ORDER (1) DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT OF INVALIDITY DUE TO INDEFITENESS UNDER 35 U.S.C. § 112 (Dkt. 29): (2) DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO STAY (Dkt. 28); AND (3) DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO STRIKE COUNTER CLAIMANT'S RESPONSIVE BRIEF (Dkt. 35)
Sean F. Cox, United States District Judge.
This is a patent infringement case in which pro se Plaintiff Paul Michelotti ("Plaintiff") alleges that Defendant Robert Bosch, LLC ("Defendant") has engaged in development, testing, and manufacture of automobile systems that infringes U.S. Patent No. 6,023,221 ('221 Patent). Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment of Invalidity Due to Indefiniteness under 35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 2. (Dkt. 29.) In this summary judgment motion, Defendant argues that the '221 is invalid for indefiniteness because it does not disclose corresponding algorithms in the written description section of the patent for functions set forth in independent Claim 1.
Also before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion to Stay Infringement Proceeding Pending Resolution of Counterclaims (Dkt. 28) and Plaintiff's Motion to Strike Claimant's Responsive Brief Filed with the Court (Dkt. 35).
The Court finds that the issues have been adequately presented in the parties briefs and that oral argument would not significantly aid the decisional process. E.D. Mich. L.R. 7.1(f)(2). The Court therefore orders that the motion will be decided upon the briefs.
For the reasons set forth below, the Court
II. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff is the named inventor and owner of U.S. Patent 6,023,221 ('221 Patent) which discloses an automotive safety system that automatically activates an automobile's blinking hazard warning lights when the vehicle decelerates quickly such as in a hard braking situation. Abstract, '221 Patent. The hazard warning lights are also activated independently of the brakes so that even in an accident situation, where the driver does not press the brake pedal but the automobile collides with another object and decelerates quickly, the blinking hazard lights will be activated.
The "Background of the Invention" section of the patent explains why the invention is useful. The invention is designed to prevent rear end automobile collisions. A second vehicle following behind another lead vehicle cannot typically tell how quickly the lead vehicle is decelerating. Where the lead vehicle decelerates quickly, a car following the lead vehicle may not appreciate how quickly the lead automobile has decelerated and collide into the rear end of the lead vehicle. The invention disclosed in the '221 Patent solves this problem by having a system in the lead vehicle that will detect when the vehicle is decelerating quickly and, if so, turn on the blinking hazard lights. By turning on the hazard lights in the lead vehicle, a driver in an automobile following the lead vehicle will know that the lead vehicle is decelerating rapidly. '221 Pat. col. 1:17-22. The '221 Patent states: "An automatic activation system, by providing the earliest possible
The Abstract of the patent describes the invention:
The '221 Patent includes one figure, which is reproduced below:
The lone figure included in the '221 Patent shows a schematic diagram of the vehicle lighting control system. The vehicle lighting control system includes a digital accelerometer 20 and a microcontroller 22. The digital accelerometer 20 includes a sensing element with machined microstructures that respond to changes in acceleration with changes in capacitance. Id. at col. 3:13-16. The digital accelerometer 20 converts the changes in capacitance due to acceleration to a digital pulse output. The '221 Patent includes an exemplary digital acceleration unit, which is Model 1010 sold by Silicon Designs, Inc. Id. at col. 3:18-20.
When the latching relay 18 receives the "on" signal from the microcontroller 22 (indicating rapid deceleration), the latching relay 18 closes, and the vehicle electrical system voltage is supplied to the turn signal/hazard warning relay 24, which activates the vehicle's hazard lights. Id. at col. 3:46-48. The latching relay 18, and therefore the signal/hazard warning relay 24, remain closed until the latching relay 18 receives a subsequent "off" signal from either the microcontroller 22, or the driver actuating a pushbutton switch. Id. at col. 3:43-45. The microcontroller 22 sends an "off" signal to the latching relay 18 when the pulse count received from the digital accelerometer 20 indicates normal positive acceleration. Id. at col. 3:37-40.
The '221 Patent has only one independent claim, Claim 1. Claim 1 of the '221 Patent states:
'221 Pat. col. 4:ll. 16-48.
Plaintiff filed this case on November 19, 2014, alleging that Defendant infringed Claim 1 of the '221 Patent. (Compl., Dkt. 1.) Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint on March 30, 2015. (Dkt. 10.) Defendant denied infringing Claim 1, and raised affirmative defenses and counterclaims including invalidity. (Answer, Dkts. 8 and 11.)
