Opinions and Legal Insights

Analogous Art: What is the “Particular Problem”?

Donner Technology, LLC v. Pro Stage Gear, LLC, App. No. 20-1104 (Fed. Cir. 2020)

The PTAB sided with the IPR patentee — finding the cited prior art had not been proven “analogous” On appeal, the Federal Circuit has vacated and remanded for lack of substantial evidence to support that conclusion.

The Analogous Art Test: Federal Circuit obviousness doctrine begins with prior art as defined by 35 U.S.C. 102, but then limits the scope of potential references with the “analogous art” test.  The test appears to have its origin in Judge Giles Sutherland Rich’s 1966 decision of In re Winslow, 365 F.2d 1017, 1020 (Cust. & Pat. App. 1966) (“Section 103 requires us to presume full knowledge by the inventor of the prior art in the field of his endeavor.”).  There are two potential ways of showing that a reference is analogous. The first option follows directly from Winslow, asking “whether the art is from the same field of endeavor, regardless of the problem addressed.”  In re Bigio, 381 F.3d 1320, 1325 (Fed. Cir. 2004).  The alternative asks “whether the reference … is reasonably pertinent to the particular problem with which the inventor is involved.” Id.  If either prong is met (a factual question), then the reference is deemed analogous and available for use in an obviousness argument.  I believe a fair reading of KSR further expands the doctrine, but the courts have not gone there.

In the same way that a pretextual police stop opens the door to more invasive searches, the analogous arts test also opens the door to more extensive obviousness analysis. In particular, once the reference is admitted as analogous art, any aspect of the reference (including non-analogous aspects) can be used.

Here, Pro Stage Gear’s US 6,459,023 is directed to a guitar effects pedalboard with space for mounting guitar pedals and running cables.  The image above comes from the patent and shows the patented mounting-board with various controls attached.

Donner petitioned for IPR citing US 3,504,311 (along with several other references).  The ‘311 patent has nothing to do with guitars or guitar pedals.  Rather, that patent is directed to electrical relays, including a support structure for holding a relay and wiring-channel space.

The PTAB found the ‘311 patent non-analogous.  On appeal, that judgment was vacated.  Although everyone recognized the patent came from a different field of endeavor, the fight was on the second-prong — whether it addressed the same-problem as the ‘023 inventors faced.

On appeal, the court first addresses the PTAB’s apparent failure to read the briefs:

The Board erroneously stated that Donner did ‘not put forth any argument’ [that the ‘311 patent addressed questions considered by] a pedalboard inventor. . . . “To the contrary, Donner submitted detailed expert testimony relevant to the inquiry. . . . Given the Board’s mistaken assertion to the contrary, it is unclear whether the Board meaningfully considered all of Donner’s arguments and evidence.”

On a more substantive push, the court found that the Board had improperly tied the patentee’s problem-to-be-solved to the field-of-endeavor without actually focusing on the true nature of the problem:

For instance, the Board at one point stated that the “purpose of the ’023 patent” is “to mount guitar effects on a pedal board.” But substantial evidence does not support that statement. As the
’023 patent readily discloses, guitar effects had already been mounted on a pedalboard. Thus, that could not possibly be a relevant purpose of the invention. Indeed, with respect to the analogous art inquiry, the relevant purposes of an invention are those relating to solving a problem.

Slip Op. In the end, the court remanded for reconsideration rather than offering a complete reversal:

Although we conclude that the Board applied the wrong standard and might have failed to analyze certain arguments and evidence, we do not further hold that “no reasonable fact finder could conclude, under the proper standard,” that Mullen is not analogous art. Accordingly, we leave this factual issue for the Board to resolve on remand.

Id.   This outcome appears correct since the question of analogous art is a question of fact.  What the court is really holding here is that substantial evidence did not support the PTAB’s factual conclusion.