MPEP 2141.03
Level of Ordinary Skill in the Art

Ninth Edition of the MPEP, Revision 07.2022, Last Revised in February 2023

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2141.03    Level of Ordinary Skill in the Art [R-07.2022]

[Editor Note: This MPEP section is applicable to all applications. For applications subject to the first inventor to file (FITF) provisions of the AIA, the relevant time is "before the effective filing date of the claimed invention". For applications subject to pre-AIA 35 U.S.C. 102, the relevant time is "at the time of the invention". Phillips v. AWH Corp., 415 F.3d 1303, 1313, 75 USPQ2d 1321, 1326 (Fed. Cir. 2005). See also MPEP § 2150 et seq. Many of the court decisions discussed in this section involved applications or patents subject to pre-AIA 35 U.S.C. 102. These court decisions may be applicable to applications and patents subject to AIA 35 U.S.C. 102 but the relevant time is before the effective filing date of the claimed invention and not at the time of the invention.]

I.    FACTORS TO CONSIDER IN DETERMINING LEVEL OF ORDINARY SKILL

The person of ordinary skill in the art is a hypothetical person who is presumed to have known the relevant art at the relevant time. Factors that may be considered in determining the level of ordinary skill in the art may include: (A) "type of problems encountered in the art;" (B) "prior art solutions to those problems;" (C) "rapidity with which innovations are made;" (D) "sophistication of the technology; and" (E) "educational level of active workers in the field. In a given case, every factor may not be present, and one or more factors may predominate." In re GPAC, 57 F.3d 1573, 1579, 35 USPQ2d 1116, 1121 (Fed. Cir. 1995); Custom Accessories, Inc. v. Jeffrey-Allan Indus., Inc., 807 F.2d 955, 962, 1 USPQ2d 1196, 1201 (Fed. Cir. 1986); Environmental Designs, Ltd. V. Union Oil Co., 713 F.2d 693, 696, 218 USPQ 865, 868 (Fed. Cir. 1983).

"A person of ordinary skill in the art is also a person of ordinary creativity, not an automaton." KSR Int'l Co. v. Teleflex Inc., 550 U.S. 398, 421, 82 USPQ2d 1385, 1397 (2007). "[I]n many cases a person of ordinary skill will be able to fit the teachings of multiple patents together like pieces of a puzzle." Id. at 420, 82 USPQ2d 1397. Office personnel may also take into account "the inferences and creative steps that a person of ordinary skill in the art would employ." Id. at 418, 82 USPQ2d at 1396.

The level of disclosure in the specification of the application under examination or in relevant references may also be informative of the knowledge and skills of a person of ordinary skill in the art. For example, if the specification is entirely silent on how a certain step or function is achieved, that silence may suggest that figuring out how to achieve that step or function is within the ordinary skill in the art, provided that the specification complies with 35 U.S.C. 112. Uber Techs., Inc. v. X One, Inc., 957 F.3d 1334, 1339, 2020 USPQ2d 10476 (Fed. Cir. 2020) ("The specification of the '593 patent is entirely silent on how to transmit user locations and maps from a server to a user's mobile device, suggesting that a person of ordinary skill in the art was more than capable of selecting between the known methods of accomplishing this. The '593 patent confirms that its invention, including any necessary plotting, ‘utilizes existing platforms and infrastructure’ and does not ‘require development of new cell phone or PDA technology, nor do[es it] require development of new cellular communication infrastructure.’")

The "hypothetical ‘person having ordinary skill in the art’ to which the claimed subject matter pertains would, of necessity have the capability of understanding the scientific and engineering principles applicable to the pertinent art." Ex parte Hiyamizu, 10 USPQ2d 1393, 1394 (Bd. Pat. App. & Inter. 1988) (The Board disagreed with the examiner’s definition of one of ordinary skill in the art (a doctorate level engineer or scientist working at least 40 hours per week in semiconductor research or development), finding that the hypothetical person is not definable by way of credentials, and that the evidence in the application did not support the conclusion that such a person would require a doctorate or equivalent knowledge in science or engineering.).

References which do not qualify as prior art because they postdate the claimed invention may be relied upon to show the level of ordinary skill in the art at or around the time the invention was made. Ex parte Erlich, 22 USPQ 1463, 1465 (Bd. Pat. App. & Inter. 1992). See also Thomas & Betts Corp. v. Litton Sys., Inc., 720 F.2d 1572, 1580-81, 220 USPQ 1, 7 (Fed. Cir. 1983) ("Thus, the [unpublished internal materials], though not technically prior art, were, in effect, properly used as indicators of the level of ordinary skill in the art to which the invention pertained."). Moreover, documents not available as prior art because the documents were not accessible to the public may be used to demonstrate the level of ordinary skill in the art. For example, the document may be relevant to establishing "a motivation to combine which is implicit in the knowledge of one of ordinary skill in the art." Nat'l Steel Car, Ltd. v. Can. Pac. Ry., Ltd., 357 F.3d 1319, 1337-38, 69 USPQ2d 1641, 1656 (Fed. Cir. 2004) (holding that a drawing made by an engineer that was not prior art can, nonetheless, "... be used to demonstrate a motivation to combine implicit in the knowledge of one of ordinary skill in the art").

II.    SPECIFYING A PARTICULAR LEVEL OF SKILL IS NOT NECESSARY WHERE THE PRIOR ART ITSELF REFLECTS AN APPROPRIATE LEVEL

If the only facts of record pertaining to the level of skill in the art are found within the prior art of record, the court has held that an invention may be held to have been obvious without a specific finding of a particular level of skill where the prior art itself reflects an appropriate level. Chore-Time Equipment, Inc. v. Cumberland Corp., 713 F.2d 774, 218 USPQ 673 (Fed. Cir. 1983). See also Okajima v. Bourdeau, 261 F.3d 1350, 1355, 59 USPQ2d 1795, 1797 (Fed. Cir. 2001).

III.    ASCERTAINING LEVEL OF ORDINARY SKILL IS NECESSARY TO MAINTAIN OBJECTIVITY

"The importance of resolving the level of ordinary skill in the art lies in the necessity of maintaining objectivity in the obviousness inquiry." Ryko Mfg. Co. v. Nu-Star, Inc., 950 F.2d 714, 718, 21 USPQ2d 1053, 1057 (Fed. Cir. 1991). The examiner must ascertain what would have been obvious to one of ordinary skill in the art at the time the invention was made, and not to the inventor, a judge, a layman, those skilled in remote arts, or to geniuses in the art at hand. Environmental Designs, Ltd. v. Union Oil Co., 713 F.2d 693, 218 USPQ 865 (Fed. Cir. 1983), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 1043 (1984).