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Hanging Patentability on Written Description Cannot Be Truss-ted

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a Patent Trial & Appeal Board finding that the claims of a patent for a truss hanger were invalid for lack of written description because they claimed an undisclosed range despite the predictable nature of the technology. Columbia Insurance Company v. Simpson Strong-Tie Company Inc., Case Nos. 21-2145; -2157 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 31, 2023) (Prost, Hughes, JJ.) (Moore, C.J., dissenting) (non-precedential).

Truss hangers secure support beams to wall frames in buildings. These hangers normally accommodate layers of fire-resistant sheathing by cutting out the sheathing that overlaps with the hanger, but this can reduce fire resistance. Columbia owns a patent claiming a truss hanger that extends through the sheathing and does not decrease fire resistance. The extension for the sheathing, illustrated below, must be “sized large enough to permit two layers of ⅝ inch thick sheathing to be received between the rear edge plane and the back flange plane, but too small to permit three layers of ⅝ inch thick sheathing to be received.”

Simpson petitioned for a post-grant review of the patent at the Board. That proceeding resulted in a mixed decision. The Board found in favor of Simpson that certain original claims and certain substitute claims of the patent were unpatentable for lack of written description and that certain claims were obvious over the prior art. However, it found in favor of Columbia with regard to one claim. Both parties appealed.

The Federal Circuit affirmed the Board’s findings regarding written description. The claimed extension portion covered a range of extension sizes between the upper limit (three layers of five-eighths-inch-thick sheathing) and lower limit (two layers of five-eighths-inch-thick sheathing). The Court affirmed the Board’s finding that nothing in the specification covered the claimed upper limit. Columbia argued that a skilled artisan would read the claims to cover exactly two layers of five-eighths-inch-thick sheathing, but the Court found that this claim construction argument was forfeited because it was raised for the first time on appeal and, even if it weren’t, it was incorrect because it was akin to rewriting the claims.

The Federal Circuit also affirmed the Board’s finding that certain claims were obvious, concluding that the Board’s determination was supported by substantial evidence. The Court rejected Columbia’s argument that the Board’s claim construction violated the Administrative Procedure Act because the construction adopted by the Board was similar enough to Simpson’s proposed construction and not raised sua sponte.

Finally, the Federal Circuit affirmed the Board’s finding that the claim on which Simpson appealed was not indefinite because the term “large enough to permit the drywall to be received” informs a skilled artisan with reasonable certainty that the scope of this claim includes any extension portion sized larger than the smallest commonly known sheathing size. The Court also found that the claim was not obvious because the Board correctly interpreted the claim language [...]

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When It Comes to Claim Construction, Prosecution History and Specification Rule

Addressing claim constructions across two patents that ultimately led to noninfringement findings by a district court, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed one construction because it was supported by the prosecution history but reversed another because it was unsupported by the specification. SSI Techs., LLC v. Dongguan Zhengyang Elec. Mech. Ltd., Case Nos. 21-2345, 22-1039 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 13, 2023) (Reyna, Bryson, Cunningham, JJ.)

SSI owns two patents directed to sensors for determining the characteristics of fluid in a container such as a fuel tank. One patent, referred to as the transducer patent, describes an exemplary sensor system containing a “level” transducer and a “quality” transducer. The two transducers use ultrasonic sound waves and time of flight to determine both a level of fluid in a given tank and a quality (i.e., concentration of diesel exhaust fluid). The other patent, referred to as the filter patent, describes a similar system but attempts to address the problem of erratic measurement results that may occur because of air bubbles embedded in the fluid. This patent claims a “filter” covering the sensing area that substantially prohibits gas bubbles from entering the sensing area.

Dongguan Zhengyang Electronic Mechanical (DZEM) produces systems that determine the quality and volume of diesel exhaust fluid that are used in emission-reduction systems for diesel truck engines. SSI accused DZEM of infringing both patents. In the district court action, DZEM brought a motion for summary judgment of noninfringement based on the court’s construction of certain terms that appear in the asserted claims. With reference to the transducer patent, the claims recite the need to “determine whether a contaminant exists in the fluid based on . . . a dilution of the fluid [] detected while the measured volume of the fluid decreases.” The district court determined that this claim element required that the contaminant determination actually consider the measured volume of the fluid. The district court predicated its determination on the prosecution history, having found that this term was amended to include the disputed term and that the applicant’s intention was to incorporate the specific error-detection capability recited in the specification. The parties had previously agreed that the DZEM products did not base the contamination determination on any consideration of the measured volume. As a result, the district court granted DZEM’s motion for summary judgment of noninfringement on the transducer patent.

Regarding the filter patent, the district court adopted DZEM’s construction of the term “filter,” which was “a porous structure defining openings, and configured to remove impurities larger than said openings from a liquid or gas passing through the structure.” DZEM’s accused sensors includes a rubber cover with four apertures. The district court found that the rubber cover was not “porous” because the apertures were “relatively large” when compared with the disclosed embodiments in the specification. As a result, the court granted DZEM’s motion for summary judgment of noninfringement on the filter patent. SSI appealed.

SSI challenged both constructions. Regarding the transducer patent, SSI argued that [...]

