The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded a Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board) decision finding the challenged claims patentable because the Board impermissibly rested its motivation-to-combine analysis on evidence of general skepticism in the field of invention. Auris Health, Inc. v. Intuitive Surgical Operations, Case No. 21-1732 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 29, 2022) (Dyk, Prost, JJ.) (Reyna, J., dissenting).

Intuitive owns a patent that describes an improvement over earlier robotic surgery systems that allows surgeons to remotely manipulate surgical tools using a controller. The patent focuses on solving the problem of swapping surgical tools by implementing a pulley system that allows tools to be swapped in and out more quickly. Auris petitioned for inter partes review (IPR) of the patent, arguing that a combination of two references disclosed every limitation of the challenged claims. Auris further argued that a skilled artisan would be motivated to combine the references to decrease the number of assistants needed during surgery. While the Board agreed that the combination of the two references disclosed every limitation of the challenged claims, it found that a person of ordinary skill in the art would not be motivated to combine the references because of general skepticism from surgeons “about performing robotic surgery in the first place.” Auris appealed.

The Federal Circuit began by explaining that the motivation-to-combine inquiry asks whether a skilled artisan “not only could have made but would have been motivated to make the combinations . . . of prior art to arrive at the claimed invention.” The Court also explained that as to the “‘would have’ question, ‘any need or problem known in the field of endeavor at the time of invention and addressed by the patent can provide a reason for combining the elements in the manner claimed.’”

The Federal Circuit concluded that generic industry skepticism about robotic surgery cannot, on its own, preclude a finding of a motivation to combine. The Court explained that although industry skepticism can play a role as a secondary consideration in an obviousness finding, such evidence must be specific to the invention and not simply the field as a whole. The Court concluded that the Board’s motivation-to-combine determination was based almost exclusively on evidence of general skepticism. Thus, the Court vacated the decision and remanded the case, directing the Board to examine the evidence using the correct obviousness criteria.

Judge Reyna issued a dissenting opinion in which he disagreed as to whether the Federal Circuit should implement a rule that general skepticism cannot support a finding of no motivation to combine. Judge Reyna expressed concern that the majority opinion could be understood to create an inflexible, rigid rule that the Board cannot consider evidence of skepticism toward the invention , including whether that skepticism would have dissuaded a skilled artisan from making the proposed combination. Judge Reyna also argued that notwithstanding the majority opinion, the Board did not rely solely on general skepticism, but rather provided additional explanation as to why the “no motivation to combine” defense was inadequate.