Establishing Indefiniteness Requires More Than Identifying “Unanswered Questions”
The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a district court finding of indefiniteness for focusing solely on the language of the claims and ignoring the specification and prosecution history. Nature Simulation Systems Inc. v. Autodesk, Inc., Case No. 20-2257 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 27, 2022) (Newman, Lourie JJ.) (Dyk, J., dissenting).
Nature Simulations Systems (NSS) asserted two patents against Autodesk that relate to packaging computer-aided data for three-dimensional objects. According to the patents, the claimed methods are improvements upon a “Watson” method known in the prior art. Following a Markman hearing that included technology tutorials from the named inventor and Autodesk’s expert, the district court considered whether two terms were indefinite: “searching neighboring triangles of the last triangle pair that holds the last intersection point” and “modified Watson method.”
The district court found both claim terms indefinite based on “unanswered questions” identified by Autodesk’s expert, who had raised three and four unanswered questions for the “searching” and “modified Watson” terms, respectively. NSS argued that all of the questions were answered in the specification, but the court held that “the claim language, standing alone” did not answer those questions. NSS appealed.
The Federal Circuit found flaws in the district court’s analysis because it adopted an incorrect “unanswered questions” analysis and analyzed the “claim language, standing alone.” The Court confirmed that the test for indefiniteness involves analyzing whether the claims provide reasonable certainty when viewed in light of the specification and prosecution history from the perspective of the person of ordinary skill in the art. Reviewing the specification, the Court observed that the text and figures of the specification of the asserted patents described the searching and intersection point process and the prior art Watson method and noted that the district court “declined to consider information in the specification that was not included in the claims.”
Reviewing the prosecution history, the Court further noted that both terms had been rejected during prosecution for indefiniteness, but that the examiner withdrew both rejections after amendments to the claims provided additional limitations. The Court faulted the district court for giving “no weight to the prosecution history showing the resolution of indefiniteness by adding the designated technologic limitations to the claims.” Instead, “PTO examiners are entitled to appropriate deference as official agency actions[.]” Ultimately, the Court observed that the claims were improvements to known methods, that it was undisputed the claims were described and enabled and that the examiner had held the claims to “define the scope of the patent subject matter.” For these reasons, indefiniteness was not established as a matter of law.
Judge Timothy B. Dyk dissented, stating that “[t]he fact that a patent examiner introduced the indefinite language does not absolve the claims from the requirements of 35 U.S.C. § 112.” Far from adopting a flawed “unanswered questions” analysis, Judge Dyk instead believed the court’s analysis was detailed and thorough, and that it was performed in view of the specification. Judge Dyk found the majority’s definition of the disputed terms inconsistent with the claim itself because of differences between the claim and the disclosure in the specification. He criticized the majority for too much deference to the patent examiner.
Practice Note: Patent owners frequently consider whether prior art references asserted for anticipation or in obviousness combinations were already considered by the examiner during prosecution. This case serves as a reminder to also review § 112 issues considered by the examiner because of the “appropriate deference” the examiner may be accorded.