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National Products, Inc. v. Arkon Resources, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

September 30, 2017

BRACKETRON, INC., Defendant.




         This matter comes before the court in order to construe terms in United States Patent No. 6, 585, 212 (the "Patent"), entitled "Quick Release Electronics Platform." (See Am. Compl. against Arkon (Dkt. # 44) ¶10; see also Ex. A ("Patent").) The court has reviewed the parties' claim construction briefs (NPI Op. Br. (Dkt. #86); Defs. Op. Br. (Dkt. # 85); NPI Resp. (Dkt. # 92); Defs. Resp. (Dkt. # 94)), all materials filed in support thereof, the relevant portions of the record, and the relevant case law. The court also heard oral argument from the parties at a Markman hearing on September 19, 2017. (9/19/17 Min. Entry (Dkt. # 95).) Being fully advised, the court construes the disputed terms as set forth below.


         Plaintiff National Products, Inc. ("NPI") owns the Patent and alleges that Defendants Arkon Resources, Inc. ("Arkon"), Bracketron, Inc. ("Bracketron"), High Gear Specialties Inc. ("HGS"), and Wireless Accessory Solutions, LLC d/b/a iBolt ("iBolt") (collectively, "Defendants") infringe claim 27 of the Patent through their respective accessory device holder products. (See Am. Compl. ag. Arkon ¶14; Am. Compl. ag. Bracketron (Dkt. # 45) ¶14; Am. Compl. ag. HGS (Dkt. # 46) ¶14; Am. Compl. ag. iBolt (Dkt. # 47) ¶ 21.) NPI further asserts that Bracketron additionally infringes claims 21 and 23 of the Patent. (Am. Compl. ag. Bracketron ¶14.) The parties stipulated to consolidate the four cases (Stip. Mot. to Consolidate (Dkt. # 18)), and the court adopted their joint memorandum (4/7/16 Min. Entry (Dkt. # 24)).

         The Patent covers a mounting platform for holding a portable accessory device, such as a laptop or cell phone, in an automobile or other moving environment (the "Invention"). The Invention contains the following major structural components: (1) the platform, where the accessory device sits, which comprises of two large frame members or body portions that are pulled towards each other through a biasing member, such as a tension spring; and (2) several smaller arm tools that attach to both sides of the frame members and jut up above the top of the platform, so that these arms can grip the upper edge of the accessory device and secure the device against the platform. (See Patent at 1:47-2:3.) These two structural components feature repeatedly in the disputed terms.

         The parties dispute the meaning of the following eight claim terms in the Patent:[1]

1. slidably interconnected;
2. mechanically coupled;
3. base portion (of the clamping mechanism)[2];
4. base portion (of the clamping member);
5. jaw portion;
6. jaw portion extending at an obtuse angle from one end of the base portion AND[3] jaw portion extending at a predetermined obtuse angle from one end of the elongated base portion;
7. jaw portion extending from the base portion at an angle between approximately 120 degrees and 150 degrees AND jaw portion ... extending at an angle between approximately 120 degrees and 150 degrees; and
8. clamp mounting surface being structured to cooperate with the mounting structure of the clamping mechanism for positioning the resilient compressible pad spaced away from and inclined toward the device mounting surface.

         The court now discusses the law behind claim construction and the application of that law to these eight terms.


         A. Law of Claim Construction

         The court has the sole responsibility for construing patent claims. Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 372 (1996). Subsequent authority has clarified that the court construes claims as a matter of law, though the court may make subsidiary factual findings regarding extrinsic evidence. Teva Pharm. USA, Inc. v. Sandoz, Inc., ___U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 831, 836-38, 840-42 (2015). In practice, executing the Markman mandate means following rules that rank the importance of various sources of evidence that disclose the "true" meaning of claim terms.

         The Federal Circuit summarized its view of proper claim construction in Phillips v. AWH Corporation, 415 F.3d 1303 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc). Although the case focused on the role of dictionaries in claim construction, it also reviewed the claim construction process. Intrinsic evidence, which includes the patent and its prosecution history, is the primary source from which to derive a claim's meaning.[4] Id. at 1314. The court's task is to determine the "ordinary and customary meaning" of the terms of a claim in the eyes of a person of ordinary skill in the art on the filing date of the patent. Id. at 1313 (quoting Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996)). In its review of intrinsic evidence, the court should begin with the language of both the asserted claim and other claims in the patent. Id. at 1314; see also Innova/Pure Water, Inc. v. Safari Water Filtration Sys., Inc., 381 F.3d 1111, 1116 (Fed. Cir. 2004) ("[C]laim construction analysis must begin and remain centered on the claim language itself.").

