“Obviousness is a question of law, reviewed de novo, based upon underlying factual questions which are reviewed for clear error following a bench trial.” Alza Corp. v. Mylan Labs., Inc., 464 F.3d 1286, 1289 (Fed. Cir. 2006) (citing Ruiz v. A.B. Chance Co., 357 F.3d 1270, 1275 (Fed. Cir. 2004)).
Leapfrog argues that the district court engaged in improper hindsight in reaching its conclusion of obviousness by concluding that all of the limitations of the claim are found in the prior art. Leapfrog also argues that the court’s finding that the Bevan device has the same functionality as claim 25 was clearly erroneous because the components of Bevan’s device are mechanical, and thus different in structure and interrelation from the electronic components described in claim 25, and therefore cannot provide the same functionality. Leapfrog argues that there was inadequate evidence in the record to support a motivation to combine Bevan, the Texas Instruments SSR, and a reader to arrive at the invention of claim 25. Finally, Leapfrog argues that the district court did not properly consider the strong evidence of secondary considerations of nonobviousness.
In response, Fisher-Price argues that claim 25 is nothing more than the Bevan device, a toy that teaches reading based on the association of letters with their phonemic sounds, updated with modern electronics that were common by the time of the alleged invention. Fisher-Price also responds that particularized and specific motivations to combine need not be found in the prior art references themselves in the context of an improvement that arises from a desire to generally improve a known device (e.g., to make the product smaller, lighter, or less expensive) using newer
technology. Finally, Fisher-Price argues that the district court did give proper consideration to secondary considerations of nonobviousness, but simply concluded that those considerations were not sufficient to overcome the determination of obviousness based on primary considerations.
We agree with Fisher-Price that the district court correctly concluded that the subject matter of claim 25 of the ’861 patent would have been obvious in view of the combination of Bevan, the SSR, and the knowledge of one of ordinary skill in the art. An obviousness determination is not the result of a rigid formula disassociated from the consideration of the facts of a case. Indeed, the common sense of those skilled in the art demonstrates why some combinations would have been obvious where others would not. See KSR Int’l Co. v. Teleflex Inc., 550 U.S. __, 2007 WL 1237837, at *12 (2007) (“The combination of familiar elements according to known methods is likely to be obvious when it does no more than yield predictable results.”). Thus, we bear in mind that the goal of the claim 25 device was to allow a child to press a switch associated with a single letter in a word and hear the sound of the letter as it is used in that word. In this way, the child would both associate the sound of the letter with the letter itself and be able to sound out the word one letter at a time to learn to read phonetically. Accommodating a prior art mechanical device that accomplishes that goal to modern electronics would have been reasonably obvious to one of ordinary skill in designing children’s learning devices. Applying modern electronics to older mechanical devices has been commonplace in recent years.
The Bevan patent was one of the pieces of prior art relied upon by the district court, and it describes an electro-mechanical learning toy. In the preferred embodiment
of the Bevan device, a housing contains a phonograph record as a voice storage means, a speaker for playing sounds from the voice storage means, and an actuated electric motor to turn the record. Uniquely shaped puzzle pieces fit into correspondingly shaped openings in the top of the housing. Depressing the puzzle pieces in the openings causes the motor to turn the record and brings phonographic needles into contact with the portions of the record where the sounds associated with the puzzle pieces are stored so that they can be played through the speaker. In one embodiment, each puzzle piece is imprinted with one letter from a word, and pressing each puzzle piece produces the sound of a single letter in that word. Thus, although it relies on an electric motor and mechanical structures rather than a processor and related electronics, Bevan teaches an apparatus that achieves the goals described above of associating letters with their sounds and encouraging children to sound out words phonetically through a similar type of interaction. We therefore see no clear error in the district court’s finding that the Bevan device has the same method of operation, viewed as a whole, as claim 25 of Leapfrog’s ’861 patent.
A second piece of prior art relied upon by the district court was the Texas Instruments SSR. The SSR is a more modern type of prior art learning toy, constructed with electronic components, that has a slightly different mode of operation than Bevan. The SSR has a hinged plastic housing that opens to lie flat. Books for use with the toy fit into a recess in the housing. The housing contains switches that can detect when a child presses on different areas of the books’ pages. The housing also contains a processor, memory, and a speaker to produce sounds. In one mode of operation, the SSR allows the child to press the first letter of a word and hear the sound of that letter. 06-1402 -8-
The remainder of the letters in the word are grouped together and played together. For example, the child can press the letter “t” and hear the t phoneme and then press “ug” to hear all the sounds in the word “tug.” Similarly, the child can press the letter “b” and then “ug” to hear the sounds in “bug.” The SSR does not include a reader that allows the processor to automatically identify the inserted book. Instead, the user can press a triangle printed on the first page of the book, and the processor determines from the location of the triangle printed on the page which book is inserted. Similarly, the user can press a star on each page of the book, and the processor determines from the location of the star on the page which page of the book is being viewed. Thus, the SSR provides a roadmap for one of ordinary skill in the art desiring to produce an electronics-based learning toy for children that allows the use of phonetic-based learning methods, including the association of individual letters with their phonemes.
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