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If You Can’t Build it, They Won’t Come: No Obviousness Based on Fanciful Engine Design

Reaffirming that a person of ordinary skill in the art must have been able to actually create a disclosure at the time of invention in order for it to serve as an obviousness reference, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a decision by the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (the Board) in an inter partes review (IPR), concluding that a patent covering certain turbofan engine technology was not rendered obvious by a prior art publication that could not be realized into practice. Raytheon Techs. Corp. v. General Electric Co., Case No. 20-1755 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 16, 2021) (Chen, J.)

The issue on appeal was relatively straightforward. In an IPR, GE challenged as obvious a Raytheon patent that covered a specific design of geared gas turbine engine that provided for a “power density” higher than previously invented turbine engines. The patent defined “power density” as a “sea-level-takeoff thrust” divided by the engine turbine volume. During the IPR, GE relied on a 1987 NASA technical memorandum as art and argued that the reference, which envisioned superior performance characteristics based on an advanced engine that was made entirely of composite materials, rendered the challenged claims obvious. The parties did not dispute that this engine was unattainable in 1987, and may still be impossible today, because the envisioned composite materials do not yet (and may never) exist. The memorandum disclosed several performance factors, but not power density, sea-level-takeoff thrust or turbine volume. Nonetheless, GE argued, and the Board agreed, that the memorandum disclosed performance parameters that would have permitted an ordinarily skilled artisan to derive power densities that would have fallen within the range claimed in Raytheon’s patent.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit agreed with Raytheon, concluding that the imaginary engine of the NASA memorandum could not serve as an invalidating reference. In reversing the Board, the Federal Circuit reiterated two bedrock principles of obviousness law:

  • An obviousness reference must be enabled by the knowledge of an ordinarily skilled artisan at the time of the invention (but need not be self-enabling).
  • An invention cannot be rendered obvious by a non-self-enabling reference if no other prior art evidence or reference enables the non-self-enabling reference.

In addition, when a reference’s enablement is challenged, the party offering the reference bears a burden to establish that the reference, itself or in combination with other contemporaneous knowledge, was enabled.

Applying these principles here, the Federal Circuit determined that GE had not met its burden to show that the memorandum was indeed enabled. The Board, wrongly in the Court’s view, focused solely on whether an ordinarily skilled artisan was taught the parameters to ascertain a power density, rather than whether the prior art disclosed a turbofan engine possessing the requisite power density. Finding no evidence in the record to conclude that “a skilled artisan could have made the claimed turbofan engine with the recited power density,” the Court reversed.

Practice Note: Although this case does not break new obviousness ground, it reinforces the general [...]

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No Second Bite at the Apple: Injury Must Be Imminent and Non-Speculative to Support Standing

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that a party did not have Article III appellate standing to obtain review of a final ruling of the Patent Trial & Appeal Board because the underlying district court proceedings had been dismissed with prejudice after a settlement and license agreement were reached. Apple Inc. v. Qualcomm Inc., Case Nos. 20-1561; -1642 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 7, 2021) (Moore, J.)

After Qualcomm sued Apple in district court, Apple filed petitions for inter partes review (IPR) of the asserted patent claims. The Board instituted on both petitions but found that Apple did not prove the challenged claims were obvious. Apple appealed the Board’s final written decisions finding non-obviousness.

While the IPR proceedings were pending, the parties settled their litigation worldwide. The settlement included a license to Apple and payment of royalties to Qualcomm. The parties filed a joint motion to dismiss Qualcomm’s district court action with prejudice, which the district court granted.

At the Federal Circuit, Qualcomm argued that Apple waived any argument to establish its appellate standing by failing to address or submit supporting evidence in its opening brief. However, the Federal Circuit exercised its discretion to reach the issue of standing, explaining that the issue of standing was fully briefed, there was no prejudice to Qualcomm, and the question of standing impacted these and other appeals. Qualcomm sought leave to file a sur-reply addressing Apple’s evidence and arguments on standing, and agreed that if its motions to file a sur-reply were granted, it would not suffer any prejudice, and that evaluating the evidence may resolve standing in other pending cases. The Court granted Qualcomm leave to file a sur-reply.

Apple argued that it had appellate standing based on its ongoing payment obligations that conditioned certain rights in the license agreement, the threat that Apple would be sued for infringing the two patents-at-issue after the expiration of the license agreement, and the estoppel effects of 35 USC § 315 on future challenges to the validity of the asserted patents. The Federal Circuit disagreed.

LICENSE RIGHTS

Distinguishing the 2007 Supreme Court case MedImmune v. Genentech (where standing was found based on license agreement payment obligations after analyzing evidence for injury in fact or redressability), the Federal Circuit explained that Apple did not allege that the validity of the patents-at-issue would affect its contract rights and ongoing royalty obligations. The license agreement between the parties involves tens of thousands of patents. Apple did not argue or present evidence that the validity of any single patent (including the two patents-at-issue) would affect its ongoing payment obligations, or identify any related contractual dispute that could be resolved through determining the patents-at-issue’s validity. Accordingly, the Court concluded that Apple failed to establish Art. III standing under MedImmune.

THREAT OF POST-LICENSE SUITS

Apple’s second argument was based on the possibility that Qualcomm might sue Apple for infringing the patents-at-issue after the license expired. The Federal Circuit found the mere possibility of any such suit [...]

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