Plaintiff also filed a motion to stay this case pending resolution of the motion for summary judgment presently before the Court (Dkt. 28) and a motion to strike Defendant's reply brief in support of its summary judgment motion (Dkt. 35) because Defendant's reply brief allegedly introduces new arguments not raised in Defendant's principal brief.
III. STANDARD FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Plaintiff is representing himself. In this Circuit, pleadings drafted by pro se litigants are held to less stringent standards than those drafted by lawyers. Jourdan v. Jabe, 951 F.2d 108, 110 (6th Cir. 1991) (citing Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21, 92 S.Ct. 594, 30 L.Ed.2d 652 (1972) ("We cannot say with assurance that under the allegations of the pro se complaint, which we hold to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers, it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.") (internal citations omitted)). As such, the Court acknowledges Plaintiff is a pro se litigant, and extends him the courtesy of the less stringent standards for pleadings awarded to pro se litigants in this Circuit.
To succeed on their Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant must show that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that [the defendant] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law". Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Patents are presumed valid, and a party challenging validity has the burden of establishing invalidity by clear and convincing evidence. 35 U.S.C. § 282(a); Microsoft Corp. v. i4i Ltd. P'Ship, 564 U.S. 91, 131 S.Ct. 2238, 180 L.Ed.2d 131 (2011). Since the Defendant must prove invalidity by clear and convincing evidence, "the plaintiff, to survive the defendant's motion, need only present evidence from which a [a fact-finder] might return a verdict in his favor. If he does so, there is a genuine issue of fact that requires trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 257, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).
In its motion for summary judgment, Defendant argues that the only independent claim of the '221 Patent, Claim 1, contains computer implemented means-plus-function claim limitations pursuant to 35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 6 (now 35 U.S.C. § 112(f)),
The parties stipulate that Claim 1 includes means-plus-function claim limitations. (Pl.'s resp. br. at 12, Dkt. 33.) Similar to the deed to a piece of real property, a claim of a patent sets forth the boundary lines of the invention covered by the patent. A patent claim directed to an apparatus normally sets forth specific structure to define the invention. This specific structure defines the metes and bounds of the invention covered by the patent. In contrast, a means-plus-function claim limitation is a special type of claim limitation that allows a patent owner to set forth a function to be performed without setting forth the specific structure to accomplish the function. Means-plus-function claim limitations are provided for in 35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 6 (pre-AIA), which states:
Means-plus-function claim limitations were provided for by Congress in 35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 6 "to overturn several Supreme Court rulings rejecting `functional' claiming." Williamson v. Citrix Online, LLC, 792 F.3d 1339, 1360 (Fed.Cir.2015) (Newman, J., dissenting). "In enacting this provision, Congress struck a balance in allowing patentees to express a claim limitation by reciting a function to be performed rather than by reciting structure to perform that function, while placing specific constraints on how such a limitation is to be construed, namely, by restricting the scope of coverage to only the structure, materials, or acts described in the specification as corresponding to the claimed function and equivalents thereof." Id. at 1347 (en banc).
"Means-plus-function claim limitations... must satisfy the definiteness requirements of § 112[(b)]." EON Corp. IP Holdings, LLC v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 785 F.3d 616, 621 (Fed.Cir.2015). Determining whether a means-plus-function claim is definite arises as part of the claim construction process. Atmel Corp. v. Info. Storage Devices, Inc., 198 F.3d 1374, 1379 (Fed.Cir.1999). In construing a means-plus-function claim limitation, the Court, not a jury, must "attempt to construe the disputed claim term by identifying the `corresponding structure, material, or acts described in the specification' to which the claim term will be limited." Media Rights, 800 F.3d at 1374 (citations and quotations omitted). If the court is unable to identify corresponding structure, material, or acts described in the specification for performing the functions set forth in the claim limitation, the claim limitation is indefinite and thereby invalid. Id. Structure disclosed in the specification qualifies as "corresponding
Like all matters of claim construction, construction of a means-plus-function claim limitation and the determination of definiteness of that claim construction are questions of law for the district court judge reviewed de novo on appeal, where the district court's determinations are based on evidence intrinsic to the patent. Williamson, 792 F.3d at 1346 (citing Teva Pharm. USA, Inc. v. Sandoz, Inc., ___ U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 831, 840-41, ___ L.Ed.2d ___ (2015)). To the extent the district court, in construing the claims, makes underlying findings of fact based on extrinsic evidence, such as expert testimony, such findings of fact are reviewed on appeal for clear error. Id.; see also Media Rights, 800 F.3d at 1371.
