recognized that Thryv implicitly abrogated the Court’s prior practice of reviewing whether the Board’s institution determination breached the limits of the Board’s authority.

Wave Goodbye to Lost Arguments: Waiver Versus Forfeiture Law

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit concluded that a patent owner forfeited claim construction arguments on appeal by not presenting them first to the Patent Trial and Appeal Board for consideration. In re: Google Tech. Holdings LLC, Case No. 19-1828 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 13, 2020) (Chen, J.)

Google submitted an application to the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) seeking patent claims covering certain means and methods for transferring content to video-on-demand systems. During examination, the examiner rejected Google’s proposed claims based on obviousness in light of certain references. After receiving a final rejection, Google appealed to the Board, relying heavily on block quotes from the references and proposed claims to argue that the examiner improperly found obviousness.

The Board affirmed the examiner’s rejection. Applying the broadest reasonable interpretation standard, the Board construed two claim terms: “costs” and “network impact.” In defining those terms, the Board noted that Google had not, in the course of appealing the examiner’s decision, “cited to a definition of ‘costs’ or ‘network impact’ in the [s]pecification that would preclude the [e]xaminer’s broader reading.” Google appealed.

Google argued that the Board erred in its constructions. The Federal Circuit never reached the merits, however, instead concluding that Google had not properly presented its arguments first to the PTO. The Court described the oft-forgotten difference between waiver (the voluntary and knowing relinquishment of a right) and forfeiture (the failure to make a timely assertion of a particular right). This case, the Court reasoned, was an example of forfeiture, because Google had failed to urge the claim constructions to the PTO in the first instance.

Google contended that the Federal Circuit should nonetheless review the Board’s determination, because the Board actually ruled on the claim constructions and those issues were ripe for decision before the Court. The Court rejected these arguments, largely because Google identified no excuse for failing to raise the issue earlier, and because the Board’s final decision was not unexpected in the course of the proceedings.

Practice Note: Ultimately, the Court’s opinion presents one approach (perhaps not one consistently followed) regarding what an appellant must do in order to maintain its right to review. Appellees seeking to foreclose appellate review should consider whether, regardless of the Board’s ultimate decision, the appellant appropriately pressed the arguments on the error for which it later seeks appellate review.

“Gradual” and “Continuous” Includes Step-Wise

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a priority decision in favor of the senior party, upholding a claim construction that was based upon a verbatim definition set forth in the patent specification of the application from which the count in interference was copied. Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. University of Wyoming Research Corp., Case No. 19-1530 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 4, 2020) (Schall, J.) (Newman, J., dissenting).

Wyoming Research provoked a patent interference proceeding by copying into its pending application a claim from Chevron’s pending patent application. Under the now-discontinued interference statute, the patent for an invention claimed by more than one party was awarded to the first-to-invent party. If the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (Board)determined there was an interference in fact—that is, two patent applications claimed the same subject matter—then the Board could proceed to determine priority of inventorship. A finding of interference in fact required the copying party’s patent specification to contain adequate written description and enablement to support the copied claim.

The copied claim was directed to a method of fractioning asphaltenes from crude oil. The technology used a mobile phase into which an alkane solvent was introduced and its concentration “gradually and continuously” changed over time, and the resulting eluted fractions were analyzed. The disputed claim limitation was: “gradually and continuously changing the alkane mobile phase solvent to a final mobile phase solvent.”

Chevron argued that “gradually and continuously changing” referred to the act of feeding alkane mobile phase solvent into the inlet of the column. Relying on intrinsic evidence, the Board instead adopted Wyoming’s construction, concluding that the limitation’s “gradually and continuously changing” referred to the change of solvents in the column and not to changes at the inlet to the column. The distinction was important because at the inlet, the Wyoming invention introduced solvent in a step-wise manner. The parties agreed that Wyoming’s specification supported only the construction adopted by Board, and Wyoming was declared to be the senior party for the priority contest.

Because Chevron had filed a priority statement that indicated that its earliest corroborated conception coupled with diligence date was later than Wyoming’s priority date, the Board determined that Chevron was unable to prevail on priority and entered judgment in favor of Wyoming. Chevron appealed.

