To Qualify as a Joint Inventor – HIP, Inc. v. Hormel Foods Corp., 22-1696 (Fed. Cir. 2022)

Earlier this year, in an opinion by Judge Lourie the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overturned a district court decision finding that David Howard, a representative of HIP, should be added as a joint inventor on Hormel’s U.S. Patent 9,980,498 (the ‘498 patent). The relevant independent claims, 1 and 5, describe methods of making precooked bacon and meat pieces (respectively) using hybrid cooking systems.

Hormel’s relationship with HIP began in 2007 when they entered into a joint agreement to develop an oven to be used for a two-step cooking process. During the first three months of this process Howard disclosed an infrared preheating concept which became the core issue on appeal. Hormel later moved testing to its own research facility and finalized their process, filing the ‘498 patent thereafter.

HIP suit against Hormel alleged that Howard was either the sole or joint inventor. The district court found him to be a joint inventor based on his contribution of the infrared oven preheating concept which appears in independent claim 5. Hormel raised two issues on appeal, only one of which was necessary for reaching the judgment.

“To qualify as a joint inventor, a person must make a significant contribution to the invention as claimed” based on the Pannu three part test: (1) contribution in some significant manner to the conception of the invention; (2) contribution to the claimed invention that is not insignificant in quality when measured against the dimension of the full invention; and (3) did more than merely explain to the actual inventors some well-known concepts and/or the current state of the art. All three Pannu factors must be met for one to be a joint inventor.

The Court reached its decision based solely on the insignificance of Howard’s contribution in light of the invention in its entirety, negating the second Pannu factor. First, Howard’s infrared preheating contribution is mentioned only once in one of the claims, claim 5, as one of three possible alternative methods. In contrast, the use of microwave ovens as developed by Hormel is featured repeatedly thought the patent. Further, the examples and figures not once describe or depict the use of an infrared oven, again focusing on microwave ovens.

In summary, HIP’s favorable district court ruling that Howard was to be added as joint inventor of the ‘498 patent was overturned based on the overwhelming insignificance of his infrared oven preheating contribution in comparison to the overall invention as described in the patent. Inventors should be on notice that to secure their inclusion as joint inventors their contributions must appear frequently or prominently in both the figures and text of a patent.

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