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A General-Usage Dictionary Cannot Overcome Credible Art-Specific Evidence of Meaning of Claim Term

May 03, 2004
Ferguson Ph.D., Mary K.

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Last Month at the Federal Circuit - June/July 2004

Judges: Michel (author), Gajarsa, and Linn

In Vanderlande Industries Nederland BV v. International Trade Commission, No. 03-1349 (Fed. Cir. May 3, 2004), the Federal Circuit affirmed rulings that (1) Vanderlande Industries Nederland BV (“Vanderlande”) violated 19 U.S.C. § 1337 by importing products that infringe claims 1 and 4 of U.S. Patent No. 5,127,510 (“the ’510 patent”), and (2) the patent owner and licensee were not barred from asserting the ‘510 patent against Vanderlande under the doctrine of equitable estoppel.

Intervenors Siemens Dematic Corporation (“Siemens”) and Rapistan Systems Advertising Corporation (“Rapistan”), respectively, are the exclusive licensee and owner of the patent-in-suit, which relates to mechanical sorting systems that push an item across slats of a conveyor belt. The patent-in-suit describes a system that minimizes the reaction force of an item against the diverter shoe, laterally moving that item as it travels along a conveyor. The ‘510 patent discloses technology designed to improve glide and reduce the reaction forces that tend to flip the shoe over and rotate it sideways during sorting. Such conveyorbelt sorting systems are commonly used in mail or package-sorting facilities.

Siemans and Rapistan filed a complaint with the ITC seeking a limited exclusion order for sortation systems or parts that are manufactured abroad and/or imported by or on behalf of Vanderlande. The ITC investigated and ruled that Vanderlande’s Mark 2 Posisorter product infringes claims 1 and 4 of the ‘510 patent. The ITC rejected Vanderlande’s defense of equitable estoppel and held the company in violation of 19 U.S.C. § 1337.

In reviewing the ITC claim construction, the Federal Circuit relied on intrinsic evidence to construe the limitation “glide surface surrounding said [slat] wall” from the viewpoint of one of ordinary skill in the art. The Federal Circuit reasoned that because the “Summary of the Invention” expressly contemplates embodiments in which the glide surface contacts at least one edge of a slat, Vanderlande’s proposed construction requiring that the glide surface of the shoe contact a slat on all sides is inconsistent with the written description. The Federal Circuit reasoned that the written description discloses detailed, art-specific examples of glide surfaces in the Summary that fall outside of Vanderlande’s proposed construction. Even when the Summary emphasizes that such embodiments are not optimal, the Court remarked, they fall within the disclosure of the invention and indicate that the patent requires a broader meaning of the disputed term.

The Court considered and rejected a dictionary definition of “glide” put forward by Vanderlande, stating that the definition of a term from a general-usage dictionary does not outweigh countervailing inventor and expert testimony that the disputed claim term had no independent meaning in the art. The Court stated that evidence demonstrating that skilled artisans attach a special meaning (or no meaning at all) to a disputed claim term renders a contrary definition from a general-usage dictionary irrelevant. The Court thus adopted a construction of “glide surface” that embraces the accused product.

The Federal Circuit also found no error in the ITC’s omission of a formal construction of the limitation “glide surface having substantially the same configuration as said outer surface of said slat.” The Court held that an implicit construction of the term does not create reversible error, and that substantial evidence supports the application of the claim limitation to the accused device as a reasonable person might accept that there is adequate support for the conclusion that the shape of the inner surface of the diverter shoe, while not identical to the outer surface of the slat, has “substantially the same configuration.”

And finally, the Federal Circuit affirmed the ITC ruling that Siemans and Rapistan were not equitably estopped from asserting the ‘510 patent against Vanderlande. Vanderlande argued that they were misled to believe that the patent would not be asserted against them by a two to three year delay between warnings of potential infringement and the initiation of litigation before the ITC. The Federal Circuit noted that Rapistan initiated litigation nine months after receiving confirmation of infringing activities, and, thus, the patentees had not misled Vanderlande with any delay. Finding that Siemans and Rapistan did not mislead Vanderlande, the Court concluded that the ITC properly rejected this defense.