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May 16, 2002


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Milton I. Shadur, Judge


Arachnid, Inc. ("Arachnid") has brought this patent infringement action against Merit Industries, Inc. and Millennium Reserve Corporation (collectively "Merit"),*fn1 alleging that Merit has infringed Arachnid's United States Patent No. 5, 114, 155*fn2 for a "System for Automatic Collection and Distribution of Player Statistics for Electronic Dart Games." This opinion takes the first of the two steps required to determine whether claims of Patent '155 have been infringed: conducting a Markman analysis (Markman v. Westview Instruments Inc., 517 U.S. 370 (1996). aff'g 52 F.3d 967 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (en banc)) to construe the claims by determining their scope and meaning. To that end each party has submitted a full set of claim construction memoranda,*fn3 enabling this Court to address each of the disputed claim elements as a matter of law.*fn4 But first a brief review of claim construction principles will obviate the need for needless repetition in the discussion that follows.

Claim Interpretation

Our American patent system serves two equally important goals: to secure the patentee's rights (the definitional goal) and to put others on notice of what the patentee has removed from the public domain for the life of the patent (the notice goal) (Markman, 517 U.S. at 373, quoting McClain v. Ortmayer, 141 U.S. 419, 424 (1891)). Hence cases such as Burke Inc. v. Bruno Indep. Living Aids, Inc., 183 F.3d 1334, 1340 (Fed. Cir. 1999) instruct that the language of the documents constituting the public record — the claims, the specification and the prosecution history — should be the primary source for construing patent claims. Extrinsic evidence, such as expert testimony, should be relied on only if analysis of that intrinsic evidence fails to resolve an ambiguity in the disputed claim term (Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 P.3d 1576, 1583 (Fed. Cir. 1996)).

That being said, a court may nonetheless rely on dictionary definitions in construing (though not in contradicting) claim terms, even though such dictionary evidence is extrinsic (id. at 1584 n. 6). As Vitronics, id. at 1582 explains, because claim terms are given the ordinary and customary meaning ascribed to them by persons experienced in the field of the invention, dictionaries may often be useful to that end. But reliance on dictionary definitions is improper where a patentee has chosen "to be his own lexicographer" and has clearly stated in the patent specification or file history that a term has been given a special definition (id.). In such a case the special definition controls over the ordinary and customary meaning.

Moreover, while the specification "is the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term" (id.), claim language may be broader than any limitations set forth in the specifications. As Kemco Sales, Inc., v. Control Papers Co., 208 F.3d 1352, 1362 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (emphasis and internal quotation marks omitted) has cautioned, quoting from earlier Federal Circuit caselaw:

This court, has consistently adhered to the proposition that courts cannot alter what the patentee has chosen to claim as his invention, that limitations appearing in the specification will not be read into claims, and that interpreting what is meant by a word in a claim is not to be confused with adding an extraneous limitation appearing in the specification, which is improper.

Section 112 ¶ 6 governs the construction of so-called "means-plus-function" elements of patent claims:

An element in a claim for a combination may be expressed as a means or step for performing a specified function without the recital of structure, material, or acts in support thereof, and such claim shall be construed to cover the corresponding structure, material, or acts described in the specification and equivalents, thereof.

Use of the word "means" in a patent claim raises a presumption that the patentee used the term with the rules of Section 112 ¶ 6 in mind (Al-Site Corp., v. VSI Int'l. Inc., 174 F.3d 1308, 1318 (Fed. Cir. 1999)).

Construction of means-plus-function claim elements involves two steps: (1) identification of the function recited in the claim and (2) identification of the structure (or structures) described in the specification that can perform that function (Micro Chem., Inc. v. Great Plains Chem. Co., 194 F.3d 1250, 1257-58 (Fed. Cir. 1999)). Courts may not adopt functions different from those explicitly recited by claims, nor may they incorporate structure beyond what is necessary to perform the claimed function (id. at 1258). Micro Chem., id. also teaches:

Identification of corresponding structure may embrace more than the preferred embodiment. A means-plus-function claim encompasses all structure in the specification corresponding to that element and equivalent structures. . . . When multiple embodiments in the specification correspond to the claimed function, proper application of § 112, ¶ 6 generally reads the claim element to embrace each of those embodiments.

