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Meyer Intellectual Properties Limited v. Bodum

May 14, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Milton I. Shadur Senior United States District Judge


Meyer Intellectual Properties Limited and Meyer Corporation, U.S. (collectively "Meyer," treated after this sentence as a singular noun to avoid awkward verb usage) claim that Bodum, Inc. ("Bodum") infringed two of its United States patents: Numbers 5,780,087 ("Patent '087," entitled Apparatus and Method for Frothing Liquids) and 5,939,122 ("Patent '122," entitled Method for Frothing Liquids).*fn1 Although the parties cannot agree on the proper construction of some of the patent claims, they do agree on which claims are in dispute and have submitted a joint letter identifying the disputed language.*fn2 This opinion conducts a Markman analysis to construe language contained in Claim 1 of Patent '087 and in Claims 1 and 10 of Patent '122.

Tenets of Claim Construction Claim construction, which is a question of law exclusively for court determination, is conducted in patent cases before trial to determine the scope and meaning of patent claims (Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 372 (1996)). Courts are called upon to construe only claim language that is in dispute, not to inform parties whether any agreed-upon construction is right or wrong (U.S. Surgical Corp. v. Ethicon, Inc., 103 F.3d 1554, 1568 (Fed. Cir. 1997)).

In any infringement action the court must resolve issues of claim construction before moving to the infringement claim (Apex Inc. v. Raritan Computer, Inc., 325 F.3d 1364, 1370 (Fed. Cir. 2003)). For that purpose claim terms should be given their ordinary and customary meaning as understood by a person of ordinary skill in the art (Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1313 (Fed. Cir. 2005)(en banc)). To safeguard against any distortion of meaning based on hindsight, courts must reverse the sand through the hourglass and ascribe to claim language its meaning when the patent application was filed (id.).

By definition the most important indicator of a claim's meaning is the claim language itself (Middleton, Inc. v. Minn. Mining & Mfg. Co., 311 F.3d 1384, 1387 (Fed. Cir. 2002); Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1312). Beyond that, a construing court's primary focus should be on other intrinsic evidence: other claims within the same patent, the patent's specification and the prosecution history (Hockerson-Halberstadt, Inc. v. Avia Group Int'l, Inc., 222 F.3d 951, 955 (Fed. Cir. 2000)).*fn3 But as important as the specifications are in claim construction (Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1315), a court must be mindful to avoid importing limitations from the specifications into the claims (id. at 1323).

Extrinsic evidence may be used to supplement interpretation when needed to resolve lingering ambiguity (Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1583-84 (Fed. Cir. 1996)). Judges are free to consult and rely on dictionary definitions, although extrinsic in nature, so long as the definitions do not contradict claim terms (id. at 1584 n.6). Dictionary definitions are off limits, however, when the patentee has written with a lexicographer's quill and crafted special definitions (id. at 1582; Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1316). Such specially defined meanings trump ordinary usage.

Patents' Subject Matter

Both patents claim inventions for frothing liquid (think milk) without using steam or electricity (Patent '087 and Patent '122 abstracts). Users of the apparatus and method can manually pump a screened plunger into a container of milk to create froth in the confines of home*fn4 without the need for the conventional (and cumbersome) steamer. In the preferred embodiment, as the user pumps the plunger vertically inside the cylindrical container, the liquid is aerated by the agitation caused by forcing it through the screened portion of the plunger and is thus frothed.

Claim 1 of Patent '087

In Claim 1 of Patent '087 the parties seek construction of this language: the plunger comprising; a plunger body having a circumference; a screen; and a spring positioned about the circumference of the plunger body such that the spring is biased to hold the screen in place in contact with, though not sealably connected to, the container;

Some of that language has been agreed upon:

1. "Spring" means "an elastic body or device that recovers its original shape when released after being distorted" (M. Mem. 7; B. Mem. 11).

2. "A plunger body having a circumference" means "a component (of the plunger) having an outer circular periphery" (M. R. Mem. 5; B. Mem. 11).

Bodum also proposes that "screen" be defined as "a perforated plate or meshed wire or cloth of no particular shape or size" (B. Mem. 12), and Meyer has agreed to accept the bulk of that definition, requesting only that "of no particular shape or size" be left off as surplusage (M. R. Mem. 2). As is so often the case, the shorter version is superior. Adding "of no particular shape ...

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