Patent’s Prosecution History Informs the Meaning of the Claim Language, Saving them from Invalidity

Kaken Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. v. Iancu, [2018-2232] (March 13, 2020), the Federal Circuit   reversed the PTAB’s claim construction, and vacated its determination that the challenged claims of U.S. Patent No. 7,214,506 on a method for treating onychomycosis were unpatentable as obvious.

Kaken proposed that the phrase “treating a subject having onychomycosis” means “treating the infection at least where it primarily resides in the keratinized nail plate and underlying nail bed.” The Board rejected Kaken’s construction as too narrow, concluding that “the express definition of onychomycosis includes superficial mycosis, which in turn is expressly defined as a disease that lies in the skin or visible mucosa.

The Federal Circuit found that the prosecution history—which includes, specifically, statements made by Kaken to overcome a rejection and the examiner’s statements explaining withdrawal of the rejection based on those statements — provides decisive support for limiting the claim phrase at issue to a plate-penetrating treatment of an infection inside or under the nail plate.  A patent’s prosecution history can “inform the meaning of the claim language by demonstrating how the inventor understood the invention and whether the inventor limited the invention in the course of prosecution, making the claim scope narrower than it would otherwise be.  Particularly useful are “express representations made by or on behalf of the applicant to the examiner to induce a patent grant,” which include “arguments made to convince the examiner that the claimed invention meets the statutory requirements of novelty, utility, and nonobviousness.”  The Federal Circuit said that Kaken’s statements during prosecution, followed by the examiner’s statements, make clear the limits on a reasonable understanding of what Kaken was claiming.

The Federal Circuit thus reversed the Board’s claim construction, and vacated the determination of obviousness based upon the erroneous construction.

Prosecution History Doesn’t Have to Rise to the Level of Disclaimer to Inform the meaning of the Disputed Claim Term

In Personalized Media Communications, LLC, v. Apple Inc., [2018-1936] (March 13, 2020), the Federal Circuit reversed the Board’s construction of a claim term of U.S. Patent No. 8,191,091 ON methods for enhancing broadcast communications, vacating the anticipation and obviousness determinations of the corresponding claims, and affirmed the remainder of the Board’s determinations of anticipation and obviousness.

The Federal Circuit noted that the prosecution history, in particular, may be critical in interpreting disputed claim terms because it contains the complete record of all the proceedings before the Patent and Trademark Office, including any express representations made by the applicant regarding the scope of the claims.  Accordingly, even where prosecution history statements do not rise to the level of unmistakable disavowal, they do inform the claim construction.

At issue was the meaning of “an encrypted digital information transmission including encrypted information,” and in particular whether this term is limited to digital information or can also include analog information.  The Federal Circuit began its analysis with the claim language, noting that the claims use the adjective “digital” to describe the “information transmission,” thus supporting the view that the information is, in fact, digital. On the other hand, the Federal Circuit added, the claims do not say “entirely digital.”

Although the Federal Circuit agreed that with the Board that the specification’s broad definition of “programming” could encompass analog signals, it did not agree that it necessarily requires them. Instead, the definition is largely agnostic to the particular technology employed.

The Federal Circuit turned to the specification, finding some relevant statements, but noting that they are not definitional; instead, they are merely illustrations that use open-ended, permissive phrases such as “usually,” “for example,” and “with capacity for.” And when considered in the context of the more than 280 columns of text in the specification of the ’091 patent, these two passages fall far short of defining the relevant terms through repeated and consistent use.

Finally, the Federal Circuit turned to the prosecution history.  While the Board found the prosecution history inconclusive, the Federal Circuit disagreed, noting that even where prosecution history statements do not rise to the level of unmistakable disavowal, they do in-form the claim construction.  The Federal Circuit said an applicant’s repeated and consistent remarks during prosecution can define a claim term—especially where, as here, there is no plain or ordinary meaning to the claim term and the specification provides no clear interpretation.  The Federal Circuit found that the Board erred by effectively requiring the prosecution history evidence to rise to the level of a disclaimer in order to inform the meaning of the disputed claim term, adding the prosecution history provides persuasive evidence that informs the meaning of the disputed claim phrase and addresses an ambiguity otherwise left unresolved by the claims and specification.

