July 28, 2022by Richard Treanor

Last December, in Modernatx, Inc. v. Arbutus Biopharma Corp., 18 F.4th 1364 (Fed. Cir. 2021), Moderna, in appealing their challenge to an Arbutus patent in an inter partes review, contended that the Board had erred in dismissing their case because it failed to apply a presumption of obviousness based on overlapping ranges in the prior art. While Moderna admitted that not all of the claimed ranges of the Arbutus components were explicitly disclosed in their cited art, they contended that the single missing range could be calculated based on the other ranges and on the “axiomatic” concept that the total of all components must be 100%. The Federal Circuit disagreed.

While the court acknowledged that it had, in the past, found that a presumption of obviousness exists “when the ranges of a claimed composition overlap the ranges disclosed in the prior art,” it found that, in this case, it was undisputed that a range for one of the components was not expressly “disclosed.” Recognizing that it was also true that the court had never affirmatively decided whether the presumption could apply in a case such as this, the court nevertheless declined to make that decision here “because this case turns on a narrower issue, specifically, Moderna’s failure to show that the overlapping range is actually taught by the prior art.”

In dismissing Moderna’s seemingly reasonable theory of overlapping ranges using a calculated missing range the court found that “[o]ne of the key flawed assumptions that Moderna makes is that the amount of each individual … component in the prior art … can be freely manipulated and adjusted across the full scope of the disclosed ranges” and that, as a corollary, Moderna “assumes that any … component … can be increased as long as any … component … is decreased by a corresponding amount to maintain a total of 100%.” The court came to this position because Arbutus had put forth a “plethora of evidence, including evidence from the prior art references as well as expert testimony” demonstrating that “this case is not that simple because the … components … are interdependent, … they interact with each other unpredictably” and “as a whole, rather than on any one component.” The court then reminded Moderna that even in prior cases with fully, explicitly disclosed overlapping ranges involving multiple components “we have held that evidence that the components interacted in an unpredictable or unexpected way could render the combination nonobvious,” emphasizing in the opinion that such earlier holdings apply even more strongly here, where Moderna’s assumptions necessary to derive the unstated/implicit overlapping range are themselves undermined by the unpredictable interactivity between the components.

Takeaway: Because a rejection involving overlapping ranges can give rise to a presumption of unpatentability which puts the burden of going forward on applicant/patentee, it must be vigorously contested. The several ways in which Arbutus “fought off” the presumption in the Moderna case provide an instructive framework for traversing such rejections.



July 15, 2022by Jacob Doughty

LG Elecs. v. Immervision, Inc., No. 2021-2037 (Fed. Cir. July 11, 2022), is a recent decision of the Federal Circuit, considering whether errant information in a prior art reference can be relied upon to demonstrate unpatentability.

LGE challenged an Immervision patent directed to capturing digital panoramic images in an IPR. The Immervision patent claimed, inter alia, a method in which, “… the objective lens compresses the center of the image and the edges of the image and expands an intermediate zone of the image located between the center and the edges of the image.”

In challenging the patent, LGE relied on a prior art U.S. patent, Tada, which did not expressly disclose compressing the center and edges of an image and expanding an intermediate zone, but which included tables setting forth various measurements of specific embodiments of the disclosed lens system. LGE retained an expert who performed calculations based on the measurements and concluded that one of the lens systems of Tada (Embodiment 3) compressed the center and edges of an image and expanded an intermediate zone.

Immervision also retained an expert, who, in the course of performing his own calculations, discovered discrepancies in the measurements for Embodiment 3 of Tada. After some detailed examination of other embodiments of Tada and the Japanese patent application from which priority was claimed, Immervision’s expert determined that the measurements for Embodiment 3 shown in Tada erroneously included measurements for a different embodiment.

That is, due to an apparent cutting-and-pasting error in translating the Japanese application on which Tada was based, LGE’s expert’s calculations indicated that the lens system of Embodiment 3 of Tada compressed the center and edges of an image and expanded an intermediate zone. However, if LGE’s expert had used the correct measurements, this would not have been the case.

