The Federal Circuit broke from the typical open-ended construction of “a” to mean “one or more,” and instead limited “a” to mean “one single, continuous member” in the nonprecedential opinion for Wonderland Nurserygoods, Co. v. Baby Trend, Inc. (Appeal Nos. 2017-1295 and 2017-1297; Decided April 19, 2018).
A representative claim from the patent at issue (RE43,919) is as follows, with emphasis added:
1. A baby crib comprising:
a bed frame structure including a plurality of upright tubes, each of which has a an inner tube wall, and an outer tube wall defining an outer contour shape of the upright tube, the inner tube wall defining a receiving hole, and the outer tube wall having an outwardly facing surface and a slit that extends along the length of said outer tube wall and that is in spatial communication with said receiving hole;
a fabric member mounted on said bed frame structure to define a surrounding wall around said bed frame structure and delimit an enclosed space adapted to receive a baby; and
a plurality of positioning posts mounted on said fabric member and inserted respectively into said receiving holes in said upright tubes, said fabric member being clamped between each of said upright tubes and a corresponding one of said positioning posts and extending outward through said slit in each of said upright tubes each of said slits in each of said upright tubes, whereby the fabric member extends in directions between the upright tubes substantially out of contact with the outwardly facing surface of the outer tube wall of each of the upright tubes, such that the outwardly facing surface of each of the upright tubes is exposed on an outside of the enclosed space.
In the two appealed inter partes reviews, the Patent Trial and Appeals Board interpreted “a fabric member” to mean “one or more pieces of fabric.” Based on that construction, the Board determined that the claims were obvious over a combination of references.
The Federal Circuit disagreed and instead found that the ordinary language of the claims indicates that “a fabric member” must be one, single structure able to surround an enclosed space. In support, the Court notes that claim 1 requires the fabric member “define a surrounding wall” and “delimit an enclosed space,” both of which indicate a single structure in the Court’s view. While noting that limitations must not be read into the claims from the specification, the Court notes that this construction is consistent with the “preferred embodiment” disclosed in the application.
Perhaps anticipating this claim construction by the Federal Circuit, the Board had provided an alternative rejection that actually used the same claim construction now adopted by the Federal Circuit. However, even this was overturned by the Federal Circuit. A representative figure from the prior art is presented below:
The Board concluded that the netting 32 is a single, continuous member. However, the Federal Circuit noted that the lines on the front corner of the figure above do not align, thus indicating that the netting 32 is not continuous at that point. “While it is possible that a single, continuous piece could be used in [the prior art reference], that is not the question before us. Instead, we ask whether [the prior art reference] discloses a single, continuous piece. Substantial evidence does not support the Board’s finding that it does.”
It is again noted that this opinion is nonprecedential. However, it is an interesting example of a deviation from Convolve, Inc. v. Compaq Computer Corp., 812 F.3d 1313, 1321 (Fed. Cir. 2016), which is quoted for the proposition that the use of singular articles “a” and “an” often means “one or more” when the transitional phrase “comprising” is used.