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INTEX RECREATION CORP. v. METALAST

February 12, 2003

INTEX RECREATION CORP., PLAINTIFF
V.
METALAST, S.A. SOCIEDAD UNIPERSONAL, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates, District Judge

  MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter is before the Court on the issue of claim construction relating to a patent on a swimming pool ladder. Plaintiff Intex Recreation Corp. ("Intex") and defendant Metalast, S.A., Sociedad Unipersonal ("Metalast") take opposing views on the meaning of a key term employed in the claim language of the patent, and thus on the scope of the patent. A hearing on claim construction was held on October 11, 2002, pursuant to Markman v. Westview Instruments. Inc., 517 U.S. 370 (1996).

The Court has considered the claim language and its context, relevant dictionary definitions, the claim prosecution history, and expert testimony offered by the parties. As explained below, the Court concludes that the ordinary meaning of the disputed term —— "uninterrupted inner surfaces" — to one skilled in the relevant art is "smooth" or "uniform."

BACKGROUND

Metalast is a Spanish corporation that is the claimed owner of U.S. Patent No. 5,547,041 ("the `041 patent") for a ladder. Compl. ¶ 2. Intex sells a swimming pool ladder that Metalast asserts infringes this patent; Metalast has accordingly requested Intex to cease the manufacture and sale of its swimming pool ladder, and to withdraw the ladder from store inventories. Compl. ¶ 7.

In response, Intex filed this action on June 4, 2001, seeking a declaratory judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201 that the `041 patent has not been infringed by Intex, and that the `041 patent is invalid and unenforceable.*fn1 The parties have framed the claim construction issue for the Markman hearing through the submission of claim charts, expert reports and depositions, legal memoranda, and the claim history of the `041 patent.

LEGAL STANDARDS

Claim construction is a question of law for the Court. Markman, 517 U.S. at 384; accord Cybor Corp. v. Fax Techs., 138 F.3d 1448, 1456 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (en banc); Texas Digital Sys., Inc. v. Telegenix, Inc., 308 F.3d 1193, 1201 (Fed. Cir. 2002). The Federal Circuit has made it very clear that the starting point for claim construction analysis must be the language of the disputed claim provision. "We begin claim construction analysis with the ordinary meaning of the disputed claim term." Inverness Medical Switzerland v. Warner Lambert Co., 309 F.3d 1373, 1378 (Fed. Cir. 2002); accord Texas Digital Sys., 308 F.3d at 1206; Interactive Gift Express, Inc. v. Compuserve, Inc., 256 F.3d 1323, 1331 (Fed. Cir. 2001) ("In construing claims, the analytical focus must begin and remain centered on the language of the claims themselves . . ."); Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996). Hence, the Federal Circuit has stressed that:

The terms used in the claims bear a "heavy presumption" that they mean what they say and have the ordinary meaning that would be attributed to those words by persons skilled in the relevant art.

Texas Digital Sys., 308 F.3d at 1202; CCS Fitness, Inc. v. Brunswick Corp., 288 F.3d 1359, 1366 (Fed. Cir. 2002).

It is, of course, "the person of ordinary skill in the field of the invention through whose eye the claims are construed." Multiform Desiccants, Inc. v. Medzam, Ltd., 133 F.3d 1473, 1477 (Fed. Cir. 1998). And although the starting point is the claim language, which normally is given its ordinary meaning, the inquiry cannot stop there, particularly if the claim specification or prosecution history may provide a different meaning for the claim term. See Kraft Foods, Inc. v. Int'l Trading Co., 203 F.3d 1362, 1366 (Fed. Cir. 2000). A technical term will generally be assigned the ordinary meaning that it would be given by one skilled in the art, unless "it is apparent from the patent and the prosecution history that the inventor used the term with a different meaning." Phillips Petroleum v. Huntsman Polymers, 157 F.3d 866, 871 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (quoting Hoechst Celanese Corp. v. BP Chemicals Ltd., 78 F.3d 1575, 1578 (Fed. Cir. 1996)).

Deviation from the ordinary meaning of claim terms requires clear evidence, however.

[I]n redefining the meaning of particular claim terms away from the ordinary meaning, the intrinsic evidence must "clearly set forth" or "clearly redefine" a claim term so as to put one reasonably skilled in the art on notice that the patentee intended to so redefine the claim term.

