KSR International Co. v. Teleflex Inc.
Supreme Court of the United States
KSR International Co. v. Teleflex Inc.
Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
No. 04-1350 Argued: November 28, 2006 --- Decided: April 30, 2007
To control a conventional automobile's speed, the driver depresses or releases the gas pedal, which interacts with the throttle via a cable or other mechanical link. Because the pedal’s position in the footwell normally cannot be adjusted, a driver wishing to be closer or farther from it must either reposition himself in the seat or move the seat, both of which can be imperfect solutions for smaller drivers in cars with deep footwells. This prompted inventors to design and patent pedals that could be adjusted to change their locations. The Asano patent reveals a support structure whereby, when the pedal location is adjusted, one of the pedal’s pivot points stays fixed. Asano is also designed so that the force necessary to depress the pedal is the same regardless of location adjustments. The Redding patent reveals a different, sliding mechanism where both the pedal and the pivot point are adjusted.
In newer cars, computer-controlled throttles do not operate through force transferred from the pedal by a mechanical link, but open and close valves in response to electronic signals. For the computer to know what is happening with the pedal, an electronic sensor must translate the mechanical operation into digital data. Inventors had obtained a number of patents for such sensors. The so-called ’936 patent taught that it was preferable to detect the pedal's position in the pedal mechanism, not in the engine, so the patent disclosed a pedal with an electronic sensor on a pivot point in the pedal assembly. The Smith patent taught that to prevent the wires connecting the sensor to the computer from chafing and wearing out, the sensor should be put on a fixed part of the pedal assembly rather than in or on the pedal’s footpad. Inventors had also patented self-contained modular sensors, which can be taken off the shelf and attached to any mechanical pedal to allow it to function with a computer-controlled throttle. The '068 patent disclosed one such sensor. Chevrolet also manufactured trucks using modular sensors attached to the pedal support bracket, adjacent to the pedal and engaged with the pivot shaft about which the pedal rotates. Other patents disclose electronic sensors attached to adjustable pedal assemblies. For example, the Rixon patent locates the sensor in the pedal footpad, but is known for wire chafing.
After petitioner KSR developed an adjustable pedal system for cars with cable-actuated throttles and obtained its '976 patent for the design, General Motors Corporation (GMC) chose KSR to supply adjustable pedal systems for trucks using computer-controlled throttles. To make the '976 pedal compatible with the trucks, KSR added a modular sensor to its design. Respondents (Teleflex) hold the exclusive license for the Engelgau patent, claim 4 of which discloses a position-adjustable pedal assembly with an electronic pedal position sensor attached a fixed pivot point. Despite having denied a similar, broader claim, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) had allowed claim 4 because it included the limitation of a fixed pivot position, which distinguished the design from Redding’s. Asano was neither included among the Engelgau patent's prior art references nor mentioned in the patent’s prosecution, and the PTO did not have before it an adjustable pedal with a fixed pivot point. After learning of KSR's design for GMC, Teleflex sued for infringement, asserting that KSR's pedal system infringed the Engelgau patent's claim 4. KSR countered that claim 4 was invalid under §103 of the Patent Act, which forbids issuance of a patent when “the differences between the subject matter sought to be patented and the prior art are such that the subject matter as a whole would have been obvious at the time the invention was made to a person having ordinary skill in the art."
Graham v. John Deere Co. of Kansas City, 383 U.S. 1, 17–18, set out an objective analysis for applying §103: “[T]he scope and content of the prior art are … determined; differences between the prior art and the claims at issue are … ascertained; and the level of ordinary skill in the pertinent art resolved. Against this background the obviousness or nonobviousness of the subject matter is determined. Such secondary considerations as commercial success, long felt but unsolved needs, failure of others, etc., might be utilized to give light to the circumstances surrounding the origin of the subject matter sought to be patented.” While the sequence of these questions might be reordered in any particular case, the factors define the controlling inquiry. However, seeking to resolve the obviousness question with more uniformity and consistency, the Federal Circuit has employed a “teaching, suggestion, or motivation” (TSM) test, under which a patent claim is only proved obvious if the prior art, the problem’s nature, or the knowledge of a person having ordinary skill in the art reveals some motivation or suggestion to combine the prior art teachings.
The District Court granted KSR summary judgment. After reviewing pedal design history, the Engelgau patent’s scope, and the relevant prior art, the court considered claim 4’s validity, applying Graham's framework to determine whether under summary-judgment standards KSR had demonstrated that claim 4 was obvious. The court found “little difference” between the prior art's teachings and claim 4: Asano taught everything contained in the claim except using a sensor to detect the pedal’s position and transmit it to a computer controlling the throttle. That additional aspect was revealed in, e.g., the ’068 patent and Chevrolet’s sensors. The court then held that KSR satisfied the TSM test, reasoning (1) the state of the industry would lead inevitably to combinations of electronic sensors and adjustable pedals, (2) Rixon provided the basis for these developments, and (3) Smith taught a solution to Rixon’s chafing problems by positioning the sensor on the pedal’s fixed structure, which could lead to the combination of a pedal like Asano with a pedal position sensor.
