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Absent Special Definition, Dictionary-Based Ordinary Meaning Controls Construction of "Computer" and "Computer System" Terms


In a third appeal involving a patent directed to a method of screening data for detecting computer viruses, a Federal Circuit panel in Symantec Corp. v. Computer Assoc. Int'l, Inc. (Nos. 2007-1201,-1239; April 11, 2008) reverses a summary judgment of non-infringement of the asserted claims because the district court erred in its construction of four claim terms--two of which are "computer" and "computer system"-- but affirms the lower court's decision to dismiss a laches defense, a challenge to inventorship and a charge of inequitable conduct.

The district court construed the terms "computer" and "computer system" to mean a personal computer or workstation based upon the patent's preferred embodiment directed to a single computer that constitutes a complete description of the computer system. In addition, the district court relied upon expert testimony. Symantec's proposed construction that these terms mean any combination of hardware, software, documentation and manual procedures that are combined to perform a specific function, including a system of multiple, interconnected computers, was rejected.

The panel finds nothing in the patent's specification--"the single best guide to the meaning of a disputed term"--that would limit those terms to a single computer. The terms are not expressly defined in the specification, and there is nothing to suggest that a special definition of these terms was adopted. Although, as observed in a footnote, the preferred embodiment uses a single computer, the specification does not consistently refer to the invention as involving a single computer. The expert testimony that did not identify the accepted meaning of these terms to one skilled in the art is considered unhelpful. Instead, ordinary meaning is deemed to govern the construction of these terms, and that meaning is discerned by reference to the definition found in the Dictionary of Computing at the time of the invention. That definition leads the panel to conclude that the ordinary meaning of those terms was not limited to a single, stand-alone computer or workstation.

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