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Magazine Reload: Claim Construction Error Requires Reversal and Remand

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a district court’s summary judgment ruling based on a claim construction error because nothing in the claims or specification of the asserted patent supported the district court’s overly narrow interpretation of the disputed claim term. Evolusion Concepts, Inc. v. HOC Events, Inc. d/b/a Supertool USA, Case No. 21-1963 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 14, 2021) (Prost, Taranto, Chen, JJ.); Evolusion Concepts, Inc. v. Juggernaut Tactical, Inc., Case No. 21-1987 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 14, 2021) (Fed. Cir. Jan. 14, 2021) (Prost, Taranto, Chen, JJ.).

Evolusion owns a patent directed to a device and method for converting a semi-automatic rifle with a detachable magazine to one with a fixed magazine. A detachable magazine allows a user to fire the weapon until the magazine is depleted, then release the magazine, insert a new magazine and resume firing. In contrast, a fixed magazine can be removed and replaced only by disassembling certain nonmagazine parts of the firearm, which slows the rate of fire. The specification states that firearms with detachable magazines are likely to face increased legal restrictions, noting that bills recently introduced in US Congress would have banned semi-automatic weapons with detachable magazines. The claims of the patents recite, among other limitations, a “magazine catch bar.”

Evolusion sued Juggernaut for infringement. Juggernaut asserted invalidity and noninfringement. The parties cross-moved for summary judgment relating to infringement of the device claims, agreeing that the question of infringement depended entirely on whether the claimed “magazine catch bar” included a factory-installed (OEM) magazine catch bar. The district court concluded that the term “magazine catch bar,” as used in the claims and specification, excluded an OEM magazine catch bar. The court’s conclusion was based primarily on the sentence in the specification that states: “The invention is a permanent fixture added to a semi-automatic firearm by removing the standard OEM magazine catch assembly and installing the invention.” The court reasoned that the “magazine catch bar” of the invention could not be an OEM magazine catch bar since the OEM magazine was one of the components removed to install the invention. Based on the construction, the court concluded that Juggernaut did not literally infringe the patent. The court also found that Juggernaut could not infringe under the doctrine of equivalence because Evolusion had dedicated a factory-installed magazine catch bar to the public by disclosing, but not claiming, this embodiment.

Evolusion also sued Supertool for infringement. When Supertool failed to respond to the complaint, the district court clerk entered a default under Rule 55(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. With the requests for relief not yet adjudicated, Evolusion moved for a “default judgment” under Rule 55(b), but the court denied the motion. In its denial, the court, citing its ruling in the Juggernaut case, stated that Evolusion failed to state a viable claim for infringement against Supertool because its products also required reusing the factory-installed magazine catch bar. Evolusion appealed the Juggernaut and Supertool rulings.

The Federal Circuit reversed the noninfringement [...]

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Improper Claim Construction Requires Partial Remand of Obviousness Determination

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued decisions in two separate inter partes reviews (IPRs), one involving a patent related to radio frequency communication systems and the other involving a patent related to multi-processor systems. Intel Corporation v. Qualcomm Incorporated, Case No. 20-1664 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 28, 2021) (Prost, Taranto, Hughes, JJ.); Intel Corporation v. Qualcomm Incorporated, Case Nos. 20-1828, -1867 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 28, 2021) (Prost, Taranto, Hughes, JJ). Based on issues of claim construction and obviousness, the Court affirmed in part and vacated in part the Patent Trial and Appeal Board’s (Board) decision in the radio frequency communication systems patent IPR and vacated the Board’s decision in the multi-processor systems patent IPR.

Radio Frequency Communication System Patent IPR (1664)

In the IPR related to the radio frequency communication systems patent, Intel proposed that the claim term “radio frequency input signal” should take its ordinary meaning of an input signal having a radio frequency. Qualcomm argued that a person of skill in the art reading the patent would understand the phrase to reference the radio frequency signal that is received before down-conversion, and thus proposed that the term should mean “a signal centered at a carrier frequency at which the signal was transmitted/received.” The Board agreed with Qualcomm based on the intrinsic evidence.

