All the limitations of a claim must be considered when weighing the differences between the claimed invention and the prior art in determining the obviousness of a process or method claim. See MPEP § 2143.03.
In re Ochiai, 71 F.3d 1565, 37 USPQ2d 1127 (Fed. Cir. 1995) and In re Brouwer, 77 F.3d 422, 37 USPQ2d 1663 (Fed. Cir. 1996) addressed the issue of whether an otherwise conventional process could be patented if it were limited to making or using a nonobvious product. In both cases, the Federal Circuit held that the use of per se rules is improper in applying the test for obviousness under 35 U.S.C. 103. Rather, 35 U.S.C. 103 requires a highly fact-dependent analysis involving taking the claimed subject matter as a whole and comparing it to the prior art. “A process yielding a novel and nonobvious product may nonetheless be obvious; conversely, a process yielding a well-known product may yet be nonobvious.” TorPharm, Inc. v. Ranbaxy Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 336 F.3d 1322, 1327, 67 USPQ2d 1511, 1514 (Fed. Cir. 2003).
Interpreting the claimed invention as a whole requires consideration of all claim limitations. Thus, proper claim construction requires treating language in a process claim which recites the making or using of a nonobvious product as a material limitation. The decision in Ochiai specifically dispelled any distinction between processes of making a product and methods of using a product with regard to the effect of any product limitations in either type of claim.
As noted in Brouwer, 77 F.3d at 425, 37 USPQ2d at 1666, the inquiry as to whether a claimed invention would have been obvious is “highly fact-specific by design.” Accordingly, obviousness must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The following decisions are illustrative of the lack of per se rules in applying the test for obviousness under 35 U.S.C. 103 and of the fact-intensive comparison of claimed processes with the prior art: In re Durden, 763 F.2d 1406, 226 USPQ 359 (Fed. Cir. 1985) (The examiner rejected a claim directed to a process in which patentable starting materials were reacted to form patentable end products. The prior art showed the same chemical reaction mechanism applied to other chemicals. The court held that the process claim was obvious over the prior art.); In re Albertson, 332 F.2d 379, 141 USPQ 730 (CCPA 1964) (Process of chemically reducing one novel, nonobvious material to obtain another novel, nonobvious material was claimed. The process was held obvious because the reduction reaction was old.); In re Kanter, 399 F.2d 249, 158 USPQ 331 (CCPA 1968) (Process of siliconizing a patentable base material to obtain a patentable product was claimed. Rejection based on prior art teaching the siliconizing process as applied to a different base material was upheld.); Cf. In re Pleuddemann, 910 F.2d 823, 15 USPQ2d 1738 (Fed. Cir. 1990) (Methods of bonding polymer and filler using a novel silane coupling agent held patentable even though methods of bonding using other silane coupling agents were well known because the process could not be conducted without the new agent); In re Kuehl, 475 F.2d 658, 177 USPQ 250 (CCPA 1973) (Process of cracking hydrocarbons using novel zeolite catalyst found to be patentable even though catalytic cracking process was old. “The test under 103 is whether in view of the prior art the invention as a whole would have been obvious at the time it was made, and the prior art here does not include the zeolite, ZK-22. The obviousness of the process of cracking hydrocarbons with ZK-22 as a catalyst must be determined without reference to knowledge of ZK-22 and its properties.” 475 F.2d at 664-665, 177 USPQ at 255.); and In re Mancy, 499 F.2d 1289, 182 USPQ 303 (CCPA 1974) (Claim to a process for the production of a known antibiotic by cultivating a novel, unobvious microorganism was found to be patentable.).