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Court to Clarify Patent-Infringement Suits

September 27, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today agreed to clarify what issues should be decided by juries, and not judges, in patent-infringement lawsuits.

The justices said they will study a dry-cleaning invention dispute they were told ``will profoundly affect the trial of virtually every patent-infringement action throughout the nation.″

At issue is whether interpretations of patent claims _ defining the scope of an owner’s rights under the patent _ are matters of fact to be decided by jurors or matters of law to be decided exclusively by a jury trial’s presiding judge.

Herbert Markman of Norristown, Pa., owns a patent for a device he calls an ``inventory control and reporting system for dry-cleaning stores.″

He and Positek Inc. of Norristown, which is licensed to use Markman’s invention, sued Westview Instruments Inc. of Houston. Their lawsuit contended that a dry-cleaning industry device manufactured by Westview and used by Philadelphia-area dry cleaner Althon Enterprises infringed on Markman’s patent.

After a federal jury ruled that Markman’s patent had been infringed, U.S. District Judge Marvin Katz threw out the jury verdict and ruled that no infringement occurred.

The judge ruled that the meaning and scope of a patent was an issue exclusively for judges, not juries, and that Markman’s patent focuses on helping dry cleaners keep track of clothes while the allegedly infringing invention focuses on keeping track of customer invoices.

Katz’s ruling was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit last April.

``It is undisputed that Westview’s device does not and cannot track articles of clothing. Accordingly, there is no substantial evidence to support the jury’s finding of infringement,″ the appeals court said in a ruling that dealt primarily on the definition of ``inventory.″

Markman’s appeal to the Supreme Court was supported in friend-of-the-court briefs submitted by the American Board of Trial Advocates, Association of Trial Lawyers of America and Litton Systems, a technology-based company sometimes involved in patent litigation.

The case is Markman vs. Westview Instruments, 95-26.

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