A Blog About Intellectual Property Litigation and the District of Delaware

Entries for tag: Means-Plus-Function

Eds. Note -- I had this whole 10 line joke song about means plus function claims to the tune of conjunction junction, then I lost power for a second and its all gone. Just imagine it was groundbreaking stuff. Hug your generators folks.

She's so lonely
She's so lonely Dima Solomin, Unsplash

Judge Andrews issued an interesting decision yesterday that illustrates the unique difficulties of proving infringement of a means + function claim.

In ViaTech Techs., Inc. v. Adobe Inc., C.A. No. 20-538-RGA (D. Del. July 17, 2024), the Court construed a means + term as having two functions:

  1. communicating with a dynamic license database, and
  2. monitoring use of the digital content by a user to determine (yadda, yadda, not …

This is the kind of engine that has structure.
This is the kind of engine that has structure. Markus Spiske, Unsplash

There are only so many ways to get rid of claims early in the case. One of them is arguing indefiniteness at claim construction, for the judges who permit that.

Indefiniteness at Markman typically invoves either a Nautilus-style argument about a term lacking reasonable certainty, or a § 112 ¶ 6 argument that a means-plus-function term lacks corresponding structure in the specification.

Today, Judge Andrews addressed such a § 112 ¶ 6 argument, and found both that software terms reciting an "engine" were means-plus-function terms, and that the terms lacked corresponding structure in the specification. First, he found that "engine" is a "nonce word" that doesn't refer to a specific structure—breaking with at least one case that found the opposite:

I agree with Defendant that “analysis engine” is a means-plus-function limitation. Defendant has overcome the presumption that “analysis engine” is not subject to § 112, ¶ 6 by showing the claim fails to “recite sufficiently definite structure.” . . . The parties agree that an “engine” in this context refers to a program or part of a program to perform a function or manages data. . . . “Engine” appears to be synonymous with “module,” which is recognized as a common “nonce” word. Williamson, 792 F.3d at 1350 (finding “module” to mean “a generic description for software or hardware that performs a specified function” to be a “well-known nonce word”); see also Parity Networks, LLC v. ZyXEL Commc'ns, Inc., 2020 WL 8569299, at *6 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 22, 2020) (finding “engine” was a nonce word in the term “multicast engine”). But see Stragent, LLC v. Amazon.com, Inc., 2011 WL 13152568, at *4 (E.D. Tex. June 27, 2011) (finding “engine” conveyed structure and was not subject to § 112, ¶ 6).

The argument that the "analysis engine" was part of the novelty of the patent was not enough to save it—and that argument may have even hurt the plaintiff ...

CIrcuit Board
Umberto, Unsplash

Most patent litigators are familiar with means-plus-function claims, which are defined by 35 U.S.C. § 112(f) (previously § 112 ¶ 6). They allow a patentee to write a claim limitation as a "means" or "step" for performing a function, which is performed by the corresponding structure (or material, or acts) within the specification.

Section 112 ¶ 6 can be a gold mine for accused infringers. If they successfully argue that a claim element falls under § 112 ¶ 6, they can then argue invalidity based on a lack of corresponding structure, or they can argue non-infringement if there is structure but their products lack any equivalent. Patentees usually don't want to construe their claims as § 112 …

In both common usage and patent drafting, "computer" has become shorthand for an incredibly broad range of hardware and software, across almost every possible technological space. The breadth of meaning attributable to that single word can be a challenge for litigants and courts working through issues of claim construction or other issues (e.g., Section 101 motions, in which references to concrete computer components can lift a patent out of abstractness, and references to generic components can doom it). On the one hand, "computer" is readily understood by almost everyone in a general sense; on the other, standing alone, it has no specific meaning.

Judge Noreika recently addressed the question of whether a claimed "'computer . . . to computationally' obtain, change, or calculate specified aspects of the radiation beam arrangement or weights" should be construed as a means-plus-function term under 35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶ 6 (pre-AIA).