Guest Post by Jordan Duenckel. Jordan is a second-year law student at the University of Missouri, head of our IP student association, and a registered patent agent. He has an extensive background in chemistry and food science.
HIP, Inc., v. Hormel Foods Corp., 2022-1696, — F.4th — (Fed. Cir. May 2, 2023)
Joint inventorship requires a substantial contribution to the invention. In the decision HIP, Inc. vs. Hormel, Judge Lourie writes for a unanimous panel to reverse a district court’s determination of joint inventorship involving a new process for precooking bacon. US Patent 9,980,498 has four inventors that are employees of and assigned their interest to Hormel. HIP sued Hormel, alleging that David Howard was either the sole inventor or a joint inventor of the ’498 patent. The district court determined that Howard was a joint inventor based solely on his alleged contribution to the infrared preheating concept in independent claim 5.
Bacon is an interesting food with unique preservation and cooking properties. Being a cured product, for food safety reasons, no additional cooking of the bacon is needed when bought off the shelf in a refrigerated section. Of course, most people are not consuming the bacon without additional cooking and some companies will precook the product for consumer convenience. When precooking, Hormel is trying to avoid the loss of salt, and therefore flavor, through condensation and prevent the creation charred off flavors (as opposed to the desirable char on a steak).
In the process of viability testing the new method, prior to filing the application, the inventors consulted with David Howard of Unitherm, HIP’s predecessor, to discuss methods related to Unitherm’s cooking equipment to create a two-step process of preheating then a higher temperature step. After some difficulties, Hormel leased the equipment and returned to their own R&D lab. The method created, the subject matter of the ‘498 patent, involves a first step that allows the fat of the bacon to seal the surface of the bacon and prevent condensation. The charring was remedied by adjusting the heating method of the oven in the second step of high-temperature cooking. In Hormel’s product development, Hormel tried an infrared oven and a conventional spiral oven.
HIP argued that Howard contributed to the ‘498 patent in the preheating by hot air in claim 5 and/or preheating with an infrared oven in claim 5. Claim Five reads in the relevant part:
- A method of making precooked meat pieces using a hybrid cooking system, comprising: preheating meat pieces in a first cooking compartment using a preheating method selected from the group consisting of a microwave oven, an infrared oven, and hot air to a temperature of at least 140º F. to create preheated meat pieces…
On appeal, Hormel argues that Howard’s contribution is well-known in the art and insignificant when measured against the full invention. With inventorship being a question of law, and the issuance of a patent creating a presumption of inventorship, an alleged joint inventor must provide clear and convincing evidence to substantiate their claim. In evaluating whether a significant contribution was made by Howards, the parties apply the test from Pannu v. Iolab Corp., 155 F.3d 1344, 1351 (Fed. Cir. 1998). The test requires that the alleged joint inventor:
(1) contributed in some significant manner to the conception of the invention; (2) made a contribution to the claimed invention that is not insignificant in quality, when that contribution is measured against the dimension of the full invention; and (3) did more than merely explain to the real inventors well-known concepts and/or the current state of the art.
Analyzing the second Pannu factor, the Court found that the alleged contribution of preheating meat pieces using an infrared oven to be insignificant in quality because it was mentioned only once in the patent specification as an alternative heating method to a microwave oven and was recited only once in one Markush grouping in a single claim. In contrast, preheating with microwave ovens and microwave ovens themselves were prominently featured throughout the specification, claims, and figures. The examples and corresponding figures also employed procedures using preheating with a microwave oven, but not preheating with an infrared oven.
Infrared heating seems to have been an afterthought in the creation of the two-step precooking method. Whatever discussions Howard might have had about the importance of the infrared, Hormel seems to have focused on microwave heating to solve the condensation problem. From one step further back, it seems absurd to permit joint ownership by a cooking equipment manufacturer when the significant discoveries and refinements of the methods were made in Hormel’s R&D facility without Howard present. The prevention of condensation and avoiding the char flavor were both made independent of Howard’s contributions. Considering the second Pannu factor, the reversal of inventorship seems appropriate.