By Dennis Crouch
In re Guiffrida (Fed. Cir. 2013) (non-precedential)
Great Lakes NeuroTechnologies is a spin-off of Cleveland Medical Devices (CMDI) and focuses on therapy systems for movement disorders. The new company took control of a handful of CMDI patents when it was formed back in 2011. However, the patent application in question would be their first post-formation patent issuance, and the company's first patent issued listing its president (Joe Guiffrida) as an inventor.
The preamble of Guiffrida's first claim is directed toward a "portable therapy system," although the claims body does not provide any further portability related limitation. In its decision, the PTAB had rejected the claim as anticipated over a single prior art reference (Shields). Shields does not make any remarks regarding portability, but the PTAB found the limitation disclosed because Shields does "not appear to contain any structure confining it to a particular location." On appeal, the Federal Circuit rejected that analysis – finding that the prior art's failure to disclose non-portability is not the equivalent of disclosing portability.
An anticipating reference must disclose every claim limitation, either expressly or inherently [and i]nherent disclosure requires that the prior-art reference necessarily include the unstated limitation. . . .
The Board found that Shields inherently discloses a portable system because Shields does "not appear to contain any structure confining it to a particular location." But that observation does not indicate that Shields "necessarily" includes a portability limitation, or even that Shields must necessarily be free from "confin[ement] to a particular location." On the contrary, a finding that Shields does not say that its system is not portable—which is all that the Board's statement implies—is just a restatement of the fact that Shields does not expressly disclose a portability limitation. It does not suggest anything about what Shields inherently discloses that would suffice to shift the burden to Giuffrida to disprove inherency.
A confusing aspect of patent claims is that a claim preamble is often seen as non-limiting. Here, any confusion was eliminated because the PTO and the applicant agreed that the portability limitation is limiting. In the appeal, the Federal Circuit accepted that interpretation without comment.
Broadest Reasonable Interpretation Requires Consideration of Specification: The parties did not wholly agree on the meaning of portability. For its part, the PTO applied its wrong-headed "broadest reasonable interpretation" to suggest that a portable device is one that "can be carried." Although irrelevant for this case, the Federal Circuit took the PTO to task for applying that "dictionary definition" of the claim term rather than construing the term "in light of the specification as it would be interpreted by one of ordinary skill in the art." Quoting Phillips v. AWH. According to the appellate panel, the specification provides that a portable system is one that is "capable of being transported relatively easily." In fact, the specification states that "By portable it is meant among other things that the device is capable of being transported relatively easily." The Federal Circuit seems to have skipped over the wiggle-words "among other things" that were certainly inserted in order to open the term to a much wider variety of definitions.
Cryptic PTAB Decisions: In an earlier essay, I wrote about the Board's new approach of writing shorter opinions. Here, the Federal Circuit gave some credence to that approach. Noting that cryptic obviousness rejections can be upheld where the analysis can be "reasonably discerned." Here, the court noted that the board can rely upon the examiner's brief in its decision.
Board made a number of obviousness rejections and those were affirmed on appeal except for claim 24 that I will discuss below. On remand, the PTO may also replace the reversed anticipation rejections (discussed above) with obviousness rejections – especially since the result of this case is that many of the here-adjudged novel claims have dependent claims that are here-adjudged as obvious.
Claim 24 in the patent application adds a limitation that some of the system components communicate using "a two-way RF link." I don't think that anyone (even a Federal Circuit judge) believes that a two-way RF communication limitation would normally transform an unpatentable system into one that is non-obvious (without something more). But, here the Federal Circuit reversed the rejection – finding that the PTO had failed to prove-up its burden.
[The proffered prior art' uses ultrasound transducers that communicate with a compact unit, which, in turn, communicates with a computer. Those communications are twice referred to as "wireless," but the document says little else about them. It does not mention a radio frequency (RF) link, a two-way or bidirectional link, the retransmission of data over such a link, or any benefits from such retransmissions. We have been pointed to no substantial evidence that Zheng teaches such features.
Nor has the Director persuasively explained why Zheng [the prior art] renders those limitations from claim 24 obvious. On the contrary, the reasoning within the PTO has been inconsistent and conclusory in this matter. In stating that it "fail[ed] to see how a system that can both receive signals from sensors and deliver them to, for example, FES systems, could operate absent a two-way link," the Board cited a paragraph in Zheng that mentions a wireless link between units embedded in the body and an "outside control unit." The Examiner invoked different paragraphs from Zheng to find that a two-way link is "implied" or "required." Broad-brush statements based on Zheng's generic references to a "wireless" link are insufficient to support the conclusion that Zheng renders obvious a claim calling for the "wireless[ ] retransmi[ssion] [of sensor signals] over a two-way RF link." We therefore reverse the rejection of claim 24.
On remand, the PTO should be able to find some prior art that shows wireless RF two-way communication that fits this case.