August 1, 2017

Can Unexpected Results Make the Obvious Non-Obvious?

By Bryan K. Wheelock, Principal

In Honeywell, Int’l Inc. v. Mexichem Amanco Holdings S.A., [16-1996] (August 1, 2017), the Federal Circuit vacated the USTPO’s reexamination decision invalidating claims 1–26, 31–37, 46–49, 58, 59, 61–68, 70–75, 80, and 81 of U.S. Patent 7,534,366 on a refrigerant and lubricant composition for air conditioning systems.  The Federal Circuit found that the Board erred by improperly relying on inherency to find obviousness and in its analysis of motivation to combine the references.

First, the Board erred in relying on inherency to dismiss evidence showing unpredictability in the art.  The use of inherency in the context of obviousness must be carefully circumscribed because that which may be inherent is not necessarily known and that which is unknown cannot be obvious.  What is important regarding properties that may be inherent, but unknown, is whether they are unexpected.  All properties of a composition are inherent in that composition, but unexpected properties may cause what may appear to be an obvious composition to be nonobvious.  The Board, in dismissing properties of the claimed invention as merely inherent, without further consideration as to unpredictability and unexpectedness, erred as a matter of law.

Second, the Board erred in dismissing evidence of unpredictability in the art when it stated that one of ordinary skill would no more have expected failure than success in combining the references, and thus concluded that the person of ordinary skill would be led to routine testing, which would have eventually led to the claimed combination.  The Federal Circuit found that this put the burden on the patent owner to show that a person of ordinary skill in the art would have expected failure.  The Federal Circuit said that instead the burden is on the Office to show that one of ordinary skill would have had a motivation to combine the references with a reasonable expectation of success.

The use of unexpected results to show non-obviousness is a curious aspect of patent law.  If it truly is obvious to modify a reference, or combine two or more references, then the fact that the obvious modification or obvious combination results in something unexpected, should not change the determination of obviousness, While we might feel like rewarding someone who provides unexpected results, by giving them a patent for doing what is obvious is not what the patent laws prescribe.

In Honeywell, however, the non-obviousness did not hinge on unexpected results but on the unpredictability of the art. The Federal Circuit also agreed that the Board improperly relied upon a new ground of rejection, resurrecting a reference cited by the requesting party, but not relied upon by the Examiner.