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No More Bites at the Apple: Imminent and Non-Speculative Standing Still Required

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reiterated that a patent challenger did not have Article III appellate standing to obtain review of a final Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) ruling because the underlying district court proceedings had been dismissed with prejudice after the parties reached a settlement and license agreement. Apple Inc. v. Qualcomm Inc., Case Nos. 20-1683; -1763; -1764; -1827 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 10, 2021) (Prost, J.) (Newman, J., dissenting).

This is the second dispute between Apple and Qualcomm to reach the Federal Circuit. In the first appeal (Apple I), the Court found that Apple did not have standing to maintain an appeal from the PTAB because the parties had entered into a settlement agreement.

As in the earlier case, here Qualcomm asserted patent infringement in district court, and Apple filed petitions for inter partes review of the patent claims that Qualcomm asserted Apple had infringed. The PTAB instituted on four petitions. While the inter partes review proceedings were pending, the parties settled the district court litigation, whereby Apple received a license in exchange for royalty payments to Qualcomm. The parties filed a joint motion to dismiss Qualcomm’s district court action with prejudice, which the district court granted. Ultimately, the PTAB found that Apple failed to prove that the challenged claims were unpatentable. Apple appealed.

As in Apple I, Qualcomm moved to dismiss the appeal for lack of standing. Apple responded by arguing that “[a]lthough Apple continues to disagree with [Apple I], in light of that decision and the . . . order denying Apple’s petition for rehearing en banc, Apple believes that the present appeal can be resolved on the briefs without the need for oral argument.” The parties filed a joint motion to vacate oral argument, but the Federal Circuit instead held a consolidated oral argument. Apple reiterated its disagreement with the Court’s ruling in Apple I but admitted that the operative facts in this appeal were “the same.” The Court found that other than the specific difference of the patents in issue themselves, the operative facts were the same and the alleged failure of proof as to certain patent claims (regarding whether the petitioner had established them to be unpatentable) were the same. The Court further found that any specific patent differences were irrelevant since the settlement and license agreements in each case covered the patents in issue in that case.

Apple raised a “nuance” not “specifically addressed” in Apple I, namely that Apple I “did not explain why the threat of liability, if Apple ceases the ongoing payment and the agreement is terminated, is not a sufficient injury to support standing.” The Federal Circuit was not convinced that this nuance merited a different treatment because:

  • The Court would need to sit en banc to change Apple I, and panels of the Court are bound by stare decisis.
  • Apple acknowledged that this “nuance” was at the core of its denied en banc petition in Apple I.

Accordingly, [...]

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Federal Circuit Makes Clear: Prior Failures in the Art May Demonstrate Non-Obviousness

Addressing the issue of obviousness of a patent directed toward a method of killing antibiotic-resistant bacteria using only visible light with no photosensitizer, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the Patent Trial & Appeal Board’s (PTAB) decision, finding no obviousness where the asserted prior art did not disclose a successful method that did not use a photosensitizer. University of Strathclyde v. Clear-Vu Lighting, LLC, Case No. 20-2243 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 4, 2021) (Stoll, J.) The Court held that the PTAB erroneously found a reasonable expectation of success where “[t]he only support for such a finding [was] pure conjecture coupled with hindsight reliance on the teachings in the [asserted] patent.”

Gram-positive bacteria, such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), are known to negatively affect health but effective methods of killing (or inactivating) such bacteria have been elusive. Photoinactivation is a way to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and previous methods involved applying a photosensitizing agent to the infection and then activating the agent using light. Through experimentation, scientists at the University of Strathclyde discovered that application of visible (blue) light of wavelengths in the range of 400 – 420 nm was effective at inactivating bacteria such as MRSA without using a photosensitizing agent. The challenged patent claimed this method of using a photosensitizer for inactivating MRSA and other Gram-positive bacteria.

After Clear-Vu Lighting petitioned for inter partes review, the PTAB found the patent invalid as obvious in view of prior art disclosing methods of photoactivation using visible light. The university appealed.

The Federal Circuit reversed, finding that the prior art did not disclose all claim elements and there was no reasonable expectation of success in reaching the claimed invention by combining the prior art.

