Structural Equivalents for Brackets?
Or, perhaps the decision merely shows why we should move means-plus-function analysis out of the hypothetical realm of infringing "structural equivalents" and back toward the real world of invalidating prior art by shifting the interpretation toward any known means for carrying out the claimed function. (See, e.g., "Structure Function, and the Importance of Claim-Type Differentiation" at http://ip-updates.blogspot.com/2005/09/claim-type-differentiation-for-dummies.html and invite me to present this material to your organization.)
The court began by construing the function of the means-plus-function limitation as "receiving and locking a video game controller into a fixed position on the mounting member for use" and the structure corresponding to this function as controller holders 21-24. Controller holders 21-24 allowed a video game controller 40 to be positioned within the controllers and locked into place by flanges 21A-24A as shown to the left.
In light of this construction, the court concluded that no reasonable fact-finder, applying the correct claim construction, could find that the means-plus-function limitation does not read on the V3 and affirmed the lower court's holding that the V4 does not infringe.
(Hey Judge Prost, an image of the allegedly infringing feature would really help...)According to the court,
"The clips in the V3 [left] perform the identical claimed function of "receiving and locking a video game controller into a fixed position on the mounting member for
use." While a user of the V3 might adjust the height of the steering wheel by disengaging the clips using the cam and moving the steering wheel column up or down through the shell, it is the V3’s clips that receive and lock the steering wheel in a fixed position when the user seeks to use the V3 to simulate driving a vehicle in a video game. The shell and the screws holding the shell together do not lock the steering wheel column into a fixed position.
Rather, the shell defines a space through which the steering wheel column slides
when the height of the steering wheel is adjusted. Neither does the shell’s cam
lock the steering wheel column into a fixed position. Rather, the cam provides a
mechanism to engage or disengage the clips so that the steering wheel’s height
may be adjusted. Even controller holders 21-24 must be "bendable away from each
other to allow a video game controller . . . to be positioned within the
controllers and locked into place . . . ." ’754 patent, col. 2, ll. 41-45. The
fact that the V3 adds a shell to allow the steering wheel height to be adjusted
and a cam mechanism to provide a mechanical way to tighten and loosen the clips
does not mean that the clips do not lock the steering wheel in a fixed position.
These additional features amount to improvements that do not avoid infringement.
See Stiftung v. Renishaw PLC, 945 F.2d 1173, 1179 (Fed. Cir. 1991) ("[A]n
improvement upon a patented device does not necessarily avoid infringement.").
Furthermore, the means-plus-function limitation need only read on part of the V3
for the V3 to infringe, see SunTiger, Inc. v. Scientific Research Funding Group,
189 F.3d 1327, 1336 (Fed. Cir. 1999) ("If a claim reads merely on a part of an
accused device, that is enough for infringement."). And the fact that controller
holders 21-24 may perform unclaimed functions "differently or not at all is
simply not pertinent to the measure of § 112, ¶ 6 equivalents," Odetics, 185
F.3d at 1271; see also Vulcan Eng’g Co. v. Fata Aluminum, Inc., 278 F.3d 1366, 1375 (Fed. Cir. 2002) ("It is irrelevant whether an element [shown in a patent] has capabilities in addition to that stated in the claim. When the claimed function is performed in the accused system, by the same or equivalent structure, infringement of that claim is established.").
Moreover, there is no reasonable conclusion but that the clips in the V3 are
identical, or at least equivalent, structure when compared to controller holders
21-24. Indeed, the only potential difference between the clips and the claimed
holders is that holders 21-24 are "bendable." Both controller holders 21-24 and
the V3’s clips are L-shaped pieces of plastic. For these reasons, based on the
evidence before the district court, we are left with the definite and firm
conviction that a mistake has been committed since no reasonable fact-finder,
applying the correct claim construction, could conclude that the
means-plus-function limitation does not read on the V3.
Like the V3, the V4 clearly performs the function of "receiving and locking a video game controller into a fixed position on the mounting member for use." The relevant question regards whether the structure used by the V4 to accomplish the claimed function is either identical or equivalent to controller holders 21-24. See Odetics, 185 F.3d at 1267 ("Literal infringement of a § 112, ¶ 6 limitation requires that the relevant structure in the accused device perform the identical function recited in the claim and be identical or equivalent to the corresponding structure in the specification.").
We are not persuaded that the district court clearly erred in determining that the V4 does not include structure that is identical or equivalent to controller holders 21-24. While JVW points to testimony that the structures were known to be nterchangeable and that the specific locking means disclosed in the ’754 patent was not particularly important to Mr. Wagner’s invention, the district court necessarily rejected that testimony, and "credibility determinations by the trial judge ‘can virtually never be clear error.’" First Interstate Bank of Billings v. United States, 61 F.3d 876, 882 (Fed. Cir. 1995) (quoting Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 575 (1985)); see also Monon Corp. v. Stoughton Trailers, Inc., 239 F.3d 1253, 1263-64 (Fed. Cir. 2001).
Moreover, even though the district court’s infringement analysis was predicated on an incorrect claim construction, no reasonable fact-finder, applying the correct claim construction, could conclude that the means-plus-function limitation reads on the V4 because of substantial differences between controller holders 21-24 and the V4’s plates and molded projections. While controller holders 21-24 are L-shaped, the plates are donut-shaped so as to surround the V4’s metal shaft, and the projections are straight. Moreover, the structures clearly perform the claimed function in substantially different ways. For example, controller holders 21-24 lock a controller into a fixed position by preventing linear, up and down movement of the steering wheel column. In contrast, the projections lock a controller into a fixed position by preventing rotational movement of the steering wheel unit on the shaft. We therefore affirm the district court’s finding that the V4 does not infringe any claim of the ’754 patent."