Atofina v. Great Lakes Chemical Corp., (Fed. Cir. 2006)
by Bradley Crawford
Atofina sued Great Lakes for literally infringing its U.S. Patent No. 5,900,514 titled "Synthesis of Difluoromethane." The district court determined the '514 patent was (i) not literally infringed; (2) anticipated (only claims 1, 2, 6, 7, 9, and 10); and (3) unenforceable because of inequitable conduct. Atofina appealed.
Infringement: The CAFC ruled the claims were not literally infringed. The district court's use of scientific and technical dictionaries to construe the word "catalyst" was acceptable as the dictionary definition comported with the intrinsic evidence.
The intrinsic evidence (1) supported the district court's claim construction, and (2) evinced a surrender of subject matter. Regarding the second point, the CAFC noted that "it frequently happens that patentees surrender more through amendment than may have been absolutely necessary..." and "we have not allowed them to assert that claims should be interpreted as if they had surrendered only what they had to." (Note: The take home message here is obvious, so I won't belabor the point.)
Anticipation: The CAFC also ruled claims 1, 2, 6, 7, 9, and 10 were not anticipated because the district court incorrectly interpreted a broad genus as anticipating a narrower genus, which is inconsistent with the Titanium Metals case. See 778 F.2d 775 (Fed. Cir. 1985).
Unforceability: And finally, the CAFC found the '514 patent not unenforceable due to inequitable conduct and it did not remand.
During prosecuting of the application that matured into the '514 patent, Atofina submitted a partial translation (a Derwent Abstract, to be precise) of the Japanese language reference JP 51-82206, to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, even though it had a full translation in its possession. At trial, the district court ruled Atofina committed inequitable conduct by (1) failing to disclose the full translation of JP 51-82206, which was deemed highly material because it anticipated several claims and (2) Atofina had the requisite intent to deceive the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office because it failed to disclose the translation and it mischaracterized the reference.
On appeal, Atofina argued that materiality was found only because the reference was alleged to anticipate, and since the anticipation was wrong, the determination of materiality was also wrong. Atofina also argued that the district court failed to consider evidence of good faith, i.e., Atofina's "reference in the prosecution history to page numbers of the full translation of JP 51-82206," the submission of the Derwent Abstract and the citing of JP 51-82206 in the patent specification.
Great Lakes argued the full translation was highly material because (1) it was anticipatory, (2) JP 51-82206 was cited in the European counterpart to the '514 patent and the European patent only issued after Atofina incorporated an additional limitation into the claims. Intent was shown by (1) Atofina's failure to disclose the full translation of the Japanese language reference, (2) Atofina's mischaracterizing prior art references, and (3) withholding "poor results." Great Lakes also argued there was no evidence of good faith by Atofina.
The CAFC did not decided the issue of materiality, but it did focus on intent. The CAFC found that the failure to submit the full translation was not, in and of itself, enough to establish intent; a "factual basis for a finding of deceptive intent" was required. The CAFC also found (1) Atofina's comments were consistent with the Derwent Abstract and the full abstract, (2) Atofina did not try to hide information or mislead the Patent and Trademark Office.
Judge Dyk filed an opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part. Judge Dyk agreed with the majority's decision, but he would remand for further consideration by the district court.
Note to all patent prosecutors out there. This case exemplifies the old maxim, "penny wise, but pound foolish." Atofina did not submit the full translation, even though the full translation was in its possession. (Why, is an interesting question. If they didn't think it was a problem, why not just submit it?) Instead, Atofina submitted the Derwent Abstract and made comments about what the reference discloses. By doing so, they saved the cost of preparing a translation, which, admittedly, can be expensive if it is a very large reference. However, they left themselves open to a charge of inequitable conduct. I expect that they paid many tens of thousands of dollars (if not more) defending themselves from this allegation first at trial and then on appeal. If they would have simply paid for the complete translation and then submitted it to the Patent and Trademark Office, they would likely have saved money in the long run and obviated any allegation of mischaracterizing the reference. If you find yourself in a similar situation, I think you have to ask yourself if saving the cost of the translation is worth the risk of (1) having to defend against a charge of inequitable conduct based on misleading the Patent and Trademark Office or mischaracterizing the reference, and (2) having any patent that ultimately issues invalidated for inequitable conduct.
Bradley W. Crawford is a attorney at MBHB LLP focusing his efforts on patent litigation, prosecution, and counseling. Prior to joining MBHB, Mr. Crawford worked in the areas of synthetic organic chemistry as well as medicinal chemistry.