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Justin E. Gray

IP Litigation Attorney at Foley & Lardner LLP

Former Adjunct Professor at Northwestern University School of Law

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Federal Circuit Looks to Related Application in Construing Claim Terms

ZapMedia Services, Inc. v. Apple, Inc. (Fed. Cir. Apr. 25, 2012) (nonprecedential)

In this case, the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court's construction on numerous terms regarding a patent relating to a system and method for distributing media asserts to user devices and managing user rights of the media assets.

Based on statements made during prosecution and claim language regarding giving "authorized" devices "access" to media assets, the district court found that all of the asserted claims required that access to the media assets be limited to only those media players specified in the user account.  The plaintiff argued on appeal that the district court erroneously construed a negative "exclusivity" limitation into the claims and that the claims, directed to a method of managing access to a plurality of media assets, should not be limited such that methods that also grant access to unauthorized devices would not infringe.

The Federal Circuit agreed with the district court that "in light of the claim language, written description, and the prosecution history, the authorizing limitations limit 'access' to media assets only to 'authorized' media play devices by way of the user account." 

Looking first to the claim language, the Federal Circuit determined that as "the claims require access to media assets by an authorized media player device, logically an unauthorized media player device cannot access the media asserts.   The authorization would be superfluous if unauthorized devices had the same access functionality as authorized devices."

Looking next to the specification, the Federal Circuit cited to three portions of the specification that indicated "authorized devices have access; unauthorized devices do not."

The Court next looked to the prosecution history, where the applicants distinguished a prior art refernece on the issue of authorized versus unauthorized devices.

Finally, the Court also considered statements made during prosecution of the parent application to the patent in suit.

While the Plaintiff argued in response that the prosecution history expressly stated that the patent in suit did not preclude using the technology of the prior art reference at issue, the Federal Circuit determined that the specific technology shared between the prior art reference and the patent in suit was irrelevant to the language construed by the district court.


Federal Circuit Affirms BPAI's Broadest Reasonable Construction

In re Pond (Fed. Cir. Jan. 18, 2012) (nonprecedential)

In this case, the Federal Circuit affirmed the BPAI's decision rejecting all claims of a patent application related to a dental irrigation tip that can be used to deliver fluids to a dental site.

The claims required that the dental irrigation tip be "unitary [and] one piece".  During prosecution, the Examiner rejected the claims as anticipated by a reference that the applicant argued did not disclose the unitary, one-piece construction required by the independent claims of the application and instead disclosed a two-piece tip.  The Examiner noted during prosecution that the reference formed a dental tip with the same process claimed in the patent application and the two pieces disclosed in the reference were ultimately fixed together as one piece.  The applicant argued that "[u]nitary means a single, whole section."  The BPAI found that "the process of insert molding of two materials having similar properties results in bonding of the two parts such that the end product is of a unitary, one-piece construction."

On appeal, the Federal Circuit determined that "[t]he specification for the '914 application does not contain an express definition of 'unitary, one-piece construction.'  Therefore [applicant] did not act as a lexicographer and define the phrase 'unitary, one-piece construction.'  Moreover the '914 application does not contain any disclosure that renders the PTO's interpretation of that term unreasonable."  The Federal Circuit went on to explain that "[t]he specification of the '914 application describes an embodiment that constructs the dental tip by insert molding.  Thus, under the broadest reasonable construction the 'unitary, one-piece construction' includes products made by insert molding."  The Court concluded that the BPAI did not err in either its interpretation of the contested claim term or its anticipation analysis. 


False Marking Plaintiff Patent Group, LLC Becomes Patent Infringement Plaintiff

Patent Group, LLC filed suit today against at least seven defendants (as of the time of this writing) in the Eastern District of Texas, alleging infringement of U.S. Patent No. 6,603,490, which it asserts it owns by assignment. As some may recall, Patent Group, LLC was first known as a prolific false marking plaintiff, having filed over 175 false marking cases of the close to 1000 such cases filed since the beginning of 2010. Settlements occurred in the majority of Patent Group, LLC's false marking cases, totaling over $2.8 million, half of which Patent Group, LLC itself kept under the pre-AIA version of the false marking statute. Today's filings are the first affirmative patent infringement cases filed by Patent Group, LLC.


Federal Circuit Affirms Examiner's Broadest Reasonable Construction

In re SP Controls, Inc. (Fed. Cir. Dec. 21, 2011) (nonprecedential)

In this case, the Federal Circuit affirmed a patent examiner's broadest reasonable constructions of two claim terms in an ex parte reexamination regarding a patent directed to an apparatus for controlling the input to another device.

The Examiner had construed the claim limitation "a frame to which the control circuitry and keys are mounted, wherein the frame has slots extending through said frame for receiving labels" as not requiring a frame with separate slots for labels and keys.  The Examiner had construed the claim limitation "labels mounted over the slots" as covering structure in which a label covers a key "under a transparent cover of the key top, with the key mounted through the slot, thereby placing the label 'over the slot.'"