Based on the testimony of Immervision’s expert, the PTAB concluded that LGE failed to carry its burden in demonstrating unpatentability. LGE appealed.

The Federal Circuit noted that “… the standard for evaluating these types of apparent or ‘obvious typographical error[s],’” is set forth in a decision of its predecessor court, more than 50 years ago, in In re Yale, 434 F.2d 666 (C.C.P.A. 1970). Particularly:

The court in Yale held that where a prior art reference includes an obvious error of a typographical or similar nature that would be apparent to one of ordinary skill in the art who would mentally disregard the errant information as a misprint or mentally substitute it for the correct information, the errant information cannot be said to disclose subject matter.

In Yale, the CCPA concluded that a reference could not be relied on for disclosing a compound that appeared in a single instance due to an error (CF3CHClBr was shown as CF3CF2CHClBr in a graph).

LGE argued that the error in Tada could not possibly be an obvious error because it took Immervision’s expert hours of detailed investigation to find. LGE further argued that the error in Tada was not “of a typographical or similar nature.” The Federal Circuit was not persuaded. In affirming the PTAB, the Federal Circuit noted that the length of time and manner in which an error was discovered did not diminish its obviousness. Further, the Federal Circuit further stated that “[t]he distinction between the typographical error in Yale and the copy-and-paste error here is a distinction without a difference.”

In dissent, Judge Newman was more sympathetic to LGE’s position:

I agree with the panel majority that Yale establishes the correct standard to determine if an error would be obvious to a person of ordinary skill in the field. However, I do not agree with the majority’s application of this standard to the facts herein. An “obvious error” should be apparent on its face and should not require the conduct of experiments or a search for possibly conflicting information to determine whether error exists. When a reference contains an erroneous teaching, its value as prior art must be determined.

Takeaway: It is not uncommon for technical documents relied on as prior art (e.g., patent publications, journal articles) to include errors – particularly in descriptions of experimental results. Such errors may undermine an assertion that a property or parameter is inherent – and thus possibly provide an avenue for attacking a prior art rejection or assertion of invalidity.

Judges: Newman (dissenting in part), Stoll, Cunningham


July 8, 2022by Yanhong Hu

Ex parte Deporter (Appeal 2021-003598) is a recent decision of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“Board”) where the Board considered whether a prior art reference taught away from Appellant’s claimed invention.

The claim at issue was directed to a composite structure of at least one spunbonded, nonwoven, polymeric layer and at least one meltblown, nonwoven, polymeric layer. The Examiner found that the primary reference, Moore, disclosed each element of the claim except that Moore did not teach “at least one of the spunbonded layers comprises inorganic particulate filler in an amount from about 12% by weight to about 16% by weight of the spunbonded layer.” The Examiner found that the secondary reference, McAmish, taught nonwoven fabrics of spunbonded polymeric fibers which contained fillers such as calcium carbonate particles in an amount of about 10-15 wt% and the associated advantages. The Examiner thus determined it would have been obvious to use from 10-15 wt% of filler in one of Moore’s spunbonded layers as motivated by the advantages described in McAmish.

Appellant argued that there would be no motivation to modify Moore’s structure using McAmish’s amount of filler because Moore taught away from using so much filler. In particular, as noted by Appellant, Moore disclosed that “[f]illers, plasticizers, and other additives, when used at levels above 3% by weight, and more certainly above 5% by weight of the aliphatic polyester, can have a significant negative effect on physical properties such as tensile strength of the nonwoven web. Above 10% by weight of the aliphatic polyester resin, these optional additives can have a dramatic negative effect on physical properties.”

However, Moore also disclosed that “total optional additives including any particulate phase other than antishrinkage additive, preferably are present at no more than 10% by weight, preferably no more than 5% by weight and, most preferably no more than 3% by weight.” Based on such disclosure, the Examiner contended that Moore “does not … expressly teach away from the combination [of Moore and McAmish]” because “Moore acknowledges fillers as high as 10%.”

