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Air Vent, Inc. v. Vent Right Corp.

May 15, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. McVerry United States District Court Judge


Plaintiff, Air Vent, Inc. ("Air Vent"), is in the business, inter alia, of manufacturing and selling building construction products, including roof ridge ventilators ("ridge vents"), certain of which are sold under the name and trademark "Shinglevent(r) II." Air Vent is the owner by assignment of two patents: (i) United States Patent No. 6,149,517 ("the '517 Patent"), entitled "End-Ventilating Adjustable Pitch Arcuate Roof Ventilator," issued November 21, 2000, and (ii) United States Patent No. 6,793,574 ("the '574 Patent"), entitled "Vent with Presecured Mechanical Fasteners," issued September 21, 2004. The Shinglevent(r) II product is covered by and marked with the number of the '517 Patent.

Defendant, Vent Right Corporation ("Vent Right"), is also in the business of selling ridge vents for providing roof ventilation. In December 2008, Air Vent filed suit against Vent Right in which it alleges that Vent Right has willfully infringed upon the '517 Patent and the '574 Patent. Air Vent alleges that Vent Right offers for sale and sells ridge vents under the tradename "BreaseventTM," which is a "knock-off copy of Plaintiff's patented Shinglevent(r) II product." Complaint at ¶ 11.

Vent Right denies these allegations and counters that the BreaseventTM product "does not literally or by the doctrine of equivalents infringe any valid claim of the" '517 or '574 patents and that both the '517 and '574 patents are invalid pursuant to 35 U.S.C. §§ 101, 102, 103, and/or 112. Counterclaim, at ¶¶ 40, 41, 49, 50.

The parties have presented two disputed claims for construction. The meaning of these disputed claim terms is a question of law that must be resolved by the Court. See Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 52 F.3d 967 (Fed. Cir. 1995). A claim construction hearing / argument was held on April 16, 2009.

Controlling Law

"It is a 'bedrock principle' of patent law that 'the claims of a patent define the invention to which the patentee is entitled the right to exclude.' " Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1312 (Fed. Cir .2005) (quoting Innova/Pure Water, Inc. v. Safari Water Filtration Sys., Inc., 381 F.3d 1111, 1115 (Fed. Cir. 2004)). Generally, claim terms are given the ordinary and customary meaning that would be ascribed to them by a person of ordinary skill in the field of the invention. Id. at 1313. The most "significant source of the legally operative meaning of disputed claim language" is the intrinsic evidence of record, that is, the claims, the specification and the prosecution history. Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996). This is because "the person of ordinary skill in the art is deemed to read the claim term not only in the context of the particular claim in which the disputed term appears, but in the context of the entire patent, including the specification." Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1312. In some cases, the specification may reveal a "special definition" given by the inventor that differs from the meaning the term might otherwise possess. Id. at 1316. A specification may also reveal "an intentional disclaimer, or disavowal, of claim scope by the inventor." Id. A person of ordinary skill in the art also looks to the prosecution history of a patent to understand how the patent applicant and the Patent Office understood the claim terms. Id. at 1313, 1317.

While claims are to be construed in light of the specification, courts must be careful not to read limitations from the specification into the claim. Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1323. Thus, if a patent specification describes only a single embodiment, that does not mean that the claims of the patent necessarily must be construed as limited to that embodiment. Id. Rather, the purpose of the specification "is to teach and enable those of skill in the art to make and use the invention" and that sometimes, the best way to do that is to provide an example. Id. In Phillips, the Federal Circuit acknowledged, "the distinction between using the specification to interpret the meaning of a claim and importing limitations from the specification can be a difficult one to apply in practice." Id.

Courts may also use extrinsic evidence in construing claim terms if it is necessary, so long as such evidence is not used to "vary or contradict the terms of the claims." Markman, 52 F.3d at 980. The Federal Circuit has warned, however, that such evidence is generally "less reliable than the patent and its prosecution history." Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1318. Courts may consider expert testimony, the testimony of the inventor, and prior art, whether or not it is referenced in the specification or prosecution history. Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1584. Courts are also free to consult dictionaries and technical treatises so long as they are careful not to elevate them "to such prominence that it focuses the inquiry on the abstract meaning of the words rather than on the meaning of the claim terms within the context of the patent." Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1321-1322. As the appellate court explained in Markman, "[extrinsic] evidence may be helpful to explain scientific principles, the meaning of technical terms, and terms of art that appear in the patent and prosecution history." 52 F.3d at 980.

Claims Construction

The '517 Patent has three (3) claims, one of which is "independent." The other two (2) claims are "dependent," and depend on independent Claim 1. Air Vent alleges that Independent Claim 1 and dependent Claims 2 and 3 have been infringed by Vent Right.

The '574 Patent includes twenty-two (22) claims, one of which is "independent." The other twenty-one (21) claims are "dependent," and depend on independent Claim 1. Air Vent alleges that independent Claim 1 and dependent Claims 2, 3, 13, 18, and 20 have been infringed by Vent Right.

A. The '517 Patent

The '517 Patent is directed generally to a roof ridge ventilator ("vent") for ventilating a space immediately below a roof. The '517 Patent contains a detailed description of a vent that is arcuately bendable over the roof ridge so that it can accommodate a variety of roofs that vary in pitch. The vent has openings along its sides and gaps between adjacent rows of tabs at its ends to create paths for the passage of air. The claims of the '517 ...

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