The Federal Circuit first addressed the PTAB finding that the prior art disclosed all claim limitations, finding that neither of the asserted prior art references taught or suggested “inactivation” of the bacteria without using a photosensitizer—as required by the claims. The Court noted that it “fail[ed] to see why a skilled artisan would opt to entirely omit a photosensitizer when combining [the] references,” finding it “particularly relevant” that one of the references actually “disclosed such a photosensitizer-free embodiment and was wholly unsuccessful in achieving inactivation.”

The PTAB also found that, based on a prior art teaching that “blue light may” inactivate “other bacterial cells that produce porphyrins,” a skilled artisan would have expected that MRSA could be inactivated by blue light without a photosensitizer due to the presence of porphyrins. In defense of the PTAB’s findings, Clear-Vu argued that support for the reasonable expectation of success could be found in the challenged patent itself. Citing its 2012 decision in Otsuka Pharm. v. Sandoz, the Federal Circuit harshly criticized this position, reiterating that the inventor’s own path to the invention is not the proper lens through which to find obviousness; “that is hindsight.”

The Federal Circuit explained that “not only is there a complete lack of evidence in the record that any bacteria were inactivated after exposure [...]

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PTO’s Financial Benefits from IPR Don’t Render PTAB Unconstitutional

A split panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit concluded that the structure and functions of the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) survived yet another constitutional challenge, this time based on the PTAB’s fee and compensation structure, lack of director review over the institution decision and applicability of the Takings Clause. Mobility WorkX, LLC v. Unified Patents LLC, Case No. 20-1441 (Fed. Cir.) (Dyk, J.) (Newman, J., dissenting).

With the dust barely settled after the Supreme Court’s ruling in US v. Arthrex, Inc. that the PTAB’s rendering of final written decisions without director review violated the Appointments Clause, this case presented a whole new slate of potential deficiencies with the PTAB. Although none of these deficiencies were initially raised with the PTAB, the Court exercised its discretion to nonetheless consider the challenges based on publicly available records that it could judicially notice.

The first challenge, already made in many other cases, was that the Federal Circuit remand for the director to consider a rehearing petition in view of Arthrex. This remedy, already afforded in other post-Arthrex challenges, was a simple grant. Yet, here, Mobility asked for something more, arguing that because the director did not resolve the inter partes review (IPR) within the 12-month statutory period, the director must confirm the claims or dismiss the IPR. The Court declined to rule on this issue, instructing Mobility to raise the issue on remand.

The issue receiving the most attention by the Federal Circuit was Mobility’s claims that the PTAB’s fee structure and bonus payments to administrative patent judges (APJs) based on their workload violated the Due Process Clause. According to Mobility, the APJs have a financial incentive to institute IPRs (i.e., significant fees), which provide a significant benefit to the agency. But the Court concluded that the APJs (even the leadership APJs) have only an attenuated role in budget control and thus have an insignificant interest in the financial health of the US Patent & Trademark Office as a whole. Because Congress holds the purse strings and the more significant budget responsibilities fall on the director and the president, the majority held that little connection existed between institution decisions and the agency’s overall financial health, which was consistent with the Court’s own precedent regarding reexaminations and other circuits’ precedents regarding executive agency fee collection. This attenuated connection differentiated the PTAB’s collected fees from Supreme Court cases that found due process violations based on the structure of certain executive courts presided over by a mayor who also held concomitant budget responsibilities.

Similarly, the Federal Circuit held that the APJs’ incentive to render a certain number of decisions—i.e., APJs receive bonus payments if they earn at least 84 decisional units, and the number of decisions is part of performance evaluation—did not provide an unconstitutional incentive to institute. The majority reasoned that ample alternative means existed for the APJs to earn their bonuses, namely, the ability to volunteer for non-America Invents Act (AIA) decisions (such as [...]

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Ex Parte Reexamination Not Allowed After Failed IPR Challenge

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that ex parte reexamination was unavailable to a challenger who repeatedly tried and failed to raise the same arguments for the same patent in a prior inter partes review (IPR) proceeding. In re: Vivint, Inc., Case No. 20-1992 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 29, 2021) (Moore, C.J.)

