Hamilton Beach and Sunbeam are direct competitors in the small kitchen appliance industry. Both Hamilton Beach and Sunbeam sell competing versions of “slow cookers,” which are electrically heated lidded pots that are used to cook food at low temperatures for long periods. Hamilton Beach sued Sunbeam for infringement of U.S. Patent No. 7,947,928. It was this patent that was at issue in the decision announced by the Federal Circuit yesterday in Hamilton Beach Brands, Inc. v. Sunbeam Products, Inc.. The dispute between the parties centered on whether the district court erred when it granted a motion for summary judgment finding claims 1 and 3-7 of the ‘928 patent invalid.
The issue of interest in this case centered around whether there was a pre-AIA 102(b) on-sale bar. You might expect such issues not to be worthy of a Federal Circuit precedential opinion, but there was an issue with respect to whether there really was a contract in place before the critical date, but also an issue about whether the on-sale bar could apply when the offer for sale was from a Hamilton Beach supplier to Hamilton Beach themselves. The short answer is that the Federal Circuit, over a dissent by Judge Reyna, determined that there was a triggering offer for sale and it is of no concern whether the offer for sale was initiated by a supplier who was making the units at the request of the patent owner.
There are essentially five substantive requirements that must be satisfied before any invention can be patented. These requirements together are commonly referred to as the patentability requirements.
Unfortunately, the patentability requirements are frequently misunderstood, including by the United States Supreme Court. For many who are not well versed in patent law one of the reasons it can be confusing when considering patentability is due to the fact that the first of the patentability requirements asks whether the invention exhibits patentable subject matter. This is sometimes phrased in terms of patent eligibility, which leads the many anti-patent zealots and other patent neophytes to erroneously conclude that if an invention is patent eligible then a patent issues. Nothing could be further from the truth, but those who hate the patent system aren’t exactly concerned with facts or reality.
So what is required for an invention to be patented? The subject matter of the invention must be patent eligible, the invention must be useful, it must be new, it cannot be obvious and it must be described with the particularity required so that people of skill in the relevant field can understand what the invention is, make it and use it without engaging in undue experimentation. Let’s take each of these one at a time.
In the recently issued case of ClearValue, Inc. v. Pearl River Polymers, Inc., Judge Moore, writing for the Federal Circuit panel, distinguished the holding in the 2006 case of Atofina v. Great Lakes Chemical Corp. In ClearValue, Judge Moore ruled that a process having a claimed raw alkalinity of “less than or equal to 50 ppm” was anticipated under 35 U.S.C. § 102 by a prior art process disclosing an alkalinity of “150 ppm or less.” I believe Judge Moore was correct in ruling that the claimed alkalinity of “less than or equal to 50 ppm” was anticipated by the art disclosed alkalinity of “150 ppm or less.” But her basis for distinguishing Atofina in ClearValue is very problematic in a number of respects, and could create further unnecessary confusion as to when a narrower claimed range in a process is anticipated by a broader range disclosed by the prior art.
As illustrated by the ClearValue and Atofina cases, one area where the Federal Circuit sometimes struggles in articulating clear doctrine is when is a narrower claimed range in a process is anticipated under 35 U.S.C. § 102 by a broader range disclosed by the prior art. A significant contributor to this problem is the unfortunate and interchangeable use by the Federal Circuit of the phrases “overlapping” and “encompassing.” (I have also found patent examiners fail to understand the difference between these phrases.) In my view, the phrase “overlapping” should be used only when the claimed and the art disclosed ranges partially overlap or share at least one common end point. By contrast, when a narrower claimed range fits within a broader range disclosed by the prior art, the term “encompassing” is more appropriate to describe the relationship of the claimed narrower range to the disclosed broader range. (Some refer to an “encompassed” range as a “sub-range.”)
As Alice once said things are growing “curioser and curioser.” I just opined about the “fuzzy” looking glass called Bilski v. Kappos for determining what is (or remains) patent-eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. See Through the Fuzzy Bilski Looking Glass: The Meaning of Patent-Eligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101 . After reading King Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Eon Labs, Inc., I’m now ready to throw my Ouija board though that Bilski looking glass. With an opportunity to render some order out of the Bilski chaos, the Federal Circuit instead completely ducked the patent-eligibility issue clearly presented in King Pharmaceuticals. The Federal Circuit then created (and I do mean “created”) the new “an anticipated method claim doesn’t become patentable if it simply includes an informing step about an inherent property of that method” doctrine. With this new “doctrine,” we have now “jumped down the rabbit hole” into a surreal “Bilski in Patentland” world.
In November 2008, the entered a permanent injunction in favor of Callaway at the conclusion of a patent infringement lawsuit in which Acushnet’s Pro V1 ball was found to infringed several patents obtained by Callaway when it bought Top Flite. Originally, Callaway Golf Company brought suit against Acushnet Company, alleging that Acushnet had infringed various claims of four golf ball patents owned by Callaway. These four patents were referred to as “the Sullivan patents,” taking this designation from the named inventor. The four Sullivan patents in question in the litigation were U.S. Patent Nos. 6,210,293, 6,503,156, 6,506,130 and 6,595,873. At issue are claims 1, 4, and 5 of the ’293 patent, claims 1–3 of the ’156 patent, claim 5 of the ’130 patent, and claims 1 and 3 of the ’873 patent. Earlier today the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overruled the jury verdict and various other rulings entered by the district court and remanded the case back to the District of Delaware for further consideration. See Callaway Golf Co. v. Acushnet Co. (Fed. Cir., August 14, 2009).