Today, the Federal Circuit denied a petition for en banc rehearing in the case of Enzo Biochem, Inc. v. Applera Corp. (2009-1281).
One of the issues in this case was the use of the term "not interfering substantially" in the claims of patents directed to the detection and labeling of nucleic acids. The Federal Circuit overturned the district court's finding of indefiniteness, noting that
Because the intrinsic evidence here provides “a general guideline and examples sufficient to enable a person of ordinary skill in the art to determine [the scope of the claims],” . . . the claims are not indefinite even though the construction of the term “not interfering substantially” defines the term without reference to a precise numerical measurement.
While the Federal Circuit appeared to be satisfied with the decision, and the current state of indefiniteness, Judge Plager voiced his displeasure in a sharply-worded dissent:
Despite the varying formulations that this court has used over the years in describing its “indefiniteness” jurisprudence to which the petitioner in this case points, the general conclusion from our law seems to be this: if a person of ordinary skill in the art can come up with a plausible meaning for a disputed claim term in a patent, that term, and therefore the claim, is not indefinite.1 At least not so indefinite as to run afoul of the statutory requirement that claims shall “particularly point[ ] out and distinctly claim[ ] the subject matter which the applicant regards as his invention.” 35 U.S.C. § 112, second paragraph.
The corollary derived from this understanding is that if several persons of ordinary skill come up with competing but plausible interpretations of a disputed term—as is typically the case with competing “expert witnesses” in patent infringement litigation—the problem is not one of an inherently ambiguous and potentially indefinite claim term, but rather the problem becomes simply one of picking the “right” interpretation for that term. Since picking the “right” interpretation—claim construction—is a matter of law over which this court rules, and since the view of the trial judge hearing the case is given little weight, so that the trial judge’s view on appeal becomes just a part of the cacophony before this court, it is not until three court of appeals judges randomly selected for that purpose pick the “right” interpretation that the public, not to mention the patentee and its competitors, know what the patent actually claims. The inefficiencies of this system, and its potential inequities, are well known in the trade.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”), by contrast, appears to be taking steps to give the statutory requirement real meaning. In 2008, the patent examining corps was given a five-page instruction on “Indefiniteness rejections under 35 U.S.C. 112, second paragraph.” [link] . . . This memo was followed later in the year by a rare precedential opinion issued by the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (“Board”) in Ex parte Miyazaki.
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The Board is clearly right in recognizing that the circumstances are different between pre-issuance and post-issuance application of the definiteness standard with regard to claim terms. At the same time, the PTO and the Board are clearly right in insisting that, if the public notice function of the patent law is to be honored, claim terms must particularly point out and distinctly claim the subject matter of the invention. In my view, this court’s definiteness doctrine could go considerably further in promoting that objective than it currently does, with the not inconsequential benefit of shifting the focus from litigation over claim construction to clarity in claim drafting.
To begin the discussion of how this court could move in that direction, I would grant the petition for panel rehearing. The court now spends a substantial amount of judicial resources trying to make sense of unclear, over-broad, and sometimes incoherent claim terms. It is time for us to move beyond sticking our fingers in the never-ending leaks in the dike that supposedly defines and figuratively surrounds a claimed invention. Instead, we might spend some time figuring out how to support the PTO in requiring that the walls surrounding the claimed invention be made of something other than quicksand.
Read/download the opinion here (link)