Vivint sued Alarm.com in 2015 for infringement of several patents. In response, Alarm requested that the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) institute “a litany of post-issuance review proceedings,” including three separate IPR petitions directed to one of the patents. The PTAB refused to institute two of the petitions because Alarm failed show to a reasonable likelihood that it would prevail on at least one challenged claim and also refused to institute the third petition because it represented an example of “undesirable, incremental petitioning.” According to the PTAB, Alarm had “used prior Board decisions as a roadmap to correct past deficiencies” and allowing such “similar, serial challenges to the same patent” by the same challenger risked, not only harassment of patent owners, but also frustration of congressional intent behind the America Invents Act (AIA).

More than a year later, Alarm filed a request for ex parte reexamination of the patent—a request that used repackaged versions of arguments from its unsuccessful IPR petition. Despite the striking similarity between Alarm’s prior and current arguments, including two out of the four original IPR patentability questions being copied verbatim from the failed petition into the ex parte reexamination request, the PTAB found the petition raised substantial new questions of patentability and ordered reexamination. Vivint responded by seeking dismissal of the ex parte reexamination under 37 C.F.R. § 1.181, arguing that the PTAB has the authority under 35 U.S.C § 325(d) to deny the ex parte reexamination request because that statute applies to ex parte reexaminations and IPRs with “equal force.” The PTAB rejected Vivint’s request, stating that any § 1.181 petition raising a § 325(d) challenge must be filed before reexamination is ordered.

Vivint filed a second § 1.181 petition seeking reconsideration of the § 325(d) issue, arguing that it would have been impossible for Vivint to file the § 1.181 petition before ex parte reexamination was ordered. Vivint also argued that even if the PTAB lacked general authority to terminate the reexamination, it could exercise such authority under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Vivint also asserted that the PTAB “acted arbitrarily and capriciously by applying the same law to the same facts and reaching a different conclusion.” The PTAB rejected Vivint’s arguments and denied its second petition, finding that Vivint could have sought a waiver of the rules having to do with the required prior-to-ex parte timing of a § 1.181 petition vis-à-vis institution of ex parte reexamination. The PTAB also noted that ex parte reexamination was not inconsistent with denying the initial IPR. Ultimately, after an examiner issued a final rejection for all claims of the patent, Vivint appealed to the PTAB. The PTAB affirmed and Vivint [...]

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Federal Circuit: Contractual Arbitration Agreements Don’t Bind PTAB Institution Decisions

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued an order declining to intervene in inter partes review (IPR) institution decisions by the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) and further denied a writ of mandamus to stay the PTAB’s IPR institution pending contractually required arbitration of the dispute between MaxPower and ROHM Japan. In re: MAXPOWER SEMICONDUCTOR, INC., Case No. 21-146 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 8, 2021) (Reyna, J.) (O’Malley, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

MaxPower owned patents directed to silicon transistor technology and licensed the patents to ROHM Japan. The license agreement contained an arbitration clause that applied to any disputes arising from or related to it—including patent validity. A dispute arose between the parties as to whether the patents covered certain silicon carbide transistor ROHM products. After MaxPower notified ROHM that it was initiating arbitration under the terms of their license agreement, ROHM challenged the validity of four MaxPower patents at the PTAB, which granted ROHM’s petitions to institute IPRs for the four challenged patents.

MaxPower appealed the PTAB’s institution decision to the Federal Circuit and sought a writ of mandamus to stay or terminate the IPR proceedings without prejudice to later institution if an arbitrator decided that IPR proceedings were appropriate.

The Federal Circuit held that the PTAB’s decision to institute IPR is non-appealable under 35 U.S.C. §314(d), which plainly “confirms the unavailability of jurisdiction” for the Court to hear direct appeals. The Court also found that MaxPower failed to meet the criteria necessary to invoke the collateral order doctrine, which allows appeals from interlocutory rulings if they decide an issue “separate from the merits of the case” that would not be reviewable after final judgment. The Court noted that MaxPower could still raise its arbitration-related challenges after the PTAB issued its final written decisions in these cases.

