In a non-precedential decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a decision by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board, which found that the claims in an Applicant’s patent application were obvious in view of two prior art references. In re Shaneour, Fed. Cir., No. 2014-1518 (Jan. 8, 2015). In short, the Federal Circuit affirmed the PTAB’s broad interpretation of the phrases “associated with” and “related to” during examination.
The patent application in question, U.S. Patent Application No. 11/764,995 entitled “Remote Controlled Athletic Field Lighting System,” describes and claims a system of high-intensity light fixtures that can be used, for example, to light a sports stadium. More specifically, the claims include, inter alia, an array of light fixtures comprising “a plurality of light level sensors equal in number to the number of fixtures in the array wherein each sensor is associated with an individual fixture and capable of producing a signal related to the light level being produced at any given time by the lamp in said fixture.”
During examination, the patent examiner rejected all of the claims as obvious over U.S. Patent No. 7,635,958 in view of U.S. Patent No. 6,960,892. In particular, the ‘958 patent discloses a lighting system that automatically corrects for variations in light intensities by comparing the actual light intensity against a target intensity. For example, in a partial embodiment, the ‘958 patent illustrates a one-to-one ratio of sensors to light fixtures, wherein each light fixture is associated with a given sensor. In response, the Applicant argued that the claims in the application require each light sensor to be placed at “the point of [the light’s] origin” so as to measure only the “output  of [each] individual lamp .”
The Federal Circuit pointed to the claim language describing each sensor as being “associated with an individual fixture” and “capable of producing a signal related to the light level being produced.” Applying the broadest reasonable construction in light of the specification , by a person of ordinary skill in the art. the court said that the phrases “associated with” and “related to” are “reasonably read as covering sensors that are somewhat removed from the particular lamp or fixture and that measures the level of light that is a blend of outputs from more than one lamp or fixture.” Accordingly, the court affirmed the PTAB’s decision that the ‘958 patent taught the equivalent lighting system.
While the use of broad terms and phrases in patent claims can be advantageous for many reasons, patent practitioners and applicants alike need to be aware of the risks associated with using such terms – i.e., the potential of rendering a claim unpatentable or invalid. To reduce these risks, it is good practice to ensure that the specification provides examples for the broad claim terms and, perhaps more importantly, that such terms are further defined in dependent claims.