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Continental Circuits LLC v. Intel Corp., et al: Federal Circuit Reemphasizes Prohibition on Importing a Preferred Embodiment into Patent Claims

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) recently issued a precedential opinion finding that a lower court had improperly incorporated an embodiment from the specification of the asserted patents into the claims.  In its decision, the CAFC reaffirmed longstanding claim construction law: the claims of a patent are interpreted in light of a specification, but not everything expressed in the specification must be read into all of the claims.

Continental Circuits asserted four related patents against Intel and its distributor, all directed to multilayer electrical devices having a unique surface structure comprising “teeth” which enable one layer to mechanically grip to a second layer and methods for making such devices.  The shared specification of the asserted patents discussed a “double desmear process” as a technique for forming the “teeth,” as distinguished from the prior art single pass desmear process.  Both parties disputed the interpretation of multiple claim terms, and contested the proper impact of the desmear process on the scope of the claims.  

Intel successfully argued that the specification’s description of the “double desmear process” requires the claimed “surface,” “removal,” or “etching” of the dielectric material to be “produced by a repeated desmear process.”  The district court adopted this construction, explaining that the specification repeatedly distinguishes the patented invention from the prior art use of the “single desmear process” and characterizes “the present invention” as using a “double desmear process.”  The district court also noted an expert declaration submitted during prosecution of the patent that indicated that the process disclosed in the specification utilized two separate “swell and etch steps.”  Based upon the court’s claim construction order, the parties stipulated to non-infringement and the court entered judgment accordingly.

On appeal, Continental argued that the district court’s construction requiring the double—or “repeated”—desmear process improperly imported into the claims limitations found in the specification.  The CAFC agreed, finding that none of the asserted claims actually recite a “repeated desmear process” and none of the statements in the specification rise to the level of a “clear and unmistakable disclaimer” that would limit the claim scope absent that express limitation.  Even though the specification exclusively referred to a double or repeated desmear process, each reference described that process as “one technique” for forming the claimed teeth, as a way the present invention “can be carried out”, or as an “example.”  The CAFC concluded that these equivocal and non-limiting statements are simply a description of how to make the claimed invention using a preferred process. As a result, they did not clearly limit the claimed devices and methods.

The court also emphasized its previous holdings that the claims of a patent are not necessarily limited to the only embodiment the specification might describe, and that even criticism of another potential embodiment does not rise to the level of clear disavowal such that it limited claim scope.  Further, the court noted that the inventor declaration that the district court felt corroborated its claim construction finding merely explained that the written description disclosed “a technique” for forming the teeth of the claimed invention.  Here again, the court concluded that this language does not rise to the level of a clear disavowal of claim scope.

Accordingly, the CAFC found that the district court erred in reading a “repeated desmear process” limitation into the asserted claims, despite its prevalence in the specification.  This opinion provides helpful reminders to practitioners and patent owners on how claim terms must be construed.  Notably, the CAFC reiterated that (1) the claims, themselves, provide substantial guidance as to the meaning of particular claim terms, (2) the specification can only re-define the plain and ordinary meaning of a word if done “clearly” and “unmistakably,” and (3) importation of a preferred embodiment into the claims as a limitation is impermissible. 

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 Andrew H. DeVoogd Member Boston Mintz Patent Litigation Licensing & Technology Transactions International Trade Commission Strategic IP Monetization & Licensing Federal District Court IP Due Diligence
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Drew is an experienced patent litigator and trial attorney whose work encompasses a broad range of technologies. He regularly represents clients in high stakes International Trade Commission investigations involving some of the world's largest technology companies. He also litigates patent matters and other business disputes in federal district courts around the country, and advises clients in complex IP licensing and related transactions. Drew excels at helping clients make sense of nuanced legal issues while developing effective strategies to protect and leverage their intellectual...

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Kristina Cary, Patent Litigator, Mintz Boston Law firm
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Kristina is a patent litigator and trial attorney who concentrates primarily in hardware and software matters in Section 337 investigations before the International Trade Commission (ITC). She brings extensive training and industry background in electrical and computer engineering to her practice, which focuses on highly technical aspects of patent litigation, including patent portfolio analysis and patent infringement and validity analyses.

Kristina has acted as the technical lead for multiple patents in complex patent litigation at the ITC adverse to some of the largest technology companies in the world. During these investigations, she has examined witnesses at trial, deposed scores of fact and expert witnesses, coordinated extensive multinational discovery, and managed large teams of technologists and litigators. She works closely with industry experts throughout all phases of litigation and related diligence. Kristina also represents clients in patent infringement cases in federal district courts.

Kristina has broad industry experience in hardware and software engineering, gained from her work at several technology companies and as an independent consultant. She applies this technical knowledge in representing her clients, both in litigation and in providing strategic counseling to help clients protect and leverage IP rights.

Kristina is an active member of IEEE.

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Matthew S. Galica, Mintz Levin, Technology Specialist, Software Development lawyer, Application architect, Attorney
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Matt focuses his intellectual property practice on patent litigation, strategic IP counseling, and patent valuation.  He has experience representing clients before the International Trade Commission (ITC), Federal district courts, and the Patent Trial and Appeal Board.  Matt’s practice covers complex technologies such as microprocessors, graphics processors, RF circuitry, LCD display systems, microelectromechanical systems, audio and video processing, VLSI design, consumer telecommunications systems, and DDR-compliant memory modules and DRAM.

Matt has held lead roles in multiple ITC...

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Tiffany Knapp, Mintz Levin Law Firm, Intellectual Property Attorney
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Tiffany concentrates her practice on intellectual property litigation, with an emphasis on patent cases. She uses her background in computer science and mathematics to help clients in matters at the International Trade Commission and in Federal District Courts.

Prior to joining Mintz as an Associate, Tiffany was a law clerk to Clerk Joseph Stanton of the Massachusetts Appeals Court. During her last year in law school, prior to graduation, Tiffany worked as an Intern to Mintz’s IP practice. She assisted with the preparation of and research for...

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