Scanner Technologies Corp. v. ICOS Vision Systems (Fed. Cir. 2008)
There are many companies that value quick prosecution and issuance. Yet, few have taken the PTO's offer of accelerated examination (AE). Potential applicants avoid the accelerated examination program for several reasons – most of which are associated with the AE requirements to (i) search for prior art; (ii) identify all claimed elements found in each relevant reference; and additionally (iii) prepare an explanation of why the claims are patentable over the references. These AE requirements are costly and potentially open the applicant to charges of inequitable conduct (as well as narrow claim scope).
In this case, Scanner saw ICOS products at a trade show and subsequently filed a petition to make special in the hopes that its patent would issue more quickly. The petition argued that the petition should be granted based on ICOS products. The petition was granted and the patent issued within the year.
After Scanner sued for infringement, the district court found the patent unenforceable due to inequitable conduct in filing the petition to make special. On appeal, the CAFC reversed – but in the process revived aspects of the inequitable conduct inquiry. The particular conduct at issue included statements in the petition that infringement was clear even though the accused product had not been fully inspected.
Broad Concept of Materiality: Although inequitable conduct issues often focus on whether the misconduct was "material to patentability." The CAFC began by quoting its own 1994 GE v. Samick opinions holding that a false statement in a petition to make special should be considered "material" if "it succeeds in prompting expedited consideration of the application." This broad consideration of materiality follows the Nilssen decision holding that misrepresenting an applicant's status as a small entity (in the payment of post issuance maintenance fees) may also be considered material.
"[W]e must reject Scanner's view that inequitable conduct cannot be shown absent a misrepresentation that bears on the patentability of the claims in the application. When the setting involves a petition to make special, as is the case here, we reaffirm that a false statement that succeeds in expediting the application is, as a matter of law, material for purposes of assessing the issue of inequitable conduct."
Reasonable Inferences Favor Patentee: Although the CAFC agreed that the type of conduct here could be inequitable conduct, this case did not present sufficient evidence. Because materiality and intent must both be proven with clear and convincing evidence, the appellate panel requires that all reasonable inferences be given weight:
"Whenever evidence proffered to show either materiality or intent is susceptible of multiple reasonable inferences, a district court clearly errs in overlooking one inference in favor of another equally reasonable inference."
Because the CAFC found potential reasonable explanations for the claims of infringement, it held that those statements could not be considered false or misleading, and thus not material.
By clearing the inequitable conduct charges, Scanner avoids paying ICOS attorney fees. However, the CAFC affirmed that all claims of the patents were invalid and not infringed.
- Interesting statement: "We also affirm the district court's judgment invalidating all claims of the patents in suit given the stipulation between the parties that the case would be tried on a representative claim."