Addressing an interesting issue of patent claim construction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, sitting as an expanded five-member panel, held that a human is an animal. Martek Biosciences Corporation v. Nutrinova, Inc, Case Nos. 08-1459, -1476 (Fed. Cir., Sept. 3, 2003) (Gajarsa, J.)(Lourie, J. dissenting-in-part).

Martek owns several patents that cover various aspects of making and using omega-3 highly unsaturated fatty acids. Nutrinova sells allegedly infringing products for human consumption. One of the patents claims a method for increasing the concentration of the omega-3 acids in an “animal.” The district court concluded that the claim term “animal” does not include humans. Based on this claim construction, Martek stipulated in the district court that the claims were not infringed.

The Court, in a three-person majority opinion, concluded that a human is an animal. The Court reached this conclusion by following the well-established rule that when a claim term is explicitly defined in the specification, that definition controls. The patent specification states that “animal” means any organism belonging to the kingdom Animalia. According to the Court, the definition in the specification controls and, because it is undisputed that humans are members of the kingdom Animalia, the district court erred in limiting the term “animal” to exclude humans.

The majority was not persuaded by Nutrinova’s assertions that the disclosure in the specification of a preferred use of the omega-3 acids to produce food products from economic food animals and the enumeration of preferred food animals, constitutes a clear intention to limit the term “animal” to exclude humans. Again relying on well-established precedent, the Court concluded that the scope the claimed invention is not so limited, because the specification does not clearly disclaim coverage of humans. In the majority’s view, this was particularly true because Martek expressly defined “animal” broadly enough to encompass humans and also disclosed uses of the claimed invention that are applicable to humans.

In dissent, Judge Lourie while agreeing with the precedent relied on by the majority, concluded that this case presents an “unusual situation” in which the purported definition of the term “animal” does not comport with the full description of the invention. In the view of the dissent, based on the use of the term “animal” in the claims and specification, one of ordinary skill in the art would conclude that the term “animal” does not include humans.

Practice Note: While patentees can be their own lexicographers—and express definitions of claim terms in the specification are controlling—patent drafters should take steps to ensure that the broader written description of the invention and its embodiments comports with any express definitions. This case was heard by an expanded (five judge) panel of the Federal Circuit; a rather unusual circumstance. Judges Newman dna Moore joined in the panel decision and Judge Rader joined in the dissent.