Board Reverses Abstract Idea Rejection for Improper Oversimplification; Board Should Evaluate Examiner Rejections, Not Conduct Own Examination

In continuing to monitor high interest areas at the PTAB, today’s Anticipat Recap email included a recently issued decision that reversed the Examiner’s abstract idea rejection. We go over why the Board reversed and discuss an interesting point raised related to the scope of Board activism. 

In Ex Parte Grokop et al., Appeal No. 2016-003047, the Board disagreed with the Examiner’s conclusion of step 1 that the claims were directed to an abstract idea. The Board cited Enfish and McRO to establish two important points that touch on judicial exception rejections: the claims cannot be oversimplified and specific requirements of the claims must be considered.

According to the Board, the Examiner’s characterization of the claim as directed to “generic audio analysis” oversimplified the claims and failed to account for the specific requirements of the claim. This included claim features of capturing only a single frame from each block, analyzing the collection of captured frames, and determining a characteristic of an ambient environment based on that analysis.

Interestingly, at the end of this analysis, the Board made a point to establish that the Board need not examine the claims. Instead, the Board’s job is to evaluate whether the Examiner’s rejection was proper. To support this, the Board cited to the MPEP (“The Board’s primary role is to review the adverse decision as presented by the Examiner, and not to conduct its own separate examination of the claims.” MPEP § 1213.02). It also cited to the statutory code (“An applicant for a patent, any of whose claims has been twice rejected, may appeal from the decision of the primary examiner to the Patent Trial and Appeal Board.” 35 U.S.C. § 134(a); and “The Patent Trial and Appeal Board shall. . . review adverse decisions of examiners upon applications for patents pursuant to section 134(a).” 35 U.S.C. § 6(b)).

This last point is important because often times rejections (including abstract idea rejections) get affirmed under a new theory or analysis, requiring that the rejection be designated as new. Or claims that were previously unrejected under Section 101 are found to be patent-ineligible by the Board as an entirely new ground of rejection. It seems like this panel would focus entirely on whether the Examiner’s pending rejections are proper and not examine the claims by itself. 

There may be advantages and disadvantages to Appellants under this approach. Advantageously, the appellant need not fear an unfriendly Board panel that seemingly arbitrarily introduces a new 101 rejection. Additionally, the appellant need not fear a bad Examiner rejection getting strengthened by the Board as an affirmed as new outcome. But the downside is that if the Board purely evaluates the Examiner rejections, the Examiner could simply turn around a more well-articulated rejection once the application makes it back. So on the flip side, under the approach where the Board more actively evaluates the claims, if the appellant survives such an approach without a new rejection, the Examiner may be less likely to simply flip around a more well-articulated rejection.

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