Baffled: Phillips v. AWH Corp. and the Reexamination of Dictionary Use in Patent Claim Interpretation

June 16, 2012

When drafting a patent application, inventors or their legal representatives must carefully choose the language and terms employed in the claims section. A particular problem arises in a granted patent when a term with multiple definitions creates ambiguity in the interpretation of the claims and the scope of protection provided therein. How should courts determine which definition controls? Which authorities should be consulted, and if multiple authorities are consulted, how much weight should each carry respectively? These are some of the questions that the Federal Circuit seeks to address in its en banc rehearing of Phillips v. AWH Corp.
The outcome of Phillips will significantly affect both the drafting of future patent applications and the interpretation of all patents, including those granted prior to this case. This Recent Development reviews the basic tenets of claim construction and considers whether the Federal Circuit should continue to favor, as it has increasingly been inclined to do, a formalistic method of interpretation that focuses on how dictionaries define terms in the claim. After considering the impact an adoption of such formalism may have on patent drafting and fair competition, this Recent Development argues that the Federal Circuit should retreat from this position upon rehearing Phillips.