Recently, I received a rejection based on “mixing claim types” where the Examiner asserted that one of my claims had language for both a method and a system. Sure enough, I could see his point. Under MPEP 2173.05(p), an apparatus claim including method steps is non-statutory.
Under section (I), a product-by-process claim is proper and is a product claim that defines the claimed product in terms of the process by which it is made. In re Luck, 476 F.2d 650, 177 USPQ 523 (CCPA 1973), and others.
However, under section (II), a single claim which claims “both an apparatus and the method steps of using the apparatus is indefinite under 35 U.S.C. 112, second paragraph.” IPXL Holdings v. Amazon.com, Inc., 430 F.2d 1377, 1384, 77 USPQ2d 1140, 1145 (Fed. Cir. 2005); Ex parte Lyell, 17 USPQ2d 1548 (Bd. Pat. App. & Inter. 1990) (claim directed to an automatic transmission workstand and the method of using it held ambiguous and properly rejected under 35 U.S.C. 112, second paragraph).
This section also states that such “claims may also be rejected under 35 U.S.C. 101 based on the theory that the claim is directed to neither a ‘process’ nor a ‘machine,’ but rather embraces or overlaps two different statutory classes of invention set forth in 35 U.S.C. 101 which is drafted so as to set forth the statutory classes of invention in the alternative only.” Id. at 1551.
MPEP 2114 elucidates that apparatus claim validity relies solely upon the structure of the device itself, irrespective of function. If apparatus claim novelty relies upon functional language, the claim is invalid. This section of the MPEP states as follows:
APPARATUS CLAIMS MUST BE STRUCTURALLY DISTINGUISHABLE FROM THE PRIOR ART
While features of an apparatus may be recited either structurally or functionally, claims directed to an apparatus must be distinguished from the prior art in terms of structure rather than function. In re Schreiber, 128 F.3d 1473, 1477-78, 44 USPQ2d 1429, 1431-32 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (The absence of a disclosure in a prior art reference relating to function did not defeat the Board’s finding of anticipation of claimed apparatus because the limitations at issue were found to be inherent in the prior art reference); see also In re Swinehart, 439 F.2d 210, 212-13, 169 USPQ 226, 228-29 (CCPA 1971);< In re Danly, 263 F.2d 844, 847, 120 USPQ 528, 531 (CCPA 1959). “[A]pparatus claims cover what a device is, not what a device does.” Hewlett-Packard Co. v. Bausch & Lomb Inc., 909 F.2d 1464, 1469, 15 USPQ2d 1525, 1528 (Fed. Cir. 1990) (emphasis in original).
MANNER OF OPERATING THE DEVICE DOES NOT DIFFERENTIATE APPARATUS CLAIM FROM THE PRIOR ART
A claim containing a “recitation with respect to the manner in which a claimed apparatus is intended to be employed does not differentiate the claimed apparatus from a prior art apparatus” if the prior art apparatus teaches all the structural limitations of the claim. Ex parte Masham, 2 USPQ2d 1647 (Bd. Pat. App. & Inter. 1987) (The preamble of claim 1 recited that the apparatus was “for mixing flowing developer material” and the body of the claim recited “means for mixing …, said mixing means being stationary and completely submerged in the developer material”. The claim was rejected over a reference which taught all the structural limitations of the claim for the intended use of mixing flowing developer. However, the mixer was only partially submerged in the developer material. The Board held that the amount of submersion is immaterial to the structure of the mixer and thus the claim was properly rejected.).
A PRIOR ART DEVICE CAN PERFORM ALL THE FUNCTIONS OF THE APPARATUS CLAIM AND STILL NOT ANTICIPATE THE CLAIM
Even if the prior art device performs all the functions recited in the claim, the prior art cannot anticipate the claim if there is any structural difference. It should be noted, however, that means plus function limitations are met by structures which are equivalent to the corresponding structures recited in the specification. In re Ruskin, 347 F.2d 843, 146 USPQ 211 (CCPA 1965) as implicitly modified by In re Donaldson, 16 F.3d 1189, 29 USPQ2d 1845 (Fed. Cir. 1994). See also In re Robertson, 169 F.3d 743, 745, 49 USPQ2d 1949, 1951 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (The claims were drawn to a disposable diaper having three fastening elements. The reference disclosed two fastening elements that could perform the same function as the three fastening elements in the claims. The court construed the claims to require three separate elements and held that the reference did not disclose a separate third fastening element, either expressly or inherently.).
MPEP 2106 IV. B. is titled “Determine Whether the Claimed Invention Falls Within An Enumerated Statutory Category” and states the following:
To properly determine whether a claimed invention complies with the statutory invention requirements of 35 U.S.C. 101, USPTO personnel must first identify whether the claim falls within at least one of the four enumerated categories of patentable subject matter recited in section 101 (i.e., process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter).
In many instances it is clear within which of the enumerated categories a claimed invention falls. Even if the characterization of the claimed invention is not clear, this is usually not an issue that will preclude making an accurate and correct assessment with respect to the section 101 analysis. The scope of 35 U.S.C. 101 is the same regardless of the form or category of invention in which a particular claim is drafted. AT&T, 172 F.3d at 1357, 50 USPQ2d at 1451. See also State Street, 149 F.3d at 1375, 47 USPQ2d at 1602 wherein the Federal Circuit explained:
The question of whether a claim encompasses statutory subject matter should not focus on which of the four categories of subject matter a claim is directed to — process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter — [provided the subject matter falls into at least one category of statutory subject matter] but rather on the essential characteristics of the subject matter, in particular, its practical utility.
For example, a claimed invention may be a combination of devices that appear to be directed to a machine and one or more steps of the functions performed by the machine. Such instances of mixed attributes, although potentially confusing as to which category of patentable subject matter the claim belongs, does not affect the analysis to be performed by USPTO personnel. Note that an apparatus claim with process steps is not classified as a “hybrid” claim; instead, it is simply an apparatus claim including functional limitations. See, e.g., R.A.C.C. Indus. v. Stun-Tech, Inc., 178 F.3d 1309 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (unpublished).
The burden is on the USPTO to set forth a prima facie case of unpatentability. Therefore if USPTO personnel determine that it is more likely than not that the claimed subject matter falls outside all of the statutory categories, they must provide an explanation. For example, a claim reciting only a musical composition, literary work, compilation of data, >signal,< or legal document (e.g., an insurance policy) per se does not appear to be a process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter. >See, e.g., In re Nuitjen, Docket no. 2006-1371 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 20, 2007)(slip. op. at 18)(“A transitory, propagating signal like Nuitjen’s is not a ‘process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter.’ . Thus, such a signal cannot be patentable subject matter.”).< If USPTO personnel can establish a prima facie case that a claim does not fall into a statutory category, the patentability analysis does not end there. USPTO personnel must further continue with the statutory subject matter analysis as set forth below. Also, USPTO personnel must still examine the claims for compliance with 35 U.S.C. 102, 103, and 112.
If the invention as set forth in the written description is statutory, but the claims define subject matter that is not, the deficiency can be corrected by an appropriate amendment of the claims. In such a case, USPTO personnel should reject the claims drawn to nonstatutory subject matter under 35 U.S.C. 101, but identify the features of the invention that would render the claimed subject matter statutory if recited in the claim.