On appeal, Chevron argued that the Board’s construction was inconsistent with Chevron’s patent specification. Chevron contended that its application disclosed that the solvent was “gradually and continuously” changed at the column’s inlet and that the Board’s construction rendered the limitation meaningless because it encompassed even “sudden, abrupt immediate solvent switches.”

The Court affirmed the Board’s construction, holding that the broadest reasonable construction of “gradually and continuously changing” did not require a change of solvents at the column inlet. The Court reasoned that the Board’s construction was consistent, and indeed tracked verbatim, with the Chevron application’s express definition of “gradually.” While the Court acknowledged that certain examples in the Chevron application illustrated that one way to implement a “gradual and continuous change” of the solvent was to “gradually and continuously” add solvents to the column, those examples did not limit the “changing” to occurring at the column inlet.

Judge Newman argued in dissent that there was no interference in fact between the Wyoming and Chevron patent applications. Rather, in Judge Newman’s view, “Chevron and Wyoming describe[d] and claim[ed] different inventions.” The Wyoming technique contemplated step-wise changes in the concentration of the solvent (which she characterized as “abrupt” and “discontinuous”), while the Chevron invention contemplated that the solvent concentration changed in a smooth fashion over time without step-wise changes (which she characterized as “gradual” and “continuous”) through a drop-wise, titrating change in concentration. In Judge Newman’s view, “[a]n abrupt solvent input change is not a gradual and continuous change, on any theory of interference priority.”

Because the Wyoming application contained no evidence of any inventor’s conception, written description or enablement of Chevron’s “gradual and continuous” method, Judge Newman argued that Wyoming’s application could not establish the required conception and constructive reduction to practice of the Chevron method.

Summary Judgment Foreclosed when There Is More than One Possible Inference from Evidence

Reversing a summary judgment ruling that barred a correction of inventorship claim, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, found issues of material fact foreclosed summary judgment and warned that where an issue is a “quintessentially fact-laden one” such as equitable issue involving possible equitable estoppel on inventorship, summary judgement is likely not appropriate.. Ferring B.V. et al. v. Allergan, Inc. et al., Case No. 20-1098 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 10, 2020) (O’Malley, J.)

From 1998 to 2002, Dr. Seymour Fein worked as a consultant for Ferring Pharmaceuticals to develop a drug that helps regulate the body’s retention of water. That work apparently did not include any obligation by Fein to assign any inventions. As a result, both Ferring and Fein ultimately filed dueling patent applications directed to aspects of the drug and its use. In correspondence that took place while patent prosecution was pending, Fein indicated to Ferring that his application would be directed to a low dose administration route for the drug. Ferring responded that it believed that aspect (i.e., the low dose route) to be disclosed by prior art. Both sides eventually obtained patents, and Fein assigned his patents to Allergan.

In 2012, Ferring filed a state court action for correction of inventorship, seeking to add its researchers to Fein’s patents. Allergan counterclaimed with its own inventorship claim seeking to add Fein to Ferring’s patents, and also asserted an equitable estoppel defense based on the above-noted correspondence between the parties that occurred during patent prosecution. Allergan then moved for summary judgment on its equitable estoppel defense, which was granted. The judge subsequently held a bench trial and rejected Allergan’s inventorship claim. Ferring appealed the summary judgment decision.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit rejected Ferring’s argument that the trial court should not have considered any conduct that preceded issuance of the patents for purposes of equitable estoppel. However, the Federal Circuit held that the trial court’s summary judgment decision had improperly resolved issues of material fact regarding that pre-issuance conduct. According to the Federal Circuit, the pre-issuance discussions did not lead to only one possible inference, but rather were subject to interpretation because the claim scope discussed (low dose administration) did not necessarily match the claim scope ultimately granted. As a result, the Federal Circuit vacated the summary judgment decision and remanded to the district court.

