Ex parte Jackson
Appeal 2010-011356; Appl. No. 10/784,066; Tech. Center 3700
Decided: March 16, 2012
The application on appeal was directed to a bone screw used in spinal surgery. A portion of a representative claim on appeal read:
1. A closure for setting engagement with a structural member and comprising:Claim 1 was rejected as obvious over Schafer (a German patent) in view of Jackson (same inventor as application on appeal). The Applicant identified Schafer in an IDS, and provided a full translation with the IDS.
(a) a substantially cylindrical body having an outer cylindrical surface ...
(b) a guide and advancement flange extending helically about said outer cylindrical surface ....
(c) at least one of said leading surface or said trailing surface [of the flange] being compound in contour and including an inward anti-splay surface component facing generally toward said closure axis...
The main dispute in prosecution revolved around the teachings of Schafer with respect to the claim limitation "a guide and advancement flange extending helically." The Examiner took the position that this feature was disclosed in Schafer's FIG. 2 (below).
In the first response, the Applicant explained that the perspective view of Schafer's FIG. 2 made it "hard to determine if it has a pitch of any kind," but "comparing the flange shaped openings in comparative spacing from the edge of the seat, indicates that there is no conventional thread positive pitch present on the flanks of the structure" (emphasis added). The Applicant concluded that Schafer's flange was a "twist screw in and lock structure" rather than a helical structure.
Although the Applicant's initial response didn't explicitly discuss claim construction, the Examiner addressed claim construction in the next Office Action. The Examiner explained that "any angular movement in the structure satisfies 'helically wound' as the claims don't set forth a minimum amount of winding." Further, "pitch need not be 'conventional' to be present and 'conventional' is not recited in the claims."
In a Response to the second Office Action, the Applicant argued that even though pitch wasn't in the claims, the phrase "helically wound" nonetheless implied something about pitch. The Applicant used an annotated Schafer FIG. 2 (below) to explain that Schafer's flange would be helically wound only if D2 > D1 and D4 > D3. But since these conditions did not hold, Schafer's flange was not helically wound.
The Applicant also discussed the text description of FIG. 2 that appeared in the of-record translation of Schafer (supplied earlier by the Applicant with an IDS), which read:
In the exemplary embodiment shown in Figure 2, the bifurcated head 4 of the bone screw 1 likewise has a thread, which, however, has a top flank 11 and a bottom flank 10 embodied in a stepped fashion. The shoulder of the bottom flank 10 is shaped such that it forms an undercut 17. This undercut 17, particularly by means of the shoulder 18, prevents the legs 5 from being bent radially outward while the grub screw 3 is being screwed in. A positive lock is thus produced in the radial direction between the bifurcated head 4 and grub screw 3. This positive lock prevents, as previously mentioned, any slippage of the leg 5.Based on the drawing and this text, the Applicant urged that FIG. 2 was a "twist and lock" structure in which "projections are screwed or rotated ninety degrees into the receiver," rather than a "structure that will helically rotate into the receiver" as claimed.
The Examiner maintained the rejection in the next Office Action. The Examiner explicitly discussed claim interpretation: "helically wound just means it progresses in a spiral or helical fashion, i.e. is threaded (as opposed to 'twist-lock' designs)." The Schafer text actually relied on by the Applicant "teaches not only that the device has threads but that the anti-splay grub screw is screwed in" (emphasis in original). Thus, "it is quite clear that Schafer discloses a 'threaded' structure (i.e., a helically wound flange structure)."
The Applicant filed one more response before appeal and addressed the Examiner's latest contentions.
According to the Applicant,
There is nothing that requires a "grub screw," as it is translated from German, to be helically wound. Such a screw can have mating portions that rotate, for example, 90°, into each other and such are well known. It is believed that this is what is shown in the German [Schafer] reference.When the Examiner maintained the rejection, the Applicant appealed. In the Appeal Brief, the Applicant noted that FIG. 2 was "only a partial cross section of the receiver" and the corresponding text was limited to "a single paragraph." The Applicant characterized the embodiment of FIG. 2 as "poorly described" and "apparently added as a quick afterthought." According to the Applicant, a POSITA would see in FIG. 2 that all 7 tiers of the receiver were equally spaced from front to bottom on front and back and essentially horizontal, i.e., did not have a pitch. This was contrary to the meaning of "helically wound," which implied that each tier has a pitch going from one tier to the next with each 360° revolution.
The Applicant then made this point by including FIG. 2 next to a FIG. 2 modified to be helically wound). The juxtaposition allowed a POSITA to "immediately see" that Schafer's FIG. 2 was a twist-and-lock structure rather than a helically wound structure.
