Introduction

On August 25, 2017, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board has decided Ex parte McAward. The case revolved around the patentability of James Gerard McAward’s invention of a “water leakage detectors...which are easily connectable to flexible water hoses, and, can be coupled together to monitor leakage from hot and cold supplies.”

Claims 1-20 were deemed indefinite, while Claims 1-7 and 10-20 were deemed unpatentable by the examiner in the Final Action because of lack of novelty and/or obviousness over prior art identified by the examiner. Appellants James Gerard McAward et al. sought review from the Patent Trial and Appeal Board.  

Decision

The following is the excerpted Claim 1, chosen to represent Claims 1-20 as the rest stand or fall with the claim:

 “1. A water detector comprising:

      a housing;

      flow connectors carried by the housing including a spin-on female pipe connector at an inflow end and a spin-on male pipe connector at an outflow end;

      at least one water presence sensor carried by the housing;

      an electrically actuatable valve, carried by the housing, and having first and second states; and

      control circuits, carried by the housing, coupled to the sensor and valve, and, responsive to a leakage indicating signal from the sensor, the circuits actuate the valve causing it to change state wherein the control circuits detect flood conditions, shut off a malfunctioning water branch to a home appliance and communicate to a premises alarm communication device or home automation system via a wireless link and wherein the water detector is configured to be reliable installed by an untrained installer or a homeowner and to not require the services of a plumber or electrician to perform installation, thereby permitting widespread and cost effective adoption.

 The examiner challenged the “metes and bounds” of McAward’s invention, which according to the examiner were not clearly defined within Claim 1. Rather than providing additional description of the invention being claimed, McAward’s claim further describes the skill level required to utilize the apparatus by stating that the water detector is “configured to be reliably installed by an untrained installer or a homeowner and to not require the services of a plumber and cost effective adoption.” The language does not capture the structure of the invention. There is no language specifically claiming the subject matter. 

Furthermore, it is claimed that no tools are needed for installation, but including this quality does not further describe the apparatus’s structure because it does not specify which tools are not needed. Again, rather than specifying the structure of the invention, the claim refers to the minimal skill level needed to utilize the invention. It is also noted that a “homeowner” can easily install the apparatus; however, a “homeowner” encompasses a varied collection of people who represent a wide range of skills.

In addition to the aforementioned points, Claims 1-7 and 10-20 were rendered unpatentable over the combined teachings of Walter (US 7,549,435) and Kaplan (US 7,403,839). McAward’s claimed water detector comprises “a housing [and] flow connectors carried by the housing including a spin-on female pipe connector at an inflow end and a spin-on male pipe connector at an outflow end.” Per the patent Examiner, Walter “fail[s] to explicitly show or teach the limitations wherein the flow connectors include ‘a spin-on female pipe connector at an inflow end and a spin-on male pipe connector on an outflow end’” but “it would have been obvious to modify the flow connections of the device of Walter to be ‘spin-on’ connectors...”

Furthermore, the patent Examiner found that the process of wireless communication to a remote device forewarning a possible flood was well known in the art, and states that “it would have been obvious ‘to use wireless communication in the device of Walter to allow remote and convenient wireless communication between the control module of the valve and a remote monitoring system, as it is taught by Kaplan” (19). 

For the above reasons, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board affirmed the patent Office’s decisions of rendering Claims 1-20 as indefinite, and Claims 1-7 and 10-20 as unpatentable for being obvious.

 Conclusion

The USPTO is responsible for ensuring that each patent clearly defines what is claimed so that other inventors are aware of where their patents’ boundaries lie. After being considered indefinite, a process is initiated during which the applicant has the opportunity to respond with amendments or evidence that the patent claims are sufficiently definite. Doing so in turn ensures that the rights gained through the patent are consistent with the inventor’s contribution to the field, and that the public seeking to invent have a clear understanding of what has already been done.

Full Ex parte McAward decision can be read here: https://www.uspto.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Ex%20parte%20McAward%202017_08_25.pdf

 

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