Intel argued before the Board that certain claims of the radio frequency communication systems patent would have been obvious in light of the Der reference and the Valla reference. Qualcomm argued that a skilled artisan would not have been motivated to combine Der and Valla, because Der’s transistor would defeat the intended purpose of Valla’s amplifier. The Board agreed with Qualcomm. Qualcomm also submitted substitute claims. The Board accepted the substitute claims after finding that a skilled artisan would have lacked reason to combine Der and the Burgener reference to achieve the substitute claims. Intel appealed.

The Federal Circuit first addressed the threshold question of whether it had jurisdiction since no lawsuit had been filed against Intel. Despite the absence of any lawsuit against Intel itself, the Court found that Intel had standing because it had engaged in acts that previously resulted in assertion of the patent against one of Intel’s customers. Because Intel continues to sell the relevant products to that customer and others, it must address the risk of an infringement suit by Qualcomm. Qualcomm also refused to offer a covenant not to sue or stipulate that it would not reassert its prior infringement allegations involving the Intel products. The Court found that this refusal made Intel’s risk more than “mere conjecture or hypothesis.” Therefore, the Court found that Intel had standing to pursue the appeal.

Turning to the merits, the Federal Circuit affirmed the Board’s construction of “radio frequency input signal.” The Court explained that while both parties’ proposed constructions had appeal when considered in a vacuum, the proper inquiry required analysis of the surrounding claim language and specification. The Court found that linguistic clues in the claims suggested that [...]

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Rounding Error: Intrinsic Evidence Informs Plain and Ordinary Meaning

Vacating a stipulated infringement judgment based on an incorrect claim construction, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit explained that it is improper to isolate claim language from the intrinsic evidence when determining the plain and ordinary meaning of a disputed term. AstraZeneca AB v. Mylan Pharms. Inc., Case No. 21-1729 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 8, 2021) (Stoll, J.) (Taranto, J., dissenting).

AstraZeneca sued Mylan Pharmaceuticals for infringement of three patents listed in the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) orange book covering the Symbicort® pressurized metered-dose inhaler for the treatment of asthma and COPD. 3M submitted an abbreviated new drug application (ANDA) to the FDA to manufacture and sell a generic version of the Symbicort® inhaler and certain interests to the ANDA were later transferred to Mylan. After receiving a Paragraph IV letter from Mylan, AstraZeneca filed an infringement suit.

Shortly before trial, the district court held a claim construction hearing to determine the meaning of “0.001%,” the claimed concentration of PVP (one of the active ingredients). The district court construed the term based on its “plain and ordinary meaning, that is, expressed with one significant digit.” Based on this definition, Mylan stipulated to infringement and the district court entered judgment. The district court held a bench trial on invalidity, ultimately determining that Mylan did not prove that the claims were invalid as obvious. Mylan appealed the stipulated judgment stemming from the claim construction determination and the judgment of no invalidity.

First, Mylan challenged the district court’s claim construction of “0.001%.” AstraZeneca argued that the district court improperly construed the term to encompass a range from 0.0005% to 0.0014%. Mylan contended that, in view of the specification and the prosecution history, the term was to be defined precisely at 0.001% with only “minor variations” allowed. The Federal Circuit agreed, finding that Mylan’s proposed construction was more properly aligned with the patent’s description as further informed by the prosecution history.

The Federal Circuit stated that the proper construction of 0.001% only allowed minor variations from 0.00095% to 0.00104%. There was no dispute that the term 0.001% would ordinarily encompass the range of 0.0005% to 0.0014%. AstraZeneca argued that this “ordinary meaning” would control absent lexicography or disclaimer. The Court disagreed, finding that it would improperly isolate the term from the claim language, specification and patent prosecution history. The Court explained that the “ordinary meaning” is not the ordinary meaning in the abstract but is instead the “meaning to the ordinary artisan after reading the entire patent,” and therefore the claims must be read in view of both the written description and the prosecution history. The Court’s rationale for narrower construction was based on the intrinsic record reflecting that the written description and prosecution history showed that very minor differences in PVP concentration would impact stability.

