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The Metraflex Company v. Flex-Hose Company

September 8, 2011

THE METRAFLEX COMPANY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
FLEX-HOSE COMPANY, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Harry D. Leinenweber

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Before the Court are the parties' briefs on construing Claims 1 through 18 and 20 of U.S. Patent No. 6,727,928 (hereinafter, the "'928 Patent" or "Patent").

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff The Metraflex Company ("Metraflex") accuses Defendant Flex-Hose Company, Inc. ("Flex-Hose") of infringing its '928 Patent for a Method of Displaying Product Selection on a Web Site. The effective filing date for the '928 Patent is January 8, 2000. The Patent was granted on April 27, 2004. The invention at issue is a method of displaying a product that has features with differently configured permutations. It purports to be useful when a computer program displays the product, such as through a web site. The invention provides for a user to select different permutations of various features associated with a product. A composite image of the product featuring the selected permutations is then generated and displayed. In this invention, permutations are stored rather than images of all of the different possible combinations. This reduces the storage requirements for displaying the various combinations.

This litigation has reached claim construction, and the parties dispute the meanings of eight terms in Claims 1 through 18 and 20: (1) "using a computer program via a global computer network comprising the steps"; (2) "steps [1, 2, 3 . . . ]"; (3) "selecting"; (4) "permutation"; (5) "proceeding to a step [4] / [3] if no further [fitting [or other features]] / [permutations] / are to be selected"; (6) "fitting"; (7) "generating a composite image of said selected product"; and (8) "variable visual features / physical components / features."

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Claim interpretation is a question of law. See Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967, 976--78 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (en banc). Judicial construction is reserved for "when the meaning or scope of technical terms and words of art are unclear and in dispute." Eli Lilly & Co. v. Aradigm Corp., 376 F.3d 1352, 1360 (Fed. Cir. 2004). In interpreting an asserted claim, a court should look first to the intrinsic evidence of record, i.e., the patent itself, including the claims, the specification, and the prosecution history. See Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996).

A court should look to the words of the claims themselves to define the scope of the patented invention. See id. Although words in a claim are generally given their ordinary and customary meanings, a patentee may use terms in a manner other than their ordinary meaning, as long as the patent specification clearly states the special definition. See id. A court must construe the claim language according to the meaning of the words to a person skilled in the art as of the application date. See W.L. Gore & Assoc., Inc. v. Garlock, Inc., 721 F.2d 1540, 1556 (Fed. Cir. 1983). In this case, the parties agree that the person with the ordinary skill in the art is in the software programming field and specializes in user interfaces and digital imaging, and has a four-year undergraduate degree in computer programming and at least two years of experience in that field or a related industry.

Second, to determine if a patentee has used any claim terms in a manner inconsistent with their ordinary and customary meanings, the court must review the patent specification. See Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1582. Claims must be analyzed in view of the specification. See Markman, 52 F.3d at 979. A patent specification acts as a dictionary when it either defines claim terms expressly or defines terms by implication. See Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1582 ("Usually, [the specification] is dispositive; it is the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term."). As a general rule, patent claims are not limited to the preferred embodiment or the examples in the specification. See Dow Chem. Co. v. United States, 226 F.3d 1334, 1342 (Fed. Cir. 2000). As a third step, a court should also consider the prosecution history of the patent, if in evidence. See Markman, 52 F.3d at 980; Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1582.

If claim language remains unclear after review of the intrinsic record, a court "may look to the extrinsic evidence to help resolve the lack of clarity." Interactive Gift Express, Inc. v. Compuserve Inc., 256 F.3d 1323, 1332 (Fed. Cir. 2001). Such evidence includes dictionaries and learned treatises. See Markman, 52 F.3d at 980. The court may consult, for example, general or technical dictionaries to assist in determining the commonly understood meaning of a term. See Texas Digital Sys., Inc., v. Telegenix, Inc., 308 F.3d 1193, 1202--04 (Fed. Cir. 2002). The Federal Circuit, however, has reaffirmed the primacy of the intrinsic evidence, making it clear that a court must not use extrinsic sources such as dictionaries to contradict claim terms unambiguous in light of the intrinsic evidence. See Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1317--24 (Fed. Cir. 2005)(en banc).

III. ANALYSIS

A. "using a computer program via a global computer network comprising the steps" (Claims 1, 2, and 20)

The Court construes the phrase "using a computer program via a global computer network comprising the steps" to mean "performing each step of the method in the computer program via a global computer network." First, each step of the claim elements (Steps 1 through 5 in each of Claims 1, 2, and 20) that follow the phrase "using a computer program via a global computer network comprising the steps" must be performed through a computer program via a computer network. Also, the steps must occur sequentially as listed. The first step requires the user to access a web site. The following steps of selecting fittings and permutations, either manually or automatically, also must occur while the user accesses the computer network. A user must complete this selection process using the network to effectuate the display of a composite image on a remote computer.

The preamble of the Patent must be read in context with the claim necessary to give meaning to the rest of the claim. Where the claim preamble recites limitations of the claim or provides a requisite to give "life, meaning, and vitality to the claim," then the court construes the preamble as if in the balance of the claim. Pitney Bowes, Inc. v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 182 F.3d 1298, 1305 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (stating that where the preamble recites a limitation, there is no meaningful distinction between the preamble and the rest of the claim and only together do they comprise the claim). Where the body of the claim fully and intrinsically sets forth the complete invention, however, the preamble is of no significance to the claim construction. See id.

Here, the preamble recites limitations of the claims and is necessary to give life, meaning, and vitality to the claim. The preamble recites a method for "displaying a commercial product having various possible fittings by using a computer program via a global computer network. . . ." This is not merely a statement describing the invention's intended field of use. '928 Patent col.4 l.13--31. Instead, that statement must be read as relating to the ensuing language in the claims. In Claims 1, 2, and 20, step 1 requires "accessing a web site from a computer remote from a host computer." In general, "[u]sers need a Web browser and an Internet connection to access a Web site." Microsoft Computer Dictionary 564 (5th ed. 2002). In steps 2 and 3, the user, after accessing a web site, selects a fitting and a potential permutation of that fitting through the host computer. Step 4 produces a composite image of the product with the selected permutations through the host computer. Finally, in step 5 the host computer displays the composite image on the remote computer. The remote computer is a part ...


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