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No. 04–1350. Argued November 28, 2006—Decided April 30, 2007

To control a conventional automobile’s speed, the driver depresses or releases the gas pedal, which interacts with the throttle via a cable or other mechanical link. Because the pedal’s position in the foot well normally cannot be adjusted, a driver wishing to be closer or farther from it must either reposition himself in the seat or move the seat, both of which can be imperfect solutions for smaller drivers in cars with deep foot wells. This prompted inventors to design and patent pedals that could be adjusted to change their locations. The Asano patent reveals a support structure whereby, when the pedal location is adjusted, one of the pedal’s pivot points stays fixed. Asano is also designed so that the force necessary to depress the pedal is the same regardless of location adjustments. The Redding patent reveals a different, sliding mechanism where both the pedal and the pivot point are adjusted. 

In newer cars, computer-controlled throttles do not operate through force transferred from the pedal by a mechanical link, but open and close valves in response to electronic signals. For the computer to know what is happening with the pedal, an electronic sensor must translate the mechanical operation into digital data. Inventors had obtained a number of patents for such sensors. The so-called ’936 patent taught that it was preferable to detect the pedal’s position in the pedal mechanism, not in the engine, so the patent disclosed a pedal with an electronic sensor on a pivot point in the pedal assembly. The Smith patent taught that to prevent the wires connecting the sensor to the computer from chafing and wearing out, the sensor should be put on a fixed part of the pedal assembly rather than in or on the pedal’s footpad. Inventors had also patented self-contained modular sensors, which can be taken off the shelf and attached to any mechanical pedal to allow it to function with a computer-controlled throttle. The ’068 patent disclosed one such sensor. Chevrolet also manufactured trucks using modular sensors attached to the pedal support bracket, adjacent to the pedal and engaged with the pivot shaft about which the pedal rotates. Other patents disclose electronic sensors attached to adjustable pedal assemblies. For example, the Rixon patent locates the sensor in the pedal footpad, but is known for wire chafing.

After petitioner KSR developed an adjustable pedal system for cars with cable-actuated throttles and obtained its ’976 patent for the de-sign, General Motors Corporation (GMC) chose KSR to supply adjustable pedal systems for trucks using computer-controlled throttles. To make the ’976 pedal compatible with the trucks, KSR added a modular sensor to its design. Respondents (Teleflex) hold the exclusive license for the Engelgau patent, claim 4 of which discloses a position-adjustable pedal assembly with an electronic pedal position sensor attached a fixed pivot point. Despite having denied a similar, broader claim, the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) had al-lowed claim 4 because it included the limitation of a fixed pivot position, which distinguished the design from Redding’s. Asano was neither included among the Engelgau patent’s prior art references nor mentioned in the patent’s prosecution, and the PTO did not have be-fore it an adjustable pedal with a fixed pivot point. After learning of KSR’s design for GMC, Teleflex sued for infringement, asserting that KSR’s pedal system infringed the Engelgau patent’s claim 4. KSR countered that claim 4 was invalid under §103 of the Patent Act, which forbids issuance of a patent when “the differences between the subject matter sought to be patented and the prior art are such that the subject matter as a whole would have been obvious at the time the invention was made to a person having ordinary skill in the art.”
Graham v. John Deere Co. of Kansas City, 383 U. S. 1, 17–18, set out an objective analysis for applying §103: “[T]he scope and content of the prior art are . . . determined; differences between the prior art and the claims at issue are . . . ascertained; and the level of ordinary skill in the pertinent art resolved. Against this background the obviousness or nonobviousness of the subject matter is determined. Such secondary considerations as commercial success, long felt but un-solved needs, failure of others, etc., might be utilized to give light to the circumstances surrounding the origin of the subject matter sought to be patented.” While the sequence of these questions might be reordered in any particular case, the factors define the controlling inquiry. However, seeking to resolve the obviousness question with more uniformity and consistency, the Federal Circuit has employed a “teaching, suggestion, or motivation” (TSM) test, under which a patent claim is only proved obvious if the prior art, the problem’s nature, or the knowledge of a person having ordinary skill in the art reveals some motivation or suggestion to combine the prior art teachings.

The District Court granted KSR summary judgment. After reviewing pedal design history, the Engelgau patent’s scope, and the relevant prior art, the court considered claim 4’s validity, applying Graham’s framework to determine whether under summary-judgment standards KSR had demonstrated that claim 4 was obvious. The court found “little difference” between the prior art’s teachings and claim 4: Asano taught everything contained in the claim except using a sensor to detect the pedal’s position and transmit it to a computer controlling the throttle. That additional aspect was revealed in, e.g., the ’068 patent and Chevrolet’s sensors. The court then held that KSR satisfied the TSM test, reasoning (1) the state of the industry would lead inevitably to combinations of electronic sensors and adjustable pedals, (2) Rixon provided the basis for these developments, and (3) Smith taught a solution to Rixon’s chafing problems by positioning the sensor on the pedal’s fixed structure, which could lead to the combination of a pedal like Asano with a pedal position sensor.

Reversing, the Federal Circuit ruled the District Court had not applied the TSM test strictly enough, having failed to make findings as to the specific understanding or principle within a skilled artisan’s knowledge that would have motivated one with no knowledge of the invention to attach an electronic control to the Asano assembly’s sup-port bracket. The Court of Appeals held that the District Court’s re-course to the nature of the problem to be solved was insufficient be-cause, unless the prior art references addressed the precise problem that the patentee was trying to solve, the problem would not motivate an inventor to look at those references. The appeals court found that the Asano pedal was designed to ensure that the force required to de-press the pedal is the same no matter how the pedal is adjusted, whereas Engelgau sought to provide a simpler, smaller, cheaper adjustable electronic pedal. The Rixon pedal, said the court, suffered from chafing but was not designed to solve that problem and taught nothing helpful to Engelgau’s purpose. Smith, in turn, did not relate to adjustable pedals and did not necessarily go to the issue of motivation to attach the electronic control on the pedal assembly’s support bracket. So interpreted, the court held, the patents would not have led a person of ordinary skill to put a sensor on an Asano-like pedal. That it might have been obvious to try that combination was likewise irrelevant. Finally, the court held that genuine issues of material fact precluded summary judgment.

Held: The Federal Circuit addressed the obviousness question in a narrow, rigid manner that is inconsistent with §103 and this Court’s precedents. KSR provided convincing evidence that mounting an available sensor on a fixed pivot point of the Asano pedal was a de-sign step well within the grasp of a person of ordinary skill in the relevant art and that the benefit of doing so would be obvious. Its arguments, and the record, demonstrate that the Engelgau patent’s claim 4 is obvious. Pp. 11–24. Next Page ->


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