On November 1, 2017 the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) implemented an expansion of the Collaborative Search Pilot Program (CSP), which began in 2015 and ended earlier in 2017, to expedite prosecution of related applications at the USPTO and the Japanese Patent Office (JPO) or Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO). The original CSP is discussed in the Global IP Matters article Expediting Patent Prosecution with the New Collaborative Search Pilot Program. The new expanded CSP eases some requirements for participation in the program and increases the number of grantable CSP petitions per year, which should make the free CSP more attractive to applicants having patent applications co-pending at the USPTO and the JPO or KIPO.
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 July 17, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed, in a precedential opinion in Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Sandoz, Inc., No. 2015-2066 (Fed. Cir. July 17, 2017), a district court ruling that claims of a patent directed to the Velcade® cancer treatment drug compound were invalid as obvious. The Court held that the District of Delaware clearly erred by finding U.S. Patent No. 6,713,446 (the ‘446 patent) prima facie obvious to one of skill in the art, and by misapplying the secondary indicia of unexpected success and long-unmet need.
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.
Today, the Federal Circuit, vacated-in-part and remanded the Patent Trial and Appeal Board’s obviousness determination regarding a Securus Technologies patent directed to systems and methods for reviewing conversation data for certain events and bookmarking portions of the recording when something of interest is said, finding that the Board failed to provide any explanation for its decision with respect to certain challenged claims.
What is Official Notice?
MPEP §2103(VI) states that when a rejection is imposed, the “Office action should clearly communicate the findings, conclusions and reasons which support them.” Examiners commonly satisfy this requirement by citing one or more prior art references allegedly teaching each of the limitations of a claim.
Occasionally, however, an Examiner may eschew documentary evidence on the record and instead opt to rely solely on his or her own opinion in support of a rejection. In such a situation, the Examiner might “take official notice” to establish the veracity of an assertion made by the Examiner that a particular claim limitation is well-known in the art.
Official notice allows an Examiner to support a rejection by making a declaration of facts not in the record, but instead based on “common knowledge” in the art, according to MPEP §2144.03. But only in very limited circumstances is taking official notice without documentary evidence to support an Examiner’s conclusion permissible.
On March 14, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit clarified, in a precedential opinion, that an anticipating reference must supply all of the claim elements, regardless of what a person of skill in the art might envision when reading the reference. In Nidec Motor Corporation v. Zhongshan Broad Ocean Motor Co. Ltd., et al., the Federal Circuit explicitly rejected the notion that a patent claim may be anticipated by a prior art reference lacking a claim element when a skilled artisan reading the reference would “at once envisage” that missing element. Reversing the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“PTAB”), the Federal Circuit panel held that Nidec’s patent was not anticipated.
The Federal Circuit has ruled that the Patent Trial and Appeal Board cannot deny Patent Owner an opportunity to address portions of a prior art reference first discussed in Petitioner’s Reply, and then rely on those same portions to hold the claims unpatentable.
In re NuVasive (Appeal Nos. 2015-1672, -1673) involved the appeal of two separate inter partes review (“IPR”) proceedings initiated by Medtronic against U.S. Patent No. 8,187,334 directed to spinal implants. Both petitions relied on the Michelson reference for teaching a single implant whose length is both greater than 40 mm and at least 2.5 times its width as recited in the ‘334 patent claims. The petitions differed however in that one specifically discussed Michelson Figure 18 and the other did not. Not until its reply in the latter IPR did Medtronic point to Figure 18 and argue that it disclosed the dimensional limitations. Over NuVasive’s objection at the oral hearing and request to move to strike or file a sur-reply, the Board found that all challenged claims but one were obvious based, in large part, on Figure 18 of Michelson disclosing an implant with a length greater than 40 mm and at least 2.5 times its width. Slip. Op at 6-7.
Disavowal can occur when a patent holder disavows the full scope of claim terms in the specification or during prosecution (e.g., through the doctrine of prosecution history estoppel). In either event, disavowal requires clear and unequivocal evidence that the claimed invention includes or does not include a particular feature. However, “clear and unequivocal” does not mean “explicit.” Last week, in the case of Poly-America, L.P. v. API Industries, Inc., the Federal Circuit explained that “an inventor may disavow claims lacking a particular feature when the specification describes ‘the present invention’ as having that feature.” Similarly, the court explained that “an inventor may disavow claims lacking a particular feature when the specification distinguishes or disparages prior art based on the absence of that feature.”
Two years after the Central District of California invalidated two 3-D animation patents under Section 101, the Federal Circuit reversed that court’s decision, finding that the lower court oversimplified the claims of a computer-related invention. McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., Nos. 2015-1080, et al., 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 16703 (Fed. Cir. Sep. 13, 2016) (opinion by Judge Reyna, joined by Judges Taranto and Stoll). While this case has stimulated discussion in the legal community, as being a ground-breaker for the patentability of software patents since the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2355 (2014), the Federal Circuit’s McRO decision conforms with existing principles in post-Alice Section 101 law. While the Federal Circuit disagreed with the lower court in applying these principles to the facts of this case, the McRO decision does not change the core principle that patent claims directed to specific improvements in computer technology are patent-eligible.
The patents at issue in McRo (U.S. Patent Nos. 6,307,576 and 6,611,278) involve 3-D computer animation. Their specifications describe that in the relevant art, applying the appropriate data points for basic sound phonemes, e.g. ‘aah,’ ‘ee,’ or ‘oo,’ was usually done using a “keyframe” approach. McRO, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 16703 at *7. In a keyframe approach, an animator sets the morph weights at certain important times, between which a computer program “interpolates” (filling in the data points between those morph weights). Id. at *8. The patents state that this method requires the animator to manually set a tediously high number of keyframes, which is time consuming, and can be inaccurate. Id.