Court Lowers Bar to Construe Claims as Means-Plus-Function Terms When The Claim Does Not Recite “Means”

Editor: Kevin D. Rodkey

In Williamson v. Citrix Online, LLC, No. 13-1130 (Fed. Cir. June 16, 2015), the en banc Federal Circuit overruled part of its precedent regarding when claim terms are subject to the “means-plus-function” requirements of 35 U.S.C. § 112, ¶ 6. Under § 112, ¶ 6, there is a presumption that the claim language “means for” or “step for” performing a specified function is construed to cover only the corresponding structure described in the specification and its equivalents. But, when a claim does not recite a “means for” or “step for” performing a function, the Court’s precedent held that there was a “strong” presumption against construing the language under § 112, ¶ 6. But, this presumption could be overcome by showing that the claim was “essentially . . . devoid of anything that could be construed as structure.”

In Williamson, the en banc Court reconsidered this “strong” presumption against means-plus-function constructions. The Court expressly overruled certain parts of its precedent and held that when a claim term does not recite the word “means,” the presumption against § 112, ¶ 6, can be overcome merely by showing that “the claim term fails to ‘recite sufficiently definite structure’ or else recites ‘function without reciting sufficient structure for performing that function.’”

Applying the revised standard, the Federal Circuit first affirmed the district court’s decision that the claim element “distributed learning control module for receiving communications . . . for relaying the communications . . . and for coordinating the operation of the streaming data module” is a means-plus-function term under § 112, ¶ 6. While “means” is not present, the Court concluded that the claim element is written in a format consistent with traditional means-plus-function claim limitations using the non-structural term “module” followed by “for” and a stated function.

Second, the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision finding that the “distributed learning control module” term is invalid because the specification does disclose structure corresponding to the claimed module.

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