Markman et al. v. Westview Instruments, Inc., et al. (95-26), 517 U.S. 370 (1996).
[ Souter ]
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NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the federal circuit

No. 95-26. Argued January 8, 1996 -- Decided April 23, 1996

Petitioner Markman owns the patent to a system that tracks clothing through the dry cleaning process using a keyboard and data processor to generate transaction records, including a bar code readable by optical detectors. According to the patent's claim, the portion of the patent document that defines the patentee's rights, Markman's product can "maintain an inventory total" and "detect and localize spurious additions to inventory." The product of respondent Westview Instruments, Inc., also uses a keyboard and processor and lists dry cleaning charges on bar coded tickets that can be read by optical detectors. In this infringement suit, after hearing an expert witness testify about the meaning of the claim's language, the jury found that Westview's product had infringed Markman's patent. The District Court nevertheless directed a verdict for Westview on the ground that its device is unable to track "inventory" as that term is used in the claim. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding the interpretation of claim terms to be the exclusive province of the court and the Seventh Amendment to be consistent with that conclusion.

Held: The construction of a patent, including terms of art within its claim, is exclusively within the province of the court. Pp. 5-21.

(a) The Seventh Amendment right of trial by jury is the right which existed under the English common law when the Amendment was adopted. Baltimore & Carolina Line, Inc. v. Redman, 295 U.S. 654, 657. Thus, the Court asks, first, whether infringement cases either were tried at law at the time of the Founding or are at least analogous to a cause of action that was. There is no dispute that infringement cases today must be tried before a jury, as their predecessors were more than two centuries ago. This conclusion raises a second question: whether the particular trial issue (here a patent claim's construction) is necessarily a jury issue. This question is answered by comparing the modern practice to historical sources. Where there is no exact antecedent in the common law, the modern practice should be compared to earlier practices whose allocation to court or jury is known, and the best analogy that can be drawn between an old and the new must be sought. Pp. 5-7.

(b) There is no direct antecedent of modern claim construction in the historical sources. The closest 18th century analogue to modern claim construction seems to have been the construction of patent specifications describing the invention. Early patent cases from England and this Court show that judges, not juries, construed specification terms. No authority from this period supports Markman's contention that even if judges were charged with construing most patent terms, the art of defining terms of art in a specification fell within the jury's province. Pp. 7-13.

(c) Since evidence of common law practice at the time of the Framing does not entail application of the Seventh Amendment's jury guarantee to the construction of the claim document, this Court must look elsewhere to characterize this determination of meaning in order to allocate it as between judge or jury. Existing precedent, the relative interpretive skills of judges and juries, and statutory policy considerations all favor allocating construction issues to the court. As the former patent practitioner, Justice Curtis, explained, the first issue in a patent case, construing the patent, is a question of law, to be determined by the court. The second issue, whether infringement occurred, is a question of fact for a jury. Winans v. Denmead, 15 How. 330, 338. Contrary to Markman's contention, Bischoff v. Wethered, 9 Wall. 812, and Tucker v. Spalding, 13 Wall. 453, neither indicate that 19th century juries resolved the meaning of patent terms of art nor undercut Justice Curtis's authority. Functional considerations also favor having judges define patent terms of art. A judge, from his training and discipline, is more likely to give proper interpretation to highly technical patents than a jury and is in a better position to ascertain whether an expert's proposed definition fully comports with the instrument as a whole. Finally, the need for uniformity in the treatment of a given patent favors allocation of construction issues to the court. Pp. 13-21.

52 F. 3d 967, affirmed.

Souter, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.