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3D Chess at the Federal Circuit: Can’t Walk Back Arguments in Prior Appeal or Prosecution History

In the second appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the preamble term “three-dimensional spreadsheet” was found to be a limitation in the context of claims directed to organizing and presenting information in electronic spreadsheets based on prosecution disclaimer and arguments made in the first appeal. Data Engine Techs, LLC v. Google LLC, (DET II), Case No. 21-1050 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 26, 2021) (Stoll, J.)

In the first appeal (DET I), the Federal Circuit found that DET’s representative claim was “directed to more than a generic or abstract idea as it claims a particular manner of navigating three-dimensional spreadsheets,” improving on electronic spreadsheet functionality and, therefore, directed to patent-eligible subject matter. The Court reversed and remanded. On remand, Google requested that the district court reopen claim construction and construe the preamble term “three-dimensional spreadsheet” in the representative claim.

The district court found the preamble to be limiting and construed “three-dimensional spreadsheet” to mean a “spreadsheet that defines a mathematical relation among cells on different spreadsheet pages, such that cells are arranged in a 3-D grid.” The district court went on to grant Google’s motion for summary judgment of noninfringement as there was no dispute that the accused product (Google Sheets) did not meet the “three-dimensional spreadsheet” limitation under the court’s construction. DET appealed.

Applying de novo review to the claim construction issue presented, the Federal Circuit noted that in DET I, its conclusion that the asserted claims were directed to improvements in three-dimensional spreadsheets ascribed patentable weight to the preamble term “three-dimensional spreadsheet.” The dispute related to whether the claim requires “a mathematical relation among cells on different spreadsheet pages,” as required by the district court’s construction.

The Federal Circuit found that neither the claims themselves nor the specification provided guidance in construing “three-dimensional spreadsheet.” Turning to the prosecution history, the Court noted that during prosecution, the applicants provided an explicit definition of a “true” three-dimensional spreadsheet and distinguished prior art under this definition. Indeed, as the Court noted, its ruling in DET I expressly relied on that definition from the prosecution history in determining that the claims required a three-dimensional spreadsheet that “defines a “three-dimensional spreadsheet” in support of patent eligibility. Thus, the Court concluded that the preamble term was limiting.

In the present appeal, DET contended that the prosecution history passage defining a three-dimensional spreadsheet did not rise to the level of “clear and unmistakable” disclaimer when read in context of the spreadsheet (Lotus 1-2-3) it was distinguishing. The Federal Circuit rejected the argument noting, “DET cannot escape the import of its statements to the Patent Office by suggesting they were not needed to overcome the Examiner’s rejection. Consistent with the public notice function of the prosecution history, the public is entitled to rely on these statements as defining the scope of the claims.” In rejecting DET’s arguments, the Court again cited to the imagery of twisting claims, “like ‘a nose of wax,’ ‘one way to avoid [invalidity] and another to [...]

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What You Say Can and Will be Used Against You – Prosecution History and Prior Infringement Arguments

Noting patent owner’s prior litigation statements, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a district court ruling that a clear and unmistakable disclaimer in the prosecution history affected claim construction of an asserted patent. SpeedTrack, Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc., Case No. 20-1573 (Fed. Cir. June 3, 2021) (Prost, J.)

In 2009, SpeedTrack filed suit against various online retailers alleging infringement of its patent directed to a method for accessing files in a filing system leveraging “category descriptions” to aid in organizing the files. The patent describes associating category descriptions with files using a “file information directory.” A “search filter” then searches the files using their associated category descriptions. A limitation that “the category descriptions hav[e] no predefined hierarchical relationship with such list or each other” was added during prosecution to overcome a prior art reference that leveraged hierarchical field-and-value relationships.

The district court initially adopted a proposed claim construction that lacked any reference to a field-and-value relationship, noting that the construction “account[ed] for the disclaimers made during prosecution.” Following a motion by SpeedTrack, the court concluded there was still a fundamental dispute about the scope of the claim term. After further analyzing SpeedTrack’s prosecution history, the court concluded that the history “demonstrate[d] clear and unambiguous disavowal of category descriptions based on hierarchical field-and-value systems” and issued a second claim construction order explicitly disclaiming “predefined hierarchical field-and-value relationships” from the scope of “category descriptions.” SpeedTrack subsequently stipulated to noninfringement under the second claim construction and appealed.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit stressed that prosecution-history disclaimer can arise from both claim amendments and arguments. Here, the prosecution history showed that the applicants “repeatedly highlighted predefined hierarchical field-and-value relationships” as a difference between the prior art and the patent claims in no uncertain terms. That SpeedTrack distinguished the prior art on other grounds did not moot its disclaimer statements.

The Federal Circuit also noted that SpeedTrack argued in litigation against another defendant that the purpose of the amendment was to distinguish the category descriptions from attributes that “have a ‘hierarchical’ relationship between fields and their values.” While the Court agreed with SpeedTrack that such litigation statements were not a disclaimer on their own (since they were not the inventors’ prosecution statements), these litigation statements further supported not accepting SpeedTrack’s arguments. The Court reminded SpeedTrack that it has cautioned (in Aylus and Southwall) that “the doctrine of prosecution disclaimer ensures that claims are not ‘construed one way in order to obtain their allowance and in a different way against accused infringers.’”

After assessing SpeedTrack’s prior statements, the Federal Circuit considered whether the disclaimer was clear and unmistakable. The Court concluded it was. In rejecting SpeedTrack’s argument that prior decisions not expressly finding disclaimer supported that prosecution statements were not clear and unambiguous, the Court noted the construction had not been fully considered in those judgments. Similarly, the Court rejected the notion that the district court’s issuance of a second claim construction order showed there was no clear and [...]

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