Printed Matter Is Patentable If It’s Functional, Not Just Communicative

In a tour de force of issues related to the printed matter doctrine, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed various rulings that the patents-in-suit were not infringed, not willfully infringed and invalid as directed to printed matter. Instead, the Court held that there was substantial evidence in the record to support a jury finding of infringement and willfulness, and that the asserted claims were not directed solely to printed matter and thus were patent eligible under 35 USC § 101 (thereby raising a genuine dispute of material fact that precludes summary judgment as to anticipation). C R Bard Inc. v. AngioDynamics, Inc., Case Nos. 19-1756, -1934 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 10, 2020) (Reyna, J.)

This dispute began when Bard sued AngioDynamics for infringing three patents directed to identifying a vascular access port that is suitable for power injection, which is a medical procedure requiring injecting fluids into a patient at a high pressure and flow rate. Generally, the identification was accomplished by certain markings on the vascular access port that can be detected during an x-ray scan.

Prior to trial, AngioDynamics moved for summary judgment on patent eligibility, novelty and enablement. This summary judgment motion was initially denied, but the district court sought a report and recommendation prior to trial regarding whether certain limitations relating to radiographic marker images were entitled to patentable weight under the printed matter doctrine. The magistrate judge concluded that the limitations were not entitled to patentable weight, and the district court adopted the recommendation. At trial and at the end of Bard’s case-in-chief, AngioDynamics moved for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) on non-infringement and no willfulness. Ultimately, the district court terminated the trial and granted AngioDynamics’ JMOL motion for non-infringement and no willfulness. The district court further held that the claims were invalid because they were directed to printed matter and were not inventive. Bard appealed, challenging each of the district court’s findings.

In reversing the summary judgment of no infringement, the Federal Circuit explained that Bard’s expert’s reliance on an incorrect understanding of the district court’s claim construction was alone insufficient to grant judgment as a matter of law. Instead, the expert’s misunderstanding went to credibility, and the Court found the record reflected that the expert properly testified that the various claim elements were met under the proper claim constructions. The Court further explained that Bard did not have an affirmative duty to test AngioDynamics products, but rather was entitled to rely on AngioDynamics’ representations to the US Food and Drug Administration and to its customers. With regard to induced infringement, the Court explained that if an alleged infringer instructs its users to use the product in an infringing way, there is sufficient evidence for a jury to find infringement. Because the district count found no inducement based on its erroneous summary judgment of no infringement, that ruling was similarly reversed.

The Federal Circuit also reversed the district court on its summary judgment of no willfulness, concluding that Bard had presented sufficient evidence to support a willfulness verdict. For example, Bard introduced evidence that AngioDynamics had knowledge of the patent applications prior to issuance and that AngioDynamics intentionally copied Bard’s marker based on market demand. The Court explained that while the existence of an invalidity opinion of counsel (as was presented by AngioDynamics) is a relevant factor in a willfulness analysis, it is not determinative. Thus, the issue of whether there is sufficient evidence to establish willfulness is a question for the jury.

Finally, the Federal Circuit reversed the district court’s opinion that the asserted claims were invalid under § 101 as containing printed matter. Printed matter is any information claimed for its communicative context, and such printed matter is unpatentable unless it creates a new functionality in a claimed device or causes a specific action in a claimed process. Although printed matter has long been unpatentable, a claim (even one reciting elements that are printed matter) remains patent eligible if it is not “directed solely to non-functional printed matter” and has an inventive concept. Applying these principles, the Court found that although aspects of the claimed invention were not patentable, the claims as a whole were valid. The Court explained that because the focus of the claimed invention includes the means by which information is conveyed, the claims remain eligible:

We conclude that although the asserted claims contain printed matter that is not functionally related to the remaining elements of the claims, each claim as a whole is patent eligible because none are solely directed to the printed matter. We also conclude that when we assign no patentable weight to the claimed printed matter, material disputes of fact remain as to whether other elements of the claim are novel over the prior art.

As a result, the Court reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded to the district court.

Practice Note: This opinion further highlights that claims including recitations going to printed matter remain patentable under § 101 if the printed matter aspect of the claim is functional and does not merely display or manipulate information.