Reversing, the Federal Circuit ruled the District Court had not applied the TSM test strictly enough, having failed to make findings as to the specific understanding or principle within a skilled artisan’s knowledge that would have motivated one with no knowledge of the invention to attach an electronic control to the Asano assembly’s support bracket. The Court of Appeals held that the District Court’s recourse to the nature of the problem to be solved was insufficient because, unless the prior art references addressed the precise problem that the patentee was trying to solve, the problem would not motivate an inventor to look at those references. The appeals court found that the Asano pedal was designed to ensure that the force required to depress the pedal is the same no matter how the pedal is adjusted, whereas Engelgau sought to provide a simpler, smaller, cheaper adjustable electronic pedal. The Rixon pedal, said the court, suffered from chafing but was not designed to solve that problem and taught nothing helpful to Engelgau’s purpose. Smith, in turn, did not relate to adjustable pedals and did not necessarily go to the issue of motivation to attach the electronic control on the pedal assembly’s support bracket. So interpreted, the court held, the patents would not have led a person of ordinary skill to put a sensor on an Asano-like pedal. That it might have been obvious to try that combination was likewise irrelevant. Finally, the court held that genuine issues of material fact precluded summary judgment.
Held: The Federal Circuit addressed the obviousness question in a narrow, rigid manner that is inconsistent with §103 and this Court’s precedents. KSR provided convincing evidence that mounting an available sensor on a fixed pivot point of the Asano pedal was a design step well within the grasp of a person of ordinary skill in the relevant art and that the benefit of doing so would be obvious. Its arguments, and the record, demonstrate that the Engelgau patent’s claim 4 is obvious. Pp. 11–24.
- 1. Graham provided an expansive and flexible approach to the obviousness question that is inconsistent with the way the Federal Circuit applied its TSM test here. Neither §103’s enactment nor Graham’s analysis disturbed the Court’s earlier instructions concerning the need for caution in granting a patent based on the combination of elements found in the prior art. See Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. v. Supermarket Equipment Corp., 340 U. S. 147, 152. Such a combination of familiar elements according to known methods is likely to be obvious when it does no more than yield predictable results. See, e.g., United States v. Adams, 383 U.S. 39, 50–52. When a work is available in one field, design incentives and other market forces can prompt variations of it, either in the same field or in another. If a person of ordinary skill in the art can implement a predictable variation, and would see the benefit of doing so, §103 likely bars its patentability. Moreover, if a technique has been used to improve one device, and a person of ordinary skill in the art would recognize that it would improve similar devices in the same way, using the technique is obvious unless its actual application is beyond that person’s skill. A court must ask whether the improvement is more than the predictable use of prior-art elements according to their established functions. Following these principles may be difficult if the claimed subject matter involves more than the simple substitution of one known element for another or the mere application of a known technique to a piece of prior art ready for the improvement. To determine whether there was an apparent reason to combine the known elements in the way a patent claims, it will often be necessary to look to interrelated teachings of multiple patents; to the effects of demands known to the design community or present in the marketplace; and to the background knowledge possessed by a person having ordinary skill in the art. To facilitate review, this analysis should be made explicit. But it need not seek out precise teachings directed to the challenged claim’s specific subject matter, for a court can consider the inferences and creative steps a person of ordinary skill in the art would employ. Pp. 11–14.
- (b) The TSM test captures a helpful insight: A patent composed of several elements is not proved obvious merely by demonstrating that each element was, independently, known in the prior art. Although common sense directs caution as to a patent application claiming as innovation the combination of two known devices according to their established functions, it can be important to identify a reason that would have prompted a person of ordinary skill in the art to combine the elements as the new invention does. Inventions usually rely upon building blocks long since uncovered, and claimed discoveries almost necessarily will be combinations of what, in some sense, is already known. Helpful insights, however, need not become rigid and mandatory formulas. If it is so applied, the TSM test is incompatible with this Court’s precedents. The diversity of inventive pursuits and of modern technology counsels against confining the obviousness analysis by a formalistic conception of the words teaching, suggestion, and motivation, or by overemphasizing the importance of published articles and the explicit content of issued patents. In many fields there may be little discussion of obvious techniques or combinations, and market demand, rather than scientific literature, may often drive design trends. Granting patent protection to advances that would occur in the ordinary course without real innovation retards progress and may, for patents combining previously known elements, deprive prior inventions of their value or utility. Since the TSM test was devised, the Federal Circuit doubtless has applied it in accord with these principles in many cases. There is no necessary inconsistency between the test and the Graham analysis. But a court errs where, as here, it transforms general principle into a rigid rule limiting the obviousness inquiry. Pp. 14–15.