Bell Atlantic Network Services, Inc. v. COVAD Communications Group, 262 F.3d 1258, 1268 (Fed. Cir. 2001). It is only when it appears that the inventor assigned a meaning to the words in a claim different than their ordinary and accustomed meaning that a court can adopt that other meaning. See Frank's Casing Crew v. PMR Technologies, 292 F.3d 1363, 1374 (Fed. Cir. 2002). One situation warranting defining terms of a claim contrary to their ordinary meaning is where a patentee acts "as his own lexicographer" and specifically defines terms with an unconventional meaning such that "a reasonable competitor or one reasonably skilled in the art [is put] on notice that the patentee intended to so redefine that claim term." Elekta Instr. v. O.U.R. Scientific Int'l, 214 F.3d 1302, 1307 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (quoting Process Control Corp v. HydReclaim Corp., 190 F.3d 1350, 1357 (Fed. Cir. 1999)); accord Kraft Foods, 203 F.3d at 1366.

In interpreting disputed claim terms, courts "should look first to the intrinsic evidence of record i.e., the patent itself including the claims, the specification, and if in evidence, the prosecution history." Vitronics Corp., 90 F.3d at 1582; accord Allen Engineering Corp v. Bartell Industries, Inc., 299 F.3d 1336, 1344 (Fed. Cir. 2002); Teleflex, Inc. v. Ficosa N. Am. Corp., 299 F.3d 1313, 1324-25 (Fed. Cir. 2002). Hence, if the meaning of the term used in the claim is sufficiently clear from the intrinsic evidence, that meaning shall apply; extrinsic evidence may be considered only where the claim language remains genuinely ambiguous after consideration of the intrinsic evidence. Frank's Casing Crew, 292 F.3d at 1374; Bell & Howell Doc. Mgmt. Prods. Co. v. Altek Sys., 132 F.3d 701, 705-06 (Fed. Cir. 1997).

The Federal Circuit has repeatedly, and recently, stressed that "dictionaries . . . are particularly useful resources to assist the court in determining the ordinary and customary meanings of claim terms." Texas Digital Sys., 308 F.3d at 1202; accord Inverness Medical, 309 F.3d at 1378; Teleflex, 299 F.3d at 1325. "Dictionaries are always available to the court to aid in the task of determining meanings that would have been attributed by those of skill in the relevant art to any disputed terms used by the inventor in the claims." Texas Digital Sys., 308 F.3d at 1202; see also Vitronics Corp., 90 F.3d at 1584 n. 6. Dictionaries are considered to be objective resources providing a reliable source of information as to the ordinary meaning of terms, and hence "the presumption in favor of a dictionary definition will be overcome [only] where the patentee, acting as his or her own lexicographer, has clearly set forth an explicit definition of the term different from its ordinary meaning." Texas Digital Sys., 308 F.3d at 1204. If, however, there are several possible dictionary meanings of the disputed claim term, then the "objective and contemporaneous record provided by the intrinsic evidence" must be consulted to assist the court in determining which meaning was intended by the inventor. Id. at 1203; Renishaw PLC v. Marposs Societa' per Azioni, 158 F.3d 1243, 1250 (Fed. Cir. 1998); Inverness Medical, 309 F.3d at 1378-79.

Dictionary definitions, then, are valuable resources to be used by a court at any time to assist in determining the ordinary meaning of claim language. See Texas Digital Sys., 308 F.3d at 1202; Vanguard Prods. Corp. v. Parker Hannifin Corp., 234 F.3d 1370, 1372 (Fed. Cir. 2000) ("A dictionary is not prohibited extrinsic evidence, and is an available resource of claim construction."); Vitronics Corp., 90 F.3d at 1584 n. 6 (judges are free at any time to consult dictionaries when construing claim terms). Another important aspect of the intrinsic evidence that a court may consult is the drawings in a patent case, which can be used as an aid in the interpretation of the claims because drawings may graphically support the proper interpretation of the claim language. See Desper Products v. QSound Labs, Inc., 157 F.3d 1325, 1333 (Fed. Cir. 1998).

The claim prosecution history of the patent may also be important to consider. "This history contains the complete record of all the proceedings before the Patent and Trademark Office, including any express representations made by the applicant regarding the scope of the claims." Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1582; Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 980 (Fed. Cir. 1995), aff'd, 517 U.S. 370 (1996). However, it is crucial that the claim language and other intrinsic evidence including dictionary definitions must first be consulted:

Texas Digital Sys., 308 F.3d at 1204, see Generation II Orthotics, Inc. v. Medical Technology, Inc., 263 F.3d 1356, 1367 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (lower court should have construed claim limitation as controlled by ordinary and customary meaning provided by medical dictionary before importing a more limited embodiment). Hence, prosecution history cannot be used to limit the scope of a claim unless that was the clear intent of the applicant: "It is inappropriate to limit a broad definition of a claim term based on prosecution history that is itself ambiguous." Inverness Medical, 309 F.3d at see ...


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