Moving from drawings to text, the Applicant acknowledged that the German Schafer patent, as translated, referred to a grub screw "screwed into" a thread in describing FIG. 2. The Applicant also briefly acknowledged that Schafer used the phrase "screwed in" in describing the embodiment of FIG. 1. But according to the Applicant, this terminology wasn't dispositive:
[T]he term screw can mean simple rotation into something. ... A structure that mates upon rotating 90° can be called a grub screw and rotation or twisting can be interpreted and translated from the German into English as being "screwed in" in the Schafer disclosure to distinguish from the closures that are slid in sideways without rotating.A POSITA looking at Schafer, as a whole and in context, would understand that the FIG. 2 receiver was not helically wound. Furthermore, a POSITA would also understand that Schafer's "closure and receiver are aligned and the closure twisted or rotated 90° to secure them together."
In the Answer, the Examiner first reiterated that the Schafer translation relied on by the Applicant used the terms "threads and "screw." The Examiner then referred to a full translation provided with the Answer, and pointed to additional mentions of "threading" and "screwing in the setscrew." (This document was identified as "Full translation of Schafer (DE 298 10 798 U1), Schreiber Translations, Inc., May 2010.")
Moving on to address the Appeal Brief arguments, the Examiner asserted that the Appellant's "opinion" that Schafer disclosed a non-threaded design was "irrelevant since it overlooks or misconstrues what the reference explicitly says, namely, that the design shown in Fig. 2 includes a threaded set screw that is screwed in." (Emphasis added.) And although the closure itself wasn't illustrated, the text of Schafer said that the "closure is 'setscrew 3' and that it forms a friction-lock with the undercut 17 and lug 18 of the thread of the head 4 (translation, page 10, lines 5-7)."
The Examiner also criticized the Applicant's "exaggerated" side by side drawings:
[G]iven the very small portion of the entire circumference of the threads that is actually shown, the purported pitch imagined by Appellant is unnecessary for a helical thread and implausible in a single-start thread design (only one helical thread ridge). The angle that is necessary for the threads of Fig. 2 would not be extreme (as in Appellant's sketch) in the very small portion of the circumference that is shown in the basic drawing of Fig. 2.In the appeal decision, the Board found that Schafer did disclose the limitation at issue. The Board first addressed the text of Schafer, and its use of terms such as "screw" and "screwed in." The Board acknowledged Applicant's argument that the context of Schafer would lead a POSITA to understand these terms differently from normal English usage. However, the Board agreed with the Examiner's reading of Schafer and further noted that "argument by counsel cannot take the place of evidence, citing In re Geisler, 116 F.3d 1465, 1471 (Fed. Cir. 1997).
Turning to the Applicant's arguments about Schafer's drawing, the Board first found these arguments ran counter to Schafer's express teachings in the text (i.e., "grub screw," "screwed in"). Moreover, the Board was not persuaded by the Applicant's side-by-side comparison. Instead, the Board agreed with the Examiner that "given the 'very small portion of the entire circumference of the threads' illustrated in Schäfer‟s figure 2, a conclusion cannot be drawn as to the pitch of the threads."
Finally, the Board considered an argument about the secondary reference and found it not persuasive. As a result, the Board affirmed the § 103 rejection.
My two cents: There are several lines of argument at play here.
- Inferences made from a drawing.
- Overcoming literal teachings of a reference by arguing that the reference really doesn't mean what it says.
- Attorney argument.
- Translation errors.
Even so, the linchpin of the Applicant's argument was overcoming the literal teachings of a reference. Words like "screwed in" and "setscrew" and "grub screw" strongly suggested helically wound threads. The Applicant fought hard to convince the Board that, despite these terms, Schafer's closure structure actually twisted or rotated into alignment with the receiver, and this twist-lock behavior did not require helical threads.
I thought the Applicant did a good job of marshaling facts to put together an argument against ordinary meaning. But in the end, this amounted to nothing but attorney argument. The Applicant should have entered evidence in the form of definitions, technical articles, or an expert declaration. I see no bright line rule for when it's appropriate for the attorney to expound upon the teachings of the reference, and when evidence is needed. But when the core of the argument is what a term means, I think you need evidence.
Finally, the Applicant may have held back the strongest argument. To me, the Appeal Brief statement "rotation or twisting can be interpreted and translated from the German into English as being 'screwed in' " was a hint that the translation from German to English was in error. But the Applicant didn't make this point explicit. And this making this argument would certainly require evidence.
If you wanted to argue translation error, what sort of points would you make and what sort of evidence would you submit? Are machine translations more vulnerable here?