by Marin Cionca and Iris Kim  

Two decisions by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB, or Board) addressed how theses could be qualified as prior art, and the ways in which that qualification could be challenged.  GlobalFoundries U.S., Inc. et al. v. Zond, LLC, IPR2014-01086, Paper 36 (GlobalFoundries, Aug. 14, 2015), relating to U.S. patent number 7,147,759, involved the evaluation of a Russian language doctoral thesis Mozgrin, which had been catalogued at the Russian State Library.  

In this Final Decision, the Board addressed the issue of whether the Mozgrin thesis is prior art under 35 U.S.C. 102. A determination such as this one must be done on a case-by-case basis, by looking into the facts relating to the reference in question and its disclosure to the public. In re Klopfenstein, 380 F.3d 1345, 1350 (Fed. Cir. 2004). “To qualify as a prior art printed publication, the reference must have been disseminated or otherwise made accessible to persons interested and ordinarily skilled in the subject matter to which the document relates prior to the critical date. Kyocera Wireless Corp. v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, 545 F.3d 1340, 1350 (Fed. Cir. 2008).” Mozgrin is a doctoral thesis originally published in 1994, and GlobalFoundries, the Petitioner, provided a copy of the catalog entry for it at the Russian State Library along with a certified English translation. The thesis contained an imprint date of 1994 or at least 1995, reading, “Catalog of Dissertations in Russian (since 1995).” However, Zond, the Patent Owner, argued that this was insufficient evidence that Mozgrin was actually catalogued on that date.

The Board found GlobalFoundries to be persuasive, because although “evidence establishing a specific date of cataloging and shelving before the critical date would have been desirable, it is not required in a public accessibility determination. See Hall, 781 F.2d at 899” (GlobalFoundries, PTAB), the critical date being September 30, 2002. Since Zond was unable to give sufficient explanation or evidence otherwise, such as why there would exist a delay of seven years for cataloguing a thesis, the Board agreed with GlobalFoundries.  

Zond did also offer an argument that, even if Mozgrin had been catalogued, GlobalFoundries “would not have demonstrated that the thesis could have been obtained by any interested person outside of Russia or the countries under Russia’s control.” The Board called this argument “misplaced,” stating that there would have been “sufficient accessibility to interested persons exercising reasonable diligence.” The Board observed that Mozgrin “was cataloged and indexed in a meaningful way, by the author’s name, the IPR2014-01086 Patent 7,147,759 B2 44 title of the thesis (“High-Current Low-Pressure Quasi-Stationary Discharge in a Magnetic Field”), and the subject matter of the thesis (“Plasma Physics and Chemistry”)” (emphasis added).  

In contrast to this decision, the Board also made a decision relating to a thesis that had not been catalogued or indexed in a meaningful way. Friendfinder Networks Inc. v. WAG Acquisition, LLC, IPR2015-01033, Paper 8 (Friendfinder, Oct. 19, 2015) relates to U.S. patent number 8,327,011. The Petition provided Su, a thesis submitted to the Department of Computing and Information Science at Queens University in Ontario, Canada in September of 1998. The thesis bears a copyright notice of 1998, and the Petitioner asserted that Su was published and available at the National Library of Canada in 1999.  “However, Patent Owner contends that Petitioner has not met its burden to show when Su became publicly accessible and, therefore, Su has not been shown to be a prior art printed publication,” (Friendfinder, PTAB). This due in part to the Patent Owner’s argument that it is unclear whether Su was available beginning on the critical date of July 18, 2008, and unclear when Su was “accessible in a searchable or indexed manner, such that it could be located by persons interested and ordinarily skilled in the subject matter or art using reasonable diligence.”

Again, the Board referenced Kyocera Wireless, in making their determination of whether a reference is a printed publication.  In previous cases, a copyright notice has been used as a prima facie evidence of publication. However, such as in this case, “in the absence of further evidence, a copyright notice may not be determinative.” As such, the Petitioner acknowledged that Su was not published until 1999; therefore, the copyright notice posted on Su holds “no weight on the issue of public accessibility” (Friendfinder, PTAB). 

The Petitioner provided a “photograph of the microfiche copy of Su,” “a photograph of an envelope in which the microfiche is stored,” and an “index microfiche.” Unfortunately for the Petitioner, the envelope photograph displays only “Jan–Jul/Aug 1999 ISSN 0225-3216 Index A Authors Titles Series.” The Board stated that Su was only indexed by “rudimentary indexing,” of the author’s name and only the first word of the thesis title, “Continuous,” “which is the only indexing that the evidence suggests may have occurred before the priority date and does not suggest its relevance to the streaming media network transport problem addressed by the ’011 Patent” (Friendfinder, PTAB). 

The Board then concluded with a statement that “such indexing would not provide a meaningful pathway to a researcher who was not previously aware of the existence of the thesis and was searching by subject matter” (Friendfinder, PTAB, emphasis added).  These two decisions by the Board provide some guidelines for petitioners and patent owners alike. Providing a thesis as a reference may only be useful if one can also supply evidence of its availability, and that evidence should be focused around the critical date.

Challenging of that reference may be done by evaluating the institution’s policies for cataloguing of theses, how indexing is actually performed by those institutions, and whether an interested person of ordinary skill would be able to find that reference. If the indexing of a thesis is only done in a rudimentary fashion, as in the case of Su, that thesis may not be qualified as prior art.

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