Product Operating Manuals Distributed To Customers Are “Printed Publications,” Notwithstanding Confidentiality Provisions And Limited Dissemination
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  • Product Operating Manuals Distributed To Customers Are “Printed Publications,” Notwithstanding Confidentiality Provisions And Limited Dissemination


    On February 8, 2024, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“CAFC”) reversed and vacated several Patent Trial and Appeal Board decisions related to the patentability of U.S. Patent Nos. 10,639,812 and 10,625,436. The patents relate to high-speed slicers used to slice and package food products.

    The CAFC held that the Board erred in finding that the petitioner’s operating manuals for commercial slicers were not “printed publications” that qualified as prior art under 35 U.S.C. §102(b). The manuals were created to accompany and explain the slicer products. Although the Board emphasized confidentiality restrictions in the manuals’ copyright notice and sales terms and conditions, the CAFC noted that the manuals were clearly intended to be accessible for use by the relevant public. The CAFC also addressed the Board’s determination that only ten customers received the manuals, and Petitioner’s argument that the high cost of the slicers rendered the manuals not sufficiently accessible to the public. But the CAFC explained that “[n]o minimum number of occasions of access is dispositive” of the public accessibility issue, and that the interested public included commercial entities that could afford the high cost. Accordingly, the CAFC held that the Board’s determinations that the manuals were not printed publications was not supported by substantial evidence and therefore reversed.

    The CAFC also disagreed with the Board’s narrow-claim construction of the phrase “disposed over,” which required precise alignment between the “feed apparatus” and “loading apparatus.” The Court found that the plain language of the claims only required that the feed apparatus be generally positioned above the loading apparatus, as there were no further restrictions within the claims and the specification did not include the phrase “disposed over.”

    Finally, contrary to the Board’s conclusion, the CAFC determined that Weber’s manuals disclosed a “stop gate” limitation in claim 1 of each of the patents. In the patents, it was taught that the stop gate could function as a gate or temporary floor to prevent uncontrolled sliding of food products. Similarly, the manuals showed a product bed conveyor that supported transport and prevented sliding in an uncontrolled manner. Even though the Board faulted the manuals for not actually showing depictions of food articles being transported, the CAFC concluded that such imagery was not necessary to understand the teachings in the manuals. 

    The Court vacated the Board’s conclusions on patentability and remanded for further proceedings. The decision underscores the importance of careful consideration when making any disclosures to the public, even when such disclosures are somewhat limited.

    Categories: Prior ArtPTAB

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