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IP INNOVATION L.L.C v. SONY ELECTRONICS

August 18, 2005.

IP INNOVATION L.L.C, TECHNOLOGY LICENSING CORPORATION, NEW MEDIUM TECHNOLOGIES LLC, and AV TECHNOLOGIES LLC, Plaintiffs,
v.
SONY ELECTRONICS, INC. Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MATTHEW KENNELLY, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

IP Innovation, L.L.C., Technology Licensing Corporation, New Medium Technologies LLC, and AV Technologies LLC, (collectively, "IPI") have sued Sony Electronics, Inc. for infringement of six patents relating to video displays and signals. This case is before the Court for construction of the disputed claim language. Because of the large number of claim terms at issue, the Court initially will address only the disputed claim language found in the three patents-in-suit referred to as the '780 family. These include U.S. Patent Nos. 5,424,780, 6,529,637, and 6,870,964. Additionally, the Court is requesting that the parties supplement and clarify their positions with respect to a few of the disputed claim terms from these patents.

Facts

  The '780 family of patents is directed to methods and apparatuses for improving or enhancing the apparent image resolution of a display by altering elements of the image through "scan modulation." IPI states that the benefit of the invention is its ability to process images in standard definition or NTSC television signals while taking advantage of the higher resolution display technologies that are currently being used in televisions and other consumer electronics devices. The result is a more pleasing appearance, i.e., a perceived increase in resolution.

  IPI asserts claims 15 and 146 against Sony with respect to the '780 patent, entitled "Apparatus and Method for Spacial Scan Modulation of a Video Display," claims 1, 107, 145, and 159 with respect to the '637 patent, entitled "Spatial Scan Replication Circuit," and claims 4 and 10 of the '964 patent, entitled "Spatial Scan Replication Circuit." Both the '637 and '964 patents are based on an application which was filed as a continuation-in-part of the application from which the '780 patent issued. In addition to the briefs submitted, the parties presented oral argument and submitted additional material on claim construction during a July 8, 2005 hearing.

  Discussion

  Claim construction of the patent-in-suit, which entails questions of law to be determined by the Court, see Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 977-78 (Fed. Cir. 1995), is the first step in any patent infringement case. See Mars, Inc. v. H.J. Heinz Co., 377 F.3d 1369, 1373 (Fed. Cir. 2004). In Phillips v. AWH Corp., Nos. 03-1269, 03-1286, 2005 WL 1620331 (Fed. Cir. July 12, 2005), the Federal Circuit recently clarified the approach courts should use when analyzing claim language. The Court criticized the methodology adopted in Texas Digital Systems, Inc. v. Telegenix, Inc., 308 F.3d 1193 (Fed. Cir. 2002) — a case to which district courts have routinely turned for guidance in the claim construction process — for its over-reliance on extrinsic sources, such as dictionaries, treatises, and encyclopedias, and the limited role it assigned to the specification. See Phillips, 2005 WL 1620331, at *13. Texas Digital had essentially instructed courts to begin the analysis by consulting dictionaries or similar sources to determine the ordinary and customary meaning of a term, and, only as a secondary step, to examine the specification and prosecution history to ensure that the patentee had not supplied an alternative definition or disavowed the ordinary meaning of the term. See id. at *13-14. Noting that "heavy reliance on the dictionary divorced from the intrinsic evidence risks transforming the meaning of the claim term to the artisan into the meaning of the term in the abstract," the Federal Circuit directed federal courts instead to focus at the outset on how the patentee used the claim term in the claims, specification, and prosecution history. Id. at *14.

  The claim term's ordinary and customary meaning, as understood by persons who were skilled in the relevant technology at the time the patent application was filed, continues to serve as the baseline interpretation of the proper scope of the claim. The inquiry into how a person of ordinary skill in the technology would understand a claim term involves analyzing the term in the context of the disputed claim itself, as well as in the context of the patent as a whole.

  For instance, the way a term is used within the particular claim "provides a firm basis for construing the term." Id. at *6. Similarly, other claims of the patent in question, both asserted and unasserted, can be helpful in ascertaining the appropriate scope of claim language. Id. at *7 ("Because claim terms are normally used consistently throughout the patent, the usage of a term in one claim can often illuminate the meaning of the same term in other claims."). The Federal Circuit took pains to emphasize that in addition to evaluating the claims of a patent in dispute, the specification is the "single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term." Id. (quoting Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996)). If the specification indicates that the patentee defined the term in a manner that differs from its generally conceived meaning or disavowed the claim scope, the inventor's intention is dispositive. Id. at *8. In short, claims must be construed consistently with the specification.

