Claim scope is not limited by claim language that suggests or makes optional but does not require steps to be performed, or by claim language that does not limit a claim to a particular structure. However, examples of claim language, although not exhaustive, that may raise a question as to the limiting effect of the language in a claim are:
- (A) “adapted to” or “adapted for” clauses;
- (B) “wherein” clauses; and
- (C) “whereby” clauses.
The determination of whether each of these clauses is a limitation in a claim depends on the specific facts of the case. See, e.g., Griffin v. Bertina, 283 F.3d 1029, 1034, 62 USPQ2d 1431 (Fed. Cir. 2002) (finding that a “wherein” clause limited a process claim where the clause gave “meaning and purpose to the manipulative steps”). In In re Giannelli, 739 F.3d 1375, 1378, 109 USPQ2d 1333, 1336 (Fed. Cir. 2014), the court found that an “adapted to” clause limited a machine claim where “the written description makes clear that ‘adapted to,’ as used in the [patent] application, has a narrower meaning, viz., that the claimed machine is designed or constructed to be used as a rowing machine whereby a pulling force is exerted on the handles.” In Hoffer v. Microsoft Corp., 405 F.3d 1326, 1329, 74 USPQ2d 1481, 1483 (Fed. Cir. 2005), the court held that when a “‘whereby’ clause states a condition that is material to patentability, it cannot be ignored in order to change the substance of the invention.” Id. However, the court noted that a “‘whereby clause in a method claim is not given weight when it simply expresses the intended result of a process step positively recited.’” Id. (quoting Minton v. Nat’l Ass’n of Securities Dealers, Inc., 336 F.3d 1373, 1381, 67 USPQ2d 1614, 1620 (Fed. Cir. 2003)).
II. CONTINGENT LIMITATIONS
The broadest reasonable interpretation of a method (or process) claim having contingent limitations requires only those steps that must be performed and does not include steps that are not required to be performed because the condition(s) precedent are not met. For example, assume a method claim requires step A if a first condition happens and step B if a second condition happens. If the claimed invention may be practiced without either the first or second condition happening, then neither step A or B is required by the broadest reasonable interpretation of the claim. If the claimed invention requires the first condition to occur, then the broadest reasonable interpretation of the claim requires step A. If the claimed invention requires both the first and second conditions to occur, then the broadest reasonable interpretation of the claim requires both steps A and B.
The broadest reasonable interpretation of a system (or apparatus or product) claim having structure that performs a function, which only needs to occur if a condition precedent is met, requires structure for performing the function should the condition occur. The system claim interpretation differs from a method claim interpretation because the claimed structure must be present in the system regardless of whether the condition is met and the function is actually performed.
See Ex parte Schulhauser, Appeal 2013-007847 (PTAB April 28, 2016) (precedential) for an analysis of contingent claim limitations in the context of both method claims and system claims. In Schulhauser, both method claims and system claims recited the same contingent step. When analyzing the claimed method as a whole, the PTAB determined that giving the claim its broadest reasonable interpretation, “[i]f the condition for performing a contingent step is not satisfied, the performance recited by the step need not be carried out in order for the claimed method to be performed” (quotation omitted). Schulhauser at 10. When analyzing the claimed system as a whole, the PTAB determined that “[t]he broadest reasonable interpretation of a system claim having structure that performs a function, which only needs to occur if a condition precedent is met, still requires structure for performing the function should the condition occur.” Schulhauser at 14. Therefore “[t]he Examiner did not need to present evidence of the obviousness of the [ ] method steps of claim 1 that are not required to be performed under a broadest reasonable interpretation of the claim (e.g., instances in which the electrocardiac signal data is not within the threshold electrocardiac criteria such that the condition precedent for the determining step and the remaining steps of claim 1 has not been met);” however to render the claimed system obvious, the prior art must teach the structure that performs the function of the contingent step along with the other recited claim limitations. Schulhauser at 9, 14.
See also MPEP § 2143.03.