Two seminal cases illustrate the techniques of analyzing definiteness in a post-Nautilus world. One case followed Nautilus and the other preceded it, but that case demonstrates what stands of the old rationale. The first decision, Ethicon Endo-Surgery, Inc. v. Covidien, Inc., dealt with ultrasonicshears for cutting and sealing a blood vessel… A clear difference between the new “reasonable clarity” standard and the Federal Circuit’s “insolubly ambiguous” formulation is that the latter calls for considerable effort in seeking out a claim construction that comports with the inventor’s manifest intent. The new standard may require the same effort, but that result does not appear guaranteed by the language itself. The entire direction of patent law toward Disclosure World suggests that definiteness will continue to be governed in large part by the meaning drawn from the patent as a whole, not the claim language standing alone.
Drafting a patent application can be a daunting task, particularly today where virtually every commercially valuable patent will likely be challenged at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB). Join me for a free webinar discussion – Optimizing Patent Applications: Drafting to Withstand Challenge – on April 19, 2017, at 2pm ET. Joining me will be Joseph Root, author of Rules of Patent Drafting: Guidelines from Federal Circuit Case Law. In addition to taking as many questions as possible from the audience we will discuss: (1) Best practices writing to overcome Alice-based 101 rejections; (2) Identifying the invention/improvement versus KSR 103 concerns; (3) Best practices for ensuring a complete and thorough specification; and (4) Nautilus, means-plus-function and other 112 matters.
The Disclosure Revolution is an ongoing process that has transformed patent law over the last couple of decades. While courts continue to say, “The claims define the invention,” decision after decision rewrites broad claim terms to conform to the scope of disclosure. A single embodiment once served as an example supporting enabled claims bounded only by the prior art; now, a single embodiment signals the inventor’s intend to limit the invention to the embodiment itself, rather than to claim terms… Overall, 2014 will likely be remembered primarily for Alice and its eventual progeny. In addition to its impact on the law per se, the economic effects may prove enormous. An entire segment of the patent community stands vulnerable to a slowdown, or shutdown, of patenting activity in the business methods and software fields. Other areas, including definiteness, will feel the effects of 2014, but in a far more incremental fashion.
Drafters need to think both outside and inside the claims. Outside thinking aims to make the court’s task easier by providing claim terms amenable to straightforward, simple claim construction. Preferably, at least, the key terms are expressly defined, or at least explained through demonstration. Inside thinking takes up the question whether the claim construction supports the patentee’s or owner’s intention, as manifested in the claims and specification. By the time a drafter is “experienced,” she has been exposed to considerable instruction on claim drafting. Claim construction rules, claim drafting principles, claim drafting strategy—the endless seminar. Yet, the Federal Circuit regularly lectures the patent bar on its drafting practices. The difficulty is that among all of our construction rules and strategic principles, we have lost sight of clarity and precision. We need to refocus on basic principles. Indeed, we’re going to need a bigger boat.
No question exists that patent eligibility under Section 101 has been, and remains, the most active question in patent law. Watching the rapid flow of cases back and forth between the Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court exceeds the excitement generated by most TV shows in sheer entertainment value. The only question open for discussion is whether we are watching “Game of Thrones,” “Survivor”, or “Modern Family.” Actually, the best choice may be “Lost”.
‘Broad’ in this context means ‘broadest supportable’ coverage, limited only by the technology in terms of supportability and by the prior art in terms of outer reach. A failure to achieve such breadth is generally attributable to overclaiming, where one runs afoul of the prior art; underclaiming, where the drafter stop short of claiming all he could; or faulty claiming, where the drafter attempts to achieve breadth, but support issues or drafting errors restrict claim scope. Sound principles, instilled by effective training, cannot substitute for adequate knowledge of the prior art. They can provide the knowledge and thus the confidence to claim out to the limits defined by that art.
To bring this principle to bear on the problem of claim breadth, consider a patent disclosing only a single embodiment, with a main claim whose scope extends beyond that of the embodiment (yet inside the ambit of any cited prior art). As discussed at length elsewhere, without diverse claims, courts are likely to determine that the embodiment does not simply illustrate the invention; it is the invention. The court then follows promptly by reading limitations of the embodiment into the claims.
Patent prosecutors have responded to the Disclosure Revolution in much the same way that clergy and medical doctors responded to the Black Death. Medieval doctors offered incantations and ritual; patent lawyers recite boilerplate. Neither is particularly effective.
Recent Federal Circuit reasoning should make a patent drafter decidedly averse to single-embodiment patent applications, with good reason. Unfortunately, real-world constraints, principally centering on budget and time issues, have resulted and probably will continue to result in the production of a large number of applications in which multiple embodiments either do not exist or do not justify the time and effort to include them in a patent application… In most instances, the addition of a few sentences would have completely cured the cited problems.
Along with their ABC’s and multiplication tables, patent lawyers learn two basic principles. First, claims define the invention. Second, a court should not read limitations from a single embodiment into the claims, absent a demonstrated clear intention by the patentee to do so. Don’t believe them. When the Federal Circuit brings up the principle that one should not import the limitations of a single embodiment into a broader claim, expect the opinion to show how, under the particular, specifically limited facts of the present case, the inventor actually intended to limit the claims to the disclosed embodiment.
The claim drafting wizard is gone, but no one notices that his passing is not a normal, stylistic change, going from gray flannel to bellbottoms to designer jeans. Step back and survey the patent world as a whole, and one sees a fundamental shift in thinking over the last two decades. It is not just the claim drafting wizard but the entire idea of patent claims that is gone. We still observe the old forms—every patent brief and judge’s opinion begins, “The claims define the invention.” And then something happens. Perhaps it turns out that the single embodiment was the true expression of the invention. Or a line in the Summary suggested that the invention would not work unless the widget were painted red, so that was added to the claims. Or a line in the prosecution history could be read to suggest that the widget needed to be painted blue. Or any of the other reasons for not simply reading and applying the claims.