  Finally, courts should consider the patent's prosecution history, if it is in evidence, as it provides evidence of how the inventor and the Patent and Trademark Office understood the claims. However, because this negotiation process frequently contains more ambiguity than the specification, it is less useful for claim construction purposes. Id. at *9. But if the inventor unequivocally disavowed a particular meaning to obtain the patent or otherwise limited the scope of the invention during the course of the prosecution, "the doctrine of prosecution disclaimer attaches and narrows the ordinary meaning of the claim congruent with the scope of the surrender." Omega Eng'g, Inc. v. Raytek Corp., 334 F.3d 1314, 1324 (Fed. Cir. 2003).

  Though the Federal Circuit emphasized the primary role intrinsic evidence should play in discerning the proper scope of claims, it did not preclude the use of extrinsic evidence altogether. Judges remain free to consult dictionaries or comparable sources to assist in understanding the meaning of words and to gain a better understanding of the underlying technology. Phillips, 2005 WL 16203331, at *15. Thus, dictionaries, and particularly technical treatises, may continue to inform claim construction, so long as courts do not adopt a definition that contradicts the intrinsic evidence. Id. at *15.

  Likewise, the Federal Circuit acknowledged that expert testimony can be useful for providing background on the relevant technology and to shed light on what a person skilled in the pertinent field would understand a particular term to mean. Id. at *10. The court warned, however, that judges should be particularly weary of expert testimony that consists of conclusory statements or is offered in a form that is not subject to cross-examination. Id. at *10-11. Moreover, as with other types of extrinsic evidence, courts should discount expert testimony that is clearly at odds with the intrinsic record. Id. at *10

  In sum, though there exists no "magic formula or catechism for conducting claim construction," and the sequence of steps used by the judge is unimportant, id. at 16, the focus should remain centered around construing the claims within the context of the patent itself. The disputed claims of each patent-in-dispute will be discussed in turn.

  1. '780 patent

  a. Claim 15

  The parties dispute several terms found in claim 15, which in its entirety discloses:
A method of improving the quality of an image which may be displayed on an image display device, the image made up of a number of image elements, including the step of selecting a plurality of pixels of said image, the step of comparing a first of said selected pixels to at least a second of said selected pixels to select voids of said image to be altered and including the further step of altering voids in said image in response to said comparing step thereby improving the apparent resolution of the image without requiring an increase in the number of image elements originally making up the image.
i. Pixel
  The term "pixel" is used throughout the '780 family of patents, including contested claims 15, 110, and 146 of the '780 patent, claims 1 and 107 of the '637 patent, and claims 4 and 10 of the '964 patent. Claim 15 serves as an example of how the term "pixel" is used within the patents. Both parties agree that the term should be construed consistently throughout the three patents-in-suit, and thus the meaning the Court adopts with respect to the '780 patent will apply to the '637 and '964 patents as well. IPI contends that the term "pixel" is an acronym for "picture element" and is defined as the smallest complete element of an image. According to IPI, pixels can be formed of sub pixels, which themselves are not considered complete pixels as defined above. Sony argues that IPI's proffered definition is incomplete, as it does not take into account that the meaning of pixel is dependent on whether it is being used in the context of an electronically coded image or in an electronic display device. Instead, Sony asserts that the better definition is the following one set forth in the McGraw-Hill technical dictionary: "the smallest part of an electronically coded picture image" or "the smallest addressable element in an electronic display; a short form for picture element. . . ."*fn1 McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms 1436 (4th ed. 1989).

  When defining terms, courts are directed to give words their broadest reasonable construction that is consistent with the use of the term in the patent. See In re Am. Acad. of Sci. Tech Ctr., 367 F.3d 1359, 1364 (Fed. Cir. 2004). In this instance, as defendant avers, the definition of pixel is highly context dependent. See Def's Brief at 4. IPI's definition more fully encompasses the range of meanings for pixel, as it is not obvious from the patent that the term is used only in the context of an electronically coded image or an electronic display device.