The '221 Patent contains only one independent claim, Claim 1. In motion for summary judgment, Defendant argues that Claim 1 is invalid for being indefinite. Specifically, Defendant argues that three particular claim limitations in Claim 1 are means-plus-function claim limitations and that the specification of the '221 Patent does not disclose corresponding structure, material, or acts for performing the functions recited in those claim limitations.
Because the parties agree that the disputed claim limitations at issue are means-plus-function claim limitations, the Court will now preliminarily construe the disputed claim limitations and then determine if Claim 1 is invalid for being indefinite because the specification does not disclose sufficient corresponding structure, material, or acts for performing the functions recited in the claim limitations.
Construing a means-plus-function claim is a two-step process. First, the Court must identify the claimed function. Second, the Court must determine "whether the specification discloses sufficient structure that corresponds to the claimed function." Williamson, 792 F.3d at 1351. "Where there are multiple claimed functions... the patentee must disclose adequate corresponding structure to perform all of the claimed functions." Id. at 1351-52.
Defendant points to three means-plus-function limitations as the basis for its motion:
'221 Pat. col. 4:29-43.
In the first step of construing these three means-plus-function claim limitations, the Court must identify the function set forth in the means-plus-function claim limitations. The Court holds that Defendant
(Def.'s brief at p. 9, Dkt. 29.) In his response brief, Plaintiff does not dispute Defendant's identification of these functions.
In the second step of construing the disputed means-plus-function claim limitations, the Court must identify the corresponding structure, material, or acts for performing the functions identified in the claim limitations. The parties agree that the '221 Patent teaches that the three claimed functions are performed in whole or part on a special purpose computer (i.e., microcontroller 22).
According to Federal Circuit case law, where the means-plus-function limitation is implemented on a special purpose computer (e.g., a general purpose computer programmed to perform particular functions pursuant to instructions from computer software), the patent must disclose an algorithm for performing the recited function to satisfy the definiteness requirement. Williamson, 792 F.3d at 1352; Aristocrat Techs. Australia Ltd. v. Int'l Game Tech., 521 F.3d 1328, 1333 (Fed.Cir.2008). The Federal Circuit has consistently required that the structure disclosed in the specification be more than simply a general purpose computer or microprocessor to satisfy the definiteness requirement. Id. An algorithm is a set of instructions for how to perform the recited functions, but it is not as specific as computer source code. See, e.g., Triton Tech of Texas, LLC v. Nintendo of Am., Inc., 753 F.3d 1375, 1379 (Fed.Cir.2014). "[T]he algorithm may be expressed as a mathematical formula, in prose, or as a flow chart, or in any other manner that provides sufficient structure." Williamson, 792 F.3d at 1352. As discussed above, where the specification of the patent does not disclose sufficient corresponding structure, material, for acts for a function recited in a means-plus-function claim limitation, that claim of the patent is invalid for being indefinite. For computer software inventions, if the specification does not disclose an algorithm for performing a function recited in the means-plus-function claim limitation, then that claim of the patent is invalid for being indefinite. Id. Therefore, in this case, to be valid, the '221 Patent must disclose an algorithm to carry out the claimed functions. Id. at 1351-52.
After considering the parties' arguments and the evidence, the Court holds that Defendant has not proven by clear and convincing evidence that any of the disputed claim limitations of Claim 1 are indefinite. When read in context of the entire patent, Claim 1 is very easy to understand and is not vague or overly broad. Rather, Claim 1 contains six clearly drafted means-plus-function claim limitations ending in an achieved result. These six means-plus-function claim limitations would likely themselves qualify as an algorithm if Claim 1 were written as a single broad means-plus-function claim limitation. See Kevin Emerson Collins, Patent Law's Functionality Malfunction and the Problem of Overbroad, Functional Software
While it is true that Williamson requires an algorithm when a means-plus-function limitation is implemented on a special purpose computer, "the algorithm may be expressed as a mathematical formula, in prose, or as a flow chart, or in any other manner that provides sufficient structure." Williamson, 792 F.3d at 1351-52 (emphasis added).
The written description of the '221 Patent discloses an algorithm or way for performing the functions set forth in Claim 1. Specifically, as discussed above, the '221 Patent discloses a digital accelerometer 20, describes how the digital accelerometer generates a pulse signal based on changes in acceleration, and identifies an exemplary digital accelerometer. '221 Patent, Col. 3, ll. 13-21. The '221 Patent also teaches that the microcontroller 22 generates a clock signal, the interrelation between the clock signal and the pulse signal generated by the digital accelerometer 20, and that the microcontroller 22 transmits an "on" or "off" signal to a latching relay 18 based on the pulse signal as compared to a threshold, which causes the hazard lights of the automobile to turn on or off. Id. at col. 3, ll. 22-35. The '221 Patent does not disclose a specific example of what the threshold is; it states "[s]pecific thresholds of deceleration and activation are predetermined." Id. at col. 3, ll. 36-37.