On appeal, the assignee argued that both constructions were unreasonably broad but conceded that if the Examiner's constructions stood, the prior art references at issues would render the claims obvious.  Pointing to the specification, the assignee argued that the specification uniformly showed labels and keys occupying separate slots, therefore the claimed slots were to be used for receiving labels only.  and a label mounted over the slot, i.e. mounted so as to cover a slot, could not do so if the slot also had a key extending from it.

The Federal Circuit found that nothing in the claims "limits their reach to a frame in which labels and keys are in separate slots ... claim 1's open-ended 'comprising' language on its faces does not bar other elements, (i.e., keys) from being placed in the slots."  Turning to the specification, the Federal Circuit found that "[w]hile it is true that the embodiments described in the '794 patent's specification all disclose structure in which keys and labels are in separate slots ... there is no language in the specification affirmatively limiting the claims to such embodiments ... [t]his is significant, for the law is clear that, absent such language in the specification, the claims are not limited to preferred embodiments ... [t]his is particularly so where, as here, the claims are to be given their broadest reasonable construction."

The Court therefore affirmed the Examiner's rejection of claims.


Second District Court Rejects Constitutional Challenges to False Marking Provisions of America Invents Act

Brooks v. Dunlop Manufacturing Inc. (N.D. Cal. Dec. 9, 2011)

Since the passage of the America Invents Act, a number of entities with pending false marking claims have challenged the constitutionality of the AIA with respect to its false marking provisions, specifically asserting that the retroactive application of the false marking amendments in the AIA violate Due Process and the amendments operate as an unconstitutional taking of property by the government.

As previously reported by this blog, at least one district court has rejected these constitutional challenges.  Now, a second district court has found that "Congress, by eliminating the qui tamprovision in 292, rationally furthered a legitimate legislative purpose by comprehensively reducing the costs and inefficiencies associated with the 'cottage industry' of false marking litigation" and the Takings Clause protects only vested property rights which the Ninth Circuit "ha[s] squarely held that although a cause of action is a species of property, a party's property right in any cause of action does not vest until a final unreviewable judgment is obtained ... [plaintiff] has not obtained any judgment in his favor, let alone a 'final unreviewable judgment,' and thus has no vested property interest in his cause of action."

A PDF copy of this decision can be found here.

Gray on Claims, in conjunction with Docket Navigator®, is providing a false marking chart that is updated periodically with new false marking cases as well as status updates on pending cases.  A downloadable PDF chart is available on this page as well including information on the specific patents and products at issue in each litigation.  Gray on Claims is also providing information on false marking settlements.  Other writings on false marking can be found here


Definiteness of Using "Comprising" in a Dependent Claim and "Is One Of" in an Independent Claim

Ex parte Fauget (BPAI Nov. 9, 2011)

The All Things Pros blog has posted an analysis of a recent BPAI decision concerning the definiteness of a dependent claim that used the transitional phrase "comprising" when the related independent claim used the transitional phrase "is one of."  The Examiner had rejected the dependent claim as indefinite because the Examiner believed the claim contradicted the independent claim.  The BPAI reversed the Examiner's rejection.

The article and corresponding analysis of the decision can be found here.


Guest Article: A Critical Analysis of the Inter Partes Review Statute

Linked below is an article by Matthew A. Smith, well-known for his work in the field of reexamination, analyzing the new Inter Partes Review statute in detail.

Some of the most interesting points from the article include:

  • The estoppel provisions have changed substantially over inter partes reexamination, and may have a larger impact on co-pending litigation.  Specifically, the estoppels will attach after the PTAB decision, not after the issuance of a reexam certificate as is currently the case.  They will also attach regardless of the outcome of the inter partes review, whereas currently there is estoppel only if the requester loses in the reexamination.
  • The timing of an inter partes review will be a bit more complex than "1 year to a final decision", especially when one takes multiple co-pending proceedings into account.
  • The statute appears to be riddled with other ambiguities, such as the requirement for a "preliminary response" both before and after institution of the inter partes review, the apparent requirement for the PTO to shut down an inter partes review after it issues a PTAB-level decision, the failure to account for the fact that proceedings might only be directed to a subset of claims in a patent, and the inconsistent use of the terms "Petitioner", "Real party in interest" and "Privies of the petitioner".

A PDF version of the article can be found here.


BPAI Agrees With Examiner's Broadest Reasonable Interpretation of "Disposed Thereon"

Ex Parte Newby (BPAI Nov. 10, 2011)

In this decision concerning a rejection of claims directed to an asymmetrical carton for containing and dispensing a roll of sheet material, the BPAI agreed with the Examiner's broadest reasonable interpretation of the claim term "disposed thereon" and affirmed the rejection of claims.

Claim 1 of the application recited the limitation "one of said substantially planar side panels having at least one blade disposed thereon".  The Examiner relied on a dictionary definition of "dispose" as meaning "arrange" as the Examiner determined the specification did not provide a special definition of "disposed thereon."  The Examiner then determined that a prior art reference disclosing a carton made from paperboard that included a front panel with a serrated free edge disclosed that the serrated free edge was disposed upon the top edge of the side panel.