  Most importantly, IPI's interpretation comports with the use of "pixel" in the context of the patent. Claim 16 references "a portion of a pixel." This usage is consistent with the idea that a pixel may be formed by sub-pixels, which themselves do not constitute complete elements. The Court therefore adopts IPI's interpretation of "pixel" as the smallest complete element of an image; synonymous with image element.

  ii. Image Element

  The parties next dispute the meaning of "image element," as used in claims 15, 110, and 146 of the '780 patent, claims 1 and 107 of the '637 patent, and claims 4 and 10 of the '964 patent. Though the parties' interpretations vary, they concur that the Court should adopt a uniform meaning for the term.

  IPI defines "image element" as encompassing complete pixels, as well as sub pixels and other elements of images that are not pixel-related. It submits that although pixel is synonymous with image element, the reverse is not true, as an image element may refer to a sub-pixel or something altogether unrelated to a pixel. Sony, in contrast, urges the Court to adopt identical meanings for the terms pixel and image element, namely, the smallest part of an electronically coded picture image or the smallest addressable element in an electronic display.

  The Court believes IPI's definition more closely aligns with how a person of ordinary skill in the technology would understand the term "image element." Admittedly, in the context of the disputed claims, it is somewhat unclear whether the terms "pixel" and "image element" carry differing meanings. As Sony observes, the patentee appears to frequently use the two terms interchangeably. For example, Sony highlights two descriptions of figure seven in the '780 patent's specification. One describes the figure as depicting "a group of nine neighboring image elements." U.S. Patent No. 5,424,780, col. 3, lines 18-20. Another refers to the same figure as showing "a group of 9 pixels which are located on 3 scan lines of a raster." Id. at col. 7, lines 26-27. This example, however, is not necessarily inconsistent with IPI's construction. As IPI suggests, all pixels may be image elements, but not all image elements are necessarily pixels. Thus the fact that the patentee uses both terms to describe the items in the figure does not run counter to IPI's position. Sony also argues that the patent directly equates the two terms when it describes "spatial resolution" as "the number of elements or pixels [that] make up an image." But again, this excerpt does not conclusively support Sony's position.

  Moreover, the use of "image element" in unasserted claims clearly supports IPI's interpretation. In the '637 patent, claim 127 repeatedly refers to the term "image elements." Claim 140 of that same patent discloses "The method of claim 127 wherein the image elements are pixels." As a dependent claim, claim 140 must be narrower in scope than claim 127. If the patent used image element and pixel interchangeably, it would violate the doctrine of claim differentiation by rendering claim 140 wholly superfluous. Furthermore, the patentee is entitled to a presumption that there is a difference in meaning and scope when different words are used in separate claims. See Tandon Corp. v. United States Int'l Trade Comm'n, 831 F.2d 1017, 1023 (Fed. Cir. 1987); see also Power Mosfet Techs., L.L.C. v. Siemens AG, 378 F.3d 1396, 1410 (Fed. Cir. 2004). In particular, where "the absence of such difference in meaning and scope would make a claim superfluous, the doctrine of claim differentiation states the presumption that the difference between claims is significant." Tandon Corp, 831 F.2d at 1023. Finally, the Court notes that IPI's interpretation is in accord with the only dictionary definition submitted by the parties.*fn2 The Court therefore accepts IPI's definition of "image element" as encompassing complete pixels, as well as sub pixels, and other elements of images that are not pixel related.

  iii. Void(s)

  The terms "void" or "voids" is used in disputed claims 15 and 146 of the '780 patent and claims 1, 107, and 145 of the '637 patent. IPI proposes that, as with the previously discussed terms, a uniform definition of voids should be adopted throughout the '780 family of patents. Sony, however, argues that with respect to this term, the patentee used one meaning of the term in the '780 patent but explicitly redefined the term in the continuation-in-part '637 patent. The Court considers the term within the context of each patent.

  For purposes of both the '780 and '637 patents, IPI defines voids as spaces around or in the image where a change of illumination may be made to cause an improvement of the perceived quality of the image (e.g., blank areas of the image near a detailed area of the image). Importantly, IPI adds that these spaces may or may not include an unused image element.

  Sony contends that a void in an image, as used in the '780 patent, means a physical point in a displayed image that is not addressed by image elements on the incoming signal at any time. Thus, according to Sony, the voids disclosed in the '780 patent reflect an empty space, opening, gap, or the quality without being something in the video information in the signal carrying the image. Sony submits that the patentee redefined the term in the '637 patent, as any location in an image including defects, unwanted elements, improper elements, corrupted elements, valid but replaceable elements, locations with no image information, and other locations or elements which may be in question or in need for improvement.

