Search the Archives           Subscribe           About this News Service           Reader Comments

Archived updates for Friday, September 03, 2004

Most Times a Connector is just a Connector (. . . and not "means for connecting")

In Lighting World v. Birchwood Lighting, slip op. 03-1534, -1535 (Fed. Cir. September 3, 2004) Judge Bryson explained that
"In considering whether a claim term recites sufficient structure to avoid application of section 112, paragraph 6, we have not required the claim term to denote a specific structure. Instead, we have held that it is sufficient if the claim term is used in common parlance or by persons of skill in the pertinent art to designate structure, even if the term covers a broad class of structures and even if the term identifies the structures by their function. See Greenberg v. Ethicon Endo-Surgery, Inc., 91 F.3d 1580, 1583 (Fed. Cir. 1996); see also Apex, 325 F.3d at 1372; CCS Fitness, 288 F.3d at 1369; Watts, 232 F.3d at 880; Personalized Media Communications, 161 F.3d at 704.

Thus, while it is true that the term "connector assembly" does not bring to mind a particular structure, that point is not dispositive. What is important is whether the term is one that is understood to describe structure, as opposed to a term that is simply a nonce word or a verbal construct that is not recognized as the name of structure and is simply a substitute for the term "means for. . . ." In light of the principles discussed above, it is not surprising that we have seldom held that a limitation not using the term "means" must be considered to be in means-plus-function form. In fact, we have identified only one published opinion since Greenberg in which we have done so, and that case provides a useful illustration of how unusual the circumstances must be to overcome the presumption that a limitation lacking the word "means" is not in means-plus-function form.

The exceptional case is Mas-Hamilton Group v. LaGard, Inc., 156 F.3d 1206 (Fed. Cir. 1998). In that case, we held that the terms "lever moving element" and "movable link member" recited in a patent to a high security combination lock were in means-plus-function form. . . . Although the term "element" may be recognized as structural in some fields of art, the Mas-Hamilton court noted that the patentee had not directed the court "to any evidence demonstrating that the district court erred in determining that the term 'lever moving element' lacks a reasonably well understood meaning" in the relevant art. Id. at 1214. The court in Mas-Hamilton also upheld the district court's ruling that there was no evidence that the term "movable link member" had a well-understood meaning in the art. Accordingly, the court held that the limitation reciting a "movable link member for holding the lever out of engagement with the cam surface before entry of a combination and for releasing the lever after entry of the combination" was in means-plus-function format.

Unlike in Mas-Hamilton, in this case the pertinent patents and dictionaries indicate that the term "connector assembly" refers to a device that takes its name from the function it performs. The term "connector assembly" is therefore more like the "detent mechanism" of Greenberg than the "lever moving element" or "movable link member" of Mas-Hamilton.

On this record, Birchwood has not demonstrated that section 112 6 should apply to the "connector assembly" limitation. . . . Because the intrinsic record and dictionaries reflect that the terms "connector" and "connector assembly" are used as the names for structure, we conclude that the "connector assembly" limitation in claim 1 of the '460 patent is not in means-plus-function form. Accordingly, we vacate the district court's ruling that Birchwood's product does not literally infringe the '460 patent, and we remand the literal infringement issue to the district court for reconsideration in view of the proper claim construction.

And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. . . .
    (0)comment(s)     translate     More Updates     Send