On December 19, 2017, an expanded panel of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) ruled that the state of Minnesota waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity to challenges to patent validity by inter partes review (IPR) by filing suit in federal court alleging infringement of the same patent being challenged by IPR. In Ericsson Inc. and Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson v. Regents of the University of Minnesota (IPR2017-01186; IPR2017-01197; IPR2017-01200; IPR2017-01213; IPR2017-01214; IPR2017-01219), Petitioner Ericsson Inc. filed IPR petitions against five University of Minnesota patents covering wireless communications technology. In response, the University filed a motion to dismiss, arguing its Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity exempted the patents from IPR challenge.
On December 19, 2017 the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (the “Board”) held a “Chat with the Chief” webinar in which Chief Judge David Ruschke presented very recent developments on a variety of topics related to practice before the Board, including Aqua Products guidance for motions to amend, new procedures for handling remands, and the expanded panel process.
On Monday, November 27, 2017, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in SAS Institute v. Matal.
Whether 35 U.S.C. § 318(a) requires that the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB or Board) issue a final written decision as to every claim challenged by a petitioner, or does it allow the Board to issue a final written decision with respect to the patentability of only some of the patent claims challenged by the petitioner.
On September 14, 2012, ComplementSoft sued SAS in the Northern District of Illinois for infringement of U.S. Patent No. 7,110,936. On March 29, 2013, SAS filed a petition with the PTAB for inter partes review (IPR) of the ‘936 Patent, challenging patentability of all 16 claims of that patent. The PTAB instituted IPR as to 9 claims (1 and 3-10) of the ‘936 patent and on August 6, 2014 issued a final written decision under 35 U.S.C. § 318(a), holding that claim 4 was not invalid over prior art, whereas claims 1-3 and 5-10 were unpatentable. SAS’ request for rehearing before the Board was denied. On June 10, 2016, the 2-1 divided Panel of the Federal Circuit Rejected SAS’s argument that the Board must address all claims challenged in an IPR petition in its final written decision, and affirmed the PTAB’s decision, except vacated with respect to claim 4. The Panel consisted of Judges Stoll, Chen, and Newman, with Judge Newman dissenting in part. As Judge Stoll stated, there is “no statutory requirement that the Board’s final decision address every claim raised in a petition for inter partes review. Section 318(a) only requires the Board to address claims as to which review was granted.” The Federal Circuit reasoned that 35 U.S.C. § 314 and 35 U.S.C. § 318(a) are different and that § 318(a) “does not foreclose the claim-by-claim approach the Board adopted [in Synopsys] and in this case.” In a dissenting opinion, Judge Newman stated that 35 U.S.C. § 314(a) required USPTO either refuse to institute IPR entirely, or to review all challenged claims when “there is a reasonable likelihood that the petitioner would prevail with respect to at least 1 of the claims challenged in the petition.”
On November 21st, the PTAB issued guidance on motions to amend based on the Federal Circuit’s en banc decision in Aqua Products, Inc. v. Matal, 872 F.3d 1290 (Fed. Cir. 2017). In view of the Aqua Products decision, the PTAB will not place the burden of persuasion on the patent owner with respect to the patentability of substitute claims presented in a motion to amend. Instead, after the patent owner files a motion to amend, the Board will determine whether the substitute claims are unpatentable by a preponderance of the evidence based on the entirety of the record, including the opposition by the petitioner.
In a precedential opinion issued on October 11, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed the Patent Trial and Appeals Board’s (“PTAB”) finding of non-obviousness where the prior art taught away from some, but not all, of the embodiments covered by the challenged claims. In Owens Corning v. Fast Felt Corp., No. 2016-2613 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 11, 2017), the panel held that the PTAB had applied an unreasonably narrow construction to the exclusion of embodiments that were not taught away from by prior combinations disclosing all of the claim elements.
PTAB’s Improper Claim Construction
Fast Felt owns U.S. Patent No. 8,137,757 (“the ‘757 patent”), which it asserted against Owens Corning in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. In turn, Owens Corning petitioned for inter partes review of the claims of ‘757 patent, and the PTAB instituted trial. Owens Corning contended that the challenged claims were rendered obvious by prior art combinations disclosing all elements of the independent claims. However, in its final written decision, the Board determined that Owens Corning failed to provide a motivation to combine and upheld the patentability of the challenged claims. Owens Corning timely appealed.
