Thursday, June 18, 2015

Tips for arguing Unexpected Results Arguments to overcome obviousness

MPEP Sections 716 and 2145 provide a good primer on arguing unexpected results in order to overcome obviousness. This post will dig into the topic in a little more detail, by discussing some PTAB appeal decisions where the Applicant made an unexpected results argument.

The case law of obviousness requires that assertions of unexpected results be supported by evidence. Attorney argument alone is not sufficient. Improper use of attorney argument to show unexpected results was at play in Ex parte Wong and Ex parte Roberge.

The claims in Ex parte Wong (PTAB 2013) were directed to an orthodontic adhesive, and recited a specific ratio of working time to curing time. The Applicant argued that the properties of the adhesive were unexpected. The Applicant supported this argument by presenting in the arguments section of the Appeal Brief, data from testing of the prior art composition. The Board dismissed the test data on two grounds. First, the data wasn't entered into the record before appeal, as required by the rules governing appeal. Second, the data was presented as unsubstantiated argument of counsel, when evidence was required.

The claims in Ex parte Roberge (PTAB 2014) were directed to an engine fan nozzle with a protective coating. The Applicant explained that ice build-up on the nozzle reduced the nozzle's effective area,
which in turn affected efficiency of the engine. The protective coating prevented this reduction in nozzle area and in engine efficiency. Furthermore, a POSITA wouldn't expect the Examiner's combination to achieve this result, since in the reference the coating was used on an airfoil, where ice build-up affects aerodynamics of the airfoil rather than engine efficiency. However, this discussion appeared only in the Appeal Brief, without citation to the specification or to a declaration. The Board was not persuaded because the Applicant had "cited no specific evidence in support of their contention of unexpected results to rebut [the Examiner's] prima facie case." The Board cited In re Lindner, 457 F.2d 506, 508 (CCPA 1972).

Evidence of unexpected results can be presented in an expert declaration or in the specification, but naked assertions are not enough. Ex parte Bailey and Ex parte Eriksson show that an explanation must be provided as to why the results are unexpected.

In Ex parte Bailey (PTAB 2014), the application was directed to an "undercarriage brake light system." The Specification noted an advantage of the claimed 360o configuration:
It illuminates under the entire undercarriage providing extra visual safety to drivers when you are braking. Since visibility is 360 degrees, drivers following your vehicle and also those at intersections and those merging or yielding are alerted to your braking.
The Applicant referred to this advantage when arguing unexpected results. But the Board noted two deficiencies in the argument:
Appellant has not presented corroborating evidence that confirmation of braking to an approached vehicle constitutes an unexpected advantage. See In re Geisler, 116 F.3d 1465, 1469 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“One way … to rebut a prima facie case of obviousness is … to show … some superior property or advantage that a person of ordinary skill in the relevant art would have found surprising or unexpected.” (Citation omitted)). Rather, Appellant cursorily mentions the advantage within the Specification, which is insufficient. See In re Soni, 54 F.3d 746, 750 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (“[C]onclusory statements in the specification, unsupported by objective evidence, are insufficient to establish unexpected results.” (Citation omitted)).
(Emphasis in original.)

The application in Ex parte Eriksson (PTAB 2014) was directed to a stabilizing device for a manufacturing process. The claims included opposing electromagnetic stabilizers and opposing sensors. The specification briefly mentioned an advantage of this feature :
The stabilizing device, which is arranged to stabilize the position of the object with respect to the predetermined transport path, comprises at least one first pair of electromagnetic stabilizing members arranged adjacent to the air-knives and on each side of the strip. Since the air-knives and the electromagnetic stabilizing members are arranged adjacent to each other to reduce the movement of the object perpendicular to the direction of transport, an optimal damping of the vibrations is achieved at the region between the air-knives.
The obviousness rejection modified a stabilizer in the primary reference to use opposing sensors and opposing electromagnetics as taught in the secondary reference. The Applicant argued that, when combined, the differences between the two references would change their respective functions and thus would not produce predictable results. The Applicant concluded this argument by mentioning the above advantage that was briefly discussed in the specification:
The [claimed] arrangement provides superior stabilization, as described in the specification at p. 5, ll. 9-14. By applying magnetic force to both sides of the magnetic strip, the claimed invention can help to ensure that the metallic strip follows the predetermined transport path.
The Board found that the assertion of superior stabilization was "not supported by factual evidence". The Board cited to several Federal Circuit cases: In re Geisler, 116 F.3d 1465, 1470 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (“[I]t is well settled that unexpected results must be established by factual evidence.”); In re Hoch, 428 F.2d 1341, 1343-44 (CCPA 1970) (evidence must provide an actual comparison of the properties of the claimed invention with the disclosure of the reference); cf., e.g., In re Baxter Travenol Labs., 952 F.2d 388 (Fed. Cir. 1991).

An explanation of how the claimed feature leads to the result, plus characterization as unexpected, is still not enough. The Applicant must also convince the Board of the unexpectedness. This is illustrated by Ex parte Grispo and Ex parte van der Pol.

The Applicant in Ex parte Grispo (PTAB 2013) argued that the result was unexpected, but the Board saw the result produced by the claims to be the same as the result produced by the reference. The application was directed to a process of purging a dual head injector when injecting contrast during a diagnostic imaging procedure. One feature contested on appeal was the ordering of steps to advance the contrast plunger and the saline plunger. The Examiner did not rely on a particular reference to teach the claimed ordering, but instead took the position that "changes in sequence are prima facie obvious in the absence of new or unexpected results" (citing MPEP 2144.04(IV)(C)).