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Establishing Indefiniteness Requires More Than Identifying “Unanswered Questions” Part II

Earlier this year, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a district court decision for relying on an incorrect standard for indefiniteness. (Nature Simulation Systems Inc. v. Autodesk, Inc). Now, in response to a motion for panel rehearing, the Federal Circuit modified its decision on rehearing deleting language. Nature Simulation Systems Inc. v. Autodesk, Inc., Case No. 20-2257 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 17, 2022) (Lourie, Dyk, Newman JJ.) (Dyk, J., dissenting)

Nature Simulations Systems asserted two patents against Autodesk (one a continuation-in-part of the other), both entitled “Method for Immediate Boolean Operations Using Geometric Facets.” According to the patents, the claimed methods are improvements upon a “Watson” method known in the prior art. The district court concluded that two terms—“searching neighboring triangles of the last triangle pair that holds the last intersection point” and “modified Watson method”—were invalid as indefinite based on “unanswered questions” regarding the scope of the claims posed by Autodesk’s expert. In the first reported decision, the Federal Circuit reversed. The Court held that the “unanswered questions” analysis used an incorrect legal standard, citing the specification as clarifying the scope of the claims and citing case law on deference to US Patent & Trademark Office examiners.

Following rehearing, the Federal Circuit slightly modified its decision in two primary ways but maintained its reversal of the district court’s ruling on indefiniteness.

First, the Federal Circuit added an explanation regarding how the specification answers the questions raised by Autodesk. The Court stated that “the language that the court stated ‘is not contained in the claim language’ is in the specification,” and cited a flowchart and accompanying description in the patent. The Court found fault in Autodesk’s argument because “[t]he claims set forth the metes and bounds of the invention; they are not intended to repeat the detailed operation of the method as described in the specification.”

Second, the Federal Circuit backed away from its previous reliance on deference to the examiner. In its earlier decision, the Court explained that the examiner had issued rejections for indefiniteness but withdrew them after amendments to the claims. The Court then spent a little over a page of the opinion explaining that, as official agency actors experienced in the technology and legal requirements for patentability, patent examiners are entitled to “appropriate deference.” Following rehearing, the Court removed the portion of the opinion addressing examiner deference entirely while maintaining the criticism that the district court gave “no weight to the prosecution history showing the resolution of indefiniteness by adding the designated technologic limitations to the claims.” In support, the Court cited cases holding that claims are construed in light of the specification and file history from the perspective of skilled artisans.

Judge Dyk again dissented, stating that “[t]he fact that a patent examiner introduced the indefinite language does not absolve the claims from the requirements of 35 U.S.C. § 112.” Judge Dyk argued that far from adopting a flawed “unanswered questions” analysis, the district court’s analysis was detailed and [...]

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Specification Sheds Light on Broadest Reasonable Interpretation

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) obviousness decision, finding that the Board did not err in restricting the broadest reasonable interpretation of a claim term based on its use in the specification. Quanergy Systems, Inc. v. Velodyne Lidar USA, Inc., Case Nos. 20-2070; -2072 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 4, 2022) (Newman, Lourie, O’Malley, JJ.)

Velodyne owns a patent directed to a lidar-based 3D point cloud measuring system that can be used in self-driving vehicles to sense their surroundings. Quanergy petitioned for inter partes review of Velodyne’s patent, challenging the claims as obvious over a Japanese patent application (Mizuno). During the proceedings, the Board construed the broadest reasonable interpretation of the term “lidar (light detection and ranging)” to mean “pulsed time-of-flight (ToF) lidar” based on the written description of Velodyne’s patent and found that Mizuno’s system was not a ToF lidar system. The Board also presumed a nexus between the claimed pulsed ToF lidar system and Velodyne’s evidence of commercial success, relying on mapping the features of the claimed ToF lidar system to Velodyne’s commercial products. Based on its obviousness analysis and presumption of nexus, the Board issued final written decisions, finding that Velodyne’s patent was not unpatentable as obvious. Quanergy appealed.

Quanergy raised two arguments on appeal: The Board erred in its construction of the term “lidar,” and the Board erred in its obviousness analysis. Addressing claim construction, Quanergy argued that the Board did not use the broadest reasonable interpretation of “lidar” since “lidar” merely requires the use of laser light for detection and ranging, and thus “lidar” includes not only “pulsed ToF lidar” but also triangulation and other detection techniques described in Mizuno. The Federal Circuit rejected Quanergy’s argument, finding that the Board did not err in construing the term “lidar” according to its broadest reasonable interpretation because the written description focuses exclusively on “pulsed ToF lidar.”

Turning to obviousness, Quanergy argued that the Board erred in concluding that Velodyne’s claims were nonobvious over Mizuno because the expert testimony that the Board relied upon focused only on one particular embodiment of Mizuno’s device, which was not directed to a pulsed ToF lidar system. The Federal Circuit rejected this argument, finding that the Board did not err because Mizuno described “detect[ing] light reflected at an angle using position or image sensors, neither of which are used in pulsed time-of-flight lidar systems.” Based on this description, the Court found that Mizuno’s device was not a ToF lidar system.

Quanergy also argued that the Board failed to consider the issue of unclaimed features before presuming nexus. Quanergy argued that Velodyne’s evidence of commercial success related to those unclaimed features, such as a 360-degree horizontal field of view, a wide vertical field of view, a dense 3D point cloud and software, all of which were critical and materially impacted the functionality of Velodyne’s products. The Federal Circuit rejected this argument, finding that the Board did not err in finding a presumption of nexus [...]

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