The appellants argued to the BPAI that "the claim language describing at least one blade disponsed upon a side panel is not subject to interpretation to inlcude a panel having an integral serrated edge which is not separable from the panel itself."  The appellants went on to argue that the prior art reference did not disclose a blade disposed on the edge, but instead disclosed a blade integral to and inseparable from the edge.

The BPAI disagreed with the appellants, finding that the specification did not suggest a specific definition to the term "disposed thereon" and therefore it was appropriate to consult a general dictionary to determine the broadest reasonable interpretation of the claim to one having ordinary skill in the art.  In this case, the dictionary selected (Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary) defined "dispose" as "arrange" and the BPAI agreed with the Examiner "that the claim language does not preclude the blade from being integral with the one substantially planar side panel."


Federal Circuit Construes Claim Term Consistenly With the Object of the Invention

Stone Strong, LLC v. Del Zotto Products of Florida, Inc. (Fed. Cir. Oct. 17, 2011) (nonprecedential)

In this case, the Federal Circuit construed a claim term consistently with the object of the invention.  The patents in suit related to pre-cast concrete blocks and a system and method for making pre-cast concrete blocks for use in constructing retaining walls.  One issue on appeal was the proper construction of the claim term "alignment device."  Each asserted independent claim required a "lift and alignment device" or an "alignment device" to align a subsequently-placed block with respect to the first block.

The plaintiff argued that the recess on the bottom of the block can serve an alignment function regardless of its size in relation to the lift hooks on the top of the block, so long as the recess is shorter than the width of the bock from the face to the rear.  The defendant argued that the "the lifting devices must substantially fill the recess ... in order for the block to come to rest in an aligned state."

The Federal Circuit largely agreed with the defendant's construction, ultimately construing the alignment limitation "to require that when the lift loops of one block are inserted into the recess on the bottom of another, there is no enough play to allow the blocks to be misaligned without further manual adjustment."  In support of this construction, the Federal Circuit looked to the object of the invention, which it described as "to achieve alignment of retaining wall blocks, including setback, without requiring manual alignment as the block is lowered or adjustment after it has been placed."  The court then determined that plaintiff's construction was inconsistent with the object of the invention in that the alignment function "cannot be served if the recess is nearly as large as the width of the block itself ... [w]ith such a large recess, there would be too much play between the rings and the outer edges of the recess to automatically align the block with respect to another."

The Court went on to reverse the district's court finding of nonobviousness, finding that "all the relevant elements of the claimed invention ... existed in the prior art" and because the patents in suit "represent no more than the predictable use of prior art elements to address a known problem, their claims are obvious as a matter of law." 


Federal Circuit Denies Rehearing En Banc for Retractable Technologies v. Becton, Dickinson and Co.

Retractable Technologies, Inc. v. Becton, Dickinson and Co. (Fed. Cir. Oct. 31, 2011)

The Federal Circuit has denied Retractable Technologies' petition for panel rehearing and rehearing en banc regarding claim construction issues.  Three members of the Court dissented.

Judge Moore, joined by Judge Rader, wrote, in part:

Claim construction is the single most important event in the course of a patent litigation.  It defines the scope of the property right being enforced, and is often the difference between infringement and non-infringement, or validity and invalidity.  Despite the crucial role that claim construction plays in patent litigation, our rules are still ill-defined and inconsistently applied, even by us.  Commentators have observed that claim construction appeals are "panel dependent" which leads to frustrating and unpredictable results for both the litigants and the trial court ... Nowhere is the conflict more apparent then in our jurisprudence on the use of the specification in the interpretation of claim language ... This case is a good vehicle to address two important claim construction principles:  the role of the specification in construing the claims and whether deference should be given to the district court in the claim construction process.

Judge O'Malley wrote, in part:

Post-Markman, district judges have been trained to--and do--engage in detailed and thoughtful analysis of the claim construction issues presented to them.  They conduct live hearings with argument and testimony, sometimes covering several days, and certainly always extending beyond the mere minutes that courts of appeals have to devote to live exchanges with counsel.  Simply, "the trial court has tools to acquire and evaluate evidence that this Court lacks."  While no one would urge deference to cryptic, unthinking rulings born of little or no real inquiry, where, as here, the trial court has thoroughly vetted all relevant aspects of the claim constructions at issue, "careful consideration of the institutional advantages of the district court would counsel deference."


An exercise that requires review of often extensive documentary evidence, and, in some cases, expert evidence for purposes of "capturing the scope of the actual invention" sounds tellingly like a factual inquiry, not a legal one.  The fact that this inquiry is to be undertaken from the point of view of one skilled in the art at the time of the invention, moreover, underscores this conclusion.


It is time we stop talking about whether we should reconsider the standard of review we employ when reviewing claim construction decisions from district courts; it is time we do so.

Prior coverage of the July 2011 panel decision can be found here.