Federal Circuit again tackles the meaning of “a”January 18, 2008

In a decision this week, the Federal Circuit affirmed-in-part and reversed-in-part a district court's grant of summary judgment of non-infringement with respect to two patents relating to cleaning printing press cylinders. Both findings were based on issues of claim construction, with one centering around an issue that has reached the Federal Circuit multiple times: the definition of the word "a." The district court construed it to mean only one, rather than one or more. The Federal Circuit noted that in a claim, there is a general rule (as opposed to a "presumption" or a "convention") that "a" or "an" means "one or more," and is only given a more limiting construction if there is a clear intent to limit its meaning. No such intent was present here, so the court reversed the district court's construction.More details of Baldwin Graphic Sys., Inc. v. Siebert, Inc. after the jump. Baldwin Graphic Systems filed suit against Siebert asserting infringement of two patents directed towards cleaning systems for a cylinder of a printing press. The patents cover systems use cleaning fabric strips, as well as methods for making the cleaning systems. With respect to the first patent, two terms were at issue: "a pre-soaked fabric roll" and "sealed sleeve." The district court, relying on the use of "said fabric roll" in the claim at issue, construed "a pre-soaked fabric roll" as "a single pre-soaked fabric roll." The district court also relied on a statement in the specification which the district court stated evidenced an intent to limit "a" to "single" because the condition in the cited passage would not be possible with more than one roll. Regarding the "sealed sleeve" limitation, the district court, noting that "all references in the reissue patent specification to a sealed sleeve are to a 'heat-sealed' or a 'heat shrunken and heat-sealed' sleeve, as are all references in the 28 claims that appeared in the original '157 patent," interpreted the phrase as "heat sealed sleeve." Based on its construction of these phrases, the district court granted Seibert's motion for summary judgment of non-infringement with respect to the first patent. The Federal Circuit first addressed the "a pre-soaked fabric roll" limitation. In reversing the district court's construction, the court stated "that 'a' or 'an' can mean 'one or more' is best described as a rule, rather than merely as a presumption or even a convention," and noted that the exceptions to the rule were "extremely limited" and required "clear intent to limit 'a' or 'an' to 'one.'" There was no such clear intent in the specification or prosecution history. Also, the use of "said fabric roll" later in the claim did not signify such intent, as the uses all had proper antecedent basis. As a result, the Federal Circuit held that "a pre-soaked fabric roll" was not limited to "a single pre-soaked fabric roll." Regarding the "heat-sealed" limitation, however, the Federal Circuit agreed with the district court's construction, noting that "the claims would have been invalid for lack of support in the initial disclosure for the new subject matter encompassed by the change because the claims could not show any support if construed to encompass more than heat-sealed sleeves." Accordingly, because the district court's correct construction of the phrase "sealed sleeve" rendered Seibert's fabric rolls non-infringing independent of the construction of "a single pre-soaked fabric roll," the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court's summary judgment of non-infringement with respect to the first patent. With respect to the second patent, the district court construed the similar phrases "reduced air content cleaning fabric" in claim 1 and "reducing air content of a strip of cleaning fabric" in claim 14 as a single term, "reduced air content cleaning fabric." The district court held the air content reduction step of the claims was limited to a particular timing relative to when the fabric was wound. Accordingly, the district court construed the phrase as "a fabric whose air content has been reduced by some method prior to being wound on a roll" and therefore granted summary judgment of non-infringement. The Federal Circuit, noting that it "discerns no way to uphold the trial court's construction of 'reduced air content cleaning fabric,'" noted that "[c]ourts must generally take care to avoid reading process limitations into an apparatus claim" and that "courts must carefully avoid importing limitations from the specification into method claims." Because the district court's construction improperly imported limitations from the specification into its construction, and the claims themselves did not contain a basis for requiring air content reduction before winding, the Federal Circuit reversed the district court's construction and the related finding of non-infringement, and remanded for further proceedings.To read the full decision in Baldwin Graphic Sys., Inc. v. Siebert, Inc., click here.

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