The Board acknowledged that “[in] some circumstances, the use of the word ‘preferably’ in this context might militate against a finding of teaching away.” However, the Board found that Moore’s specific statement that using above 10% by weight “can have a dramatic negative effect on physical properties” was “direct and specific enough” to outweigh the possibility that “a person of skill in the art might see the word ‘preferably’ and consider using more than 10% of filler.”

Therefore, the Board agreed with Appellant that Moore taught away from using 12-16% by weight of an inorganic particulate filler in at least one of the spunbonded layers and reversed the Examiner’s obviousness rejection.

Takeaway:  Teaching away from an applicant’s claimed invention is a strong indication that it would not have been obvious. Teaching away can be found in a situation where a reference criticizes, discredits, or otherwise discourages the route the applicant takes. However, it is also well-settled that the indication that a certain embodiment is a preferred embodiment is not a teaching away. Deporter is a case where the two situations coexist. It illustrates that “teaching away” is still an effective rebuttal argument for patentees, especially when a reference specifically and directly discourages the alleged modification.

Judges:  B. A. Franklin, G. C. Best, and N. W. Wilson


June 27, 2022by Matthew Barnet

In Ex parte Jung (Appeal No. 2021-003163), the examiner rejected the claims as obvious based on an inherency rationale. The PTAB reversed.

Independent claim 16 recited an inkjet set consisting of:

a black inkjet ink, a cyan inkjet ink, and two inkjet inks A and B… wherein

the inkjet ink A has a hue angle H* between 70 and 85 and a chroma C* between 30 and 80;

the inkjet ink B has a hue angle H* between 20 and 40 and a chroma C* between 30 and 80 …

The dispositive issue on appeal was whether the hue angle H* and chroma C* were inherent in the applied art.

The examiner cited a reference broadly disclosing mixtures of pigments, and including the specific pigments C.I. Pigment Orange 71, C.I. Pigment Yellow 139, C.I. Pigment Red 254, and C.I. Pigment Red 122 among a long list of suitable pigments. The examiner noted that these specific pigments were recited in the applicant’s dependent claims 19 and 21. Based on this, the examiner took the position that if these specific pigments were selected in the reference, the resulting inks “would intrinsically [i.e., inherently] have” the claimed H* and C* values.

The applicant argued that even if the specific pigments were selected in the reference, the claimed H* and C* values would not necessarily result. The applicant stated that these limitations “are not only achieved by selecting specific pigments, but also by the amounts of the pigments used and the weight ratio of the different pigments in the mixture.” Additionally, the applicant provided calculations of H* and C* values resulting from the examples of the reference, showing them to fall outside the claimed ranges. However, the examiner dismissed these calculations as “attorney argument and not evidence.”

The PTAB sided with the applicant. The PTAB found that “the use of the recited pigments alone is not adequate to guarantee that the H* and C* limitations are met” and that the ratio of different pigments mattered. Regarding the calculations provided by the applicant, the PTAB found that the examiner dismissed them in error (“There is no dispute that the calculations are based on examples disclosed by [the reference], and there is no dispute as to the accuracy of the calculations. Because [the reference] itself is evidence, the calculations made using the data from [its] examples should not have been disregarded as mere ‘attorney arguments.’”).

The PTAB acknowledged that the claims still might have been obvious if the reference “teaches or suggests combining pigments in a way (e.g., optimizing the weight ratios of different pigments) that would have resulted in H* and C* values within the scope of claim 16.” However, the PTAB found no such teaching or suggestion. While the reference taught that the pigments or mixture of pigments be present “in an amount of 0.1 to 20% by weight based on the total weight of the non-aqueous inkjet ink,” the reference provided no teaching or suggestion for weight ratios among different pigments. Accordingly, the PTAB reversed the obviousness rejection.

Takeaway: Whenever an examiner takes the position that a claimed property is inherent in the applied art, it is important to carefully evaluate embodiments of the applied art that might result in the claimed property. Inherency requires necessity, not merely possibility. That is, just because it might be possible for the applied art to satisfy a claimed property, that does not mean that the applied art necessarily satisfies the property. If the prior art does not necessarily satisfy the claimed property, then inherency has not been established.

