The goal of examination is to clearly articulate any rejection early in the prosecution process so that the applicant has the chance to provide evidence of patentability and otherwise reply completely at the earliest opportunity. See MPEP § 706. Under the principles of compact prosecution, the examiner should review each claim for compliance with every statutory requirement for patentability in the initial review of the application and identify all of the applicable grounds of rejection in the first Office action to avoid unnecessary delays in the prosecution of the application. See 37 CFR 1.104(a)(1) (“On taking up an application for examination or a patent in a reexamination proceeding, the examiner shall make a thorough study thereof and shall make a thorough investigation of the available prior art relating to the subject matter of the claimed invention. The examination shall be complete with respect both to compliance of the application . . . with the applicable statutes and rules and to the patentability of the invention as claimed, as well as with respect to matters of form, unless otherwise indicated.”).
Thus, when the examiner determines that a claim term or phrase renders the claim indefinite, the examiner should make a rejection based on indefiniteness under 35 U.S.C. 112(b) or pre-AIA 35 U.S.C. 112, second paragraph, as well as a rejection(s) in view of the prior art under 35 U.S.C. 102 or 103 that renders the prior art applicable based on the examiner’s interpretation of the claim. See In re Packard, 751 F.3d 1307, 1312 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (stating that the prima facie case is appropriately used for making an indefiniteness rejection). When making a rejection over prior art in these circumstances, it is important that the examiner state on the record how the claim term or phrase is being interpreted with respect to the prior art applied in the rejection. By rejecting each claim on all reasonable grounds available, the examiner can avoid piecemeal examination. See MPEP § 707.07(g) (“Piecemeal examination should be avoided as much as possible. The examiner ordinarily should reject each claim on all valid grounds available . . . .”).
II. PRIOR ART REJECTION OF CLAIM REJECTED AS INDEFINITE
All words in a claim must be considered in judging the patentability of a claim against the prior art. In re Wilson, 424 F.2d 1382, 165 USPQ 494 (CCPA 1970). The fact that terms may be indefinite does not make the claim obvious over the prior art. When the terms of a claim are considered to be indefinite, at least two approaches to the examination of an indefinite claim relative to the prior art are possible.
First, where the degree of uncertainty is not great, and where the claim is subject to more than one interpretation and at least one interpretation would render the claim unpatentable over the prior art, an appropriate course of action would be for the examiner to enter two rejections: (A) a rejection based on indefiniteness under 35 U.S.C. 112(b) or pre-AIA 35 U.S.C. 112, second paragraph; and (B) a rejection over the prior art based on the interpretation of the claims which renders the prior art applicable. See, e.g., Ex parte Ionescu, 222 USPQ 537 (Bd. App. 1984). When making a rejection over prior art in these circumstances, it is important for the examiner to point out how the claim is being interpreted. Second, where there is a great deal of confusion and uncertainty as to the proper interpretation of the limitations of a claim, it would not be proper to reject such a claim on the basis of prior art. As stated in In reSteele, 305 F.2d 859, 134 USPQ 292 (CCPA 1962), a rejection under 35 U.S.C. 103 should not be based on considerable speculation about the meaning of terms employed in a claim or assumptions that must be made as to the scope of the claims.
The first approach is recommended from an examination standpoint because it avoids piecemeal examination in the event that the examiner’s 35 U.S.C. 112, second paragraph rejection is not affirmed, and may give applicant a better appreciation for relevant prior art if the claims are redrafted to avoid the 35 U.S.C. 112(b) or pre-AIA 35 U.S.C. 112, second paragraph rejection.