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CELLNET DATA SYS. v. ITRON

August 10, 1998

CELLNET DATA SYSTEMS, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
ITRON, INC., Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: INFANTE

ORDER RE: CONSTRUCTION OF DISPUTED CLAIMS IN U.S. PATENT NO. 4,783,623

 I. INTRODUCTION

 This is a patent infringement case. Plaintiff CellNet Data Systems, Inc. ("CellNet"), the assignee of U.S. Patent No. 4,783,623 ("the '623 patent"), entitled "Device For Use With A Utility Meter For Recording Time Of Energy Use," accuses Defendant Itron, Inc. ("Itron") of infringing claims 1, 5, 8-10, and 12-14 of said patent by making, using and selling its various models of meter modules.

 After the parties submitted briefs in support of their respective positions, the Court conducted a claim construction hearing on July 24, 1998. See Civil L.R. 16-11. The parties were permitted to make arguments and present evidence in support of their proposed interpretations of the disputed claim terms at the hearing. The Court has now reviewed the parties' written submissions, the documentary evidence, the testimony of inventor Larsh Johnson, and the arguments presented by counsel. By this order, the Court renders its interpretation of the disputed terms and sets forth its analysis.

 II. BACKGROUND

 The invention disclosed in the '623 patent relates to utility meters *fn1" used by electric companies. The named inventors of the '623 patent are Cree Edwards and Larsh Johnson. Mr. Johnson, who testified at the claim construction hearing, is currently CellNet's Chief Technology Officer. The '623 patent issued on November 8, 1998.

 According to the '623 patent specification, the claimed device allows electric companies to retrofit their existing meters to permit variable billing rates and structures:

 
The present invention relates generally to utility meters for recording energy consumption, and more particularly to a device readily installed within standard electric meters for recording time of energy use. [P] Electrical energy is generally sold and metered on the basis of a fixed rate schedule, for example a fixed rate per kilowatt-hour delivered. Electrical energy demand, however, varies considerably during the course of the day. Nonetheless, the fixed rate applies whether the demand for energy is high or low.

 '623 patent, 1:5-14. The '623 specification explains that if electric companies can charge different rates based on the time of energy use, then they can encourage their customers to use less energy during peak demand periods. '623 patent, 1:15-24. The ability to charge different rates would result in substantial cost savings to the electric companies.

 According to Mr. Johnson, he and Mr. Edwards conceived of the idea of manufacturing and marketing a device that would allow advanced meter reading capabilities to be incorporated into existing utility meters in approximately 1985. They formed a company, Domestic Automation Corporation, to develop the product and bring it to the market. The company later became CellNet Data Systems, Inc. On August 29, 1986, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Edwards filed two separate patent applications to claim their invention. CellNet explains that the application resulting in the '623 patent was filed to claim a device capable of being installed under the meter disc in the standard meters in use at the time. *fn2" CellNet contends that the separate application, which resulted in the issuance of U.S. Patent No. 4,792,677 ("the '677 patent"), entitled "System For Use with A Utility Meter For Recording Time Of Energy Use," claimed the electronic circuitry to be used with the apparatus disclosed in the '623 patent. *fn3" The '677 patent issued on December 20, 1998.

 III. LEGAL STANDARDS REGARDING CLAIM CONSTRUCTION

 The Supreme Court recently confirmed that patent claim interpretation is a question of law to be decided by the Court. Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370, 371-73, 116 S. Ct. 1384, 1387, 134 L. Ed. 2d 577 (1996). In determining the meaning of terms used in patent claims, the Court considers the intrinsic evidence which consists of the claim language, the specification, and the prosecution history. Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996); and Unique Concepts, Inc. v. Brown, 939 F.2d 1558, 1561 (Fed. Cir. 1991). If the meaning of the claim language is not ambiguous and can be determined from the intrinsic evidence, the Court may not rely on extrinsic evidence in rendering its claim construction. *fn4" Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1583.

 The Court begins its analysis by reviewing the claims themselves, both asserted and nonasserted, to define the scope of the patented invention. Id. at 1582. The claim terms are to be given their common and ordinary meaning unless the intrinsic evidence indicates that the patentee intended a special meaning. Id.; Wolverine World Wide, Inc. v. Nike, Inc., 38 F.3d 1192, 1196 (Fed. Cir. 1994). In such a case, the special meaning of the claim terms will be derived from the claim specification which serves as the patentee's "dictionary." Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1582; and Hoechst Celanese Corp. v. BP Chems., Ltd., 78 F.3d 1575, 1578 (Fed. Cir. 1996) ("A technical term used in a patent document is interpreted as having the meaning that it would be given by persons experienced in the field of the invention, unless it is apparent from the patent and the prosecution history that the inventor used the term with a different meaning.") (citations omitted). The prosecution history limits the interpretation of claim terms so as to exclude any interpretation that was disclaimed during prosecution. Alpex Computer Corp. v. Nintendo Co., Ltd., 102 F.3d 1214, 1220 (Fed. Cir. 1996); and Southwall Technologies, Inc. v. Cardinal IG Co., 54 F.3d 1570, 1576 (Fed. Cir. 1995).

