United States District Court, D. New Hampshire
Signal Quest, Inc.
Ten-Ming Chou, OncQue Corporation, and Bravotronics Corporation. No. 2015 DNH 020
JOSEPH N. LaPLANTE, District Judge.
This is a dispute over the construction of the claims of a patent for a vibration switch, United States Patent No. 6, 706, 979 (filed Mar. 16, 2014). The plaintiff, SignalQuest, Inc., commenced this action by way of a complaint for a declaratory judgment that its products do not infringe the '979 patent, owned (at that point) by defendant Ten-Ming Chou. Chou, who is also the patent's named inventor, responded with a counterclaim alleging that certain SignalQuest products, including its "SQ-SEN-200 model number vibration switch, " in fact infringe the '979 patent. SignalQuest subsequently amended its complaint to bring claims of patent infringement against defendant OncQue Corporation (of which Chou is allegedly the chief executive officer) and Chou, asserting that its products infringe patents for an omnidirectional tilt and vibration sensor, which are owned by SignalQuest. This court has subject-matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1338(a) (patents).
The parties differ over the meaning of a number of terms as they appear in the only independent claim of the '979 patent, claim 1, as well as certain of its dependent claims. The court received briefing and conducted a hearing on this issue in accordance with Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 388 (1996), though the parties used the hearing solely to present oral argument. Based on those presentations, the court arrives at the interpretations of the disputed claim terms specifically set forth below.
I. Applicable legal standard
The meaning of language in a patent claim presents a question of law for the court to decide. Markman, 517 U.S. at 388. "[T]he words of a claim are generally given their ordinary and customary meaning, " i.e., "the meaning that the term would have to a person of ordinary skill in the art in question at the time of the invention." Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1212-13 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc) (quotation marks omitted). In arriving at this meaning,
a claim construction analysis must begin and remain centered on the claim language itself, for that is the language the patentee has chosen to particularly point out and distinctly claim the subject matter which the patentee regards his invention. The claims, of course, do not stand alone. Rather, they are part of a fully integrated written instrument, consisting principally of a specification that concludes with the claims. For that reason, claims must be read in light of the specification, of which they are a part.
Source Vagabond Sys. Ltd. v. Hydrapak, Inc., 753 F.3d 1291, 1299 (Fed. Cir. 2012) (citations, quotation marks, and bracketing by the court omitted).
Yet "[w]hen consulting the specification to clarify the meaning of claim terms, courts must take care not to import limitations into the claims from the specification." Abbott Labs. v. Sandoz, 566 F.3d 1282, 1288 (Fed. Cir. 2009) (en banc). "It is therefore important not to confuse exemplars or preferred embodiments in the specification that serve to teach and enable the invention with limitations that define the outer boundaries of claim scope." Intervet Inc. v. Merial Ltd., 617 F.3d 1282, 1287 (Fed. Cir. 2010) (citing Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1323).
The '979 patent teaches "a vibration switch which can be instantly disposed in a switch-off state when jerked by a force coming from any direction." The invention consists of "two electrically conductive rollable bodies which abut against two tangential areas of two electric contact bodies to establish electric contact between the electric contact bodies, and which will lurch toward a farthermost area of a respective one of the electric contact bodies when the vibration switch is in an unsteady state so as to break the electric contact."
The patent consists of one independent claim, to wit:
A vibration switch adapted to be in electric contact with a support, comprising:
a housing adapted to be mounted on the support in an upright direction, and including an upper wall and a lower wall spaced apart from each other in the upright direction to confine an accommodation chamber; first and second electric contact bodies which are disposed in said accommodation chamber, and which respectively have first and second rolling surfaces that are spaced apart from each other along a centerline oriented in one of the upright direction and a longitudinal direction that is transverse to the upright direction, said first and second rolling surfaces respectively defining first and second farthermost areas which are spaced apart from each other by a first length along a centerline, and respectively defining first and second tangential areas being spaced apart from each other by a distance that, when projected on a longitudinal line in the longitudinal direction, is equivalent to a second length; and
first and second electrically conductive rollable bodies which are rollable on said first and second rolling surfaces about first and second rolling axesm respectively, and which respectively have first and second perimetrical areas that are in contact with the first and second rolling surfaces, respectively, and first and second widths, each of said first and second widths being defined by a distances that is between two diametrically opposite points in a respective one of said first and second perimetrical areas, sum of the first width and the second width being smaller than the first length and larger than the second length, such that when the support on which said housing is mounted stands still, said first and second electrically conductive rollable bodies are tangent to each other, and respectively abut against said first and second tangential areas by virtue of gravity to thereby establish electric contact between said first and second electrical contact bodies, and such that once the support is caused to quiver in an unsteady state, said first and second electrically conductive rollable bodies will be caused to lurch towards one of said first and second farthermost areas so that one of said first and second electrically conductive rollable bodies is out of contact with a corresponding one of said first and second rolling surfaces which defines the other one of said first and second farthermost areas, thereby breaking the electric contact between said first and second electric contact bodies.
As noted at the outset, the parties differ over the meaning of a number of terms as they appear in claim 1 (and, in some cases, of certain dependent claims) of the '979 patent. The court resolves those disputes as follows.
A. Independent claim 1
1. "adapted to be mounted"
The patent claims "[a] vibration switch adapted to be in electric contact with a support, comprising, " among other elements, "a housing adapted to be mounted on the support in an upright direction." SignalQuest argues that this means "an integrally formed extension of the housing itself mounts on the support, " i.e., "[t]here is no separate and removable item connecting the housing to the support." But the defendants disagree, arguing that "adapted to be mounted" means simply "capable of mounting." The court agrees with the defendants.
Claim 1's teaching that the "housing [is] adapted to be mounted on the support" does not, as SignalQuest argues, necessarily "mean that there is a physical limitation to the housing itself"-as opposed to a structure that is added to but remains separable from the housing-to accomplish the mounting. There is nothing inherent in the phrase "adapted to" that ...