Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 517 U.S. 370 (1996)

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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. 376-391. (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

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