Friday, August 28, 2015

Dow v. NOVA: Maybe Nautilus Does Matter

In June 2014, the Supreme Court held in Nautilus v. Biosig that the Federal Circuit's "insolubly ambiguous" test for indefiniteness was "more amorphous than the statutory definiteness requirement allows," and that the proper test is whether the claims "fail to inform, with reasonable certainty, those skilled in the art about the scope of the invention." But is this actually a stricter test?

Jason Rantanen (Iowa Law) posted a nice essay this spring, Teva, Nautilus, and Change Without Change (forthcoming Stan. Tech. L. Rev.), arguing that in practice, the answer has been no: "The Federal Circuit continues to routinely reject indefiniteness challenges . . . . Indeed, with one exception, the Federal Circuit has not held a single claim indefiniteness under the Nautilus standard, and even that one exception would almost certainly have been indefinite [pre-Nautilus]." (Since then, the court also held the Teva v. Sandoz claims indefinite, but it had done the same pre-Nautilus.) Rantanen also noted that the Federal Circuit has failed to grapple with the meaning of Nautilus and has continued to rely on its pre-Nautilus cases when evaluating definiteness. In one case the court even reversed an decision that claims were indefinite for reconsideration after Nautilus—implying that the Nautilus standard might be less stringent! (I've noticed the Federal Circuit similarly undermine the Supreme Court's change to the law of obviousness in KSR.)

But the Federal Circuit's decision today in Dow Chemical Co. v. NOVA Chemicals Corp. carefully examines the change Nautilus has wrought. Dow's asserted claims cover an improved plastic with "a slope of strain hardening coefficient greater than or equal to 1.3," and NOVA argued that the patents fail to teach a person of ordinary skill how to measure the "slope of strain hardening." In a prior appeal (after a jury trial), the Federal Circuit had held the claims not indefinite under pre-Nautilus precedent. The district court then held a bench trial on supplemental damages, leading to the present appeal. In today's opinion by Judge Dyk, the Federal Circuit holds that Nautilus's change in law "provides an exception to the doctrine of law of the case or issue preclusion," and holds that the claims are indefinite under the new standard.

The Federal Circuit dismisses the hand-wringing over whether Nautilus really meant anything, stating that "there can be no serious question that Nautilus changed the law of indefiniteness." The court notes that "Nautilus emphasizes 'the definiteness requirement's public-notice function,'" and that "the patent and prosecution history must disclose a single known approach or establish that, where multiple known approaches exist, a person having ordinary skill in the art would know which approach to select. . . . Thus, contrary to our earlier approach, under Nautilus, '[t]he claims . . . must provide objective boundaries for those of skill in the art.'"

Examining the claims at issue, the court notes that the patents state that "FIG. 1 shows the various stages of the stress/strain curve used to calculate the slope of strain hardening," but the patents contain no figure showing the stress/strain curve. There were four ways to measure the slope, which could result in different results, but the patents provided no "guidance as to which method should be used or even whether the possible universe of methods is limited to these four methods." The claims thus fail the new test: "Before Nautilus, a claim was not indefinite if someone skilled in the art could arrive at a method and practice that method," but "this is no longer sufficient."

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