Federal Circuit says PTAB too narrowly interpreted case law regarding prior art publications in GoPro

On Friday, July 27th, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a precedential opinion in GoPro, Inc. v. Contour IP Holdings, vacating a final written decision coming from the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) that had upheld patent claims in the face of a validity challenge petitioned by action camera company GoPro. The Federal Circuit panel of Circuit Judges Jimmie Reyna (author of the opinion), Evan Wallach and Todd Hughes found that the PTAB had erred in finding that a 2009 GoPro catalog did not qualify as a prior art printed publication for rendering the challenged claims invalid for obviousness.

There are two patents at issue in this case which have now been remanded back to the PTAB for further proceedings:

  • U.S. Patent No. 8890954, titled Portable Digital Video Camera Configured for Remote Image Acquisition Control and Viewing. Issued to Contour in November 2014, it covers an integrated, hands-free, portable, wearable, viewfinderless point of view (POV) digital video camera equipped with a wireless Internet protocol and a global navigation and location positioning system.
  • U.S. Patent No. 8896694, same title as the ‘954 patent. Also issued to Contour in November 2014, it claims a POV digital video camera system with GPS and Bluetooth capabilities for capturing action video, tracking data such as speed and elevation, as well as posting video online.

Contour IP, the patent owner, first asserted both of these patents against GoPro in a patent infringement suit filed in November 2015 in the District of Delaware; that case was transferred to the Northern District of California in August 2017. However, in April 2015, about six months before the patents were asserted against GoPro in Delaware, GoPro petitioned the PTAB for inter partes review (IPR) proceedings challenging the validity of both patents.

In both IPR petitions, GoPro submitted a 2009 sales catalog as prior art; the catalog disclosed a digital camera linked to a wireless viewfinder/controller that enables a user to preview the image before recording. Although the PTAB instituted both IPRs after making a determination that GoPro made a threshold showing that the catalog is prior art, both IPRs terminated in final written decisions which concluded that the catalog wasn’t disseminated or otherwise made available to the extent that persons ordinarily skilled in the art could have located it by exercising reasonable diligence.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit found that the PTAB erred in determining that a declaration from a GoPro employee, along with corroborating evidence, wasn’t sufficient to establish public accessibility of the catalog. The GoPro employee had testified that GoPro made the catalog accessible during an action sports vehicle trade show that occurred in July 2009, prior to the critical date of September 13th, 2009 (one year prior to the date of priority for both the ‘954 and ‘694 patents). The PTAB held that the dissemination at this trade show did not make the catalog publicly accessible because the trade show was only open to dealers and not the general public.

“The case law regarding accessibility is not as narrow as the Board interprets it,” the Federal Circuit found, noting that the PTAB only focused on one of several factors for determining public accessibility. Although the trade show was focused on action sports vehicles, the attendees were likely more sophisticated in that space than average consumers, making it more than likely that attendees were also skilled and interested in POV action cameras. “A dealer show focused on extreme sports vehicles is an obvious forum for POV action sports cameras,” the Federal Circuit’s opinion reads. The general public may not have been aware of the trade show but the appellate court found that dealers of POV action sports cameras would be part of the relevant audience. Thus, the Federal Circuit vacated the PTAB’s determination that the GoPro catalog was not prior art and remanded the case for further proceedings.


PTAB Fails to Consider Arguments in Reply Brief

On Friday, June 1st, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a decision in In re: Durance striking down a decision by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) that affirmed a patent examiner’s obviousness rejection of a microwave vacuum-drying apparatus and associated method. The Federal Circuit panel consisting of Judges Alan Lourie, Jimmie Reyna and Raymond Chen determined that the PTAB erred in not considering arguments offered in the patent applicant’s reply brief, which were properly made in response to the examiner’s answer.

