Functional Aspect of Structural Term Overlooked
Yesterday, in Power Integrations, Inc., v. Lee (CAFC 2015) the Court considered the rejection of claims 1, and 17-19 of U.S Patent 6,249,876. Reexamination of the ‘876 patent was initiated by the USPTO in 2006 at the request of Fairchild Semiconductor. At issue in the reexamination (and in a parallel infringement action) was the meaning of the claim terminology “coupled to.” The Patentee insisted that this terminology had both a functional and structural meaning. On appeal to the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (BPAI — Now the PTAB), affirmed the examiner’s rejection of the claims. In doing so, the Board appeared to focus only on the structural aspect of the disputed claim terminology.
The Court reminded the Board that while the district court claim construction was not binding on it, full consideration of the earlier construction may have proved enlightening. That is, the Court felt “the board had an obligation, in these circumstances, to evaluate that [district court] construction and determine whether it was consistent with the broadest reasonable construction of the term.” However, the court expressly noted they were not creating a new requirement that the Board must in all cases assess a previous judicial interpretation of a disputed claim term. Rather, the court remanded the case so that the Board may fully assess the functional aspect of the claim and set forth its “reasoning in sufficient detail to permit meaningful appellate review.”
How Patentee will fare on remand remains to be seen. The Court mentions that the Solicitor briefing provided an alternative explanation to affirm that the Board may simply adopt on remand.
While it is one thing to say that the Board did not fully address the functional issue, “coupled to” would not seem to denote exclusive control on its own. Also, had the litigation construction not been before the Court in 2013, it is not clear that the Court would have faulted the Board’s analysis. The takeaway here is to clearly present all arguments to the Board.