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.
In EmeraChem Holdings LLC v. Volkswagen Group of Am. Inc., the Federal Circuit reminded the PTAB that it must abide by the APA’s requirements of adequate notice and an opportunity to respond when conducting a post-grant review. While affirming certain challenged claims as being obvious under pre-AIA 35 U.S.C. § 103(a), the Court reversed the PTAB’s obviousness determination on a trio of claims and remanded them for further consideration and clarification. The PTAB’s conclusion that claims 3, 16 and 20 were obvious was based on the inclusion of a reference that was not properly identified in the petition or Institution Order and which the patent owner never had the opportunity to address during the inter partes review proceeding.
The Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“PTAB”) issued Final Written Decisions regarding Cisco’s U.S. Patent Nos. 6,377,577 (the “’577 Patent”) and 7,023,853 (the “’853 Patent”) on May 25, 2017 and U.S. Patent No. 7,224,668 (the “’668 Patent”) on June 1, 2017. The PTAB found the ’577 and ’668 Patents invalid but upheld the validity of the ’853 Patent. The Inter Partes Review (“IPR”) proceedings were brought by Arista Networks in retaliation to Cisco’s accusations of infringement brought in multiple venues, including at the U.S. International Trade Commission (“ITC”), which had just a few weeks earlier upheld the validity of these very same patents and determined that Arista infringed the ’577 and ’668 Patents, and issued exclusion and cease and desist orders accordingly. Since the IPR decisions issued Arista has filed a petition asking the ITC to suspend its limited exclusion order regarding the ’577 Patent based on the PTAB’s decision and is expected to file a similar request with respect to the ’668 Patent. On the other side, Cisco plans to appeal the PTAB’s decisions to the Federal Circuit. The uncertainty created by these inconsistent outcomes is an issue for patent owners, and it will be interesting to see how these cases are resolved. In addition, this case shows that even though the ITC does not stay its investigations for IPRs, IPRs may still impact ITC proceedings.
On May 10, 2017 and following a Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) reexamination decision upholding certain claims, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in Cisco Systems, Inc. v. Cirrex Systems, LLC that all of the appealed claims of a fiber optic patent held by Cirrex are invalid for lack of a written description support required by 35 U.S.C. § 112. The panel applied its own construction of a key claim term requiring that a recited functional limitation take place in a specific location which the specification failed to describe.
In its opinion in Aylus Networks, Inc. v. Apple Inc., the Federal Circuit expanded the scope of prosecution disclaimer to statements made by a patent owner during Inter Partes Review (IPR) proceedings. The Court explained that extending the doctrine to cover patent owner statements, made either before or after institution of an IPR, ensures that claims are not argued in one way to maintain patentability and a different way to support infringement allegations. The Court also noted that its conclusion promotes the public notice function of intrinsic evidence and protects the public’s reliance on statements made during IPR proceedings.
The Federal Circuit has now reversed the Patent Trial and Appeal Board’s decision in Synopsys, Inc. v. ATopTech, Inc. finding claims 1 and 32 of U.S. Patent No. 6,567,967 (the “‘967 patent”) as being “not supported by substantial evidence.”
Synopsys sued ATopTech in 2013 for allegedly infringing the ‘967 patent. ATopTech subsequently filed two inter partes review (IPR) petitions (IPR2014-01150 and IPR2014-01159) challenging the validity of all claims of the ‘967 patent. The ‘967 patent aims to improve circuit performance by splitting large components into small subcomponents and optimizing the connections between subcomponents. Claim 1 requires “flattening each of said plurality of hierarchically arranged branches by eliminating superfluous levels of hierarchy above said atomic blocks.” Claim 32 requires “determining optimal placement of each of the hard blocks, if any, within the predefined area.” The Board found both claims either obviousness or anticipated in view of the Fields and/or Su references.