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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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Stick to the Fax: Conflicting Statements Made During Prosecution Lead to Indefiniteness

In deciding whether use of the term “passive link” to define a connection between a computer terminal and a fax machine rendered a patent claim indefinite, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s finding of invalidity based on conflicting statements made by the patent owner during prosecution. Infinity Computer Products, Inc. v. Oki Data Americas, Inc., Case No. 20-1189 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 10, 2021) (Prost, C.J.)

Infinity owns a patent directed to providing a circuit for interfacing a personal computer with a facsimile machine to enable the facsimile to be used as a scanner or a printer for a personal computer. The patent seeks to accomplish all of the objectives of a scanner or a printer in a simple, straightforward manner through the use of a circuit of highly simplified design and low cost. The patent claims recite that this functionality is accomplished “through a bi-directional direct connection via a passive link between the facsimile machine and the computer.” Infinity asserted the patent against Oki in district court.

The term “passive link” does not appear in the patent specification. Infinity introduced this term during prosecution to overcome rejections based on a prior art patent to Perkins. During prosecution, Infinity unsuccessfully argued that unlike Perkins, the claimed invention permits uninterrupted transfer of signals between the facsimile and the computer without the use of intervening circuitry. Infinity engaged in multiple rounds of amendment and response with the examiner before finally overcoming the rejections based on Perkins by arguing that the invention “creates a passive link between the facsimile machine and the computer [and] therefore does not require any intervening apparatus as does Perkins.” Perkins used a modem, characterized by Infinity as the “intervening apparatus,” internal to the computer. Infinity argued that the modem “should be regarded as a peripheral device to the computer which processes data before it is transmitted to the I/O bus of the computer,” effectively drawing the boundary of the “passive link” at the I/O bus of the computer.

After allowance, the patent was the subject of three ex parte re-examination proceedings. The patent was a continuation-in-part of a parent application, and in order to overcome a prior art reference asserted in the re-examination proceeding, Infinity argued that the claimed “passive link” element was entitled to the priority date of an earlier parent application. Infinity specifically noted that the patent’s description of “the RJ11 telephone cable and use thereof in communicating data between the fax machine 30 and the PC computer 40 meets the definition of ‘passive link.'” In doing so, Infinity pointed to certain figures in the parent application specification that disclosed fax modem circuitry internal to the computer, effectively drawing the boundary of the “passive link” at the computer’s external port—before the I/O bus.

The district court found that there was a discrepancy on the boundary of the “passive link” because during prosecution it was defined as at the I/O bus of the computer, but during the ex parte re-examination it [...]

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“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 [...]

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