In September 2014, the examiner issued a final rejection, which rejected all 37 claims of the patent application on 35 U.S.C. § 103 for obviousness and 35 U.S.C. § 112 for not meeting the written description requirement and lack of enablement. The obviousness finding was based on two pieces of prior art: U.S. Patent No. 6442866, titled Method and Apparatus for Drying or Heat-Treating Products (“Wefers”) and issued in September 2002; and U.S. Patent Application No. 20050019209, titled Method and Device for Sterilizing Containers (“Burger”) and filed in July 2002. The examiner rejected most of the ‘895 patent applications claims after finding that Wefers disclosed every limitation of claim 1 except for the tumbling limitation, which was itself disclosed by Burger. The examiner rejected Durance’s argument that rotating the container to enhance tumbling of the organic material was not present in the Wefers and Burger combination; the examiner found that the organic material’s tumbling was an inherent function of all rotating containers. On the indefiniteness finding, the examiner found that the patent application’s specification did not meet the written description requirement under Section 112 because it did not discuss the rotational speed necessary to tumble the organic material.

After an examiner interview in December 2014, the examiner withdrew the rejection based on the Section 112 grounds but maintained the obviousness rejection based on Burger’s teaching of a transportation means rotating a container through a vacuum chamber from the inlet to the outlet. Durance appealed to the PTAB, arguing that Burger taught the application of plasma to the surface of containers and not the rotation of the containers to tumble the contents for balancing out the microwave radiation applied to the cylinders. Durance further argued that Wefers taught away from agitating products during transportation because it stressed the “gentle continual transport” needed to reduce maintenance expenses. The examiner answered this argument based on new grounds that there was no structural difference between Durance’s claimed invention and the combination of the prior art references. Although Durance argued that the examiner’s understanding of structural identity for rejection, which had never before been articulated, was extremely inaccurate as the claimed invention in the ‘895 patent application required the use of gears, not simply gravity. The PTAB sided with the examiner, finding that Durance’s arguments only addressed individual references and not the combination.

Durance appealed for rehearing by the PTAB, arguing that the Board erroneously ignored reply brief arguments related to the structural identity rejection. In not addressing arguments that the claimed structure is different than the Burger structure, the PTAB “misapprehend[ed] the law” on inherency by ignoring the argument that structural identity cannot be used to show that a method claim is inherently performed by a combination of prior art references. In denying the request for rehearing, the PTAB stated that it did not misapprehend the doctrine on inherency because it didn’t invoke that doctrine in affirming the examiner’s rejection. “In the interest of fairness,” the Board did consider Durance’s reply brief argument that the amount of material packed into the container affects whether the material would tumble, but the Board reiterated that it would not consider other reply brief arguments.

On appeal to the Federal Circuit, Durance argued that substantial evidence doesn’t support the PTAB’s finding that the combination of the prior art references taught the tumbling limitation either expressly or inherently. Durance also argued that the PTAB lacked substantial evidentiary support to show that a skilled artisan would modify Wefers to include the rotation feature disclosed by Burger.

In its discussion of the issues in the appeal, the Federal Circuit opined that “the Court is not confident in the Patent Office’s reasoning for its rejection of the Application” based upon the shifting arguments offered in the patent examiner’s rejections, as well as the PTAB’s argument on appeal that the Federal Circuit should find inherency in the first instance after the PTAB told Durance that inherency was never invoked. In analyzing 37 C.F.R. § 41.41(b), the relevant statute under which the PTAB waived Durance’s reply brief arguments, the Federal Circuit noted that the statute allows a patent owner to include responses to an examiner’s answer in a reply brief. Nothing in the statute bars the patent owner from addressing new arguments made by the examiner that were not articulated in the Final Office Action, the appellate court found.

The PTAB’s refusal to consider Durance’s reply brief arguments on structural dissimilarity between the patent application and the prior art references required vacating the agency’s decision and remanding the case back to the Board, the Federal Circuit held.

Federal Circuit Says Veterinarian’s Suggestion Covered Essential Patent Claim Element

On Thursday, May 3rd, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a decision in In Re VerHoef, a case stemming from a decision by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) to invalidate a patent during an ex parte proceeding on 35 U.S.C. § 102(f) grounds, which governs the patentability of inventions which have been derived from a person who is not listed as an inventor on the patent application. The Federal Circuit panel affirmed the PTAB’s finding that Jeff VerHoef was not the sole inventor of a mobility device for dogs because the device incorporated a suggestion made by a veterinarian working with VerHoef’s dog.