As to the first disputed claimed function, "determin[ing] when the rate of deceleration exceeds a predetermined threshold level for a predetermined time interval," the Court finds that the specification of the '221 Patent discloses an algorithm or step-by-step process for performing this function. Specifically, the '221 Patent teaches the interaction between a digital accelerometer, a microcontroller 22, and a latching relay 18. The '221 patent teaches that a digital accelerometer generates digital pulses representative of the amount of acceleration or deceleration. '221 Pat. col. 3:22-30. Then the digital pulses from the digital accelerometer for a specific time period are compared to a "predetermined" threshold to determine whether an accumulated pulse count is "indicative of rapid deceleration resulting from hard or prolonged braking or sudden stoppage" of the vehicle. Id. at col. 3:31-37. Based on the above and other aspects of the '221 Patent, the Court holds that the specification discloses sufficient steps and structure for this first disputed function.
As for the second disputed claim function, "automatically activat[ing] the hazard lights when said rate of deceleration exceeds said predetermined threshold level for said predetermined time interval," the Court finds that the specification of the '221 Patent discloses an algorithm or step-by-step process for performing this function. The '221 Patent teaches that the microcontroller is programmed to transmit an "on" signal to the latching relay 18 when an accumulated pulse count indicative of rapid deceleration resulting from hard or prolonged braking or sudden stoppage is recognized. Id. at col. 3:31-35. When the latching relay 18 receives an "on" signal from the microcontroller, the latching relay closes, causing the voltage from the vehicle's electrical system to be supplied to the turn signal/hazard warning relay 24 which, in turn, activates the hazard warning lights. Id. at col 3:41-45. Based on the above and other aspects of the '221 Patent, the Court holds that the specification discloses sufficient steps and structure for performing the second disputed function.
As to the third disputed claim function, "automatically deactivat[ing] the hazard warning light when the rate of deceleration drops below the predetermined threshold level for a predetermined length of time and changes in acceleration of the
All three of the claim limitations which Defendant argues are indefinite involve comparing the acceleration/deceleration of the vehicle and a threshold value. Defendant appears to be reading an additional function into Claim 1 (i.e., determining a predetermined threshold) that simply is not there. The '221 Patent does not claim the function of determining a threshold value. To the contrary, the '221 Patent states that the thresholds are predetermined. As such, the '221 Patent does not need to disclose an algorithm for how to determine a threshold; rather, the '221 patent must only disclose an algorithm and enable a person of ordinary skill in the art on how to "determine when the rate of acceleration exceeds a predetermined threshold level..." This is merely a comparison; not a determination of a threshold. As the Federal Circuit stated in Williamson: "the patentee must disclose adequate corresponding structure to perform all the claimed functions." Williamson, 792 F.3d at 1352 (emphasis added). Accordingly, the patentee is not required to disclose structure of unclaimed functions. Since the '221 Patent clearly avoids claiming what Defendant wishes to read into Claim 1, the '221 Patent does not need to describe an algorithm for the unclaimed function of determining a predetermined threshold.
Defendant also argues that a statement in the "Summary of the Invention" section of the '221 Patent is an admission that an algorithm is not disclosed, specifically: "The specific activation program will be determined through testing and evaluation and may be vehicle specific." '221 Patent col. 2, ll. 33-34. Defendant appears to suggest that the Plaintiff must disclose a working program including lines of software code for a means-plus-function claim limitation to be enabled. That simply is false. The Federal Circuit has held that the disclosure "need not be so particularized as to eliminate the need for any implementation choices by a skilled artisan," it is only required to sufficiently define the bounds of the claimed limitation. Ibormeith IP, LLC v. Mercedes-Benz USA, LLC et al., 732 F.3d 1376, 1379 (Fed.Cir.2013).
Defendant has failed to meet its burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that Claim 1 is indefinite.
Because the Court has denied Defendant's motion for summary judgment, the Court denies as moot Plaintiff's motion to strike Defendant's summary judgment reply brief (Dkt. 35) and Plaintiff's motion to stay this case pending a decision on Defendant's summary judgment motion (Dkt. 28).
For the reasons set forth above, the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment of Invalidity Due to Indefiniteness under 35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 2 (Dkt. 29) is