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Imagecube LLC v. Boeing Co.

April 17, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge James B. Zagel


Plaintiff Imagecube LLC ("Imagecube") filed suit against Defendants The Boeing Company, MTS Systems Corporation and Aeromet Corporation, alleging infringement of U.S. Patent No. RE37.875 ("the '875 patent"). The patent describes a process for manufacturing three-dimensional objects by exposing a dispersion of component materials, such as metals, ceramics or polymers, to radiation. The parties dispute the meaning of the term homogenization, found in four of the patent's independent claims and throughout the specification. The parties also dispute the meaning of claim 51 of the reissued patent, which is the patent's final claim and the only one of the asserted, independent claims to lack the "homogenization" requirement.

Claim construction is a matter of law for the court to decide. Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370 (1996). In order "[t]o ascertain the meaning of claims, [the court] consider[s] three sources: The claims, the specification, and the prosecution history." Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 979 (Fed. Cir. 1995), aff'd 517 U.S. 370 (1996). These three sources are the intrinsic evidence, public records available for all to consult when determining the meaning and scope of a patent claim. Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996). When the intrinsic evidence unambiguously describes the scope of a patented invention, reliance on extrinsic evidence, such as expert testimony and treatises, is inappropriate. Id. at 1583.

Claim interpretation begins with the actual words of the claims. Bell Communications Research v. Vitalink Communications Corp., 55 F.3d 615, 619-20 (Fed. Cir. 1995); see also Teleflex, Inc. v. Ficosa N. Am. Corp., 299 F.3d 1313, 1324 (Fed. Cir. 2002). Generally, the words, phrases and terms in patent claims should receive their ordinary and accustomed meaning. Johnson Worldwide Assocs. v. Zebco Corp., 175 F.3d 985, 989 (Fed. Cir. 1999). The strong presumption in favor of the ordinary meaning may be overcome only when the patentee "clearly set[s] forth a definition for a claim term in the specification." Anchor Wall Sys. v. Rockwood Retaining Walls, Inc., 340 F.3d 1298, 1306 (Fed. Cir. 2003) (citing Johnson Worldwide Assocs., 175 F.3d at 989-90); see also Dow Chem. Co. v. Sumitomo Chem. Co., 257 F.3d 1364, 1372 (Fed. Cir. 2001) ("a technical term used in a patent claim is interpreted as having the meaning a person of ordinary skill in the field of the invention would understand it to mean") (citation omitted). A patentee "may choose to be his own lexicographer and use terms in a manner other than their ordinary meaning, as long as the special definition of the term is clearly stated in the patent specification or file history." Vitronics Corp., 90 F.3d at 1582 (citation omitted).

Additionally, "[c]laims must be read in view of the specification, of which they are a part." Markman, 52 F.3d at 979 (citations omitted). The specification may reveal "whether the inventor has used any terms in a manner inconsistent with their ordinary meaning." Vitronics Corp., 90 F.3d at 1582. "The specification is always highly relevant to the claim construction analysis. Usually, it is dispositive; it is the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term."

Id. The specification also serves as an aid in determining "the meaning of the claim term as it is used . . . in the context of the entirety of [the] invention." Interactive Gift Express, Inc. v. Compuserve Inc., 231 F.3d 859, 866 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (quoting Comark Communs., Inc. v. Harris Corp., 156 F.3d 1182, 1187 (Fed. Cir. 1998)).

The claims, however, are not limited to the embodiment shown in the specifications. See Anchor Wall Sys., 340 F.3d at 1307; Transmatic, Inc. v. Gulton Indus., 53 F.3d 1270, 1277 (Fed. Cir. 1995). Limitations appearing only in the specifications cannot be read into a claim because "the claim, not the specification, measures the invention." Howes v. Zircon Corp., 992 F. Supp. 957, 961 (N.D. Ill. 1998) (citing SRI Int'l v. Matsushita Elec. Corp., 775 F.2d 1107 (Fed. Cir. 1985)). However, when the specification is "clear that the invention does not include a particular feature, that feature is deemed to be outside the reach of the claims of the patent, even though the language of the claims, read without reference to the specification, might be considered broad enough to encompass the feature in question." SciMed Life Sys., Inc. v. Advanced Cardiovascular Sys., Inc., 242 F.3d 1337, 1341 (Fed Cir. 2001).

Each patent has a corresponding publicly-available record called the prosecution history, which details the proceedings before the Patent and Trademark Office ("PTO"). The prosecution history may limit the interpretation of claim terms by revealing express representations made by the applicant regarding the scope of the claims or by excluding interpretations that were disclaimed during prosecution. Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1582-83 (citations omitted). However, "unless altering claim language to escape an examiner rejection, a patent applicant only limits claims during prosecution by clearly disavowing claim coverage." Kopykake Enters. v. Lucks Co., 264 F.3d 1377, 1382 (Fed. Cir. 2001) (internal quotation and citation omitted). Any such disavowal "must be clear and unmistakable." Anchor Wall Sys., 340 F.3d at 1307. Finally, extrinsic evidence such as expert testimony may be considered only where the language of the claims remains ambiguous after consideration of the claim language, specification and file history. Key Pharms. v. Hercon Lab. Corp., 161 F.3d 709, 716 (Fed. Cir. 1998). "[E]xtrinsic evidence in general, and expert testimony in particular, may be used only to help the court come to the proper understanding of the claims; it may not be used to vary or contradict the claim language." Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1584.

A. "Homogenization"

The parties dispute the meaning of the term "homogenization" as it appears in claims 1, 25, 32 and 34. The parties agree that the inventor, John Lawton, acted as his own lexicographer and defined the meaning of the term within the patent. They disagree on the scope of Lawton's definition. Imagecube finds the complete definition of homogenization in the opening sentence of the '875 patent's "Description of Preferred Embodiments," which reads:

The term "homogenized" or "homogenization", for the purposes of this disclosure, will refer to the formation of an alloy between the substances which are homogenized. ('875 Patent, Col. 2, ll. 59-61.) Imagecube therefore asks me to construe the term homogenized to mean "forming an alloy."

Defendants argue that Lawton narrowed the definition of homogenization later in the specification. Discussing one embodiment of the invention, in which the components to be alloyed consist of polymers, Lawton stated:

The components may consist of polymers, which can be dispersed together and alloyed by the application of radiation . . . The homogenization to form an alloy between polymers is a nonpolymerization interaction, and polymerization techniques (free radical, condensation, and like mechanisms between monomers and/or oligomers and optionally initiators) are excluded from the definition of "homogenization" as used herein. ('875 Patent, Col. 3, ll. 38-45) (emphasis added). Shortly thereafter, discussing another embodiment of the invention in which the components to be alloyed consist of metals or ceramics, Lawton stated:

The components may consist of metal or ceramics which, when contacted with appropriate imaging radiation of appropriate intensity, form a metal or ceramic alloy having properties distinguishable from the properties of the components . . . It will thus be understood that homogenization, in the case of metals and ceramics, is different from conventional sintering techniques, wherein powders are ...

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