Judges: Abraham, Kennedy, Gupta


June 1, 2022by Richard Treanor

On February 28, 2022, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) issued a decision in Ex parte Chen (Appeal 2021-001752) affirming an Examiner’s rejection of claims directed to a polyisocyanurate foam composition comprising a certain two-component blowing agent.

In making the rejection, the Examiner used the same technique used in Almirall, LLC v. Amneal Pharm., No. 2020-2331 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 14, 2022) (discussed here) – she applied a primary reference disclosing one of the claimed blowing agent components and combined it with a secondary reference disclosing an expansive laundry list of blowing agent components that partially overlapped with species described in the primary reference and which, importantly, included the claimed blowing agent component missing from the primary reference. In justifying the combination, the Examiner took the position that because all the blowing agent components in the laundry list were “interchangeable and equivalent” it would have been obvious to substitute one of the overlapping components in the primary reference with the missing component.

Applicant traversed the rejection in three different ways in their Brief. First, they argued that neither reference, on its own, rendered the claims obvious (never a good idea in an obviousness rejection based on two references). Next, they asserted that because the primary and secondary references focused on different types of blowing agents one of ordinary skill in the art would not have combined the references. And finally, they argued that the data submitted during prosecution showed unexpected synergy for their blowing agent composition at their claimed ratios.

The Board, in its decision affirming the Examiner, ignored the first argument, rejected the second argument as lacking evidence and support, and found the data submitted during prosecution to be insufficient because it did not show the beneficial trend asserted and was not commensurate in scope with the claims.

Takeaway: Unfortunately, and as we learned in our prior blog on Almirall, where Applicant went wrong in this case was in not fleshing out its non-combinability argument. The primary and secondary references did indeed focus on different types of blowing agents – saturated v. unsaturated. A declaration explaining why the co-blowing agents listed in each reference were specially tailored for use with only one of these types of agents, and an explanation why only the few overlapping agents could be used with both types, might well have overcome the rejection.

Judges: J. Robertson, M. Cashion, Jr., S. McGee


May 26, 2022by Beau Burton

Conclusions of obviousness require a reasonable expectation of successfully making and using an applicant’s claimed invention. Ex parte Micka (Appeal 2021-003755) is a recent decision from the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“Board”) that shows whether there is a reasonable expectation of success can depend on the number of selections required to arrive at a claimed invention and how those selections would have been expected to affect the resulting combination of elements/ingredients.

The claims in Micka were directed to a process of preparing a solid dosage form by blending an active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) with a natural gum and a particular combination of  hydrophilic gelling polymers, “wherein the solid dosage form deters abuse and provides immediate release of the at least one API.”

The Examiner relied on a prior art reference for the specific ingredients and alleged that it would have been obvious to combine them in the manner claimed because the reference describes blending the ingredients and the dosage form as providing immediate release and being abuse resistant. This, however, was not the complete picture.

First, the appellant pointed out that the prior art described hundreds of polymers, diluents, binders, lubricants, disintegrants, gelling agents, plasticizers, and release modifiers at any concentration from 0-95% w/w in the abuse deterrent compositions. According to the appellant’s estimate, which the Examiner did not contest, the prior art disclosed ~17 trillion possible combinations of polymers, diluents, binders, lubricants, disintegrants, gelling agents, plasticizers, and release modifiers before even considering the concentrations.

Second, the appellant pointed out that the prior art’s focus was on controlled release compositions. The appellant’s argument here was not as strong because the prior art reference did use the phrase “immediate release,” but only once in the abstract. The Examiner grabbed onto this single mention of “immediate release” to argue there would have been a motivation and a reasonable expectation of success. The Board did not agree.