The Federal Circuit found that the written description explained that stability was one of the most important factors and that even very minor differences in PVP concentration could impact stability. The written description also [...]

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Means-Plus-Function Claims: Don’t Forget the “Way”

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a lower court’s findings of noninfringement, in part because the plaintiff had failed to prove the “way” element of the function-way-result test for a first means-plus-function claim, and because the specification lacked disclosure of a structure for the “way” to perform a second means-plus-function claim. Traxcell Techs., LLC v. Sprint Commc’ns Co., Case Nos. 20-1852, -1854 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 12, 2021) (Prost, J.); Traxcell Techs., LLC v. Nokia Sols. & Networks Oy, Case Nos. 20-1440, -1443 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 12, 2021) (Prost, J.)

Traxcell asserted several related patents against multiple defendants in parallel litigations. One of the patents related to self-optimizing network technology for making “corrective actions” to improve communications between a wireless device and a network (SON patent). The SON patent included two means-plus-function limitations. One of the other patents related to network-based navigation in which the network, as opposed to the wireless device, determined the device’s location (navigation patent).

Traxcell asserted the SON and navigation patents against Verizon and Sprint in one action and the SON patent against Nokia in another. In both cases, the magistrate judge entered a claim construction order construing several common terms of the asserted patents and determining that the claims of the SON patent were indefinite. The lower court adopted the magistrate’s recommendations and subsequently granted summary judgment for all three defendants on each of the patents. Traxcell appealed. The issues on appeal related to infringement and indefiniteness of means-plus-function claims.

First, Traxcell disputed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for Sprint on the SON patent, arguing that Sprint’s accused technology included a structural equivalent to the disclosed structure under the function-way-result test. The asserted claim required a “means for receiving said performance data and corresponding locations from said tower to correcting radio frequency signals of said radio tower,” the corresponding function of which was “receiving said performance data and corresponding locations from said tower and correcting radio frequency signals of said tower.” The Federal Circuit explained that the disclosed structure of this means-plus-function limitation was a “very detailed” algorithm in the patent. Citing more than two decades of precedent, the Court emphasized that infringement of means-plus-function claims requires proof of three things: That the accused structure performs the (1) identical function, (2) in substantially the same way (3) with substantially the same result, as the disclosed structure. Because Traxcell neglected to even address at least nine steps of the algorithm, i.e., the disclosed structure, with respect to Sprint’s accused system (opting instead to focus on the function and result), the Court affirmed the lower court’s finding of noninfringement.

Second, the lower court found another claim of the SON patent indefinite based on the specification’s failure to disclose the necessary structure for its means-plus-function limitation. Traxcell did not appeal the indefiniteness finding itself, but sought leave to amend the claim to cure the indefiniteness, the denial of which Traxcell raised on appeal. The Federal Circuit explained that a “means-plus-function claim is indefinite [...]

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Failing to Address All Reasons for Noninfringement Renders Appeal Moot

In deciding whether the district court correctly interpreted various claim terms in four patents related to communication techniques used in computer gaming technology, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that rendering a decision as to the terms for at least two of the patents would be moot. Accordingly, the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on noninfringement. Acceleration Bay LLC v. Take-Two Interactive Software (Oct. 4, 2021) (Reyna, J.)

Acceleration Bay is the owner of four unrelated patents that are generally directed to communication techniques associated with computer gaming. In particular, certain of the patents teach that an originating computer sends a message to its neighbors on a broadcast channel using point-to-point connections, and that the neighboring computers then sends the message to only their neighboring connections. This reduces the number of connections that each computer must maintain and improves efficiency in the system.

