The en banc Federal Circuit on September 13, 2013, heard oral argument on whether to overrule its en banc decision in Cybor Corp. v. FAS Technologies, Inc., 138 F.3d 1448 (Fed. Cir. 1998), and hold that claim construction can involve issues of fact reviewable for clear error, and that it is not entirely an issue of law subject only to de novo review. Lighting Ballast Control LLC v. Universal Lighting Technologies, Inc., Fed. Cir., No. 2012-1014, 3/15/2013.
Lighting Ballast Control LLC (LBC) owns a patent (5,436,529) on control and protection circuits for electronic lighting ballasts commonly used in fluorescent lighting. The patent includes the term “voltage source means” in the following context: “voltage source means providing a constant or variable magnitude DC voltage between the DC input terminals.” LBC sued Universal Lighting Technologies, Inc. (ULT).
District Court Decision
On appeal is the district court decision that a person of ordinary skill in the art would understand the claim term “voltage source means” to correspond to a rectifier or other voltage supply device. It thus rejected ULT’s argument that the term invokes Section 112 ¶6 and that the claim is invalid for indefiniteness for lack of specific structure in the specification. A Federal Circuit panel reversed in a nonprecedential decision, concluding from a de novo review that “voltage source means” does invoke Section 112 ¶6 and that the claim is invalid for indefiniteness. That panel decision was vacated when the appellate court decided to consider the claim construction issue en banc.
Last week the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a decision in the latest appeal in the Apple/Samsung epic patent battle. See Apple, Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co. (Fed. Cir., August 23, 2013). In this situation the parties really were not fighting against each other; instead finding themselves arguing on the same side against the decision of the district court to allow sensitive information to be publicly available.
On August 9, 2012, Judge Lucy Koh of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California issued a decision that denied in part the parties’ motion to seal certain filings. In general, Judge Koh sealed information about the parties’ production and supply capacities, confidential source code, third-party market research reports, and the pricing terms of licensing agreements. However, Judge Koh ordered unsealed documents disclosing the parties’ product-specific profits, profit margins, unit sales, revenues, and costs, as well as Apple’s own proprietary market research reports and customer surveys and the non-price terms of licensing agreements.
In her ruling Judge Koh ordered the parties to take an immediate appeal to the Federal Circuit, which occurred on August 13, 2012. The Federal Circuit consolidated the appeal by Apple and the appeal by Samsung, designating Apple as the appellant and Samsung as the cross-appellant. On August 15, 2012, the district court granted a stay pending the final resolution, thus the August 9, 2012 order that sensitive financial information would be made publicly available has been stayed pending disposition of the appeal.
In what can only fairly be characterized as utterly ridiculous, 5 of the 10 judges on the Federal Circuit to hear CLS Bank v. Alice Corporationen banc would find that claims that satisfy the machine-or-transformation test are not patentable. While I think it is inappropriate to find the systems claims patent ineligible that isn’t what makes the decision utterly ridiculous. The decision is an embarrassment because 5 other judges would have found the systems claims patent eligible. Thus, we have an even split of opinion at the Federal Circuit.
The Federal Circuit decision in CLS Bank v. Alice Corp. is now being horribly mischaracterized in the media, which will now only further complicate the matter in the court of public opinion. This decision offers no precedent whatsoever regarding systems claims because it was a tie. Alice Corporation loses the systems claims not because that is the law of the land announced by the Federal Circuit, but rather because a single district court judge determined that the systems claims were patent ineligible. Had that same district court judge found the systems claims patent eligible then Alice would have prevailed.
In other words, the Federal Circuit is essentially abdicating its authority relative to whether systems claims are patentable to the district courts and presumably also to the Patent Trial and Appeals Board at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Whatever the district court or PTAB does is just fine. Well, not quite.
Well, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit sort of decided CLS Bank v. Alice Corporation earlier today. Truthfully, all the important questions that we thought might be answered remain completely and totally unanswered because there were only 10 judges who sat on the en banc tribunal and no more than 5 judges signed on to any one opinion.
The only thing we know is this — the Federal Circuit issued an extraordinarily brief per curiam decision, which stated:
Upon consideration en banc, a majority of the court affirms the district court’s holding that the asserted method and computer-readable media claims are not directed to eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. An equally divided court affirms the district court’s holding that the asserted system claims are not directed to eligible subject matter under that statute.