         The court must read claim language, however, in light of the remainder of the patent's specification. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1316 ("[T]he specification necessarily informs the proper construction of the claims."). The specification acts as a "concordance" for claim terms, and is thus the best source beyond the claim language for understanding those terms. Id. at 1315. The inventor is free to use the specification to define claim terms as she wishes, and the court must defer to the inventor's definitions. Id. at 1316 ("[T]he inventor's lexicography governs.").The court should "rely heavily" on the specification in interpreting claim terms. Id. at 1317. The court should not, however, commit the "cardinal sin" of claim construction-impermissibly reading limitations from the specification into the claims. Id. at 1320 (citing SciMed Life Sys. v. Advanced Cardiovascular Sys., Inc., 242 F.3d 1337, 1340 (Fed. Cir. 2001)). Although a court should limit the meaning of a claim where the "specification makes clear at various points that the claimed invention is narrower than the claim language might imply, " the court must not read particular embodiments and examples appearing in the specification into the claims unless the specification requires it. Alloc, Inc. v. Int'l Trade Comm'n, 342 F.3d 1361, 1370 (Fed. Cir. 2003); Constant v. Advanced Micro-Devices, Inc., 848 F.2d 1560, 1571 (Fed. Cir. 1988). Additionally, although figures illustrating the invention may be used in construing claims, "the mere fact that the patent drawings depict a particular embodiment of the patent does not operate to limit the claims to that specific configuration." Prima Tekll, I.L.C. v. Polypap, S.A.R.L., 318 F.3d 1143, 1148 (Fed. Cir. 2003).

         More recently, the Federal Circuit has continued to emphasize the importance of reading the claims in the context of the specification and prosecution history.[5] Laryngeal Mask Co. Ltd. v. Ambu, 618 F.3d 1367, 1370 (Fed. Cir. 2010) ("The words of a claim are generally given their ordinary and customary meaning as understood by a person of ordinary skill in the art in question at the time of the invention when read in the context of the specification and prosecution history.")- Although the patent's prosecution history is also intrinsic evidence, it is generally "less useful for claim construction purposes" than the specification. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1317. Because the prosecution history documents an invention's evolution from application to the issuance of the patent, it usually "lacks the clarity of the specification." Id. The prosecution history is useful, however, in determining when an inventor has expressly disavowed certain interpretations of her claim language. Id. Specifically, a patentee may limit the meaning of a claim term by making a clear and unmistakable disavowal of scope during prosecution. Comput. Docking Station Corp. v. Dell, Inc., 519 F.3d 1366, 1374-75 (Fed. Cir. 2008). A patentee could do so, for example, by clearly characterizing the invention in a way to try to distinguish prior art. Id. The doctrine of prosecution disclaimer "protects the public's reliance on definitive statements made during prosecution" by "precluding patentees from recapturing through claim interpretation specific meanings [clearly and unmistakably] disclaimed during prosecution." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Finally, the court can consider extrinsic evidence, "including expert and inventor testimony, dictionaries, and learned treatises." Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1317 (quoting Marhnan, 52 F.3d at 980) (internal quotation marks omitted). For a variety of reasons, extrinsic evidence is usually "less reliable than the patent and its prosecution history" as a source for claim interpretation. Id. at 1318. The court thus need not admit extrinsic evidence, but may do so at its discretion. Id. at 1319.

         With this general framework in mind, the court turns to the disputed claim terms.

         B. Disputed Terms

         The parties ask the court to construe the following eight terms. The court addresses each term in the order the parties briefed them and groups together terms when appropriate.

         1. slidably interconnected

         The term "slidably interconnected" appears in Claims 1, 21, 27, and 33 of the Patent. (Patent at 7:21-32, 9:40, 10:16-17, 10:54-55.) It describes how the two frame members of the Invention are structured in relation to each other. (See id.) The parties agree that the term must allow the two frame members to slide relative to one another along one direction but disagree as to whether the two frame members must be directly connected. (NPI Op. Br. at 7; Defs. Op. Br. at 6-7.) The parties offer the following competing constructions:

NPI's Proposed Construction: "structured to permit sliding relative to one another along one axis." (NPI Op. Br. at 6.)
Defendants' Proposed Construction: "connected to each other to permit sliding relative to one another along one axis."[6] (Defs. Op. Br. At 6.)

         The court construes this term as "connected, directly or indirectly, to each other to permit sliding relative to one another along one axis." This construction largely tracks Defendants' proposal but emphasizes that the connection may be either direct or indirect.[7]

         Defendants maintain that the two frame members must be directly connected because the descriptions and the embodiments in the specification exclusively describe a track-and-slide system that directly connects the two frame members. (Defs. Op. Br. at 6-7.) But this is an improper attempt to import the limitations in the specification to the claim language. See SciMed Life Sys., 242 F.3d at 1341. There are no "repeated and definitive remarks" in the specification that the embodiments described are the only ones contemplated, see Comput. Docking Station Corp., 519 F.3d at 1374; in fact, the specification contains a statement to the contrary, noting that "[w]hile the preferred embodiment of the invention has been illustrated and described, it will be appreciated that various changes can be made therein without departing from the spirit and scope of the invention" (Patent at 7:25-28). Because the intrinsic evidence does not demonstrate "a clear intention to limit the claim scope" in the fashion Defendants propose, the court declines to do so. See Liebel-Flarsheim Co. v. Medrad, Inc., 358 F.3d 898, 906 (Fed. Cir. 2004).

