Structural Element Does Not Make Method Claims Indefinite

In Cox Communications, Inc. v. Sprint Communication Company LP, [2016-1013] (September 23, 2016), the Federal Circuit reversed the district court’s determination that the asserted claims of U.S. Patent Nos. 6,452,932; 6,463,052; 6,633,561; 7,286,561; 6,298,064; and 6,473,429 were not invalid for indefiniteness.

The parties agreed that “processing system” is not a means-plus-function
term, and confined its review to whether “processing system” renders the asserted patents indefinite under 35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶ 2.  The Federal Circuit found that the claim term “processing system” does not prevent the claims, read in light of the specification and the prosecution history, from informing those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention with reasonable certainty.

The Federal Circuit noted that the  case presented a peculiar scenario because the disputed term, “processing system,” plays no discernable role in defining the scope of the claims. The Court noted that all of the asserted claims are method claims, and
the point of novelty resides with the steps of these methods, not with the machine that performs them. The Federal Cricuit pointed out that if the words “processing system” were removed from the claims, therein meaning would not discernably change.  The Federal Circuit reasoned that if “processing system” does not discernably alter the
scope of the claims, it is difficult to see how this term would prevent the claims from serving their notice function under § 112, ¶ 2.

The Federal Circuit said that the common practice of focusing on individual terms is a “helpful tool,” but ultimately indefiniteness under § 112, ¶ 2 must ultimately turn on whether the “claims, read in light of the specification delineating the patent, and the prosecution history, fail to inform, with reasonable certainty, those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention.” The Federal Circuit found that “processing system”
does not prevent the claims from doing just that.

Patent Drafters: Leaving Coining to the Mint

In Advanced Ground Information Systems, Inc. v. Life360, Inc., [2015-1732] (July 28, 2016) the Federal Circuit affirmed summary judgment of invalidity of U.S. Patent Nos. 7,031,728 and 7,672,681 for indefiniteness.

At issue was the term “symbol generator” in the claims in a cellular communication system.  The Federal Circuit agreed that “symbol generator” invoked 35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶ 6, but were indefinite under 35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶ 2.

The Federal Circuit said that the failure to use the word “means” creates a rebuttable presumption that §112, ¶ 6 does not apply.  Whether §112, ¶ 6, applies depends upon whether the words of the claim are understood by persons of ordinary skill in the art to have a sufficiently definite meaning as the name for structure. The Federal Circuit said that the term “symbol generator” invokes §112, ¶ 6 because it fails to describe a sufficient structure
and otherwise recites abstract elements “for” causing actions, or elements “that can” perform functions.

The Federal Circuit noted that the patentee’s expert testified that the term “symbol generator” is a term coined for the purposes of the patents-in-suit, and that it was not used in “common parlance or by persons of skill in the pertinent art to designate structure.”  While the expert testified that “symbol” and “generator” are well known terms, the Federal Circuit found that the combination of the terms as used in the context of the relevant claim language suggests that it is simply an abstraction that describes the
function being performed (i.e., the generation of symbols).  Finally, the Federal Circuit found that the claim term “symbol generator,” by itself,
does not identify a structure by its function.

Having found that §112, ¶ 6, applies, the specification must disclose the corresponding structure or the claim in indefinte.  However, the Federal Circuit agreed with the district court that the the specifications of the patents-in-suit did not disclose an operative algorithm for the claim elements reciting
“symbol generator.” The function of generating symbols must be performed by some component of the patents-in-suit; however, the Federal Circuit said that the patents-in-suit do not describe this component.


Functional Language Made Claims Indefinite

In Media Rights Technologies, Inc. v. Capital One Financial Corporation, [2014-1218] (September 4, 2015), the Federal Circuit affirmed judgment on the pleadings that all of the claims of U.S. Patent No. 7,316,033 were invalid for indefiniteness for containing means plus function elements without an identification of the corresponding structure in the specification.  At issue was the claim term “compliance mechanism” which appeared in every claim of the patent, which related to the prevention of unauthorized recording of media.

The Federal Circuit started with Nautilus’ definition of that a claim is indefinite if it fails to inform those skilled in the art about the scope of the claim with reasonable certainty.  The Federal Circuit noted that a  those skilled in the art about the t he indefiniteness — that a claim is indefinite if its language “might mean several different things and no informed and confident choice is available among the contending definitions.”

The Federal Circuit next address whether “compliance mechanism” was a means plus function element, noting that it is well settled that claim limitation that uses the word “means” invokes a rebuttable presumption that §112, ¶6 [now §112(f)] applies, and that a claim term that does not use “means” invokes a rebuttable presumption that § 112, ¶6 does not apply.  However, the presumption against the application of § 112, ¶ 6 to a claim term lacking the word “means” can be overcome if a party can “demonstrate[] that the claim term fails to ‘recite sufficiently definite structure’ or else recites ‘function without reciting sufficient structure for performing that function.

Media Rights argued that “compliance mechanism” was analogous to “modernizing device” which was not a means-plus-function claim in Inventio AG v. Thyssenkrupp Elevator Ams. Corp., 649 F.3d 1350, 1357 (Fed. Cir. 2011).  However the Federal Circuit distinguished Inventio because “modernizing device” described an electric circuit, which has sufficient structure, while in the present case “the claims do not use the term ‘compliance mechanism’ as a substitute for an electrical circuit, or anything else that might connote a definite structure.”  The Federal Circuit found no guidance in the intrinsic record as to what structure is being referenced. The Federal Circuit said that describing how the “compliance mechanism” is connected to and interacts with the other components of the system, what processes the “compliance mechanism” performs, and what structural subcomponents might comprise the “compliance mechanism,” were not enough.  It was the specification’s disclosure in Inventio regarding how the “modernizing device” and its internal components operated as a circuit, that connoted sufficient structure, and that was missing from Media Rights’ specification.  The Federal Circuit also distinguished Inventio as applying a heavy presumption against the application of §112, ¶6, which the Federal Circuit eliminated earlier this year.

Having determined that “compliance mechanism” was in fact a means-plus-function element, the Federal Circuit then proceeded to identifying the corresponding structure, material, or acts described in the specification to which the claim term is limited.  The Federal Circuit noted that where there are multiple claimed functions, as there are in this case, the patentee must disclose adequate corresponding structure to perform all of the claimed functions.  The Federal Circuit found that four functions were claimed, and the question is whether the specification discloses adequate structure to achieve all four of the claimed functions.

Because the functions are computer-implemented functions, moreover, the structure disclosed in the specification must be more than a general purpose computer or microprocessor, it must also disclose an algorithm for performing the claimed function.  The algorithm may be expressed as a mathematical formula, in prose, as a flow chart, or in any other manner that provides sufficient structure.

Relying on expert testimony, the Federal Circuit found that the disclosed portions of code in the specification did not explain how to perform at least one of the claimed function, making the disclosure inadequate.  The Federal Circuit also found a lack of disclosure of the means for performing another function, finding both a lack of detail and lack of explanation.  The Federal Circuit concluded that all the claims were invalid for indefiniteness.

Media Rights suggests that after Williamson v. Citrix Online, LLC, it more likely for functional language to be found to invoke §112(f), any time that functional language is used in a claim, the drafter should weigh the risk that §112(f), and provide an identification of corresponding structure, just in case.  When the invention is implemented by computer, the drafter must include the algorithm for all of the claimed functions.