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On July 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued its long-awaited en banc ruling in Phillips v. AWH Corp. , 2005 WL 1620331. At issue was the proper methodology for interpreting patents. Leading up to Phillips , a tension had developed among several different lines of cases standing for competing propositions, including the extent to which extrinsic sources of evidence such as dictionaries should be used to construe a patent phrase before consulting the patent itself. This decision was closely watched by all members of the patent bar. In fact, 36 amicus briefs were filed in this case. Specifically at issue was the meaning of the word “baffles,” and whether the claim in the patent should be limited to baffles placed at angles other than 90 degrees because this was the only embodiment clearly described in the patent, despite the fact that nothing in the patent claim said that a particular angle of the baffle was required. The district court interpreted “baffles” unfavorably to Edward H. Phillips’ claim for infringement, finding it was limited to angles other than 90 degrees. Phillips v. AWH Corp ., No. 97-N-212 (D. Colo. Jan. 21, 2003). On appeal, a divided panel initially affirmed the district court’s holding of noninfringement, but on different grounds. Phillips v. AWH Corp. , 363 F.3d 1207 (Fed. Cir. 2004). Even though the claim of the patent was silent as to whether a particular angle of placement was needed for the baffles, the majority focused on the detailed description of the patent, which repeatedly mentioned baffles at angles other than 90 degrees and referenced a benefit of placing them at an angle other than 90 degrees, and gave the term “baffles” a restrictive meaning. Id. at 1212-13. The dissent, on the other hand, urged that the meaning of the term “baffles” should have been derived from general purpose dictionaries. Id. at 1218. Within four months of this initial panel decision in Phillips , 11 of 12 judges of the Federal Circuit decided to vacate the panel decision and to solicit the bar to submit briefs concerning the basic principles concerning how a patent’s claims are interpreted. Phillips v. AWH Corp. , 376 F.3d 1382 (Fed. Cir. 2004) (en banc) (per curiam order). Although the order identified seven issues, the major focus of the recent Phillips opinion concerned the interplay between the role of the patent’s specification and the roles of dictionaries and similar sources to interpret a claim term. The majority reversed the prior panel decision and found that the claim did cover baffles at other than 90 degrees, delivering a victory to the patent owner. Every patent contains a detailed description of an invention known as the specification, which is often a place where the drafter defines terms used in the claims of the patent. At the heart of the Phillips decision was the majority’s reaffirmance that the specification must be consulted to construe the meaning of a claim if there is doubt, and that the specification trumps “extrinsic” sources of claim interpretation such as dictionaries. While this may sound logical, some prior rulings by the Federal Circuit had suggested that dictionaries had greater importance than the patent specification for interpreting claims. As the court observed in C.R. Bard Inc. v. U.S. Surgical Corp. , 388 F.3d 858, 861-63 (2004): “Language in some of our recent cases, however, suggests that the intrinsic record, except for the claims, should be consulted only after the ordinary and customary meaning of claim terms to persons skilled in the pertinent art is determined . . . .The language in these cases emphasizes technical and general-usage dictionaries in determining the ordinary meaning . . . .Under this approach, where the ordinary meaning of a claim term is thus evident, the inventor’s written description of the invention, for example, is relevant and controlling insofar as it provides clear lexicography or disavowal of the ordinary meaning.” The Phillips majority observed that “[t]he main problem with [prior rulings] elevating the dictionary to such prominence is that it focuses the inquiry on the abstract meaning of words rather than on the meaning of claim terms within the context of the patent.” 2005 WL 1620331, at 14. Rather than overrule these prior cases, the Phillips majority reconciled them by approving of the continued use of dictionaries in a subservient role to consulting the specification of the patent, specifically noting that such review of dictionaries as an extrinsic resource can help “avoid the danger of reading limitations from the specification into the claim.” Id. at 15. When it comes to consulting dictionaries, the Phillips majority offered this guidance to district courts:
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