Acceleration Bay filed a patent infringement suit claiming that Take-Two Interactive Software, a software designer for various video games, including Grand Theft Auto V, NBA 2K15 and NBA 2K16, directly infringed the four asserted patents. As part of the district court proceedings, multiple terms recited in the claims of the four patents were construed. In particular, the court construed the claim term “m-regular” to mean “a state that the network is configured to maintain, where each participant is connected to exactly m neighbor participants.” Additionally, the court effectively embedded this definition of “m-regular” into other construed claim terms, including “fully connected portal computer” and “each participant being connected to three or more other participants.”

After claim construction, the district court granted summary judgment of noninfringement in favor of Take-Two on all asserted patents. In granting summary judgment, the court observed that Take-Two makes software, not computer networks or broadcast channels, and therefore its customers must introduce those elements. As such, direct infringement is inappropriate because multiple entities, not just Take-Two, contribute to the allegedly infringing system. The court rejected Acceleration Bay’s argument under Centrak, Inc. v. Sonitor Techs., Inc. that Take-Two was actually the “final assembler” because it installed the software for its customers. The court additionally identified multiple reasons why the “m-regular” limitation was not met in the accused products, including the fact that Acceleration Bay identified no source code to support its theory. Acceleration Bay appealed.

With respect to two of the four patents on appeal, Take-Two argued that Acceleration Bay’s appeal is moot because it only addressed one of the two reasons the district court granted summary judgment of noninfringement. Specifically, the court granted summary judgment on these two patents because (1) the accused products do not meet the “m-regular” limitation and (2) Acceleration Bay’s “final assembler” theory fails as a matter of law. On appeal, Acceleration Bay addressed only the “final assembler” theory. As such, the Federal Circuit found that a ruling on this issue would not affect the court’s summary judgment ruling, and the appeal of these two patents is [...]

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3D Chess at the Federal Circuit: Can’t Walk Back Arguments in Prior Appeal or Prosecution History

In the second appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the preamble term “three-dimensional spreadsheet” was found to be a limitation in the context of claims directed to organizing and presenting information in electronic spreadsheets based on prosecution disclaimer and arguments made in the first appeal. Data Engine Techs, LLC v. Google LLC, (DET II), Case No. 21-1050 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 26, 2021) (Stoll, J.)

In the first appeal (DET I), the Federal Circuit found that DET’s representative claim was “directed to more than a generic or abstract idea as it claims a particular manner of navigating three-dimensional spreadsheets,” improving on electronic spreadsheet functionality and, therefore, directed to patent-eligible subject matter. The Court reversed and remanded. On remand, Google requested that the district court reopen claim construction and construe the preamble term “three-dimensional spreadsheet” in the representative claim.

The district court found the preamble to be limiting and construed “three-dimensional spreadsheet” to mean a “spreadsheet that defines a mathematical relation among cells on different spreadsheet pages, such that cells are arranged in a 3-D grid.” The district court went on to grant Google’s motion for summary judgment of noninfringement as there was no dispute that the accused product (Google Sheets) did not meet the “three-dimensional spreadsheet” limitation under the court’s construction. DET appealed.

Applying de novo review to the claim construction issue presented, the Federal Circuit noted that in DET I, its conclusion that the asserted claims were directed to improvements in three-dimensional spreadsheets ascribed patentable weight to the preamble term “three-dimensional spreadsheet.” The dispute related to whether the claim requires “a mathematical relation among cells on different spreadsheet pages,” as required by the district court’s construction.

The Federal Circuit found that neither the claims themselves nor the specification provided guidance in construing “three-dimensional spreadsheet.” Turning to the prosecution history, the Court noted that during prosecution, the applicants provided an explicit definition of a “true” three-dimensional spreadsheet and distinguished prior art under this definition. Indeed, as the Court noted, its ruling in DET I expressly relied on that definition from the prosecution history in determining that the claims required a three-dimensional spreadsheet that “defines a “three-dimensional spreadsheet” in support of patent eligibility. Thus, the Court concluded that the preamble term was limiting.