Because the Federal Circuit concluded that the disputed claim term was limited to all-digital signals, it reversed the Board’s unpatentability determination for those claims.

Goldilocks Prosecution

The rules of claim drafting are numerous and arcane.  Even after years of prosecution experience, however, it seems there are more to discover.

While the wording of claims is obviously important, recently, several office actions revealed the criticality of the spacing of claims.  You don’t want the spacing to be too much:

nor can it be too little.

the spacing needs to be just right.

A §145 Action May Not Be As Appealing as a Trip to the Federal Circuit

In Nantkwest, Inc. v. Matal, [2016-1794] (June 23, 2017), the Federal Circuit reversed the denial of attorneys fees to the USPTO in successfully defending civil action under 35 USC §145 brought by a patent applicant.  The statute provides that the applicant must pay “[a]ll of the expenses of the proceeding . . . regardless of the outcome.” The district court held that “expenses” did not include attorneys fees.

The Federal Circuit found that the ordinary meaning of “expenses” as defined in dictionaries and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of this term lend significant weight to the conclusion that when Congress used the phrase “all expenses,” it meant to include attorneys’ fees.  Accordingly, the Federal Circuit held “[a]ll expenses of the proceedings”
under § 145 includes the pro-rata share of the attorneys’ fees the USPTO incurred to defend applicant’s appeal.

The Federal Circuit remanded the case for the district court to enter an additional award of $78,592.50 in favor of the Director.

Although it may seem unfair that an applicant losing an appeal has to pay the Office’s cost in successfully defending the appeal of a rejection, as the Federal Circuit pointed out, this is how Congress chose to allocate the cost of an appeal to the district court.  What is unfair, however, is that this is how Congress chose to allocate the cost of an applicant’s successful appeal of an improper rejection as well.  Thus, an applicant faced with an improper rejection who brings an action under §145 and wins, is still on the hook for the Patent Office’s attorneys fees.  This unfair result alone might suggest that Congress did not intent to include attorneys’ fees in “expenses,” otherwise Congress is putting a high price on justice.

So why would an applicant chose to take a PTAB decision to district court, rather than appeal to the Federal Circuit?  The principal reason is that the PTAB may have pointed out an evidentiary defect in the applicant’s case.  If the applicant appeals to the Federal Circuit the record is fixed, and if the PTAB was correct about the defect, the Federal Circuit will simply affirm the PTAB.  However, in an action under §145 the applicant can introduce additional evidence, for example a declaration by the inventor, or by an expert, or perhaps even evidence of objective indicia of non-obviousness.  This could allow the applicant to obtain a patent, when an appeal would otherwise be futile.  Depending upon the importance of the invention, this might well be worth an additional $78,000 or so.

However is a §145 action the only way to obtain this result?  Perhaps not.  One might assume that if you do not appeal the PTAB decision that it becomes final and res judicata will prevent the application from ever getting the claims that the were the subject of the appeal. This would be a good reason to pursue the §145 action.  However, the underlying assumption may be wrong.  In In re Donohue, 226 USPQ 619 (Fed. Cir. 1985), the Federal Circuit held that the Patent Office should not apply res judicata where the applicant made a different record, for example by supplying a new affidavit or declaration:

Appellant has made a record different from that in Donohue I by submitting the Fields affidavit. This new record presents a new issue of patentability with respect to whether the previously sustained anticipation rejection can still be maintained. In view of this new issue, the PTO properly declined to make a formal res judicata rejection . . .

226 USPQ 621.  As long as Donohue remains good law, a patent applicant can file an RCE or even a continuation, supplement its records, and continue to prosecute claims whose rejection was affirmed by the PTAB (and not have to spend $80,000 on the the USPTO’s expenses in a §145 action.

It is still unfair that a successful applicant in a §145 action has to pay for the unsuccessful efforts of the USPTO in defending an improper rejection, but at least the applicant has an alternative route to continue to pursue the claims after an unsuccessful appeal to the PTAB.