The Federal Circuit also rejected arguments that the appeals were authorized under 9 U.S.C. § 16(a)(1) and that MaxPower failed to show that its mandamus petition was not “merely a ‘means of avoiding the statutory prohibition on appellate review of agency institution decisions,’” citing the Court’s 2018 decision in In re Power Integrations.

Since the PTAB is not bound by private contracts enforcing arbitration agreements between parties, the Federal Circuit ruled that MaxPower had failed to show that the PTAB’s institution decisions in this case “clearly and indisputably exceeded its authority,” also stating that 35 U.S.C. § 294 does not authorize the PTAB to enforce private arbitration agreements.

In a partial dissent, Judge Kathleen O’Malley argued that the majority decision casts “a shadow over all agreements to arbitrate patent validity” and goes against strong federal policy in favor of enforcing arbitration agreements. While concurring with the majority that the PTAB’s IPR institution decisions are not appealable, Judge O’Malley stated that the case “provides exactly the sort of extraordinary circumstances under which mandamus review is appropriate” in what she called an important issue of first impression. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that [...]

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The Application of “Authentication by Comparison” at the PTAB

Directly addressing the application and operation of the Federal Rules of Evidence in proceedings before the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board), the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed-in-part and reversed-in-part two inter partes review (IPR) decisions, criticizing the Board’s refusal to consider a particular reference relied upon by the patent challenger on the basis of failure to authenticate. Valve Corp. v. Ironburg Inventions Ltd., U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals Nos. 20-1315, -1316, -1379 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 17, 2021) (Dyk, J.)

The Board found that an IPR petitioner, Valve Corporation, failed to show that several challenged patents were unpatentable based on a non-authenticated copy of a critical prior art reference (the Burns article). The Burns article was a printed copy of a 2010 online review of an Xbox 360 controller. Simon Burgess, a co-inventor of the patents at issue, had facilitated the publication of the Burns article by providing a test controller to Dave Burns (who worked for an online gaming magazine) for promotional purposes. Valve appealed the Board’s decision.

Valve argued that the Burns article copy submitted in connection with the IPR (the Exhibit) was merely a printout of the same online article cited and enclosed in the prosecution histories of the challenged patents, as well as another of Ironburg’s patents directed toward similar subject matter. The Board concluded that Valve failed to show that the Exhibit was the same version of the Burns article that appeared in the prosecution history and that it was not obligated to compare the documents in the absence of testimony from Valve that the two were identical. Valve appealed.

In reviewing the Board’s decision, the Federal Circuit first referred to the principles of authentication by comparison under Fed. R. Evid. 901(b)(3), which permits authentication of a document by a comparison with an authenticated specimen “by an expert witness or the trier of fact.” While the Court did note a discrepancy in the dates shown in the Exhibit and in the Burns article in one of the prosecution histories, the Court found that the difference in dates did not bear on the subject matter being disclosed, which was “virtually identical” between the two, as well as identical to the version of the same article in the other two relevant file histories. The Court held that the Board was obligated to perform this comparison and erred by failing to do so.

After determining that the Exhibit was “substantively the same” as the versions of the Burns article from the relevant prosecution file histories, the Court addressed the question of whether the Exhibit was a printed publication under 35 U.S.C. § 102(a)(1). The Board found “overwhelming evidence” that the Burns article was accessible prior to the critical date of the patents at issue, based in significant part on the fact that Mr. Burgess had provided a controller to Mr. Burns with the purpose of a “dialogue with the intended audience,” an indicia of public accessibility. The Board also noted its agreement with [...]

