Inventorship as the Wind Blows
By: Dennis Crouch
on August 28, 2020 at 4:15 pm
Publication: Patent – Patently-O

Egenera, Inc. v. Cisco Systems, Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2020)

Egenera’s network system architecture patent (US7231430) lists eleven inventors.  Back in 2016, Energa sued Cisco for infringement, and Cisco responded with an IPR petition.  At that point, Egenera “realized that all claim limitations had been conceived before one listed inventor, Mr. Peter Schulter, had started working there.”  Egenera’s underlying concern in the case was its ability to prove an early pre-filing invention date.

It is apparent that at least part of Egenera’s motivation to remove Mr. Schulter was to facilitate swearing behind  “Grosner,” a piece of prior art asserted against Egenera in the IPR.

Slip op.  The PTAB declined to institute the IPR, but the PTO did grant the petition to remove Shulter.

Back in the district court, Cisco argued that Shulter was actually an inventor (of the claimed tripartite structure) and that the patent was therefore invalid under pre-AIA 102(f).  At that point, Egenera suggested that Shulter be conditionally re-listed as an inventor:

The [district] court … rejected Egenera’s argument that if the trial showed Mr. Schulter to be an inventor, the patent’s inventorship should be corrected under 35 U.S.C. § 256(b). The court reasoned that judicial estoppel precluded Egenera from “resurrect[ing]” Mr. Schulter’s inventorship.

Slip Op.  The district court did subsequently determine that Shulter had conceived of the claimed structure, that Egenera was judicially estopped from adding him back as an inventor, and that the patent claims were therefore invalid.

Section 256 of the Patent Act was modified in the AIA (2011) to remove “deceptive intent” from the inventor-correction provision. The statute now allows correction of an “error” of omitting a named inventor and does not require that “such error arose without any deceptive intention on his part“.   The statute goes on to explain that the error “shall not invalidate the patent in which such error occurred if it can be corrected.”  Although Energa’s patent is a pre-AIA patent, the modification here applies to old patents.

The district court found that the removal of Mr. Shulter was a strategic and deliberate decision — and therefore not an error.  In addition, the district court found that the inventorship “tactical ploy” created an estoppel to present the second Shulter from being added back.

Regarding Error: Deliberate and calculated acts are often in error.  And the law of inventorship allows for correction of those errors — even if they were “dishonest” errors. Thus, the removal of Shulter counts as an “error” under the statute that may be corrected.

Judicial Estoppel: Judges are given some discretion in applying judicial estoppel regarding changing of arguments during litigation. However, there is a usual three-element test:

  1. Are the two positions clearly inconsistent with one another?
  2. Did the party succeed in persuading the court to accept the first position?
  3. Would the party receive an unfair advantage if not estopped?

1. Clearly Inconsistent: Originally Egenera listed Shulter as an inventor of the claims; Later they argued he should not be listed as an inventor of the same claims; finally they argued that he should be relisted as an inventor, still the same claims.  At first (and second) glance, these appear clearly inconsistent.

In reviewing these elements, the Federal Circuit found no clear inconsistency. In particular, the court explained that the district court’s claim construction and development of inventorship facts. In particular, the court had, over Egenera’s objection, interpreted a certain claim term as means-plus-function. That interpretation tied the claim to embodiments in the specification conclusively linked Shulter to the invention.  The court notes that changes in “the law” excuse inconsistency.  Since claim construction is a question of law, then it apparently serves as an excuse.

2. Acceptance of the First Position: Although the PTO accepted the change in inventorship, the Federal Circuit held that the PTO’s actions here do not serve as judicial action. Rather, the PTO did not truly examine the facts of the situation — instead it simply “agreed that all the signatures and fees were in order.”  As such, the second requirement of “persuading the court to accept” was not met.

3. Unfair Advantage: The court here could also find no unfair advantage taken by the inconsistent positions.  In particular, although Shulter was dropped in order to gain some advantage in the IPR, the IPR was actually denied before the change in inventorship was approved. Although arguments were made regarding the issue in the petition, the PTAB apparently denied the petition “without addressing Egenera’s priority arguments.”  The appellate panel writes that “Things might be different had Egenera succeeded in swearing behind the prior art. . . . But that is not this case.”

Since none of the factors point toward estoppel, the appellate panel found that it was improperly applied. On remand, the district court will need to allow inventorship to be amended and then reconsider validity and infringement.

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