person of ordinary skill in the art
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You Can’t Skirt around Obviousness by Arguing Expectation of Success Must Be Absolute

Affirming an obviousness decision by the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board), the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit explained that the expectation of success need only be reasonable and not absolute. Transtex Inc. v. Vidal, Case No. 20-1140 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 3, 2023) (Prost, Reyna JJ.) (Schall, J. dissenting).

Transtex makes aerodynamic trailer skirts, which improve fuel efficiency by reducing air drag. Transtex sued WABCO in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, alleging that WABCO’s trailer skirts infringed several Transtex patents. WABCO responded by filing two inter partes review (IPR) petitions, one of which was against a patent with claims directed to “resilient” trailer skirts and the “resilient” struts used to attach them to a trailer.

WABCO argued that the challenged claims of the patent were obvious over a combination of the Layfield and Rinard references. WABCO submitted expert declarations stating that a person of ordinary skill in the art would have recognized that Layfield’s rigid struts could benefit from being constructed of resilient, more flexible material. Accordingly, a skilled artisan would have been motivated to look to other, similar types of trailer components that are also flexible—like that disclosed in Rinard—to improve upon Layfield’s rigid struts. WABCO successfully relied on much of the same expert testimony to argue that a skilled artisan would also have enjoyed a reasonable expectation of success in combining the more rigid struts of Layfield with the compressible materials taught in Rinard because Rinard taught the utility of having compressible “air scoops” at the tail end of a trailer, which would compress downwards when the trailer contacted a loading dock.

The Board agreed with WABCO and found the challenged claims obvious. According to the Board, Layfield taught all of the claim limitations except for a “resilient strut” that could flex both toward the center of the trailer and away from the center of the trailer and then regain its shape while Rinard taught the benefits of using compressible air scoops made out of a resilient material as part of a trailer skirt system. The Board also concluded that a skilled artisan would have been motivated to combine Layfield with Rinard and would have had a reasonable expectation of success, given the predictable nature of the field. Transtex appealed.

The Federal Circuit affirmed, finding that substantial evidence in the form of expert testimony supported the Board’s finding that although Layfield taught a more rigid strut instead of a resilient strut as claimed, a skilled artisan would have been motivated to combine Layfield’s strut with the resilient materials disclosed in Rinard and would have enjoyed a reasonable expectation of success when doing so. The Court concluded that this was a case where the evidence of motivation to combine, which “everyone agrees meets the substantial evidence threshold,” significantly overlapped with the evidence relating to a reasonable expectation of success, so it was correct to conclude that a skilled artisan would have reasonably expected the resiliency benefit that motivated them to combine [...]

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Check Your Expert Skills and Standing

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit dismissed a portion of an appeal from the Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) regarding obviousness because the patentee did not have standing to challenge the decision regarding one of the claims. The Court also affirmed-in-part because the definition of person of ordinary skill in the art applied by the Board was not unreasonable or unsupported by the evidence. Best Medical International, Inc. v. Elekta Inc., Case Nos. 21-2099; -2100 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 29, 2022) (Hughes, Linn, Stoll, JJ.)

Best Medical International (BMI) owns a patent directed to a method and apparatus for conformal radiation therapy of tumors using a pre-determined radiation dose. The Board instituted two inter partes review (IPR) petitions filed by Varian Medical Systems and Elekta. During the pendency of the IPR proceeding, a parallel ex parte re-examination was ongoing. After institution of the IPRs, the examiner in the re-examination rejected claim 1, which BMI subsequently cancelled “without prejudice or disclaimer.” After BMI cancelled claim 1, the Board issued its final written decision in the IPR proceedings. The Board noted that BMI had cancelled claim 1 during re-examination, but concluded that claim 1 had “not yet been canceled by a final action” because BMI had “not filed a statutory disclaimer of claim 1.” The Board therefore considered the merits of Elekta’s patentability challenge and determined that claim 1 was unpatentable as obvious. The Board issued a split decision as to the other claims, finding one claim patentable and the others unpatentable. BMI appealed.

The Federal Circuit began by analyzing whether BMI had standing to challenge the Board’s invalidation of the now cancelled claim 1. BMI attempted to invoke Munsingwear vacatur, which allows courts to vacate underlying decisions on issues that have become moot during their pendency. As an initial matter, the Court found that the Board had the authority to invalidate the claim because it was not finally cancelled at the time the Board issued its final written decision. Regarding BMI’s vacatur argument, Elekta argued that BMI lacked standing to challenge the decision related to the cancelled claim. BMI countered that it had suffered an injury sufficient to create Article III standing because it believed that collateral estoppel might be applied by the examiner regarding other claims in another patent subject to re-examination. The Court was unpersuaded by this argument, in part because BMI could not cite any case law where collateral estoppel was applied in that fashion. The Court found that Munsingwear vacatur was inappropriate because the mooting event did not happen during the pendency of the appeal—it happened before the appeal was filed. The Court therefore concluded that BMI lacked standing to challenge the Board’s decision regarding the now cancelled claim.

Turning to the other claims the Board found unpatentable, BMI challenged the Board’s finding that a person of ordinary skill in the art must have formal computer programming experience. The Federal Circuit recited the non-exhaustive list of factors used to determine the requisite level of [...]

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Clearly, the Disclosure Was an Error

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) finding that claimed subject matter was not disclosed in asserted prior art where the prior art reference contained an “obvious error of a typographical or similar nature that would be apparent to one of ordinary skill in the art,” even though the error went unrecognized and uncorrected for 20 years until an expert conducted an extensive analysis. LG Electronics Inc. v. ImmerVision, Inc., Case Nos. 21-2037; -2038 (Fed. Cir. Jul. 11, 2022) (Stoll, Newman, Cunningham, JJ.) (Newman, J., dissenting)

The issue before the Federal Circuit was whether an error in the prior art that remained uncorrected in the public domain for 20 years and took an expert many hours of analysis to uncover, was an obvious error that would meet the standard set in the 1970 Court of Customs and Patent Appeals (CCPA) case In re Yale. Since the CCPA is a predecessor court to the Federal Circuit, its decisions are mandatory authority. Under the Yale standard, “where a prior art reference includes an obvious error of a typographical or similar nature that would be apparent to one of ordinary skill in the art who would mentally disregard the errant information as a misprint or mentally substitute it for the correct information, the errant information cannot be said to disclose subject matter. . . . The remainder of the reference would remain pertinent prior art disclosure.”

The patent at issue pertains to capturing and displaying panoramic images using an objective lens. The claims require a certain image point distribution function and that the objective lens “compresses the center of the image and the edges of the image and expands an intermediate zone of the image located between the center and the edges of the image.”

LG’s expert reconstructed a lens depicted in an embodiment of the asserted prior art using information found in Table 5 of the reference. Based on this reconstruction, LG argued that certain limitations of the claims at issue were found in a prior art patent to Tada, and thus the claims at issue were obvious.

ImmerVision had its own expert attempt to create the same lens model based on the same information. However, ImmerVision’s expert noticed something was wrong, as the resulting output image from the lens was distorted. Upon further investigation, ImmerVision’s expert discovered that the disclosure in Tada Table 5, on which LG’s expert relied, was intended to correspond to a different embodiment. The inconsistency was caused by a transcription error from the Japanese priority application in terms of the embodiment associated with Table 5. It was undisputed that when the correct values were used, the subject matter was not disclosed.

The question on appeal was whether the Board correctly held that the error in Tada would have been apparent to a person of ordinary skill in the art such that the person would have disregarded the disclosure or corrected the error to meet the Yale standard. [...]

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