The Examiner’s error here resided in the fact that the prior art reference did not differentiate between excipients that would result in controlled release and immediate release. In the Examiner’s view, this was irrelevant because the same ingredients were suitable for making both. Not only did the Board disagree with this finding, but the Board also found that the prior art taught the choice of ingredients affects the release such that “it cannot be the case that any and all of these possible combinations will provide immediate release dosage forms.” Having no guide for what ingredient(s) could provide an immediate release composition, the Board found there was no reasonable expectation of success and reversed the rejection.

Takeaway: The factual scenarios under which the lack of a reasonable expectation of success can be successfully argued are less common than motivation to combine. A key in Micka was the claimed composition providing the immediate release of the API. And the facts in Micka were particularly strong because of the litany of selections required to arrive at the claimed composition and the complete lack of guidance as to which selections would have resulted in the immediate release property. Without claiming the immediate release property, the obviousness determination would have devolved into whether it would have been obvious to select the combination of ingredients – a more difficult position to rebut.

Judges: J. Morgan, J. Schneider, M. Valek


May 20, 2022by Yanhong Hu

In Ex parte Stone (Appeal 2021-004177), the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“Board”) reversed the Examiner’s obviousness rejection citing Lucas, Kaersgaard, and Wu because the Examiner did not meet his initial burden of presenting a prima facie case of obviousness.

Appellant’s claimed invention in Stone was directed to a method of “selectively removing a proteinaceous impurity from a sample comprising at least an immunoglobulin and the proteinaceous impurity.” It included steps of “adjusting the solution pH of the sample, such that the pH is within 2.0 pH units of the isoelectric point of the proteinaceous impurity to be selectively removed,” then “contacting the sample with activated carbon, [which] selectively binds the proteinaceous impurity,” and “removing the activated carbon from the sample.”

Lucas described the presence of contaminants in monoclonal antibodies and also taught that the contaminants should be removed to produce monoclonal antibodies of the highest purity. However, Lucas did not disclose how to remove the contaminants. The Examiner acknowledged this deficiency. The Examiner found that Kaersgaard described removing PEG from immunoglobulins using activated carbon and Wu described removing proteinaceous material from corn syrup using activated carbon. The Examiner also found that Wu disclosed that the maximum adsorption of the proteinaceous material by the activated carbon occurred at the protein’s isoelectric point. The Examiner thus determined that it would have been obvious to a skilled artisan “to remove the impurities of Lucas” by Wu’s method “motivated by the desire for highest purity, described by Lucas;” and reasoned that because Kaersgaard “teach[es] using very similar methods for purifying immunoglobulins, and explicitly discuss[es] using the methods to remove other impurities, an artisan in this field would attempt this process with a reasonable expectation of success.”

Appellant argued that the combination of cited references did not suggest the claimed method or provide the motivation to combine Wu with Lucas and Kaersgaard. Specifically, Appellant argued that none of the cited references described the selective removal of a protein impurity from other proteins, noting that Kaersgaard disclosed removing PEG rather than a protein impurity from immunoglobulins and Wu disclosed removing proteins from corn syrup, but did not teach selectively removing a proteinaceous impurity from other proteins based on the isoelectric point of the impurity as required by Appellant’s claimed method.

The Board agreed with the Appellant. The Board noted that Lucas identified the need to remove protein contaminants but did not teach how to do so. The Board also noted that neither Kaersgaard nor Wu described selective removal of a protein. In particular, Wu described removal of all protein contaminants, despite teaching that the maximum adsorption of a protein could be achieved using the pH of the protein’s isoelectric point. The Board noted that the Examiner did not provide adequate reasoning to modify Wu to selectively remove impurities. Specifically, regarding the Examiner’s contention that Appellant’s arguments “assume that a person of skill in the art cannot make the leap from the explicit experiments and motivations of the reference to other, closely related applications and goals,” the Board pointed out that the Examiner did not provide a reason for making the “leap” from adsorbing all proteins from a solution to adsorbing only certain proteins based on their isoelectric point.

