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Decoding Patents: Navigating the Implications of Foreign Prosecution Estoppel and Choice of POSITA

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The recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) in K-fee System GmbH v. Nespresso USA, Inc. involved important questions of claim construction and patent prosecution estoppel. Aligning with the ordinary understanding of the average person, the court interpreted the term "barcode" based on visual appearance rather than strict data encoding.  However, did the Federal Circuit err in its claim construction by focusing on the wrong “person” of ordinary skill in the art (POSITA) when they construed “barcode” based on appearance rather than functionality? Notably, the court considered statements from the patent owner in foreign patent prosecution while construing the term, a consideration that seems to challenge established CAFC precedent.  This departure raises concerns about the potential impact on existing standards. As such, the ruling potentially expands the scope of prosecution history estoppel globally, prompting practitioners to take into account statements made in foreign prosecution of related patents during litigation proceedings in the United States. Ultimately, the decision navigates the delicate equilibrium between adaptability and precision in patent law, influencing the landscape of intellectual property protection.

When posed the question, “what is a barcode?” the average user conjures a mental image characterized by alternating white and black bars arranged in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. While the user’s understanding of a barcode’s intricate workings may be limited, they recognize it as a repository of information decipherable by a computer.  The answer to this question was considered by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in a recent patent infringement case. Aligning with the ordinary understanding, the Federal Circuit, ruling in favor of the patent owner, interpreted “barcode” to be rooted in the visual appearance of a barcode, rather than just on the text of the specification.

In K-fee System GmbH v. Nespresso USA, Inc.,[1] the Federal Circuit was asked to construe the meaning of “barcode” as used in three U.S. Patents owned by K-fee. The patents are related to coffee-machine capsules that display information readable by a coffee machine to control the brewing process.  The information is encoded in a “barcode.”  K-fee filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Nespresso USA, alleging that Nespresso's products violated these patents.

As part of the claim construction procedure, the court reviewed statements made by the patent owner during an EP opposition to determine whether they limited the breath of the claims. The court concluded that the statements did not amount to a clear and unmistakable disclaimer of claim scope. Specifically, the court noted that K-fee's statements regarding barcodes having bit code were not unequivocal or unambiguous and did not meet the standard for disclaimer of claim scope. The court held the term “barcode” should be construed based on its visual appearance as understood by the relevant artisan. Specifically, the Federal Circuit defined a barcode by its visual appearance as a series of parallel bars of varying widths.

The Federal Circuit adhered to proper claim construction protocol and conducted an analysis of how a person of ordinary skill in the relevant art would interpret the term "barcode." However, did the Federal Circuit err in its claim construction by focusing the wrong “person” of ordinary skill in the art (POSITA) when they construed “barcode” based on appearance?   A POSITA is not an average person or user of the technology in question but an individual with an appropriate level of ordinary skill in the relevant art. For instance, a POSITA for cell phone technology is not the everyday user but the average engineer developing cell phones. Similarly, in the context of developing coffee-machine capsules, the POSITA is not the user who merely operates the machine, but the average engineer involved in technology development.

While an average user might lack knowledge about how a barcode functions and encodes data, a POSITA possesses a deeper understanding.  As such, the POSITA, who comprehends the intricate details of barcode technology, would not define a barcode solely based on its visual appearance. This is because the POSITA recognizes the importance of coding within the barcode, forming a connection with how the visual information is interpreted by a computer. However, in the present opinion, the Federal Circuit failed to outline the specific qualifications, experience, and education of the hypothetical POSITA and seemingly defined “barcode” based on how an everyday user would define a barcode.

The opinion also raises the issue of prosecution history estoppel in U.S. patent law.  Prosecution history estoppel limits the scope of patent claims based on statements made during patent prosecution. However, the scope of prosecution history estoppel in the U.S. is conventionally limited to statements made in U.S. prosecution and statements made in extrinsic evidence.  Relevant CAFC precedent establishes that different legal and procedural requirements for obtaining patent protection in foreign countries may make it inappropriate to consider certain types of representations in a claim construction analysis of a U.S. counterpart. Consequently, the CAFC typically asserts that statements made regarding different, albeit similar, claims in foreign patent office proceedings, considering differing foreign patent laws, are generally deemed irrelevant.

The present opinion may influence more litigants to use prosecution history estoppel from statements made in international prosecution of related international patents. This potential trend raises concerns, as it requires courts to analyze statements while also considering differences in laws, which introduces the risk of judgment errors based on the lack of knowledge of foreign law.  Nevertheless, the ruling underscores the high standard required for prosecution history estoppel.  The court emphasized that K-fee's statements did not meet the unequivocal or unambiguous standard, thus highlighting the stringent criteria for applying prosecution history estoppel. 

In conclusion, the Federal Circuit's decision in K-fee System GmbH v. Nespresso USA, Inc. raises a question of judgment in the Federal Circuit’s choice of a POSITA and holds significant implications for prosecution history estoppel in U.S. patent law.   While the court aligned with the average user's understanding, emphasizing the visual appearance of barcodes, a question arises about whether the selection of a POSITA was focused on an everyday user or a person skilled in the relevant art, such as the engineer or developer of a coffee-machine capsule.  Furthermore, the opinion seemingly contradicts existing precedent and extends the scope of prosecution history estoppel beyond U.S. borders, allowing litigants to consider international prosecution history in related patents.  The potential increase in litigants leveraging international prosecution history estoppel raises concerns about the complexity introduced by varying foreign laws.  Despite these considerations, the decision reinforced the stringent criteria for applying prosecution history estoppel, highlighting the need for clarity and unequivocal statements during patent prosecution.

Best Practice Tips:

1)     When drafting patents, ensure that key terms are clearly defined in the specification. This can help avoid ambiguity and provide a solid foundation for claim construction. When defining the key terms, recognize the importance of accurately identifying the POSITA. Tailor the description and interpretation of technical terms to align with the expertise and knowledge of the intended POSITA to avoid potential discrepancies in claim construction.

2)     Patentees should be mindful of the global implications of their statements.  When litigating patents having related foreign patents or patent applications, consider how statements made in different jurisdictions might impact claim construction in the U.S. This global perspective becomes essential in maintaining consistency and avoiding unintended consequences in patent enforcement within U.S. borders.


[1] 89 F.4th 915 (Fed. Cir. 2023).