Williamson v. Citrix Online: Rebutting Presumption Against "Means-Plus" regarding "module" claim term

By: Jesus Hernandez, Blog Editor/Contributor 
TitleWilliamson v. Citrix Online, LLC, No. 2013-1130 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 5, 2014).
[1: Claim Construction] [T]he district court issued a claim construction order, construing, inter alia, the following limitations of independent claims 1 and 17: “graphical display representative of a classroom” and “first graphical display comprising...a classroom region” (collectively, the “graphical display” limitations). The district court held that these terms require “a pictorial map illustrating an at least partially virtual space in which participants can interact, and that identifies the presenter(s) and the audience member(s) by their locations on the map.”
Williamson at *8.
[2: Means-Plus] [T]he district court also concluded that the limitation of claim 8, “distributed learning control module,” was a means-plus-function term under 35 U.S.C. § 112, para. 6. The district court then evaluated the specification and concluded that it failed to disclose the necessary algorithms for performing all of the claimed functions.
Id. at *8.
[1: Claim Construction] [W]e conclude that the district court incorrectly construed the graphical display terms to have a “pictorial map” limitation [because the e claim language itself contains no such limitation, and there is nothing in the intrinsic record to warrant narrow construction].
Id. at *11.
[2: Means-Plus] The district court here failed to give weight to the strong presumption that 35 U.S.C. § 112, para. 6, did not apply based on the absence of the word “means.” […] [I]n determining that the strong presumption was overcome, the district court erred: (1) in failing to appreciate that the word “module” has a number of dictionary meanings with structural connotations; (2) in placing undue emphasis on the word “module” separate and apart from the claimed expression “distributed learning control module”; and (3) in failing to give proper weight to the surrounding context of the rest of the claim language and the supporting text of the specification in reaching the conclusion that the drafter employed means- plus-function claiming.
Id. at *14.
Procedural HistoryRichard A. Williamson (“Williamson”), as trustee for the At Home Corporation Bondholders’ Liquidating Trust, owns U.S. Patent No. 6,155,840 (“the ’840 patent”) and appeals from the stipulated final judgment in favor of defendants Citrix Online, LLC; Citrix Systems, Inc.; Microsoft Corporation; Adobe Systems, Inc.; Webex Communications, Inc.; Cisco Webex, LLC; Cisco Systems, Inc.; and International Business Machines Corporation (collectively, “Appellees”). Because the district court erroneously construed the limitations “graphical display representative of a classroom” and “first graphical display comprising . . . a classroom region,” we vacate the judgment of non-infringement of claims 1–7 and 17–24 of the ’840 patent.
Williamson at *3.
Legal Reasoning (LINN)
Representative claim 11. A method of conducting distributed learning among a plurality of computer systems coupled to a network, the method comprising the steps of:

providing instructions to a first computer sys- tem coupled to the network for:

creating a graphical display representative of a classroom;

creating a graphical display illustrating controls for selecting first and second data streams;

creating a first window for displaying the first selected data stream; and

creating a second window for displaying the second selected data stream, wherein

the first and second windows are dis-played simultaneously; and

providing instructions to a second computer system coupled to the network for:

creating a graphical display representative of the classroom;

creating a third window for displaying the first selected data stream; and

creating a fourth window for displaying the second selected data stream, wherein

the third and fourth windows are dis- played simultaneously.