On September 6, 2017, an expanded panel of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board issued an “informative” decision in General Plastic Industrial Co., Ltd, v. Canon Kabushiki Kaisha setting forth the Board’s framework for analyzing follow-on inter partes review (IPR) petitions. In response to five concurrent requests for rehearing, a panel of seven administrative patent judges reviewed the factors articulated in NVIDIA Corp. v. Samsung Elec. Co., IPR2016-00134, Paper 9 (PTAB May 4, 2016) and, in doing so, denied all five requests. While acknowledging that multiple petitions challenging the same patent may be permitted based on specific facts of each case, the Board explained that follow-on petitions run the risk of undue inequities and prejudices to patent owners, and petitioner’s submission of multiple, staggered petitions constituted “an inefficient use of the inter partes review process and the Board’s resources.”
The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s recent decision in Aqua Products Inc., v. Matal materially changes the burden of proof associated with the patentability of amended claims during an inter partes review (“IPR”), shifting the burden from the Patent Owner seeking the amendment to the IPR Petitioner opposing it.
Prior to the Aqua decision, if a Patent Owner sought to amend claims during an IPR, the Patent Trial and Appeals Board (the “Board”) placed the burden on the Patent Owner to prove that the proposed amended claims were patentable. When Patent Owner Aqua attempted to amend its claims during an IPR challenge to its U.S. Patent No. 8,273,183, the Board found that Aqua had not met its burden and denied Aqua’s motion to amend.
The Federal Circuit yesterday issued an opinion in In re: Smith Int’l, Inc., No. 2016-2303 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 26, 2017) reversing an affirmance by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board of the rejection of several claims of U.S. Patent No. 6,732,817 being challenged in ex parte reexamination. In so doing, the Court held the Board’s construction of “body” in the ’817 Patent claims to be unreasonable as inconsistent with the specification.
The ’817 Patent concerns a downhole drilling tool for oil and gas operations. In affirming the examiner, the Board found it “perfectly reasonable” to interpret the “body” of the tool as encompassing other components because neither the claims nor the specification explicitly limit the scope of the term. Even though the specification describes the body as separate from other elements, the Board reasoned that it doesn’t expressly define “body” or otherwise preclude the examiner’s interpretation. But according to Smith, the ’817 Patent consistently refers to and depicts the body as a component distinct from other components of the drilling tool – like the “mandrel” or “piston” located inside the drilling tool – and should be interpreted simply as an “outer housing.”
On August 25, 2017, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board issued a precedential opinion in Ex Parte McAward, reaffirming the Patent Office’s use of a lower pre-issuance threshold for indefiniteness distinct from the Supreme Court’s Nautilus standard.
A Tale of Two Standards
Under 35 U.S.C. § 112(b), the specification must conclude with “one or more claims particularly pointing out and distinctly claiming the subject matter” regarded as the invention. This definiteness requirement “secure[s] to the patentee all to which he is entitled” and “apprise[s] the public of what is still open to them.” Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 373 (1996).
During examination, the Patent Office applies the broadest reasonable interpretation of a claim and thereafter determines indefiniteness using the In re Packard standard, in which a claim is indefinite when it contains words or phrases whose meaning is unclear. See In re Packard, 751 F.3d 1307, 1310 (Fed. Cir. 2014)(per curium).
In a first of its kind decision with important ramifications for patentees, the U.S. International Trade Commission (“ITC”) denied a petition to suspend or temporarily rescind remedial orders issued in Investigation No. 337-TA-945 pending appeal of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board’s (“PTAB”) separate finding that the patent claims at issue are invalid. The ITC has therefore decided to continue to exclude products it found to be infringing certain patents, regardless of the PTAB invalidating the very patents the exclusion order is based upon in separate IPR proceedings. While this decision aiding patentees may surprise some, it is consistent with the ITC’s practices regarding stays and of giving little deference to IPR proceedings.