  The term "voids" was not expressly defined in the '780 patent, and thus we must ascertain its meaning from the context of the patent. IPI emphasizes that language used in surrounding claims indicates that "voids" must include locations containing existing image elements. It points out that claim 110, which was added during reexamination of the '780 patent, discloses "the method of claim 15 characterized in that the void can include at least in part a portion of a space occupied by another image element." IPI argues that this claim makes it clear that a void can include a space occupied by another element. It also draws the Court's attention to the specification's discussion of how a video fill signal can generate a new pixel or pixels, which may be "used for "filling, substitution or replacement [and] may be comprised of all or a portion of a pixel." U.S. Patent No. 5,424,780, col. 5, lines 48-50. IPI reasons that if a fill signal includes substitution or replacement of old pixels with newly generated pixels, then a void, by definition, must include the possibility that a pixel exists within the space designated as a void.

  Other claim language supports Sony's interpretation. The Court counted five claims that refer to a "void between image elements." See claims 3, 11, 12, 96 and 147. Moreover, the claims and specification contain numerous references to "blank areas," a phrase that the patentee appears to use interchangeably with "voids." For instance, claim 135 discloses a "means for changing the shape of at least one element [that] can include generating fill image elements in blank areas of the display." Use of the term blank tends to suggest that the patentee had the ordinary meaning of "void" in mind when drafting the patent. In sum, the claims and specification do not conclusively support one interpretation over the other.

  The prosecution history, however, sheds more light on the intended meaning of the term. During prosecution of the '780 patent, the inventor, James Cooper, responded to an examiner's objection of a claim based on obviousness by stating:
Applicant has reviewed and considered the examiner's remarks given in his 35 U.S.C. § 103 rejection over Cooper '070. Applicant believes however that the examiner is incorrect in his assertion that a defective pixel such as corrected by the '070 invention is the same as, and would include, voids in the image as in the present disclosure and claims. The '070 patent generally shows replacing a given pixel with an average of pixels based on the similarity or ranking of pixels. The similarity or ranking of pixels is not related to the absence of elements as the examiner suggests. It might be noted that Webster defines the noun void as empty space, opening, gap, the quality of being without something, etc. Such definition would preclude the filling of voids from being obvious in view of the averaging of similar elements for removal of noise which is disclosed in the '070 patent.
See S/N 355,461 O.A. response 6/18/92 at 17. The Court reads Cooper's remarks, and in fact believes that this is only sound interpretation of his comments, as an unambiguous limit on the scope of "voids."
  Moreover, during prosecution of the '780 patent on reexamination, Cooper made amendments to certain claims on March 16, 2001. In this document, he amended then claim 138, which read "the apparatus of claim 1 characterized in that the void can include at least in part a portion of a space occupied by another element" to read "the apparatus of claim 1 characterized in that the void can be filled in part with portions of two image elements." See G15/7422R1F at 9. When Cooper, later in the same document, discussed his interview with the examiner, he noted that
[i]n respect to the "portion of a space occupied by another image element" in claim 138, the undersigned pointed out how the voids may be filled by all or a portion of a pixel (fig. 5A; col 4 Ins 51-52; col 5 In 50; col 10 Ins 26-31; col 12 Ins 23-34). This use could utilize a combination of a plurality of pixels for the fill element, thus utilizing a portion of two (or more) elements to fill a given void. The examiner indicated he would again reconsider this rejection with the wording as currently constituted.
Id. at 17. Though the Court was not provided with subsequent excerpts of the prosecution so as to determine later changes made to the above mentioned claim 138, the inventor's remarks are illustrative. Following this reasoning, current claim 110, which reads "The method of claim 15 characterized in that the void can include at least in part a portion of a space occupied by another image element," most likely refers to the newly generated elements rather than image elements already existing in the space.

  Because the prosecution history of the '780 patent limits the interpretation of "voids" in a manner that unequivocally excludes IPI's interpretation, see Omega, 334 F.3d at 1324, the Court adopts for that patent Sony's proposed definition of "void" as a physical point in a displayed image that is not addressed by image elements on the incoming signal at any time.

  The parties do not truly dispute the meaning of "void" in the '637 patent, aside from their preferred phraseology. Both agree that in the context of the disputed claims in that patent, a "void" may include a space occupied by an image element. Indeed, as Sony highlights, the ...


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