 Although the Court may use the specification to ascertain the meaning of claim terms, it is improper to limit the scope of the claim to the examples and embodiments disclosed in the specification. An exception to this general rule exists, however, in the form of means-plus-function claims allowed under 35 U.S.C. ¬ß 112, P 6. See Valmont Industries, Inc. v. Reinke Manufacturing Co., 983 F.2d 1039, 1042 (Fed. Cir. 1993). Under a means-plus-function analysis, if the specification mentions specific alternative structures, those structures are included in the scope of the patent. Serrano v. Telular Corp., 111 F.3d 1578, 1583 (Fed. Cir. 1997). A specification that merely mentions the possibility of alternative structures without specifically identifying them is not sufficient to expand the scope of the claim beyond the example used. Fonar Corp. v. General Elec. Co., 107 F.3d 1543, 1551 (Fed. Cir.), cert. denied, U.S. , 118 S. Ct. 226, 139 L. Ed. 2d 192 (1997).

 IV. DISCUSSION

 The parties have met and conferred regarding the construction of terms used in the asserted claims of the '623 patent and have reached agreements regarding the meanings of all terms except the following: (1) "any standard meter" or "any standard electric meter"; (2) "circuit means for recording energy use"; (3) "circuit means for recording time of energy use"; (4) "below the disc" or "beneath the disc"; (5) "housing"; (6) "mounting hole"; (7) "set of openings"; (8) "about" and (9) "near." Pursuant to Civil L.R. 16-11(d), the parties submitted briefs supporting their interpretations of these claim terms. The following is the Court's construction of these terms and a discussion of the relevant considerations.

 A. "Any Standard Meter" Or "Any Standard Electric Meter"

 In independent claim 1 of the '623 patent, the patentees state that their claimed device has a housing with mounting holes arranged such that said housing may be mounted in "any standard electric meter." *fn5" Itron contends that, in the context of the '623 patent, the terms "any standard meter" and "any standard electric meter" require that CellNet's claimed device be mountable on all "standard electric meters" as that term is defined in the specification. CellNet's position is that claim 1 should not be read to require the device to have mounting holes which permit it to be mounted on all of the standard electric meters. Rather, CellNet argues that "claim 1 refers to a housing amenable to use with various electric meters" because its counsel stated during the prosecution of the patent that the device could be mounted within "various" electric meters. CellNet further opines that "it is clear that CellNet simply intended to refer to the ability of their [sic] device to fit more than one of the standard meters." Thus, CellNet contends that it merely claimed a device that could be installed on more than one of the standard electric meters.

 1. "Standard Meter" And "Standard Electric Meter" Are Expressly Defined

 The parties' dispute focuses on the meaning of the word "any" since they appear to agree that the terms "standard meter" and "standard electric meter" are specifically defined in the patent specification:

 
The device of the present invention is configured to be mounted within the following Class 200 watthour meters as well as other meters having a similar internal structure: the D5S meter type manufactured by the Westinghouse Corporation, Raleigh, N.H.; the I-70-S meter type manufactured by the General Electric Corporation, Somersworth, N.H.; the MS meter type manufactured by Landis & Gyr (Duncan), Lafayette, Ind.; and the J4 meter type manufactured by Sangamo, Atlanta, Ga. Meters of the type just identified, including meters having a similar internal structure, will be hereinafter referred to as standard watthour meters or standard electric meters.

 '623 patent, 3:40-52 (emphasis added).

 The definition given to a disputed claim term in the specification is to be accorded substantial deference when construing the term. The Federal Circuit has declared that courts should generally begin their claim construction analysis with the patent specification because it is usually "dispositive." Vitronics, 90 F.3d at 1582. The Vitronics court described the patent specification as "the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed claim." Id. In this case, the patentees clearly and precisely defined the terms "standard meter" and "standard electric meter" in the patent specification. Since the patentees' express definition is consistent with the remainder of the intrinsic evidence, the Court hereby construes the terms as they are defined in the specification. '623 patent, 3:40-52.