The patent application at issue in this appeal is U.S. Patent Application No. 20130152873, titled Dog Mobility Device and claiming priority to a patent application filed in December 2011; this patent application is subject to pre-America Invents Act Section 102(f). That patent application lists VerHoef as the sole inventor. In an affidavit, VerHoef stated that he had developed the mobility harness covered by the ‘873 patent application, which assists with a dog’s movement of his hind legs, after his dog Reilly had difficulty walking after a surgical operation.

VerHoef worked with a veterinarian, Dr. Alycia Lamb, to provide rehabilitative therapy for Reilly around the same time that VerHoef was working on the mobility device. VerHoef had previously acted on Dr. Lamb’s suggestion to purchase a commercially available harness to support Reilly’s hind leg, but this device caused Reilly to place the leg’s weight on his knuckles instead of his toes. VerHoef recognized that a harness connected to Reilly’s toes would solve the problem and discussing this issue with Dr. Lamb, the vet suggested a strap configured with a figure 8 structure to engage the toes might solve that problem. Incorporating the figure 8 design into the mobility device, VerHoef filed a patent application listing himself and Dr. Lamb as co-inventors. That relationship soured and VerHoef filed the ‘873 patent application on the same day that Dr. Lamb filed a substantially similar patent application listing herself as the sole inventor.

The examiner of VerHoef’s patent application issued a Section 102(f) final rejection after VerHoef submitted his affidavit because the examiner found that VerHoef did not invent the claimed subject matter. On appeal to the PTAB, the Board affirmed the examiner’s decision, finding that the figure 8 loop was an essential element of the invention and finding that VerHoef didn’t maintain “intellectual domination” over the inventive process. During oral arguments on appeal to the Federal Circuit, counsel for VerHoef argued that, while Dr. Lamb did provide the suggestion on the figure 8 loop, VerHoef maintained the work of making the invention and the mere suggestion from Dr. Lamb did not automatically raise her to the level of joint inventor.


Mohawk Tribe wins stay from Federal Circuit

The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued an Order staying further proceedings at the PTAB relating to the RESTASIS patents now owned by the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe. The stay will remain in place until at least one day after the oral argument scheduled for June 2018. The Court will consider whether the stay shall remain in effect or be lifted based on the merits of the case.

The dispute between the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and Mylan Pharmaceuticals arose when Allergan transferred the RESTASIS patents to the Tribe so a claim of sovereign immunity could be raised, which would divest the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) of jurisdiction. The Tribe filed a motion to dismiss the various inter partes review (IPR) proceedings instituted against the RESTASIS patents by the PTAB at the request of Mylan. The PTAB panel assigned to the case refused to recognize the Mohawk claim of sovereign immunity. But it has since been learned through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, that the three Administrative Patent Judges (APJs) assigned to the case engaged in off-the-record deliberations with supervising APJs, which seemingly violates the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).


USPTO Withdraws CAFC Brief, Actively Considering PTAB Practice

Josh Malone, the inventor of Bunch-o-Balloons; and Telebrands Corporation, the power behind As Seen on TV,  have been fighting over Malone’s invention of one of the most popular new toys to hit the market in years. Using Malone’s innovation, it is possible to fill 100 water balloons in under 60 seconds. The invention works like a charm, and it flies off the shelves of big-box retailers like Costco.

Telebrands has lost patent infringement decisions repeatedly in federal district court to Malone’s company, Tinnus Enterprises. Telebrands has even lost at the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Indeed, every federal judge and every federal jury that has decided cases in this ongoing battle has ruled for Malone and Tinnus.

Telebrands has done better at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board. Notwithstanding Telebrands successes at the PTAB, recently the PTAB published final written decisions (here and here) upholding claims from two of Tinnus’ patents — U.S. Patent No. 9,242,749 and U.S. Patent No. 9,315,282 — the same patents that a federal jury found infringed and which lead to an award of $12.4 million in damages last November. These decisions represent a rare case where the PTAB agreed with a jury.