Monday, August 2, 2010

The Miazaki Case: Raising the Bar for Definiteness in Patent Claims

A senior patent examiner at the USPTO in a phone interview recently stressed the precedential BPAI case, Ex parte Miyazaki, Appeal No. 2007-3300 (BPAI 2008). In this interesting case, the Board had trouble with the language in this claim:

1. A large printer comprising:
a paper feeding unit operable to feed at least one roll of paper, at least one substantially flat sheet of paper and at least one stiff carton, the paper feeding unit being located at a height that enables a user, who is approximately 170 cm tall, standing in front of the printer to execute the paper feeding process including replacement of the roll paper and setting at least one of the sheet of
paper and the stiff carton;

a printing unit located below the paper feeding unit;

a discharged paper stacking unit located below the printing unit; and

a paper feeding path extending in a substantially straight line from the paper feeding unit to the discharged paper stacking unit via the printing unit.

The claim tried to describe a relationship between a person of average height and elements of the printer, but the Board found that there were infinite possibilities in the actual structures described. Where was the person standing - on a platform, for example? And where was the printer - on the floor, or on a table, or what? Given the uncertainty, there is certainly an argument that the claim is indefinite and thus invalid.

However, the Board did more than simply identify the indefinite nature of the claim. They went much further in giving a new standard for finding a claim indefinite under Section 112, paragraph 2. Woodcock Washburn LLP notes the problem in their client alert, "BPAI Expands Definiteness Requirement During Patent Prosecution in Ex parte Miyazaki":
On November 19, 2008 the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (Board) announced in the above captioned case that “if a claim is amenable to two or more plausible claim constructions, the USPTO is justified in requiring the applicant to more precisely define the metes and bounds of the claimed invention by holding the claim unpatentable under 35 U.S.C. § 112, second paragraph, as indefinite.” Ex parte Miyazaki, slip op. at 11-12....

The mischief created by the Board in this case is not whether the claim is or is not indefinite under the statute but, rather, it is found in the Board’s broad holding regarding the application of 35 U.S.C. § 112, second paragraph. Many claim limitations are amenable to two or more reasonable constructions as that is what gives a patent claim breadth. If the Board’s holding is taken at face value, we can expect a flood of rejections of claim terms as being indefinite under the statute.

It may be increasingly important to review claim language carefully and make sure that at least some claims avoid multiple interpretations in ways that could fall under Ex parte Miyazaki. Naturally, almost every limitation of every claim has gray areas that could be interpreted in multiple ways. I hope reason will prevail in the quest for definiteness in claim language.

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