Williamson at *4-5.
1: Claim Construction: “graphical display” Limitations
Legal StandardTo ascertain the scope and meaning of the asserted claims, this court looks to the words of the claims themselves, the specification, the prosecution history, and, lastly, any relevant extrinsic evidence. Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1315–17 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc). Whether claim language invokes § 112, para. 6,2 is an exercise of claim construction and is therefore a question of law, subject to de novo review. Personalized Media Commc’ns, LLC v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, 161 F.3d 696, 702 (Fed. Cir. 1998).
Williamson at *9.
Claim languageThe district court erred in construing these terms as requiring a “pictorial map.” First, the claim language itself contains no such “pictorial map” limitation. “[I]t is the claims, not the written description, which define the scope of the patent right.” Laitram Corp. v. NEC Corp., 163 F.3d 1342, 1347 (Fed. Cir. 1998); see id. (“[A] court may not import limitations from the written description into the claims.”). While the specification discloses examples and embodiments where the virtual classroom is depicted as a “map” or “seating chart,” nowhere does the specification limit the graphical display to those examples and embodiments. This court has repeatedly “cautioned against limiting the claimed invention to preferred embodiments or specific examples in the specification.” Teleflex, Inc. v. Ficosa N. Am. Corp., 299 F.3d 1313, 1327–28 (Fed. Cir. 2002) (quoting cases).
Id. at *10.
Intrinsic Record[T]here is no suggestion in the intrinsic record that the applicant intended the claims to have the limited scope determined by the district court. To the contrary, the embodiments and examples in the specification of classroom metaphors relating to “maps” are consistently described in terms of preference. For example, at column 2, lines 34–39, the specification states that “[t]he class- room metaphor preferably provides a map of the class- room showing the relative relationships among the presenters and audience members.” ’840 patent, col. 2 ll. 37–39 (emphasis added). In another example, the graph- ical display of Figure 6 is described as an “exemplary display” on the presenter’s computer. Id. at col. 7 ll. 35– 36. That exemplary display includes a window that “preferably provides a seating chart showing the audience members and presenters in the classroom or auditorium.” Id. at col. 9 ll. 5–7 (emphasis added).
Id. at *10-11.
2: Means-Plus “distributed learning control module” Limitation
Legal Standard: Means-Plus and Strong Presumption Against We stated that the failure to use the word “means” in a claim limitation created a rebuttable presumption that 35 U.S.C. § 112, para. 6 did not apply. See Personalized Media, 161 F.3d at 703–04; DePuy Spine, 469 F.3d at 1023. This presumption is “a strong one that is not readily overcome.” Lighting World, Inc. v. Birchwood Lighting, Inc., 382 F.3d 1354, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2004). To rebut this strong presumption, it must be demonstrat- ed that “skilled artisans, after reading the patent, would conclude that [the] claim limitation is so devoid of struc- ture that the drafter constructively engaged in means- plus-function claiming.” Inventio AG v. ThyssenKrupp Elevator Ams. Corp., 649 F.3d 1350, 1357 (Fed. Cir. 2011). A claimed expression cannot be said to be devoid of struc- ture if it 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.” Lighting World, 382 F.3d at 1359–60.
Williamson at *12-13.
Legal Standard: Means-Plus and Dictionaries“Technical dictionaries, which are evidence of the un- derstandings of persons of skill in the technical arts” may inform whether claim terms connote structure. Linear Tech. Corp. v. Impala Linear Corp., 379 F.3d 1311, 1320 (Fed. Cir. 2004); Mass. Inst. of Tech. v. Abacus Software, 462 F.3d 1344, 1355 (Fed. Cir. 2006). Moreover, in circumstances in which “[a] structure-connoting term . . . is coupled with a description of [its] operation, sufficient structural meaning generally will be conveyed to persons of ordinary skill in the art.” Linear Tech, 379 F.3d at 1320. In making this assessment, it is important to consider the claimed expression as a whole, and not merely any single word, as well as its surrounding textual context. See Apex Inc. v. Raritan Computer, Inc., 325 F.3d 1364, 1372 (Fed. Cir. 2003)
Id. at *13.
interpreting "module"The district court, in characterizing the word “module” as a mere nonce word, failed to appreciate that the word “module” has understood dictionary meanings as connoting either hardware or software structure to those skilled in the computer arts. While the parties here have not cited any dictionaries, we have frequently looked to the dictionary to determine if a disputed term has achieved recognition as a term denoting structure. “[J]udges are free to consult dictionaries and technical treatises ‘at any time in order to better understand the underlying technology and may also rely on dictionary definitions when construing claim terms, so long as the dictionary definition does not contradict any definition found in or ascertained by a reading of the patent documents.’”[…]
