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2114    Apparatus and Article Claims — Functional Language [R-08.2012]

For a discussion of case law which provides guidance in interpreting the functional portion of means-plus-function limitations see MPEP § 2181 - § 2186.

I.   APPARATUS CLAIMS MUST BE STRUCTURALLY DISTINGUISHABLE FROM THE PRIOR ART

While features of an apparatus may be recited either structurally or functionally, claims directed to an apparatus must be distinguished from the prior art in terms of structure rather than function. In re Schreiber, 128 F.3d 1473, 1477-78, 44 USPQ2d 1429, 1431-32 (Fed. Cir. 1997) (The absence of a disclosure in a prior art reference relating to function did not defeat the Board’s finding of anticipation of claimed apparatus because the limitations at issue were found to be inherent in the prior art reference); see also In re Swinehart, 439 F.2d 210, 212-13, 169 USPQ 226, 228-29 (CCPA 1971);In re Danly, 263 F.2d 844, 847, 120 USPQ 528, 531 (CCPA 1959). “[A]pparatus claims cover what a device is, not what a device does.” Hewlett-Packard Co. v.Bausch & Lomb Inc., 909 F.2d 1464, 1469, 15 USPQ2d 1525, 1528 (Fed. Cir. 1990) (emphasis in original).

II.   MANNER OF OPERATING THE DEVICE DOES NOT DIFFERENTIATE APPARATUS CLAIM FROM THE PRIOR ART

A claim containing a “recitation with respect to the manner in which a claimed apparatus is intended to be employed does not differentiate the claimed apparatus from a prior art apparatus” if the prior art apparatus teaches all the structural limitations of the claim. Ex parte Masham, 2 USPQ2d 1647 (Bd. Pat. App. & Inter. 1987) (The preamble of claim 1 recited that the apparatus was “for mixing flowing developer material” and the body of the claim recited “means for mixing ..., said mixing means being stationary and completely submerged in the developer material”. The claim was rejected over a reference which taught all the structural limitations of the claim for the intended use of mixing flowing developer. However, the mixer was only partially submerged in the developer material. The Board held that the amount of submersion is immaterial to the structure of the mixer and thus the claim was properly rejected.).

III.   A PRIOR ART DEVICE CAN PERFORM ALL THE FUNCTIONS OF THE APPARATUS CLAIM AND STILL NOT ANTICIPATE THE CLAIM

Even if the prior art device performs all the functions recited in the claim, the prior art cannot anticipate the claim if there is any structural difference. It should be noted, however, that means-plus-function limitations are met by structures which are equivalent to the corresponding structures recited in the specification. In re Ruskin, 347 F.2d 843, 146 USPQ 211 (CCPA 1965) as implicitly modified by In re Donaldson, 16 F.3d 1189, 29 USPQ2d 1845 (Fed. Cir. 1994). See also In re Robertson, 169 F.3d 743, 745, 49 USPQ2d 1949, 1951 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (The claims were drawn to a disposable diaper having three fastening elements. The reference disclosed two fastening elements that could perform the same function as the three fastening elements in the claims. The court construed the claims to require three separate elements and held that the reference did not disclose a separate third fastening element, either expressly or inherently.).

IV.   DETERMINING WHETHER A COMPUTER-IMPLEMENTED FUNCTIONAL CLAIM LIMITATION IS PATENTABLE OVER THE PRIOR ART UNDER 35 U.S.C. 102 AND 103

Functional claim language that is not limited to a specific structure covers all devices that are capable of performing the recited function. Therefore, if the prior art discloses a device that can inherently perform the claimed function, a rejection under 35 U.S.C. 102 or 35 U.S.C. 103 may be appropriate. In re Schreiber, 128 F.3d 1473, 1478, 44 USPQ2d 1429, 1432 (Fed. Cir. 1997); In re Best, 562 F.2d 1252, 1254, 195 USPQ 430, 433 (CCPA 1977); In re Ludtke, 441 F.2d 660, 663-64, 169 USPQ 563, 566-67 (CCPA 1971); In re Swinehart, 439 F.2d 210, 212-13, 169 USPQ 226, 228-29 (CCPA 1971) (“[I]t is elementary that the mere recitation of a newly discovered function or property, inherently possessed by things in the prior art, does not cause a claim drawn to those things to distinguish over the prior art”). See MPEP § 2112 for more information.

Computer-implemented functional claim limitations may also be broad because the term “computer” is commonly understood by one of ordinary skill in the art to describe a variety of devices with varying degrees of complexity and capabilities. In re Paulsen, 30 F.3d 1475, 1479-80, 31 USPQ2d 1671, 1674 (Fed. Cir. 1994). Therefore, a claim containing the term “computer” should not be construed as limited to a computer having a specific set of characteristics and capabilities, unless the term is modified by other claim terms or clearly defined in the specification to be different from its common meaning. Id. In In re Paulsen, the claims, directed to a portable computer, were rejected as anticipated under 35 U.S.C. 102 by a reference that disclosed a calculator, because the term “computer” was given the broadest reasonable interpretation consistent with the specification to include a calculator, and a calculator was considered to be a particular type of computer by those of ordinary skill in the art. Id.

When determining whether a computer-implemented functional claim would have been obvious, examiners should note that broadly claiming an automated means to replace a manual function to accomplish the same result does not distinguish over the prior art. See Leapfrog Enters., Inc. v. Fisher-Price, Inc., 485 F.3d 1157, 1161, 82 USPQ2d 1687, 1691 (Fed. Cir. 2007) (“Accommodating a prior art mechanical device that accomplishes [a desired] goal to modern electronics would have been reasonably obvious to one of ordinary skill in designing children’s learning devices. Applying modern electronics to older mechanical devices has been commonplace in recent years.”); In re Venner, 262 F.2d 91, 95, 120 USPQ 193, 194 (CCPA 1958); see also MPEP § 2144.04. Furthermore, implementing a known function on a computer has been deemed obvious to one of ordinary skill in the art if the automation of the known function on a general purpose computer is nothing more than the predictable use of prior art elements according to their established functions. KSR Int’l Co. v. Teleflex Inc., 550 U.S. 398, 417, 82 USPQ2d 1385, 1396 (2007); see also MPEP § 2143, Exemplary Rationales D and F. Likewise, it has been found to be obvious to adapt an existing process to incorporate Internet and Web browser technologies for communicating and displaying information because these technologies had become commonplace for those functions. Muniauction, Inc. v. Thomson Corp., 532 F.3d 1318, 1326-27, 87 USPQ2d 1350, 1357 (Fed. Cir. 2008).

For more information on the obviousness determination, see MPEP § 2141.

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Last Modified: 03/27/2014 10:10:33