- (c) The flaws in the Federal Circuit’s analysis relate mostly to its narrow conception of the obviousness inquiry consequent in its application of the TSM test. The Circuit first erred in holding that courts and patent examiners should look only to the problem the patentee was trying to solve. Under the correct analysis, any need or problem known in the field and addressed by the patent can provide a reason for combining the elements in the manner claimed. Second, the appeals court erred in assuming that a person of ordinary skill in the art attempting to solve a problem will be led only to those prior art elements designed to solve the same problem. The court wrongly concluded that because Asano’s primary purpose was solving the constant ratio problem, an inventor considering how to put a sensor on an adjustable pedal would have no reason to consider putting it on the Asano pedal. It is common sense that familiar items may have obvious uses beyond their primary purposes, and a person of ordinary skill often will be able to fit the teachings of multiple patents together like pieces of a puzzle. Regardless of Asano’s primary purpose, it provided an obvious example of an adjustable pedal with a fixed pivot point, and the prior art was replete with patents indicating that such a point was an ideal mount for a sensor. Third, the court erred in concluding that a patent claim cannot be proved obvious merely by showing that the combination of elements was obvious to try. When there is a design need or market pressure to solve a problem and there are a finite number of identified, predictable solutions, a person of ordinary skill in the art has good reason to pursue the known options within his or her technical grasp. If this leads to the anticipated success, it is likely the product not of innovation but of ordinary skill and common sense. Finally, the court drew the wrong conclusion from the risk of courts and patent examiners falling prey to hindsight bias. Rigid preventative rules that deny recourse to common sense are neither necessary under, nor consistent with, this Court’s case law. Pp. 15–18.
- 2. Application of the foregoing standards demonstrates that claim 4 is obvious. Pp. 18–23.
- (a) The Court rejects Teleflex’s argument that the Asano pivot mechanism’s design prevents its combination with a sensor in the manner claim 4 describes. This argument was not raised before the District Court, and it is unclear whether it was raised before the Federal Circuit. Given the significance of the District Court’s finding that combining Asano with a pivot-mounted pedal position sensor fell within claim 4’s scope, it is apparent that Teleflex would have made clearer challenges if it intended to preserve this claim. Its failure to clearly raise the argument, and the appeals court’s silence on the issue, lead this Court to accept the District Court’s conclusion. Pp. 18–20.
- (b) The District Court correctly concluded that when Engelgau designed the claim 4 subject matter, it was obvious to a person of ordinary skill in the art to combine Asano with a pivot-mounted pedal position sensor. There then was a marketplace creating a strong incentive to convert mechanical pedals to electronic pedals, and the prior art taught a number of methods for doing so. The Federal Circuit considered the issue too narrowly by, in effect, asking whether a pedal designer writing on a blank slate would have chosen both Asano and a modular sensor similar to the ones used in the Chevrolet trucks and disclosed in the ’068 patent. The proper question was whether a pedal designer of ordinary skill in the art, facing the wide range of needs created by developments in the field, would have seen an obvious benefit to upgrading Asano with a sensor. For such a designer starting with Asano, the question was where to attach the sensor. The ’936 patent taught the utility of putting the sensor on the pedal device. Smith, in turn, explained not to put the sensor on the pedal footpad, but instead on the structure. And from Rixon’s known wire-chafing problems, and Smith’s teaching that the pedal assemblies must not precipitate any motion in the connecting wires, the designer would know to place the sensor on a nonmoving part of the pedal structure. The most obvious such point is a pivot point. The designer, accordingly, would follow Smith in mounting the sensor there. Just as it was possible to begin with the objective to upgrade Asano to work with a computer-controlled throttle, so too was it possible to take an adjustable electronic pedal like Rixon and seek an improvement that would avoid the wire-chafing problem. Teleflex has not shown anything in the prior art that taught away from the use of Asano, nor any secondary factors to dislodge the determination that claim 4 is obvious. Pp. 20–23.
- 3. The Court disagrees with the Federal Circuit’s holding that genuine issues of material fact precluded summary judgment. The ultimate judgment of obviousness is a legal determination. Graham, 383 U.S., at 17. Where, as here, the prior art’s content, the patent claim’s scope, and the level of ordinary skill in the art are not in material dispute and the claim’s obviousness is apparent, summary judgment is appropriate. P. 23.
119 Fed. Appx. 282, reversed and remanded.