Thus, all of the asserted claims are not patent eligible. At the moment I am completely flabbergasted and don’t know what to say.
Litigation involving incorrect claims of small entity status is very rare. In the 1998 case of DH Technology, Inc. v. Synergystex International, Inc., the small entity issue fee was paid for the asserted patent, even though it was later discovered that the patentee had over 500 employees (i.e., was now a “large entity”) at the time this issue fee was paid. Even so, the Federal Circuit overturned a district court ruling that the asserted patent had lapsed and was therefore unenforceable because the patentee had “incorrectly paid the small entity issue fee and because the statutorily-permitted time for correcting the error had passed.” Instead, the Federal Circuit held that 37 CFR § 1.28(c) (allowing an erroneous claim of small entity status and the erroneous payment of the small entity issue fee to be excused by paying the deficiency owed) controlled so that the patentee could still rectify this error (and underpayment of the issue fee), even though well outside the 1 year and 3 month “after the date of the notice of allowance” period specified in 37 CFR § 1.317(c) for correcting a good-faith error in claiming small entity status, as well as making up the deficiency for incorrectly paying the small entity issue fee.
DH Technology is the “easy case” where small entity status is lost due to a change in size of the patentee. But small entity status under 37 CFR §§ 1.27(a)(1) (person) or 1.27(a)(2) (small business concern) may also be lost if the rights in the invention are assigned, granted, conveyed, or licensed (or are subject to an obligation under contract or law to assign, grant, convey, or license, any rights in the invention) to someone other than a small entity (e.g., an entity having more than 500 employees). That was the situation in the recent case of Outside The Box Innovations. L.L.C. v. Travel Caddy, Inc. where an agreement between the patentee (Travel Caddy) and its distributor/seller (The Rooster Group, a large entity of greater than 500 employees) of the patented tool cases was deemed by the district court to contain a patent license clause for the purposes of 37 CFR § 1.27(a)(2). Even worse, the district court held that Travel Caddy had “committed inequitable conduct by claiming small entity status and paying reduced PTO fees, and that this conduct rendered both the ‘992 and ‘104 patents permanently unenforceable.”
The decision of the Supreme Court in Prometheus has been predicted to have implications for business method patentability, but the decision in what will surely become known as the Alice case provides an early indication that the CAFC may endeavour to limit its scope. Whether the claimed subject matter lies in the reality of patent-eligible subject-matter or is more correctly located in the Wonderland of abstract ideas is an issue that has been debated on both sides of the Pond, and on which the Dodo or the King of Hearts in his judicial capacity would surely have had an opinion if it had been brought to their attention. In the US there appears to be ample scope for further debate.
The patentees Alice Corporation are based in Australia and are a joint venture between a private company and National Australia Bank Limited. Their website  explains that they were established in Melbourne in 1995 and have applied for and obtained patents on their financial market innovations worldwide, including in the US, UK and other major financial centres. The patented innovations cover the trading of risk, investment, lending, exchanging and similar products. Alice exploits its inventions by licensing selected entities. Neither Alice nor Ian Shepherd who was the inventor has a significant web presence, and in contrast to the situation in Prometheus there appears to be no back-story that throws light on the merits or otherwise of the alleged invention.
In what seems to be a continuing trend, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is continuing to show increasingly little tolerance for abusive patent litigation tactics. In the most recent pronouncement along these lines the Federal Circuit, per Judge O’Malley (with Judges Newman and Prost joining), ruled the district court appropriately awarded the defendant $3,873,865.01 in attorney fees and expenses under § 285, as well as $809,788.02 in expert fees. See MarcTec, LLC v. Johnson & Johnson (Jan. 3, 2012).
MarcTec originally filed suit in the Southern District of Illinois against Cordis Corporation and Johnson & Johnson, who is the parent company of Cordis Corporation, but not otherwise involved in making or selling the accused product. MarcTec alleged Cordis infringed U.S. Patent Nos. 7,128,753 and 7,217,290. After claim construction, the district court granted Cordis’s motion for summary judgment of noninfringement. On a prior appeal the Federal Circuit then affirmed the district court’s construction and the judgment of noninfringement based on that construction. See the non-precedential opinion in MarcTec v. Johnson & Johnson 2009-1457.
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