The Applicant argued that this rationale was improper for a critical limitation and explained its criticality: the claimed order "reduces the waste of relatively expensive contrast, purges air prior to injection, and does so in ... a simple two-step process." However, the Examiner found that one of the references actually “discloses the 'exact reasoning and criticality' for the air purging steps.” The Board agreed, and said the unexpected results argument failed because the Applicant did not provide "persuasive reasoning or credible evidence that the claimed invention achieves any advantage over, or even any result different from, [the Emig reference]." (Emphasis added.) The Board cited In re Hampel, 162 F.2d 483, 485 (CCPA 1947).

The Applicant in Ex parte van der Pol (PTAB 2014) argued the result was unexpected, but the Board viewed the result as inherent. The Examiner modified the UV lighting system of the primary reference to use the non-linear bulb shape from the secondary reference. The Applicant argued that the inventor had recognized advantages of the non-linear shape: reducing resistance of the air flow around the bulb (citing to the spec). The Board dismissed this argument because the Applicant didn't show that "these advantages would have been unexpected by one of ordinary skill in the art, rather than just inherent when using a spherical bulb for its known and conventional use as a UV germicidal lamp." The Board cited In re Soni, 54 F.3d 746, 750 (Fed. Cir. 1995).
Sometimes the Board isn't persuaded because the unexpected results arguments and evidence are contradicted by the explicit disclosure of the references. The application in Ex parte Strebelle (PTAB 2011) was directed to a chemical process for regenerating a catalyst that was used in a hydrogenation reaction. The claimed regeneration process included heating one of six listed Group VIII metals with oxygen at a specific temperature range. The primary reference in the obviousness rejection, Vollheim, disclosed the hydrogenation reaction recited in the process claim, and "mentioned regeneration is possible but without explicitly stating a method." A secondary reference, Welty, taught "catalysts of similar makeup (Group VIII elements) for use in "similar processes (cracking and reforming)", plus the claimed method of regeneration: heating the catalyst in the presence of oxygen at the claimed temperature range.

On appeal, the Applicant argued that the discovery of catalyst regeneration under the claimed conditions was unexpected. The Applicant's own specification had acknowledged the "possibility in theory of regenerating" the catalyst mentioned in Vollheim, but explained that others had found that heavy metal contamination renders regeneration "fruitless" (citing a journal article co-authored by Vollheim and Muller). The Applicant supported the unexpected results argument with an expert declaration that characterized the claimed catalyst regeneration as "completely surprising" in view of the "clear belief by other that it was not possible to regenerate such catalysts." In the Answer, the Examiner noted that "a prior art reference must be considered in its entirety," and Vollheim "clearly acknowledges that regeneration is possible. The Board was not persuaded by the unexpected results argument. The Board found that the Muller/Vollheim article did not explain the process and results in enough detail to support a finding that catalyst regeneration was fruitless, and thus did not credit the Applicant's characterization of the claimed catalyst regeneration as unexpected. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

PTAB pilot program: abandon one appeal and get special priority for another appeal

Late breaking news from Carl Oppedahl's blog: a brand new pilot program at the PTAB allows an Applicant to get special priority for one application already on appeal, by withdrawing the appeal of another application. "Special priority" means a PTAB "goal" of appeal decision no more than 4 months after the petition for special status is granted.

See Carl's post here for full details, and here's a link to the Federal Register Notice. Be sure and read Carl's warning about careful handling of the application withdrawn from appeal.

The PTAB says this program runs until June 19, 2016, or until 2,000 appeals are made special, whichever comes first. The PTAB may choose to extend the program, depending on the results of the pilot. The "Pre Appeal Brief Conference" (PABC) program has been around since 2005 – and is still officially a "pilot pogram." Not sure if it makes any difference, but the PABC is administered by the PTO generally, where this new one appears to be administered directly by the PTAB. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

PTAB finds Applicant arguments about misleading terms in translated reference were not supported by evidence

Takeaway: An Applicant argued on appeal that a German patent reference didn't disclose the claim limitation "helically extending" despite the presence of "setscrew," "grub screw," and "screwed in" in the English translation. According to the Applicant, the terminology used in the reference could also be used to describe a twist-and-lock structure which did not include helically wound threads. The Applicant also pointed to the lack of a clear illustration of helical threads, the fact that the drawing was "poorly described" with only a paragraph of text, and the fact that the reference was translated from German to English. The Board affirmed the Examiner's rejection. The Applicant's arguments about the drawings were contradicted by the express teachings of the text. The arguments about the terms used by Schraber were presented as attorney argument and were not supported by evidence. The Board cited In re Geisler, 116 F.3d 1465, 1471 (Fed. Cir. 1997) for the proposition that "argument by counsel cannot take the place of evidence)." (Ex parte Jackson, PTAB 2012.)


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:
     (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...
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.

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).

Three lines of argument developed during prosecution. One argument focused on the meaning of "helically wound" (although this precise language wasn't in the claim). A second argument focused on what a POSITA would understand from Schafer's drawings. The third argument related to Schafer's textual description, as translated into English from the original German.

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.
(Emphasis added.)
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.
Considering the point of whether the FIG. 2 drawing alone showed a helically wound thread, I think the Board got this one wrong. According to the Board, the Applicant made unsupported inferences about thread pitch. Maybe so, and maybe the Applicant overreached with the side-by-side drawing. But the Examiner didn't convincingly show that the FIG. 2 drawing itself illustrated helical winding.  So I think the Applicant won that round.

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?