In the present appeal, DET contended that the prosecution history passage defining a three-dimensional spreadsheet did not rise to the level of “clear and unmistakable” disclaimer when read in context of the spreadsheet (Lotus 1-2-3) it was distinguishing. The Federal Circuit rejected the argument noting, “DET cannot escape the import of its statements to the Patent Office by suggesting they were not needed to overcome the Examiner’s rejection. Consistent with the public notice function of the prosecution history, the public is entitled to rely on these statements as defining the scope of the claims.” In rejecting DET’s arguments, the Court again cited to the imagery of twisting claims, “like ‘a nose of wax,’ ‘one way to avoid [invalidity] and another to [...]

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Footnote Doesn’t Preserve Claim Construction Argument, but Patent Owner Must Observe “Nose of Wax” Principle

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit rejected an insufficiently developed claim construction challenge and found noninfringement where the patentee argued that a key feature shared by the accused device and the prior art distinguished the prior art from the claimed invention. CommScope Technologies LLC v. Dali Wireless Inc., Case Nos. 20-1817; -1818 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 24, 2021) (Stoll, J.)

CommScope Technologies and Dali Wireless are both in the wireless telecommunications industry. After CommScope sued Dali for infringement of five of its patents, Dali counterclaimed for infringement of two of its own patents. One of Dali’s patents relates to a method of predistorting a signal to account for distortion that occurs when the signal is amplified. The patent describes a training mode in which a feedback loop operates to update lookup tables and an operating mode in which a certain controller is turned off and the lookup table is no longer updated. In particular, the claim recites “switching a controller off to disconnect signal representative of the output of the power amplifier,” which the district court construed to mean “switching a controller to a nonoperating state to disconnect signal representative of the output of the power amplifier.” The accused product has two power amplifiers, and the controller switch continuously chooses between feedback signals for calculating predistortion values. Similarly, one asserted prior art reference discloses a system including multiple power amplifiers and a switch that continuously selects one of the feedback signals. At trial, the jury found the patent both valid and infringed, and the district court denied judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) of invalidity and no infringement.

On appeal, Dali included a footnote challenging the district court’s claim construction. The Federal Circuit held this challenge ineffective for three reasons, writing:

First, an argument that is only made in a footnote of an appellant’s brief is forfeited. Second, even if the argument were in the body of the brief, it is insufficiently developed. Finally, and most importantly, it is irreconcilable with Dali’s statements in other portions of its brief: (1) asserting that the district court’s construction is “unchallenged” and (2) applying the construction in the context of invalidity.

The Federal Circuit also criticized Dali for taking inconsistent positions with respect to application of its claims to the accused product and the prior art “given [the accused device] has a switch that operates identically [to the prior art.” “[t]his case falls squarely within the principle that a ‘patent may not, like a nose of wax, be twisted one way to avoid anticipation and another to find infringement.’” The Court held that no substantial evidence supported the infringement verdict because there was no evidence that the controller in the accused product put itself in the claimed “nonoperating state.” Accordingly, it reversed the denial of JMOL of noninfringement (while affirming the balance of the judgment below).




If Intrinsic Evidence Provides a Clear Meaning, Just Stop

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated a final written decision of the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) based on its finding that the Board erred in its ultimate claim construction by relying on extrinsic evidence that was inconsistent with the intrinsic evidence. Seabed Geosolutions (US) Inc. v. Magseis FF LLC, Case No. 20-1237 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 11, 2021) (Moore, C.J.)