         This conclusion-that not every iteration contemplated by the Patent contains the track-and-slide system-is bolstered by the fact that Claim 6, a dependent claim, specifies that the two frame members include "cooperating track-and-slide members." (See Patent at 7:65-66.) Because this dependent claim contains the track-and-slide system, it implies that the independent claim upon which it depends-Claim 1 with the "slidably interconnected" language-does not limit the Invention to track-and-slide systems. See Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1315 (finding that the presence of a dependent claim that adds a particular limitation gives rise to the presumption that the limitation is not present in the independent claim).

         Moreover, limiting "slidably interconnected" to a direct connection excludes an embodiment disclosed by the specification. An interpretation that makes a preferred embodiment fall outside the scope of the patent claim is "rarely, if ever, correct." Vitronics Corp., 90 F.3d at 1583. But Defendants' construction would do just that. For instance, Figure 2 of the Patent evinces the two frame members in an indirect connection: The body portions are not directly touching each other, but instead, are connected through an intermediary structure-in this embodiment, a tension spring.[8] (See Patent at Fig. 2.) Furthermore, in the description of the preferred embodiment, the specification states that "the first and second body portions 12, 20 can be separated by a force exerted along the first direction 16." (Id. at 4:50-51.) But an intermediary component, such as a tension spring, would "resist the separating force ... and thereby urge[] the first and second body portions 12, 20 back together." (Id. at 5:52-54.) Thus, both the figure and the description illustrate the possibility of an indirect connection between the two frame members.

         The conclusion that "slidably interconnected" would encompass both direct and indirect connections is further supported by Douglas Dynamics, LLC v. Buyers Products Company, 717 F.3d 1336 (Fed. Cir. 2013).[9] Douglas Dynamics considered a similar dispute over whether the term "connected to" encompassed only direct connections between the two parts in question. Id. at 1342. The patent contained an embodiment that depicted the two parts connected via an intermediate "hitch arm" that is separate from both pieces but "serves to indirectly connect the two [parts] together." Id. at 1342-43. Because a construction that required direct connections would "exclude a preferred embodiment of the invention, " id. at 1342, the court concluded that the term "connected to" is not limited to direct connections, id. at 1343. Similarly here, the Patent features an embodiment that depicts the two frame members connected via a tension spring that is separate from both body portions but indirectly connects the two. (Patent at Fig. 2.) Because construing the term to encompass only direct connections would exclude this preferred embodiment, the term "slidably interconnected" likewise cannot be limited to direct connections.

         Defendants correctly observe that the term "interconnect" is used in Claim 16 to describe a direct connection. (Defs. Op. Br. at 7.) And it is generally correct that terms are "normally used consistently throughout the patent." Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1314. However, although the connection in Claim 16 happens to be a direct one, nothing about the usage of the term "interconnect" in that claim limits all connections to direct connections. (See Patent at 8:65-66.) Thus, there is no inconsistency for the term "interconnect" to include both direct connections, as described in Claim 16, and indirect connections, as is the case for the two frame members.

         Finally, Defendants contend that the dictionary definition of "interconnect" supports their proposed construction. (Defs. Op. Br. at 7.) The Webster's II New College Dictionary, which Defendants rely on, defines "interconnect" as "[t]o be connected one to the other." (Id.) But critically, this definition does not mandate that the connection be direct. Indeed, even an indirect connection, such as the one depicted in Figure 2, would fall within the Defendants' own definition for "interconnect." Thus, the dictionary definition supports the court's construction.

         The foregoing analysis leads the court to conclude, as NPI argues, that "slidably 1 interconnected" encompasses both direct and indirect connections. But NPI's proposed I construction is nonetheless flawed. NPI's proposal--"structured to permit sliding relative to one another"-could encompass devices that are not connected at all, but ¶ rather structured in a way that allows the two parts to move alongside each other. Such a reading would contradict the term's ordinary and customary meaning as understood by a person of ordinary skill in the art. And nothing in the intrinsic evidence suggests that "slidably interconnected" can be construed to include devices whose frame portions are not connected whatsoever. (See generally Patent.)

         Accordingly, the court adopts Defendants' construction but clarifies that the connection may be direct or indirect. The court construes "slidably interconnected" to mean "connected, directly or indirectly, to each other to ...

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