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“Self-Similar” More Objective Than One Might Think

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) decision holding that the term “self-similar” was not indefinite and denying leave to file a sanctions motion. ClearOne, Inc. v. Shure Acquisition Holdings, Case No. 2021-1517 (Fed. Cir. June 1, 2022) (Moore, Newman, Hughes, JJ.)

Shure owns a patent relating to arrays of microphones and housings that can be fitted to a drop ceiling grid, providing “equivalent beamwidth performance at any given look angle.” During inter partes review, Shure moved to amend the claims to add a new claim reciting microphones “arranged in a self-similar configuration.” The Board granted that motion, holding that “self-similar” was not indefinite. The Board denied ClearOne’s motion for rehearing and separate motion for sanctions alleging a failure to disclose prior that Shure had asserted in a post-grant review initiated against one of ClearOne’s patents.

The Federal Circuit first reviewed the Board’s indefiniteness holding. Since “[d]efiniteness is a matter of claim construction,” the Court applied de novo review while reviewing underlying factual determinations for substantial evidence. The Court held that the intrinsic record alone supported the Board’s definiteness finding because it provided the scope of “self-similar” with reasonable certainty. The specification disclosed microphones arranged in a “self-similar or repeating configuration”; a “fractal, or self-similar, configuration surrounding a central microphone”; and arrangements in circular or other repeating shapes, such as “ovals, squares, rectangles, triangles, pentagons, or other polygons.” Thus, “self-similar,” when read in view of the specification, informed skilled artisans about the scope of the invention with reasonable certainty.

The Federal Circuit rejected ClearOne’s argument that “self-similar or fractal-like” and “self-similar or repeating” distinguished self-similar from other types of patterns, holding that in context, it was clear that the phrases equated, not juxtaposed, self-similar with those patterns. Reviewing the extrinsic evidence, the Court also rejected ClearOne’s arguments premised upon “a series of rhetorical questions to show [ClearOne’s] varying interpretations of the self-similar term.” The possibility of varying interpretations, the Court held, “does not render [a term] indefinite,” as otherwise nearly every term would be indefinite if susceptible to alternative plausible constructions.

The Federal Circuit also rejected ClearOne’s motion for leave to seek sanctions. The Board held that allowing the sanctions motion would lead to an inefficient proceeding because the sanctions motion raised the same arguments as the denied request for rehearing, a ruling that ClearOne conceded on appeal. The Board also found a lack of intent to breach a duty to disclose references. Without analysis and applying the abuse of discretion review standard, the Court found that these factual determinations sufficiently established that the Board did not abuse its discretion.




No Due Process Violation When New Panel Hears Substantive Arguments

Affirming a Patent Trial and Appeal Board (Board) non-obviousness determination, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that the Board did not abuse its discretion in sanctioning a patent owner who engaged in ex parte communications by having a new panel hear the merits of the petition. Apple Inc. v. Voip-Pal.com Inc., Case Nos. 18-1456, -1457 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 25, 2020) (Reyna, J.).

Voip-Pal sued Apple for allegedly infringing two of its patents directed to routing communications between two different types of networks: public and private. Apple then petitioned for inter partes review (IPR) of several claims from both patents, arguing they were invalid as obvious. The Board ultimately found the claims were not invalid because Apple did not provide evidentiary support as to the motivation to combine multiple references.

During the IPR proceedings, Voip-Pal’s former CEO sent six letters to various parties, copying members of Congress, the President, federal judges and administrative patent judges at the Board criticizing the IPR system, complaining about the cancellation rate and requesting judgment in favor of Voip-Pal. The letters did not discuss the underlying merits of Apple’s petitions. In view of Voip-Pal’s conduct, Apple requested that the Board sanction Voip-Pal by entering adverse judgment against Voip-Pal or by vacating the final written decisions and assigning a new panel to preside over “constitutionally correct” new proceedings going forward.

For the sanctions proceeding, a new panel replaced the initial panel and determined that Voip-Pal had engaged in sanctionable conduct, and further determined that it  would preside over Apple’s petition for rehearing. The new panel found that Apple failed to show the initial panel had misapprehended or overlooked any matter, and even if the final panel were to accept Apple’s view of the prior art, it would not reach a different conclusion. Apple appealed.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit first addressed whether the appeal was moot. Before oral argument, the Court found in separate proceedings that some, but not all, of the claims at issue were invalid. Apple argued that this case mooted the entire appeal, even though the claims did not entirely overlap. Starting with the overlapping claims, the Court found that the appeal was moot in regards to these claims because Apple no longer had the potential for injury. However, the Court rejected Apple’s argument that the appeal was moot under a theory of claim preclusion in regards to the non-overlapping claims. The Court explained that any preclusive effect from the other appeal must be decided by a future court in any subsequent action brought by Voip-Pal. Thus, any discussion regarding claim preclusion would be advisory in nature and outside the scope of the Court’s Article III jurisdiction.

Turning to the merits, the Federal Circuit affirmed the Board did not violate the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) or Apple’s due process rights. The Board’s rules provide that “[t]he Board may impose a sanction” and explains that “[s]anctions include entry of one or more” of eight defined actions. Although the Board’s sanctions imposed [...]

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