In April 2018, Seabed Geosolutions petitioned for inter partes review of a patent owned by Magseis directed to “seismometers for use in seismic exploration.” Every claim recited a “geophone internally fixed within” either a “housing” or an “internal compartment” of a seismometer. The Board construed this limitation to require a non-gimbaled geophone based entirely on extrinsic evidence. The Board found that the term “fixed” had a special meaning of “non-gimbaled” at the time of the invention. Based on this finding, the Board determined that Seabed had failed to prove that the challenged claims were unpatentable because the cited prior art did not disclose a non-gimbaled geophone. Seabed appealed.

The Federal Circuit reversed the Board’s claim construction of the term “fixed” because it relied on extrinsic evidence that was inconsistent with the intrinsic evidence and unnecessary to consider given the clarity of the intrinsic evidence. The Court reminded the Board that it “resort[s] to extrinsic evidence to construe claims only if it is consistent with the intrinsic evidence,” and that “[i]f the meaning of a claim term is clear from the intrinsic evidence, there is no reason to resort to extrinsic evidence,” citing prior Federal Circuit decisions.

Contrary to the special meaning found by the Board, the Federal Circuit determined that the term “fixed” carried its ordinary meaning (i.e., attached or fastened). The Court found that the term “specifies the geophone’s relationship with the housing, not the type of geophone.” As an initial matter, the specification was silent as to whether the geophone was gimbaled or not. “That silence does not support reading the claims to exclude gimbaled geophones,” in part because the specification used the term gimbaled when describing other aspects of the invention. Had the applicant intended to limit the claimed geophone, it would have done so.

Furthermore, the specification described the internal mounting of the geophone as a key feature to overcome issues with the then-conventional method of separating the geophone from the seismometer’s other components. The specification reiterated that by internally mounting the geophone, the invention was “self-contained.” The prosecution history also revealed that both the applicant and examiner understood the term to carry its plain and ordinary meaning, equating “internally fixed within” with “disposed, and electrically connected, within.” That equivalence indicates that the term was intended to describe the relationship of the geophone with the seismometer, rather than to limit the type of geophone as contemplated by the Board. Accordingly, the Court found that the intrinsic record was clear, and that the Board’s reliance on extrinsic evidence—much less extrinsic evidence that was inconsistent with the specification itself—was improper and remanded for [...]

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As Due Process Recognizes, it’s Hard to Shoot at a Moving Claim Construction Target

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated several Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) decisions as violating due process and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), referencing the parties’ inability to respond to the PTAB’s sua sponte construction of a term on which the parties had previously agreed. Qualcomm Inc. v. Intel Corp., Case Nos. 20-1589; -1594 (Fed. Cir. July 27, 2021) (Moore, C.J.)

After Qualcomm sued Intel over a patent directed to techniques for generating a power tracking supply voltage for a circuit that processes multiple radio frequency signals simultaneously, Intel filed six inter partes review (IPR) petitions challenging the validity of Qualcomm’s patents. In each petition, Intel proposed that the claim term “a plurality of carrier aggregated transmit signals” meant “signals for transmission on multiple carriers at the same time to increase the bandwidth for a user.” Qualcomm proposed a different construction: “signals from a single terminal utilizing multiple component carriers which provide extended transmission bandwidth for a user transmission from the single terminal.” Neither party disputed that the signals were required to increase user bandwidth, either at the PTAB or in a parallel proceeding before the US International Trade Commission (USITC) where the USITC adopted a construction—including the increased bandwidth requirement.

However, during the oral hearing, one of the administrative patent judges (APJs) asked Intel counsel about the inclusion of the bandwidth limitation in the claim construction. No other APJ raised, or asked Qualcomm, any questions about the increased bandwidth requirement in the claim construction. The day after the hearing, the PTAB sua sponte ordered additional briefing on the meaning of other claim terms that had been extensively discussed at the hearing.

The PTAB ultimately issued six final written decisions concluding that all challenged claims were unpatentable. In doing so, the PTAB omitted any requirement that the signals increase or extend bandwidth in construing the term “a plurality of carrier aggregated transmit signals” to mean “signals for transmission on multiple carriers.” The PTAB also held that “means for determining a single power tracking signal” (power tracker limitation) was a means-plus-function limitation and that an integrated circuit (IC) board, the “power tracker 582,” was the corresponding structure.

