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It’s All in the Grammar: “A” Still Means “One or More,” but Single Component Must Perform All Claimed Functions

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a jury’s noninfringement verdict, finding that the district court correctly interpreted the article “a” and antecedent “said” in the asserted claims to require that a single microprocessor be capable of performing every one of the recited microprocessor functions. Salazar v. AT&T Mobility LLC et al., Case No. 21-2320; -2376 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 5, 2023) (Stoll, Schall, Stark, JJ.)

Joe Salazar owns a patent directed to technology for wireless and wired communication, including command, control and sensing systems for two-way communications. In 2016, Salazar sued HTC, alleging that HTC infringed the patent by selling certain phones that allegedly embodied the asserted claims. A jury returned a verdict finding that HTC did not infringe. In 2019, Salazar sued AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon (collectively, the Telecom Providers) asserting the same patent against the same HTC products. HTC intervened, arguing that the accused products did not infringe. The district court severed HTC and stayed that portion of the case.

At claim construction, the parties disputed limitations that required “a microprocessor for generating, . . . said microprocessor creating . . . , a plurality of parameter sets retrieved by said microprocessor . . . , [and] said microprocessor generating.” The essence of the dispute was “whether the claims require one microprocessor that is capable of performing the recited ‘generating,’ ‘creating,’ ‘retrieving,’ and ‘generating’ functions.” The district court answered the question in the affirmative and construed the term to mean “one or more microprocessors, at least one of which is configured to perform the generating, creating, retrieving, and generating functions.” The district court further reasoned that “at least one microprocessor must satisfy all the functional (and relational) limitations recited for ‘said microprocessor.’” At trial, the jury found that the accused products did not infringe and that the patent was not invalid. Salazar appealed, and the Telecom Providers cross-appealed.

Salazar argued that the district court erred in construing “a” microprocessor and “said” microprocessor and that the court should have interpreted the claim terms to require one or more microprocessors, any one of which may be capable of performing the “generating,” “creating” and “retrieving” functions recited in the claims. Put another way, in Salazar’s view, the correct claim construction would encompass one microprocessor capable of performing one claimed function and another microprocessor capable of performing a different claimed function, even if no single microprocessor could perform all of the recited functions.

The Federal Circuit rejected Salazar’s argument. Generally, the indefinite article “a” means “one or more” in open-ended claims containing the transitional phrase “comprising.” An exception to the general rule arises where the language of the claims themselves, the specification or the prosecution history necessitates a departure from the rule. The Court found that while the claim term “a microprocessor” does not require that there be only one microprocessor, the subsequent limitations referring to “said microprocessor” require that at least one microprocessor be capable of performing each of the claimed functions. The Court further explained that [...]

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Ahoy There: If License Terms Not Clearly Intended to Be a Condition Precedent, It’s a Covenant

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that the US Court of Federal Claims erred by failing to consider defendant’s non-compliance with the terms of an implied license, vacating the claims court’s finding of non-infringement and remanding the case for a calculation of damages. Bitmanagement Software GmbH v. U.S., Case No. 20-1139 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 25, 2021) (O’Malley, J.) (Newman, J., concurring).

Bitmanagement Software filed suit against the US government for infringement of its copyrighted graphics-rendering software, BS Contact Geo. The claims court found that Bitmanagement had established a prima facie case of copyright infringement based on the US Navy’s copying of the software onto all computers in the Navy Marine Corps Intranet, but found that the Navy was not liable for infringement because Bitmanagement had granted the Navy an implied license to make such copies. Bitmanagement appealed, arguing that:

  • The claims court erred in finding an implied-in-fact license between the parties.
  • An implied-in-fact license was precluded as a matter of law.
  • Even if an implied-in-fact license existed, the claims court erred by failing to consider whether the Navy had complied with the terms of the license.

The Federal Circuit did not disturb the claims court’s findings with respect to the existence of an implied license authorizing the Navy to make copies of Bitmanagement’s software.

The Federal Circuit further declined to apply its preclusion rule as set forth in Seh Ahn Lee, i.e., that “the existence of an express contract precludes the existence of an implied-in-fact contract dealing with the same subject matter,” because the Navy and Bitmanagement never actually entered into an express contract with one another. Rather, both parties entered into express contracts with a third party, Planet 9, through which they intentionally chose to conduct their business. The express contracts “do not capture or reflect the discussions that occurred between the Navy and Bitmanagement directly,” nor do they cover the topic of the implied license between the parties, “i.e., the license to copy BS Contact Geo onto all Navy computers.”

With respect to Bitmanagement’s claim that the Navy failed to comply with the terms of the implied license, the Court considered whether a term requiring the Navy’s use of Flexera, a license-tracking software, was a condition that limited the scope of the license, or merely a covenant. The Court explained that a term of a license is presumed to be a covenant—addressable only in contract—rather than a condition, unless it is clear that the term was intended to be a condition precedent. Accepting the lower court’s factual findings that “Bitmanagement agreed to [the] licensing scheme because Flexera would limit the number of simultaneous users of BS Contact Geo, regardless of how many copies were installed on Navy computers,” the Court found that the required use of Flexera was a condition of the license. The Court found there was no reason Bitmanagement would have entered into an implied license that allowed mass copying of its software without the use of Flexera because, absent [...]

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A Mixed Bag on New Rules – Juggling Copyright Preclusion and Patent Infringement

Addressing issues of copyright and patent infringement, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act did not preempt copyright protection and that patent infringement under 35 U.S.C. § 271(g) does not require that the claimed process be performed by a single entity. Syngenta Crop Protection, LLC v. Willowood, LLC, Case Nos.18-1614, -2044 (Fed. Cir., Dec. 18, 2019) (Reyna, J.).


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