 2. The Court Construes "Any" To Mean "Every" Or "All"

 Itron argues that claim 1 discloses a device which may be mounted on all four of the specifically-identified meters, including the Westinghouse, General Electric, Landis & Gyr, and Sangamo electric meters, and all other meters having similar internal structures. CellNet claims that the term "any" should be construed to mean "more than one." For the reasons given below, Itron's definition of "any" comports with the specification and prosecution history of the '623 patent application.

 The patent specification contains several statements which contradict CellNet's argument that "any standard meter" and "any standard electric meter" merely mean "more than one standard electric meter." For example, the patentees explain that "the [mounting] holes are arranged so that the device may be mounted in any standard watthour meter." '623 patent, 2:63-65. The inventors also describe in detail the manner in which the mounting holes of the claimed device are arranged so that the mounting posts on each of the identified standard electric meters (including the Westinghouse, General Electric, Landis & Gyr and Sangamo meters) can be accommodated. '623 patent, 3:56-4:19 and 5:40-6:29. Moreover, in their introductory statement, the patentees state that their invention relates "to a device readily installed within standard electric meters for recording time of energy use." '623 patent, 1:5-8. Finally, the patentees leave little doubt that the disclosed device is designed to fit all four of the standard electric meters with these comments:

 
Excellent, highly-standardized, electromechanical meters for metering power consumption at fixed rates are currently in place at literally millions of locations throughout the United States. These meters are readily available and relatively inexpensive. Thus, the most practical and inexpensive way to provide for a multiple rate structure is to provide a device for recording time of energy use that is readily utilized with such standard electric meters. [P] Examples of such standard meters include: the D5S meter type manufactured by the Westinghouse Corporation, Raleigh, N.H.; the I-70-S meter type manufactured by the General Electric Corporation, Somersworth, N.H.; the MS meter type manufactured by Landis & Gyr (Duncan), Lafayette, Ind.; and the J4 meter type manufactured by Sangamo, Atlanta, Ga. . . [P] Accordingly, a general object of the present invention is to provide a relatively inexpensive device readily installed on standard meters for recording time of energy use.

 '623 patent, 2:21-43 (emphasis added). Thus, the specification clearly provides that the device disclosed in claim 1 was designed to permit ready installation on all four of the specified standard electric meters. *fn6"

 The prosecution history also supports Itron's interpretation of "any standard meter" and "any standard electric meter." Although CellNet's patent counsel, William J. Egan III, stated in the Remarks section of the patentees' Response to the Office Action of November 23, 1987 that the claimed device can be mounted on "various" electric meters, Mr. Egan also made statements contradicting CellNet's position. For instance, Mr. Egan argued to the examiner that the disclosed device was distinguishable over the identified prior art because it "may be mounted in any standard electric meter." Response to Office Action, 6:2-4. Mr. Egan also explained later that the device "may be mounted in standard electric meters." Such an unqualified statement clearly suggests that the inventors claimed a device which could be installed in all standard electric meters. The Court also notes that the examiner clearly understood the patentees to be claiming a universally adaptable meter module and the patentees never advised the examiner that they did not intend to assert such a claim. Office Action, P 2.

 Finally, Itron's definition of the disputed terms is supported by reference to the dictionary definition of the word "any." *fn7" According to the dictionary, the word "any" can mean: 1) every; 2) all; 3) one, some, or all indiscriminately of whatever quantity; 4) one or another taken at random; and 5) one or more -- used to indicate an undetermined number or amount. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th Ed. 1993). While the dictionary definition indicates that "any" can be construed to mean every, all, or an indeterminate number, it does not commonly mean "more than one." Thus, if the patentees intended to claim such a special definition of the word "any," their intent to do so must be reflected in the specification. In this case, no such intent is expressed in the specification of the '623 patent.

 Accordingly, the Court construes the terms "any standard meter" and "any standard electric meter" to mean the D5S meter type manufactured by the Westinghouse Corporation, the 1-70-S meter type manufactured by the General Electric Corporation, the MS meter type manufactured by Landis & Gyr, the J4 meter type manufactured by Sangamo, and all electric utility meters having similar internal structures.

 B. "Circuit Means For Recording Energy Use"

 Independent claim 1 of the '623 patent discloses a device for use with an electric meter which has a housing containing "circuit means for recording energy use." According to CellNet, the term "circuit means for recording energy use" means any circuit involved with recording energy use. Itron contends that the term is a means-plus-function element and that it means "a circuit having a sensor for detecting the ...


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