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Means-Plus-Function and Mapping: Breaking Down AGIS v. Life360

Source: Grill IP patents news

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The Federal Circuit recently upheld a decision by Florida’s Southern District Court in AGIS v. Life360. Advanced Ground Information Systems, Inc. filed a complaint against Life360, Inc., holding the defendant’s mobile app, tracking the location of loved ones, infringed upon the technology company’s patents. These allegations were dismissed by the District Court, which held that AGIS’s use of the term “symbol generator” in patent claims lacked definiteness according to 35 U.S.C. 112 ¶ 2. With this case, a higher definiteness of burden is placed on patentees that use non-industry-standard language in claims, particularly when employing coined terms to describe an invention’s function.

The patents-in-suit are Nos. 7,031,728 (claims 3 and 10) and 7, 672,681 (claims 5 and 9). These claims involve a “symbol generator” that tracks the location of cellphone users. AGIS appealed the District Court’s invalidation of these claims, and the Circuit sided with indefiniteness decision, using a strict means-plus-function approach. According to the appellate panel, the “symbol generator” element of the patents-in-suit should be interpreted under 35 U.S.C. 112 ¶ 6 as a means for performing a function without mentioning the supporting structure of that function explicitly. This statute provides a tight construal of all means-plus-function elements in claims so that they solely cover “the corresponding structure…described in the specification thereof.” Without a corresponding structure within claim specifications, the Circuit held that means-plus-function claim elements are indefinite, and therefore, invalid.

The Means-Plus-Function Process

    What goes into the MPF approach? Two major steps are involved in this method for determining patent eligibility. To start, all claim elements seeking to be interpreted as means-plus-function material must involve the term “means.” Since “means” was not included in AGIS’s patents, a rebuttable presumption exists for the non-applicability of 112 ¶ 6. Before Williamson (2015), this presumption was a “strong” one. In that decision, the Federal Circuit replaced a “strong” presumption for one that is easily rebuttable. Now, 112 ¶ 6 applies when the phrasing of a claim lacks a sufficiently definite structure. Such a structure is only achieved when “the words of the claim are understood by person of ordinary skill in the art to have a sufficiently definite meaning as the name for structure.” AGIS coined the phrase “symbol generator” for the sake of its patents. Hence, this descriptor was no already familiar to those with “skill in the art.” The court relied on textual analysis, deeming that the “combination of the terms [symbol + generator] as sued in the context of the relevant claim language suggests that it is simply an abstraction that describes the function being performed (the generation of symbols).”

    Step two occurs once a term is defined as a means-plus-function. Here, the court determines whether a structure exists for the definition of the term in question. AGIS’s symbol generator is a computer implemented function, yet the technology company did not disclose the algorithm for performing the function, a necessary requirement for the court to execute a means-plus-function analysis. According to the court, “a patentee cannot claim a means for performing a specific function and subsequently disclose a ‘general purpose computer as the structure designed to perform that function’” since this “amounts to pure functional claiming.”

    So, after including “means” in one’s claim, a patent owner must describe the function of the material being patented via a clear structure. AGIS failed on both counts, demonstrating the circular reasoning of such means-plus-function framework in this case. In the technology company’s claim specifications, the sole mention of a “symbol generator” stated, “The CPU also includes a symbol generator for creating touch screen display symbols discussed herein.” Had this specification included the sufficiently defined symbol generator as an algorithmic module, the Court may have arrived at a very different conclusion. This sort of claim would have satisfied the structural requirements of 112 ¶ 6, and such a satisfaction would have, in turn, ensured that the proper construction of “symbol generator” was a non-means-plus-function application. Going forward, any patent applicant should ensure that coined terms employed in their claims adhere to step one in order to avoid invalidation.

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