Friday, October 7, 2016

Apple v. Samsung, Part ?? (not the Supreme Court case)

I've lost count of the rounds back and forth in Apple v. Samsung. But another opinion issued today, and it was a doozy. When we last left our intrepid litigants in late March, the panel had reversed the $120m verdict in favor of Apple, ruling a) non-infringement of a patent, and b) obviousness of two patents (slide to unlock and autocorrect). These rulings were as a matter of law - that is, they reversed jury findings to the contrary.

Apple filed for an en banc hearing, and we never heard anything again...until today. The en banc Federal Circuit (except Judge Taranto, who did not participate) vacated the panel opinion. The decision came without briefing, and it was unanimous...except for the three members of the original panel, who all dissented.

The opinion begins with a statement (rebuke?) about what appellate review should do: take the facts as found by the factfinder, and then review them for substantial evidence. The opinion takes umbrage at the fact that substantial evidence is not really addressed by the original panel at all. The opinion also takes issue with "extra record" material being considered for claim construction on appeal. The opinion then goes through each patent and shows the substantial evidence that would support a verdict, even if the appeals court would disagree with it.

Perhaps most telling of the deferential approach is the slide to unlock patent, which I think is the weakest of the bunch. The prior art, when combined, clearly has all the elements. But in finding non-obviousness, the jury found that the person with skill in the art would not have combined the references. That might be wrong, but evidence was submitted to support it, and thus the claim is non-obvious. The dissent takes issue with this, saying that KSR loosened up the combination standard. More on this later.

This opinion has a lot of important aspects:
1. It is another en banc opinion without briefing. I am sure the litigants (especially the losing ones) hate that. As an observer, I'm not so bothered in this case. The briefing was full and complete, and there was little to add in the way of analysis.

2. Why is the en banc circuit showing up only now to defend substantial evidence? I can think of at least two prominent cases in which juries made non-obvious findings of fact that a Federal Circuit panel disregarded to find a patent obvious and the en banc request was denied. Why now?

3. Just what is the obviousness standard of review and who is supposed to make these decisions? In general, the final obviousness determination is one of law, based on underlying findings of fact. Many judges have juries decide those underlying findings of fact, such as the scope of the prior art or the motivations to combine references. Some jury instructions ask in detail, and some just say "is it obvious?" If it is the latter case, then any jury finding is entitled to all inferences on appeal - if the jury said non-obvious, then it must have found no motivation to combine. The problem with this approach (and even the specific question approach) is that it makes it hard to "loosen" a standard as KSR v. Teleflex says we should. KSR affirmed a grant of summary judgment by the district court - in other words, it affirmed a finding that references could be combined as a matter of law. It is unclear why an appellate court could not have made the same determination here. At the same time, why have trials and findings of fact if we are simply going to ignore them? Deciding how obviousness should get decided is almost as important as the obviousness standard itself.

4. This opinion shows the importance of which panel you draw at the Federal Circuit. Apple had the bad fortune to draw the only three judges to disagree here. Of course, we don't know how the en banc dynamics work, and perhaps some in the majority here would have concurred in the original panel opinion. To generalize, though, judicial preferences may drive the disparity in opinions in Section 101 right now. A couple cases that have just issued are ripe targets for en banc review as well to aid this.

This is my final takeaway - if any part of this case is to make it to the Supreme Court, it will be the slide to unlock patent. This is a patent where all the elements are in the prior art, and there is a real dispute about the procedure for determining obviousness. This question has been presented to the Court before, but perhaps this version will take hold.

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