Takeaway: In an application for a computerized valuation platform, the Examiner rejected a computer-readable medium claim as indefinite. The Examiner took issue with the phrase "subscribing to the web-based valuation service," asserting that the word "subscribe" implied a human action, which conflicted with the claim's recital of a method performed by computer instructions. The Applicant argued that the action was done through computer instructions, at the request of a user. In support of this argument, the Applicant presented a dictionary definition ("to obtain a subscription") which did not mention performance by a human. The Board found that the definition offered by the Applicant did involve human activity, and thus affirmed the rejection. (Ex parte Allaway, PTAB 2014.)
Ex parte Allaway
Appeal 2012-006215; Appl. No. 11/009,547; Tech. Center 3600
Decided: December 15, 2014
The application on appeal described a computerized valuation platform for intellectual property assets. During prosecution, the Applicant presented a system claim and a comupter-readable medium (CRM) claim. The CRM claim on appeal read:
35. A computer-readable medium encoded with computer executable instructions .... , the instructions perform a method comprising:The Examiner rejected all claims under § 101 and § 103. The Examiner also rejected CRM claims 35 and 37 as indefinite. The Examiner explained that independent claim 35 was indefinite since "it is unclear how [a CRM] subscribes to a web-based valuation service (a human user activity)." (Emphasis added.) The Examiner used the same rationale for dependent claim 37, which recited "the client device further subscribing to ..."
publishing at least one portable formula module defining one or more valuation formulas associated with an intellectual property asset at a network server that offers a web-based valuation service;
subscribing to the web-based valuation service from a client device to access the at least one portable formula module;
acquiring one or more values associated with variables of the one or more valuation formulas from a network database utilizing an automated acquisition that pulls information from the network database in response to a subscriber request;
determining one or more valuation results associated with the intellectual property asset by executing the one or more valuation formulas using the acquired values; and
displaying the determined one or more valuation results of the intellectual property asset valuation on an information presentation interface of the client device.
During prosecution the Applicant argued against the indefiniteness rejection of independent claim 35. The Applicant first noted that the Examiner seemed "seem[ed] to rely on the notion that 'subscribing' is a human activity by its very definition." But according to the Applicant, the term was not given this meaning by the Applicant's disclosure, by the prior art, or by a POSITA (citing MPEP 2173.02). The Applicant also introduced a definition ("to obtain a subscription," from Dictionary.com), which did not mention performance by a human. Thus, the Applicant concluded that the indefiniteness rejection was improper.
The Applicant also addressed the indefiniteness rejection of dependent claim 37 by explaining that the " 'subscribing' is done at the behest of a user (presumably human) through a computer-readable medium encoded with computer-executable instructions." The Applicant asserted that the term was consistent with usage by a POSITA, and gave a specific example ("digital video recording device subscribing to a show at the behest of the user or having a server push content to a user's device or computer at the behest of a user.") The Applicant also referenced a portion of the Specification to support this interpretation.
In the next Office Action, the Examiner did not address the dictionary definition proffered by the Applicant. The Examiner did respond to the arguments for dependent claim 37 by commenting on the portion of the Specification mentioned by the Applicant. According to the Examiner, the Specification taught that "the subscribing is not directed to a system or set of computer instructions, but rather to actions of the individual user. This creates confusion as to when direct infringement or the claim limits occurs."
The Board affirmed the indefiniteness rejection. The Board first explained the requirements of a prima facie case of indefiniteness, as explained by the Federal Circuit's In re Packard decision:
When the USPTO has initially issued a well-grounded rejection that identifies ways in which language in a claim is ambiguous, vague, incoherent, opaque, or otherwise unclear in describing and defining the claimed invention, and thereafter the applicant fails to provide a satisfactory response, the USPTO can properly reject the claim as failing to meet the statutory requirements of § 112(b)The Board noted that all of the meanings in the Applicant's proffered dictionary definition (from Dictionary.com) involved human activity, as did the Applicant's own examples offered in the Appeal Brief (TiVo and iTunes). The Board then found that the Examiner had presented a "well-grounded rejection" which the Applicant's arguments had not overcome, and thus ffirmed.
My two cents: The Board got this one wrong. When read in the context of the claim, publish and subscribe are not human actions. A POSITA would recognize these as computer actions that are part a well-known design pattern. (See this Wikipedia entry for "Publish-subscribe pattern".)
The CRM claim at issue recited "publishing" as well as "subscribing." Interestingly, the Examiner did not assert that "publish" was indefinite. Whatever led the Examiner to conclude that "publish" was
understood by a POSITA should also apply to "subscribe."
To make a much stronger case, the Applicant should have offered evidence of the technology-specific meaning of "subscribe." I did a cursory web search and found a Wikipedia entry as well as several technical articles discussing the Publish-Subscribe pattern (e.g., Oracle® Database Application Developer's Guide, Microsoft Patterns and Practices).