The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. McVerry United States District Court Judge
Plaintiff, Jennmar Corporation ("Jennmar"), and Defendant Excel Mining Systems, LLC ("Excel") are both in the business of manufacturing and selling mine roof and sidewall (or "rib") support systems. Jennmar is the owner of United States Patent No. 7,284,933 ("the '933 Patent"), entitled "Square Embossed Roof and Rib Plate," issued October 23, 2007. Excel markets a competing product called a Spider Plate.
On November 9, 2007, Jennmar filed a complaint which alleged that Excel has willfully infringed upon the '933 Patent. Amended complaints were filed in February and March 2008. Excel denies that it has infringed "any valid, properly construed and enforceable claim" of the '933 Patent.
The parties disagree on the meaning of numerous terms contained in the '933 Patent. The parties have presented a Joint Disputed Claim Terms Chart, which summarizes their competing positions and they have thoroughly briefed these issues (Document Nos. 21, 22, 24, 25). The construction 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 ("Markman Hearing") and argument was conducted before the undersigned on July 2, 2009 and the issues are ripe for adjudication.
"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. Claim construction is necessary when the terms of the patent require clarification for use in the determination of the infringement. It is not "an obligatory exercise in redundancy." NTP, Inc. v. Research in Motion, 418 F.3d 1282, 1311 (Fed. Cir. 2005), cert. denied, 546 U.S. 1157 (2006).
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 Federal Circuit 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.
The '933 Patent generally relates to mine roof and rib supports, and discloses an invention specifically relating to "generally square bearing plates used in connection with a mine roof bolt and a primary support member." The '933 Patent contains an Abstract, Figures ## 1-16, a background and summary of the invention, an explanation of Figures ## 1-16, and a description of the preferred embodiments of the invention. The issue(s) now before the Court are the construction, or meaning, of several terms which appear in the '933 Patent, which will be addressed seriatim.
The '933 Patent makes numerous references to the term "bearing plate." See, e.g., Summary of the Invention ("The present invention is directed to a mine roof and rib support system and apparatus and generally includes a square bearing plate....") Jennmar proposes the following construction: "A plate designed to be used with a single mine roof bolt to provide mine roof support." Jennmar contends that this is an established and well-known term in the mining industry, and that "bearing plates" are distinct from header plates, roof mats and roof channels.
Excel originally proposed a fairly similar definition which primarily would have clarified that the plate could be used for roof "or rib" support, and argued that the plate could be used with one or more roof bolts. On the eve of the Markman Hearing, Excel filed a Supplemental Brief which revised its proposed definition. Excel now agrees with Jennmar that the plate is used with a single roof bolt and that the term "bearing plate" has an established and well-known meaning within the industry. However, the parties disagree as to what that "well-known meaning" is. Excel proposes the following construction: "A plate to be used with a single mine roof bolt to provide mine roof and rib support and having a minimum strength of 20,000 lbf (89.0KN) and as otherwise defined by ASTM standard F 432-95."
Each party presented a witness on this issue at the Markman Hearing. John Oldson, Vice President of Research and Development for Jennmar, testified that the ASTM F 432-95 standard provides grade ratings for load bearing, i.e., the amount of force a bearing plate must be able to withstand when used alone. Oldson further testified that a product which did not comport with the minimum load-bearing requirements set forth in the ASTM standard would be an "unrated bearing plate," but would still be a "bearing plate" nevertheless. Jennmar points to Figures 13 and 14 of the '933 Patent, which illustrate that all of the products tested fall far below the minimum ASTM standard. In other words, all of the examples used in the '933 Patent to illustrate the benefits of the invention involve unrated bearing plates. Similarly, Column 1 of the '933 Patent states that "bearing plates" need not be used alone but may be used "in connection with . . . a primary support member." Jennmar also ...