Masterminding functional claiming of an apparatus, but too soft on intrinsic evidence for claim construction.

Michael Caridi | November 3, 2017

MasterMine Software, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp.

October 30, 2017

Before Newman, O’Malley and Stoll. Opinion by Stoll.

Summary

MasterMine appealed from a stipulated judgment of noninfringement and invalidity following adverse claim construction and indefiniteness rulings from the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota. The CAFC found that the District Court had correctly interpreted the term “pivot table” based on the intrinsic evidence.  However, the Circuit reversed the District’s indefiniteness determination finding the claim language sufficiently directed to an apparatus and noting that functional language is appropriate when it is describing what the apparatus is capable of while not describing the actions of a user.

Discussion

I.  Background

MasterMine sued Microsoft Corporation for infringement of its two related patents, U.S. Patent Nos. 7,945,850 and 8,429,518. MasterMine asserted claims 1, 8, 10, and 12 of the ’850 patent and claims 1, 2, and 3 of the ’518 patent.

The District Court entered a claim construction order, construing the term “pivot table” to mean “an interactive set of data displayed in rows and columns that can be rotated and filtered to summarize or view the data in different ways”.  In the same order, the District agreed with Microsoft that claims 8 and 10 of the ’850 patent and claims 1, 2, and 3 of the ’518 patent were indefinite for improperly claiming two different subject-matter classes.

II. Opinion

a.  Claim Construction

MasterMine argues that the district court improperly construed the term “pivot table,” which it proposed should be construed as a “computer software object [or structure] defining an interactive table that can show the same data from a list or a database in more than one arrangement” so as to include tables that do not display data.  The Circuit detailed the intrinsic record including review of the specification and prosecution history of the patent family.  They found no evidence supporting a “pivot table” that did not display data outside of the specification containing excerpts of computer code that would generate a pivot table with an empty data display area.  With no compelling evidence to support doing otherwise, the CAFC upheld the District’s ruling.

b.  Indefiniteness

The Circuit focused on claim 8 of the ‘850 patent which the district court had used as the basis for the indefiniteness rulingThe parts of the claim in issue were:

“[a] system comprising”:

. . . .

a reporting module installed within the CRM software application . . . ;

. . . .

wherein the reporting module installed within the CRM software application presents a set of user selectable database fields as a function of the selected report template, receives from the user a selection of one or more of the user-selectable database fields, and generates a database query as a function of the user selected database fields;

After a thorough review of precedent regarding a claim directed to both a method and an apparatus being indefinite, the Court found that despite the hefty amount of functional language, the claims at issue were clearly directed to an apparatus.  Specifically, the Court noted that although claim 8 includes active verbs (“presents” “receives” and “generates”) these verbs represent permissible functional language used to describe capabilities of the “reporting module.” The claims were clearly describing that the system possesses the recited structure which is capable of performing the recited functions.  Differentiating the current claims from those found invalid in preceding opinions, the Court noted that the claims at issue do not claim activities performed by the user. The claims only “make reference to user selection, they do not explicitly claim the user’s act of selection, but rather, claim the system’s capability to receive and respond to user selection.”  Further, the functional language does not appear in isolation, but is specifically tied to the claimed structure. The CAFC concluded:

Because the claims merely use permissible functional language to describe the capabilities of the claimed system, it is clear that infringement occurs when one makes, uses, offers to sell, or sells the claimed system. Accordingly, because these claims inform those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention with reasonable certainty, we reverse the district court’s determination…

Take Away

  • Claim construction should be supported by clear recitations in the intrinsic record. Unclear extrapolations from the specification, such as interpreting fragments of code to reach the construction, will not suffice.
  • Functional language which describes what the recited structure is capable of doing or is configured to do will not render a claim indefinite even if active verbs are used. Using language which describes the user interaction rather that how an apparatus is capable of being acted upon should be avoided.

Full Opinion

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