The Board emphasized that it was the Examiner who had the initial burden of presenting a prima facie case of obviousness and that ordinary creativity and/or common sense “cannot be used as a wholesale substitute for reasoned analysis and evidentiary support, especially when dealing with a limitation missing from the prior art references specified.” The Board cautioned that although the Supreme Court emphasized “an expansive and flexible approach” to the obviousness approach, it also reaffirmed the importance of determining “whether there was an apparent reason to combine the known elements in the fashion claimed by the patent at issue.”

Because the Examiner failed to provide sufficient reason to selectively remove proteinaceous impurity as claimed, the Board reversed the Examiner’s obviousness rejection.

Takeaway:  Obviousness can be established by combining or modifying the teachings of prior art references to produce a claimed invention where there is some teaching, suggestion, or motivation to do so and there is a reasonable expectation of success. The Examiner in Stone did not establish obviousness because, although Wu disclosed adsorption of a protein was related to the pH of the protein’s isoelectric point, the Examiner failed to present sufficient reasoning to modify Wu’s teachings to achieve the claimed selective removal of a proteinaceous impurity. As the Board pointed out, an examiner’s assertion of ordinary creativity and/or common sense cannot substitute for reasoned analysis and evidentiary support.

Judges:  E. B. Grimes, R. M. Lebovitz, and G. C. Best


May 13, 2022by Matthew Barnet

Composition claims sometimes recite a ratio of amounts of two different components in the composition. Similarly, claims relating to a polymeric compound sometimes recite a ratio between two different structural units of the compound. In evaluating obviousness, U.S. examiners search the prior art for ratios that overlap the claimed ratio. Ex parte Kraus (Appeal No. 2021-002347) is a recent decision of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“Board”) in which the examiner went a little too far in trying to find such a ratio in the prior art.

Independent claim 1 related to a polycondensate comprising at least four different structural units: (I), (IIa), (IIb) and (III). Among other limitations, the claim recited a molar ratio of structural unit (IIa) to (IIb) within the range of 0.2 to 1.5.

The examiner rejected claim 1 as obvious over one reference (Wieland), and separately over a different reference (Kraus). In the rejection based on Wieland, the examiner relied on a ratio that included structural units corresponding to (IIa) and (IIb). However, the examiner acknowledged that this was not exactly a ratio of (IIa) to (IIb) since the structural units of Wieland corresponding to (IIa) and (IIb) both were encompassed by the denominator of Wieland’s disclosed ratio. The examiner also relied on values derived from two specific examples in Wieland to construct a ratio of (IIa) to (IIb) overlapping the claimed range.

The Board reversed the rejection over Wieland. The Board found that “[t]he Examiner has not explained sufficiently why one of ordinary skill in the art would mix and match molar concentration values from two different examples to determine a ratio of (IIa) to (IIb) as claimed, particularly given that Wieland’s ratio is different.” The examiner’s calculation “involves picking and choosing convenient values from two unrelated examples to calculate a ratio not used by Wieland.”

In the rejection based on Kraus, the examiner combined a disclosed ratio of structural unit (I) to (IIa) with a disclosed ratio of the sum of structural units (I) and (IIa) to structural unit (IIb). The examiner found that this combination supported a range of molar ratios (IIa) to (IIb) that overlapped the claimed range of 0.2 to 1.5.

The Board also reversed this rejection. The Board found that the examiner had not adequately explained how the two disclosed ratios could be combined to obtain the claimed ratio. The Board noted that “[t]he calculation posited by the Examiner apparently requires substitution of a range within another range,” which it found not to be obvious.

Takeaway: A ratio between two components in a composition, or two structural units in a polymeric compound, can be a useful way to distinguish a claimed invention from prior art. If an examiner appears to be stretching the prior art to construct an overlapping ratio, it is worth challenging the examiner’s rationale.

Judges: Hastings, Kennedy, Cashion Jr.


April 28, 2022by Richard Treanor

Last month, in Almirall, LLC v. Amneal Pharm., No. 2020-2331 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 14, 2022) the Federal Circuit affirmed the Board’s holding of obviousness in an inter partes review. In Almirall the main issue in the case was the absence, in the primary reference, of the claimed gelling agent.