Qualcomm timely appealed, arguing that 1) it was not afforded notice of, or an adequate opportunity to respond to, the PTAB’s construction of “a plurality of carrier aggregated transmit signals” and 2) that the PTAB’s construction of the power tracker limitation was erroneous for failing to include an algorithm in the corresponding structure.

NOTICE AND OPPORTUNITY TO RESPOND TO THE PTAB’S CONSTRUCTION

The Federal Circuit has discussed the administrative and notice requirements provided by the APA and due process in IPR proceedings: “[a] patent owner in [an IPR] is undoubtedly entitled to notice of and a fair opportunity to meet the grounds of rejection” (Belden v. Berk-Tek). The Court observed that for IPRs, the PTAB must “timely inform” the patent owner of “the matters of fact and law asserted” and, in terms of notice, “must provide ‘all interested [...]

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What You Say Can and Will be Used Against You – Prosecution History and Prior Infringement Arguments

Noting patent owner’s prior litigation statements, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a district court ruling that a clear and unmistakable disclaimer in the prosecution history affected claim construction of an asserted patent. SpeedTrack, Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc., Case No. 20-1573 (Fed. Cir. June 3, 2021) (Prost, J.)

In 2009, SpeedTrack filed suit against various online retailers alleging infringement of its patent directed to a method for accessing files in a filing system leveraging “category descriptions” to aid in organizing the files. The patent describes associating category descriptions with files using a “file information directory.” A “search filter” then searches the files using their associated category descriptions. A limitation that “the category descriptions hav[e] no predefined hierarchical relationship with such list or each other” was added during prosecution to overcome a prior art reference that leveraged hierarchical field-and-value relationships.

The district court initially adopted a proposed claim construction that lacked any reference to a field-and-value relationship, noting that the construction “account[ed] for the disclaimers made during prosecution.” Following a motion by SpeedTrack, the court concluded there was still a fundamental dispute about the scope of the claim term. After further analyzing SpeedTrack’s prosecution history, the court concluded that the history “demonstrate[d] clear and unambiguous disavowal of category descriptions based on hierarchical field-and-value systems” and issued a second claim construction order explicitly disclaiming “predefined hierarchical field-and-value relationships” from the scope of “category descriptions.” SpeedTrack subsequently stipulated to noninfringement under the second claim construction and appealed.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit stressed that prosecution-history disclaimer can arise from both claim amendments and arguments. Here, the prosecution history showed that the applicants “repeatedly highlighted predefined hierarchical field-and-value relationships” as a difference between the prior art and the patent claims in no uncertain terms. That SpeedTrack distinguished the prior art on other grounds did not moot its disclaimer statements.

The Federal Circuit also noted that SpeedTrack argued in litigation against another defendant that the purpose of the amendment was to distinguish the category descriptions from attributes that “have a ‘hierarchical’ relationship between fields and their values.” While the Court agreed with SpeedTrack that such litigation statements were not a disclaimer on their own (since they were not the inventors’ prosecution statements), these litigation statements further supported not accepting SpeedTrack’s arguments. The Court reminded SpeedTrack that it has cautioned (in Aylus and Southwall) that “the doctrine of prosecution disclaimer ensures that claims are not ‘construed one way in order to obtain their allowance and in a different way against accused infringers.’”

After assessing SpeedTrack’s prior statements, the Federal Circuit considered whether the disclaimer was clear and unmistakable. The Court concluded it was. In rejecting SpeedTrack’s argument that prior decisions not expressly finding disclaimer supported that prosecution statements were not clear and unambiguous, the Court noted the construction had not been fully considered in those judgments. Similarly, the Court rejected the notion that the district court’s issuance of a second claim construction order showed there was no clear and [...]

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