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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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Even Judges Have a Boss: PTAB Must Sufficiently Articulate its Obviousness Reasoning

Addressing the sufficiency of the Patent Trial & Appeal Board’s (PTAB) justification of its inter partes review (IPR) determination, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the PTAB’s obviousness determinations, concluding that the PTAB’s findings regarding motivation to combine were not supported by substantial evidence. Chemours Company FC, LLC v. Daikin Industries, Ltd., Daikin America, Inc., Case No. 20-1289, -1290 (Fed. Cir., July 21, 2021) (Reyna, J.) (Dyk, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

Chemours, owner of the challenged patents, appealed the PTAB’s final written decisions in two IPRs initiated by Daikin. The challenged claims relate to a unique polymer for insulating communication cables formed by pulling wires through melted polymer to coat and insulate the wires, a process known as “extrusion.” The challenged claims of the patents recite that the polymer has a specific melt flow range of about 30+/- g/10 mins. The polymer’s melt flow range correlates with how fast the melted polymer can flow under pressure during extrusion. A higher melt flow rate means a faster coating of the polymer onto a wire. During the IPRs, the PTAB found all challenged claims unpatentable as obvious.

The Federal Circuit reviews the PTAB’s legal determinations de novo and its factual findings for substantial evidence, which “requires more than a ‘mere scintilla’ and must be enough such that a reasonable mind could accept the evidence as adequate to support the conclusion.” Obviousness is a question of law necessarily made on underlying findings of fact, and in making factual findings, the PTAB “must have both an adequate evidentiary basis for its findings and articulate a satisfactory explanation for those findings.”

In this instance, the Federal Circuit found that the PTAB’s obviousness findings were not supported by substantial evidence. According to the Court, while the PTAB may rely on prior art other than the references being applied or combined to inform itself of the state of the art at the time of the invention, the scope of the relevant prior art encompasses only that which is “’reasonably pertinent to the particular problem with which the inventor was involved.”’ Here, the Court explained that the only prior art reference relied on was not appropriate because it expressly taught away from the claimed invention and relied on teachings from other references that were not concerned with the particular problems the prior art sought to solve. As the Court noted, the PTAB “did not adequately grapple with why a skilled artisan would find it obvious to increase [the reference’s] melt flow rate to [the] claimed range while retaining its critical ‘very narrow molecular-weight distribution.’” To support its obviousness conclusion, the PTAB needed “competent proof showing a skilled artisan would have been motivated to, and reasonably expected to be able to, increase the melt flow rate of [the reference’s] polymer to the claimed range when all known methods for doing so would go against [the reference’s] invention by broadening molecular weight distribution.” By failing to provide its reasoning, the PTAB relied [...]

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PTO Updates Arthrex Guidance

The US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) updated its June 29, 2021, interim procedure to implement the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision in U.S. v. Arthrex, Inc., and specifically updated the Arthrex Q&As section. The PTO’s July 20, 2021, updates address the effect of Arthrex on Patent Trial & Appeal Board (PTAB) proceedings generally and ongoing proceedings in particular. In Arthrex, the Supreme Court held that appointment of PTAB administrative patent judges violated the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, and that the proper remedy was to vest the PTO director with discretion to overturn the PTAB’s decisions.

In section A of the Q&As, pertaining to the effect of Arthrex on PTAB proceedings, the PTO explained that the director has the option to sua sponte initiate director review of any final written decision at any point before the filing of a notice of appeal or before the time for filing such a notice has expired. The updated Q&As further explain that a request for director review is not an opportunity for a party to make new arguments or submit new evidence and imposes a 15-page limit on any request. The updated Q&As also clarify the mechanism to request review by the director. The update clarifies that a party cannot request both director review and a panel rehearing after the issuance of a final written decision, and if a party requests both it will be treated as a request for director review. However, if a panel rehearing is granted, a party can request director review of the rehearing panel decision.

In section B of the update, pertaining to the effect of Arthrex on ongoing PTAB proceedings, the PTO clarified the deadline for requesting a rehearing by the director and the circumstances under which the director will consider granting extensions of the rehearing deadlines.

In addition, the PTO added a new section, section D, pertaining to the interim internal process for director review. In section D, the Q&As address:

  1. What happens to a director review request when it is received by the PTO?
  2. What criteria does the advisory committee use when evaluating director review requests?
  3. How will the director identify decisions for sua sponte director review?

Regarding 1), the Q&As explain that requests for director review will be evaluated by an advisory committee established by the director. Regarding 2), the Q&As explain there is no exclusive list of criteria, but list criteria the advisory committee may consider. Regarding 3), the Q&As explain that the PTAB internal management review team will alert the director to decisions that may warrant director review.




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