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Sram Corp. v. Formula S.R.L.

April 3, 2009

SRAM CORPORATION, PLAINTIFF,
v.
FORMULA S.R.L. AND PERIGEUM DEVELOPMENT, INC. D/B/A FORMULA BRAKE USA, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles P. Kocoras, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter comes before the court on the parties' requests for a construction of disputed terms within the claims of two patents. The terms at issue are construed as set forth below.

BACKGROUND

This case pertains to patents for two inventions: U.S. Patent No. 6,957,534, for a reach adjustment mechanism for a master cylinder lever of a hydraulic disc brake ("the '534 patent") and U.S. Patent No. 7,178,646, for a master cylinder lever for a hydraulic disc brake having a backpack reservoir ("the '646 patent"). The inventor for both inventions is Wayne Lumpkin; Lumpkin has extensive experience in designing bicycle components, including brake systems. Plaintiff SRAM Corporation is the current owner of the rights contained within the '534 and '646 patents.

According to SRAM's submissions, early hydraulic bicycle brakes presented several problems for riders and manufacturers. Levers could be used only on either the left or the right handlebar; they were not interchangeable. Hydraulic chambers had to be set in particular orientations in order to work properly. Rider-specific positioning of the hand brake lever, particularly the initial positioning of the lever when the rider is applying no pressure (known as "reach") and the position of the lever at which the brake will engage and begin to slow the bicycle, could not be achieved independently. Instead, adjustment of one setting could adversely affect the other. The inventions for which Lumpkin obtained the '534 and '646 patents were intended to address these shortcomings in previous brake systems.

Defendant Formula s.r.l., an Italian corporation, manufactures hydraulic bicycle brakes.*fn1 In its complaint in Case No. 06 C 1025, SRAM asserts that Formula has infringed claims 19-21 of the '534 patent. In its complaint in Case No. 07 C 1565, SRAM contends that Formula has infringed claims 1, 3, 4, 9-12, and 18-21 of the '646 patent. Formula now requests that we construe certain terms used within the patents.

LEGAL STANDARD

Patent claims are construed as a matter of law. See Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 372, 116 S.Ct. 1384, 1387 (1996). In general, claim terms are given the meaning they would have to a person of ordinary skill in the art at the time of the effective filing date of the application for the patent involved. See Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1312-13 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc). To determine what a person of ordinary skill would understand the term to mean at the operative time, a court first considers the language of the claims themselves, the patent's specification, and the history of the patent's prosecution before the Patent and Trademark Office ("PTO")-the intrinsic evidence. See Unique Concepts v. Brown, 939 F.2d 1558, 1561 (Fed. Cir. 1991). The intrinsic evidence forms the public record of what the patentee claimed, and the public is entitled to rely upon this record first and foremost to delineate the patent's scope. Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1583 (Fed. Cir. 1996).

In construing a particular claim term, a court must look first to the language of the claim or claims in which the term appears. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1314. It provides a significant amount of information of the meaning of particular terms through context and relationship to other claims, whether asserted or unasserted. Id. Because the use of particular terms is usually consistent, use of a term in one claim of the patent can provide insight into its meaning when it is used elsewhere as well. Id. The language of the claims is further illuminated by the specification; it is both highly relevant to and often dispositive of the meaning of a disputed term. Id. at 1315. However, the specification is not without pitfalls; limitations found within it cannot be read into claims that do not contain the same limitations. See Golight, Inc. v. Wal-Mart Stores, 355 F.3d 1327, 1331 (Fed. Cir. 2004). A patentee can also attach a meaning to a term other than its ordinary and customary meaning, but he or she must do so in the written description or prosecution history with "reasonable clarity, deliberateness, and precision." Id. at 1332. The final piece of the intrinsic evidence of a term's meaning is the prosecution history. It may shed light on the definition of a disputed term and must be consulted to determine whether the patentee gave a special meaning to a term or disclaimed certain aspects of the invention in the course of obtaining PTO approval. See generally id. at 1331-33.

All other indications of a patent term's meaning derive from so-called extrinsic evidence, such as dictionaries, learned treatises, and expert and inventor testimony. Because extrinsic evidence is not necessarily available to the public as part of the patent record, it should only be relied upon in situations where the terms of a patent are still ambiguous after an examination of the intrinsic evidence. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1317- 19. Whatever extrinsic sources are consulted, they must not be allowed to contradict claim language that is unambiguously set forth in the intrinsic evidence. Id. at 1324.

With these principles in mind, we begin our examination of the disputed terms.

DISCUSSION

A. The '534 Patent

The relevant portions of the disputed claims follow, with terms presented for construction underlined.

19. A master cylinder for a bicycle hydraulic disc brake, the master cylinder comprising:

... a piston having a seal between the cylinder and the piston, the seal having a leading seal edge, the leading seal edge being movable relative to the port opening to vary a dead band distance between the leading seal edge and the port opening with the piston in an unactuated position; a one piece lever pivotably associated with the housing and operatively associated with the piston for moving for [sic] piston within the cylinder between an unactuated and an actuated position as the lever is actuated between a rest position and an actuated position; a reach adjustment operatively associated with the lever for varying the rest position of the lever relative to the master cylinder housing independent of movement of the leading seal edge relative to the hole as the reach adjustment varies the rest position of the lever.

20. A method of varying a reach of a lever actuated bicycle hydraulic disc brake master cylinder, the disc brake master cylinder having a housing defining a cylinder and a port, a piston received in the cylinder, the piston having a seal between the piston and the cylinder wherein the distance between a leading edge of the seal and the port defines a dead band, the lever being one pieceand being operatively associated with the piston, the dead band being variableindependent of lever movement, the method comprising: varying the reach of the one-piece lever; and maintaining a select dead band as the reach of the one-piece leveris varied.

21. A master cylinder for a bicycle hydraulic disc brake, the master cylinder comprising:

... a piston received in the cylinder having a seal operatively associated therewith, the seal having a leading edge, the leading seal edge being moveable between a select starting positionwith the leading seal edge between the first end and the port opening with the leading seal edge a select distancefrom the port opening and a pressurized position with the leading seal edge between the port opening and the second end, the leading seal edge preventing fluid flow between the cylinder and the reservoir when positioned between the port opening and the second end to pressurize the second end; a one piece leverpivotably attached to the housing, the lever being associated with the piston to move the piston between the select starting position and the pressurized position as the lever is pivoted between the rest position and a fully actuated position; reach adjustment means operatively associated with the lever for varying the rest position of the lever with respect to the housing independently of movement of the select distance between the port opening and the leading seal edge; and dead band adjustment means operatively associated with the piston for moving the leading seal edge to adjust the select distance between the port opening and the leading seal edge without varying the rest position of the lever.

1. "One Piece Lever"

As demonstrated above, various iterations of the phrase "one-piece lever" appear in claims 19 and 21 to indicate a lever that is operatively associated with a piston inside a master cylinder. The lever engages the brake by moving between a rest position and an actuated position. According to SRAM, this term does not need to be construed. Formula disagrees and argues that the term means "a lever consisting of only one piece."

As SRAM points out, the phrase "consisting of" has special meaning when used in a patent: It excludes any unrecited claim element and the reach of a claim using the term is correspondingly very narrow. See CIAS, Inc. v. Alliance Gaming Corp., 504 F.3d 1356, 1360-61 (Fed. Cir. 2007). The ill-considered use of this phrase within a patent claim can have drastic consequences for the scope of the protection afforded to the inventor. See Immunocept, LLC v. Fulbright & Jaworski, LLP, 504 F.3d 1281, 1283 (Fed. Cir. 2007). Consequently, it would be inappropriate to ...


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