Petitioner, in asserting obviousness, used a secondary reference that disclosed both the claimed gelling agent and the gelling agent of the primary reference in a “laundry list” of ten broad types, or classes, of gelling agent useful in the secondary reference. Importantly, Petitioner also included substantial expert testimony characterizing the claimed gelling agent and the gelling agent of the primary reference as being “closely related,” as capable of being “interchangeably used” in the claimed formulations “in the same concentration range,” that such a substitution was “routine and predictable,” and that one of ordinary skill in the art “would not have expected any incompatibilities.”

Patentee, unable to successfully counter this mountain of evidence, was left to argue at the margins, and focused on the non-overlapping concentration ranges of gelling agents used in the primary and secondary references. However, the Court was having none of it:

Ultimately, despite Almirall’s attempts to argue otherwise, this case does not depend on overlapping ranges. It is simply a case of substituting one known gelling agent for another. Each may be effective at a different concentration in different formulations, but that is just a property of the particular known material, subject to conventional experimentation.

Takeaway: The Almirall case is interesting because the initial “hook” that led to the finding of obviousness was one that Examiners use in rejecting claims all the time: a secondary reference with an expansive laundry list of agents that includes both the claimed agent and the agent of the primary reference. The difference between the inter partes review in Almirall and regular prosecution, however, is that during prosecution the Examiner simply alleges interchangeability based on the common listing, without more, while in Almirall Petitioner submitted substantial evidence regarding combinability, interchangeability, and expectation of success. The Almirall case thus provides applicants with a good example of the type of evidence, albeit in the reverse, to submit in traversing such rejections during prosecution.

Judges: Lourie, Chen, Cunningham


April 15, 2022by Yanhong Hu

Functional equivalence is a rationale that examiners often rely on in support of an obviousness rejection. However, as discussed in one of our previous blogs, examiners may misapply the rationale by ignoring the different function or purpose of an allegedly equivalent component disclosed in prior art. A recent decision of the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“Board”) – Ex parte Takasu (Appeal 2021-001290) – is another illustrative case.

Appellant’s claimed invention in Takasu was a substrate of a single crystal of formula RAMO4, where, among other things, R could be Sc, A could be Al, and M could be Mg. The claimed RAMO4 substrate had an epitaxially-grown surface and a satin-finish surface, each having specific surface roughness.

Yoshii, the primary reference relied on by the Examiner, provided a sapphire substrate for epitaxial growth that could be easily polished. The Examiner found that Yoshii as evidenced by Hansen disclosed a sapphire single crystal substrate that allegedly had the claimed roughness on its front and back sides. The Examiner admitted that the sapphire substrate disclosed in Yoshii was not a RAMO4 substrate. However, the Examiner found a secondary reference, Yoshida, which disclosed ScAlMgO4 as one of the material options for a single crystalline substrate as a functional equivalent to sapphire for epitaxial growth. The Examiner thus concluded Appellant’s claimed RAMO4 substrate would have been obvious over Yoshii in view of Yoshida as evidence by Hansen.

Appellant argued that a sapphire substrate and a RAMO4 substrate were not equivalent to each other in terms of surface polishing properties.

The Board agreed with Appellant and emphasized that, as stated by the Examiner herself, Yoshida merely disclosed ScAlMgO4 as “a functional equivalent to sapphire for epitaxial growth, but … not for surface polishing properties.”

Because a sapphire substrate is not functionally equivalent to a RAMO4 substrate in terms of surface polishing properties, the Board found that the Examiner’s reliance upon Yoshida was misplaced and reversed the obviousness rejection.

Takeaway:  As cautioned in MPEP § 2144.06 II, the equivalency of a proper substituting equivalent must be recognized in the prior art for the same purpose and cannot be based on applicant’s disclosure or the mere fact that the components at issue are functional or mechanical equivalents. Thus, arguments rebutting an examiner’s obviousness rejection relying on functional equivalence may be successfully advanced by carefully analyzing the function and purpose of substituted and substituting components disclosed in prior art.

Judges:  J. T. Smith, B. A. Franklin, and J. R. Snay