Id. at *14 (internal citations omitted).
Term as a whole[The district court] also failed to consider the claimed expression “distributed learning control module” as a whole. This was error. See Apex, 325 F.3d at 1372. The adjectival modifiers “distributed learning control” cannot be ignored and serve to further narrow the scope of the expression as a whole. Id. at 1374. Here, the “distributed learning control module” is claimed as a part of the definite structure “distributed learning server” and “receive[s] communications transmitted between the presenter and the audience member computer systems,” “relay[s] the communications to an intended receiving computing system,” and “coordinat[es] the operation of the streaming data module.” ’840 patent, col. 11 ll. 55–62. These claimed interconnections and intercommunications support the conclusion that one of ordinary skill in the art would understand the expression “distributed learning control module” to connote structure.
Id. at *15-16.
SpecificationThe specification further explains that the distributed learning control module operates as a functional unit of the distributed learning server and coordinates the operation of the streaming data module through input from the presenter computer system. Id. at col. 5 ll. 34–36. The specification also makes clear that the distributed learn- ing control module includes software that runs on a portion of the distributed learning server. Id. at col. 5 ll. 40–58.
Id. at *16.
Because the district court erred in construing the “graphical display” limitations of claims 1 and 17 and the “distributed learning control module” limitation of claim 8, we vacate the stipulated judgment of non-infringement of claims 1–7 and 17–24 and of invalidity of claims 8–16 and remand the case to the district court.
Williamson at *16-17.
REYNA, Circuit Judge, dissenting. Williamson, Reyna Op., at 2.
General Grounds for dissentI agree with the majority that the district court erred in finding that the “graphical display representative of a classroom” terms require a pictorial map. The majority, however, ignores critical evidence showing that an image of a visually depicted virtual classroom is required. Further, I do not agree that claim 8 of the ’840 patent discloses sufficient structure to keep the claim limitation “distributed learning control module” outside of the requirements of 35 U.S.C. § 112, paragraph 6. For these and the reasons set forth below, I respectfully dissent.
Williamson, Reyna Op., at *2.
Claim Construction[I]n this case, the repeated mention of the classroom metaphor within the context of the invention and the importance of a visually depicted virtual classroom in the prosecution history indicate that the “graphical display representative of a classroom” terms require a visually depicted virtual classroom. The construction derived by the majority reads out this important limitation that distinguishes the invention from the prior art. See Callicrate v. Wadsworth Mfg., Inc., 427 F.3d 1361, 1369 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (holding that it was error for the district court to read out a limitation clearly required by the claim language and specification). It is error to read a claim too broadly, as it is to read a claim too narrowly. See, e.g., Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1321 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc). In reading out this important limitation on the “graphical display representative of a classroom” terms, the majority sidesteps our well established rules of claim construction, causing them to reach an erroneous result.
Id. at *4.
Means PlusThe definitions [of dictionaries relied upon by the majority] only identify that “module” is either hardware, software, or both. Without more, the concept of generic software or hardware only reflects function. It refers only to a “general category of whatever may perform specified functions.” Robert Bosch, LLC v. Snap-On Inc., --- F.3d ---, No. 2014-1040, 2014 WL 5137569, at *4 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 14, 2014) (holding that the claim terms “program recognition device” and “program loading device” are governed by 35 U.S.C. § 112, para- graph 6 because they fail to connote sufficient structure). Consider that the IBM Dictionary of Computing uses the terms “functional hardware unit” and “[something] that performs a particular function.” Maj. Op. at 14-15. The Computer Glossary similarly defines “module” in terms of its function: “interfac[ing].” Id. at 15. Finally, the Dic- tionary of Computing defines “module” as a “construct” or “component.” Id. The definitions disclose what software or hardware potentially do, not how it is done.
Id. at *6-7 (text added).
 Image Attribution Statement: Fig. 3 of U.S. Pat. 6,155,840.
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