149 F.3d 1350 (Fed. Cir. 1998), 97-1492, In re Rouffet

Docket Nº:97-1492.
Citation:149 F.3d 1350
Party Name:47 U.S.P.Q.2d 1453 In re Denis ROUFFET, Yannick Tanguy and Frederic Berthault.
Case Date:July 15, 1998
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit
 
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Page 1350

149 F.3d 1350 (Fed. Cir. 1998)

47 U.S.P.Q.2d 1453

In re Denis ROUFFET, Yannick Tanguy and Frederic Berthault.

No. 97-1492.

United States Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit

July 15, 1998

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        Richard C. Turner and Grant K. Rowan, Sughrue, Mion, Zinn, Macpeak & Seas, PLLC, Washington, DC, argued for appellants.

        David J. Ball, Jr., Associate Solicitor, Office of the Solicitor, Patent and Trademark Office, Arlington, Virginia, argued for appellee. With him on the brief were Nancy J. Linck, Solicitor, Albin F. Drost, Deputy Solicitor, and Craig R. Kaufman, Associate Solicitor. Of counsel was Scott A. Chambers, Associate Solicitor, Office of the Solicitor.

        Before PLAGER, Circuit Judge, ARCHER, Senior Circuit Judge, and RADER, Circuit Judge.

        RADER, Circuit Judge.

        Denis Rouffet, Yannick Tanguy, and Frederic Bethault (collectively, Rouffet) submitted application 07/888,791 (the application) on May 27, 1992. The Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (the Board) affirmed final rejection of the application as obvious under 35 U.S.C. § 103(a). See Ex parte Rouffet, No. 96-1553 (Bd. Pat.App. & Int. Apr. 16, 1997). Because the Board reversibly erred in identifying a motivation to combine the references, this court reverses.

       I.

        Satellites in a geosynchronous or geostationary orbit remain over the same point on the Earth's surface. Their constant position above the Earth's surface facilitates communications. These satellites project a number of beams to the Earth. Each beam transmits to its area of coverage, or footprint, on the Earth's surface. In order to provide complete coverage, adjacent footprints overlap slightly and therefore must use different frequencies to avoid interference. However, two or more non-overlapping footprints can use the same set of frequencies in order to use efficiently the limited radio spectrum. Figure 1 from the application shows the coverage of a portion of the Earth's surface provided by multiple cone shaped beams:

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FIG. 1

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        Frequency reuse techniques, however, have a limited ability to compensate for congestion in geostationary orbits. To alleviate the orbit congestion problem, new telecommunications systems use a network of satellites in low Earth orbit. When viewed from a fixed point on the Earth's surface, such satellites do not remain stationary but move overhead. A satellite's motion as it transmits a plurality of cone-shaped beams creates a new problem. The satellite's movement causes a receiver on the Earth's surface to move from the footprint of one beam into a second beam transmitted by the same satellite. Eventually, the satellite's motion causes the receiver to move from the footprint of a beam transmitted by one satellite into the footprint of a beam transmitted by a second satellite. Each switch from one footprint to another creates a "handover" event analogous to that which occurs when a traditional cellular phone travels from one cell to another. Handovers are undesirable because they can cause interruptions in signal transmission and reception.

        Rouffet's application discloses technology to reduce the number of handovers between beams transmitted by the same satellite. In particular, Rouffet eliminates handovers caused solely by the satellite's motion. To accomplish this goal, Rouffet changes the shape of the beam transmitted by the satellite's antenna. Rouffet's satellites transmit fan-shaped beams. A fan beam has an elliptical footprint. Rouffet aligns the long axis of his beams parallel to the direction of the satellite's motion across the Earth's surface. By elongating the beam's footprint in the direction of satellite travel, Rouffet's invention ensures that a fixed point on the Earth's surface likely will remain within a single footprint until it is necessary to switch to another satellite. Because Rouffet's invention does not address handovers caused by the motion of the receiver across the Earth's

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surface. his arrangement reduces, but does not eliminate, handovers. Figure 3 from the application shows the footprints 12 from six beams aligned in the direction of satellite motion 15:

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        The application contains ten claims that stand or fall as a group. Claim 1 is representative:

        A low orbit satellite communications system for mobile terminals, wherein the communications antenna system of each satellite provides isoflux coverage made up of a plurality of fan beams that are elongate in the travel direction of the satellite.

        The examiner initially rejected Rouffet's claims as unpatentable over U.S. Pat. No. 5,199,672 (King) in view of U.S. Pat. No. 4,872,015 (Rosen) and a conference report entitled "A Novel Non-Geostationary Satellite Communications System," Conference Record, International Conference on Communications, 1981 (Ruddy). On appeal to the Board, the examiner added an alternative ground for rejection, holding that the claims were obvious over U.S. Pat. No. 5,394,561 (Freeburg) in view of U.S. Pat. No. 5,170,485 (Levine).

        On April 16, 1997, the Board issued its decision. Because Rouffet had specified that the claims would stand or fall as a group based on the patentability of claim 1, the Board limited its opinion to that claim. The Board unanimously determined that the examiner had properly rejected claim 1 as obvious over King in view of Rosen and Ruddy. The Board, on a split vote, also affirmed the rejection over Freeburg in view of Levine.

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II

        To reject claims in an application under section 103, an examiner must show an unrebutted prima facie case of obviousness. See In re Deuel, 51 F.3d 1552, 1557, 34 U.S.P.Q.2d 1210, 1214 (Fed.Cir.1995). In the absence of a proper prima facie case of obviousness, an applicant who complies with the other statutory requirements is entitled to a patent. See In re Oetiker, 977 F.2d 1443, 1445, 24 U.S.P.Q.2d 1443, 1444 (Fed.Cir.1992). On appeal to the Board, an applicant can overcome a rejection by showing insufficient evidence of prima facie obviousness or by rebutting the prima facie case with evidence of secondary indicia of nonobviousness. See id.

        While this court reviews the Board's determination in light of the entire record, an applicant may specifically challenge an obviousness rejection by showing that the Board reached an incorrect conclusion of obviousness or that the Board based its obviousness determination on incorrect factual predicates. This court reviews the ultimate determination of obviousness as a question of law. See In re Lueders, 111 F.3d 1569, 1571, 42 U.S.P.Q.2d 1481, 1482 (Fed.Cir.1997). The factual predicates underlying an obviousness determination include the scope and content of the prior art, the differences between the prior art and the claimed invention, and the level of ordinary skill in the art. See Monarch Knitting Mach. Corp. v. Sulzer Morat GmbH, 139 F.3d 877, 881, 45 U.S.P.Q.2d 1977, 1981 (Fed.Cir.1998). This court reviews the Board's factual findings for clear error. See In re Zurko, 142 F.3d, 1447, 1449, 46 U.S.P.Q.2d 1691, 1693 (Fed.Cir.1998) (in banc); Lueders, 111 F.3d at 1571-72. " 'A finding is clearly erroneous when, although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing...

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