Here the parties are in essential agreement as to which of the disputed claim elements require means-plus-function analysis, and with few exceptions they agree on the function of each of those elements. Where disputes arise is in the identification of the structures disclosed by the patent specification that can perform the functions for the means-plus-function elements.

Patent '155's Subject Matter

Patent '155 discloses a method and apparatus for conducting dart leagues or tournaments in which "a plurality of remotely located electronic dart games [are] connected via a communication medium to a central control device enabling bidirectional communication between the central control device and the plurality of remotely located electronic dart games" (Patent '155 abstract). In its preferred embodiment, the invention allows players in different locations to participate in one dart league or tournament, although the patent recognizes an alternate embodiment in which all of the dart games are situated at the same location. Each dart game receives information from and transmits information to player cards assigned to each participant. In a preferred embodiment, each location has a master game that receives information from all non-master games through a communication link and in turn transmits that information to the central control device, which calculates player standings and transmits that information back to the remote locations.

Ordinary Skill in the Art

Finally before this opinion turns to construction of the elements of the Patent '155 claims, one preliminary dispute between the parties must be resolved: determining who constituted a "person of ordinary skill in the art" at the time Patent '155 was issued in 1992.*fn5 That issue breaks down into two parts: (1) what exactly is the "art" at issue and (2) who qualifies as a "person of ordinary skill" in that art?

Arachnid contends that the art in question was that of "electronic dart leagues and dart tournaments" (A. Mem. 11), and it quotes its proposed expert witness for the proposition that a person of ordinary skill in that art (id. at 12):

has knowledge, understanding and experience in the operations of electronic dart game machines, and in the marketing, promotion and management of electronic darts in league and tournament play, has field experience in the operation, setup, and maintenance of electronic dart game machines, and has operated electronic dart game machines at multiple locations in which regularly scheduled electronic dart promotions occur.

Merit counters that the relevant field of art is "the design and development of software and electrical circuitry for the transmission of information between electronic apparatus" (M. Resp. 5) and that a person of ordinary skill in the art necessarily had a background in electrical engineering (M. Resp. 4). Neither side has it just right.

To define the relevant art, a court must look to "the nature of the problem confronting the would-be inventor" (Ryko Mfg. Co. v. Nu-Star. Inc., 950 F.2d 714, 716 (Fed. Cir. 1991)). Here the nature of the problem was neither "electronic dart leagues and dart tournaments" nor "the design and development of software and electrical circuitry." Patent '155 did not claim to have invented either electronic dart leagues and tournaments or particular software and electrical circuits. Instead it is directed to "a method and apparatus for automating data transfer and management of a dart league or tournament" (Patent '155 2:13-15)*fn6 That defines the relevant art.

That being so, a person of ordinary skill in the art at the time would have had an understanding of how electronic dart games, leagues and tournaments operated, as well as training or experience (but not necessarily an engineering background) in the use of pre-existing hardware and software systems that could be used to create an automated system. With that issue out of the way, it is time to turn to the construction of the various claim elements at issue. Unsurprisingly, that begins with Claim 1.

Claim 1

Here is C1aim 1 (8:1-16):

1. A method of conducting dart leagues or tournaments utilizing a plurality of electronic dart games, each dart game having means for receiving, storing, and transmitting data, said method further utilizing a central control device (CCD) having means for processing, inputting, storing and outputting data, said method comprising the steps of:
connecting the plurality of the electronic dart games to the central control device via a communication medium;
inputting data on each player into the central control device via the inputting means; and
communicating bidirectionally between the central control device and the plurality of electronic dart games via the communication medium.

Arachnid and Merit dispute the meaning of a number of terms in that claim.

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