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Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling Inc. v. Noble Corp. PLC

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

June 19, 2018

NOBLE CORPORATION PLC, et al., Defendants.



         This patent case is before the Court for construction of the disputed claim terms in United States Patents No. 6, 047, 781 (“the '781 Patent”), No. 6, 056, 071 (“the '071 Patent”), No. 6, 068, 069 (“the '069 Patent”), and No. 6, 058, 851 (“the '851 Patent”) (collectively, the “Patents-in-Suit”). Plaintiff Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling Inc. (“Transocean”) owns the Patents-in-Suit. Transocean alleges that Defendant Noble Corporation and related corporate Defendants[1" name="FN1">1] (“Noble”) are infringing the Patents-in-Suit.

         The Court conducted a hearing pursuant to Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 17 U.S. 370');">517 U.S. 370 (1996) (“Markman hearing”), on May 22, 2018. Based on the evidence before the Court, the arguments presented by counsel, and the governing legal authorities, the Court issues this Memorandum and Order construing those disputed claim terms that require construction.

          I. BACKGROUND[2]

         The '781 Patent was issued in April 2000 for an invention entitled Multi-Activity Offshore Exploration and/or Development Drilling Method and Apparatus. Claims 1-14, 25-28, and 30 of the '781 Patent are apparatus claims, and Claims 15-24 and 29 are method claims. The related patents, the '071 Patent and the '069 Patent, were issued in May 2000. Claims 1-22, 27-36, and 38-42 of the '071 Patent are apparatus claims, and Claims 23-26 and 37 are method claims. Claims 1-8 and 17-21 of the '069 Patent are apparatus claims, and Claims 9-16 and 22-26 are method claims. The '851 Patent was issued in July 2000. All thirteen claims of the '851 Patent are apparatus claims. Transocean is the owner by assignment of the Patents-in-Suit, which relate to dual-activity drilling rigs or “drillships.”

         Drilling an offshore well requires constructing a hole, or “wellbore, ” in the seabed. To construct the wellbore, the driller on the drilling rig alternates between drilling the actual hole in the seabed, and lining that hole with pipe. The drill bit used to drill the hole is suspended on a “drill string, ” which is comprised of sections of drill pipe called “tubular members, ” “tubular assemblies, “tubular strings, ” or “tubular stands.” The tubular members are connected to each other on the drilling rig and then lowered, or “advanced, ” into the sea. Hoisting equipment is used to lower and raise the tubular members. Specialized hoists are used on free-floating drilling structures to prevent damage to the drill strings or to the drillship.

         Multiple (generally three) tubular members can be connected and made into “stands” which are added to the drill string as a unit. The stands are preassembled and stored in areas referred to as “setback envelopes.”[3] The stands are retrieved by pipe handlers that travel on tracks to and from the setback envelopes. The pipe handlers are the equipment that move tubular members between tubular advancing stations and setback envelopes.

         After the initial wellbore is drilled, the drill string is raised back to the surface. “Casing pipe” then is lowered on the drill string to the seabed to line the wellbore and provide structural stability. On conventional drillships, the lowering of tubular members and casing pipe to the seabed must be interrupted frequently as additional tubular members or joints of casing are added to the drill string.

         After the casing is in place, the “blow-out preventer” (“BOP”) is lowered onto the top of the wellbore generally by the same process used to lower a string of tubular members. The BOP is comprised of one or more valves installed at the well-head to prevent pressure, or oil and gas, from escaping from the well. For the BOP, the tubular members have a large diameter and are very heavy. As a result, lowering the BOP is more time-consuming than lowering the drill bit or the casing. Indeed, lowering the BOP may take three days or more.

         The term “critical path” in this case refers to the specific sequence of tasks that must be performed to construct the well, and it is used to calculate the length of time well construction is expected to take. Any operation required to construct the well will be included in the “critical path.” To calculate the expected time for well construction, the times anticipated for each step in the critical path are added together. The Patents-in-Suit describe several different operations that are required to construct the well, including making up and breaking down tubular strings (“handling”), transferring those tubular strings or stands, and advancing the tubular members to (and sometimes into) the seabed.

         The Patents-in-Suit describe an improved method and apparatus that reduces the amount of time required to construct the well. The addition of a second tubular station on the drill floor allows certain activities to be removed from the critical path, thereby shortening well construction time. Unlike prior dual-activity vessels in which there was a drilling station and a separate station for other tasks such as offline stand building, the Patents-in-Suit describe a dual-activity vessel with two tubular stations, each capable of performing drilling activity. See, e.g., Claim 32 of the '071 Patent. Transocean alleges that Noble constructed various dual-activity drillships for offshore oil drilling operations that infringe the Patents-in-Suit. Transocean filed its Opening Claim Construction Brief [Doc. # 50], Noble filed its Claim Construction Brief [Doc. # 53], and Transocean filed its Reply Brief [Doc. # 54].[4] The following terms or groups of terms are in dispute and require construction by the Court: (1) derrick, and related terms, (2) “means for advancing” terms, (3) tubular advancing station, and related terms, (4) to the seabed, (5) drilling operations, drilling activity, and related terms, (6) “or” in the wherein clauses, (7) “means for handling” and related terms, and (8) Method Claim 37.[5]

         The Court conducted a Markman hearing at which the parties presented evidence and argument regarding the proper construction of these terms. The Court found the parties' oral argument to be extremely helpful. Based on the parties' briefing, the full factual record, and the parties' presentations and argument at the Markman hearing, the Court construes the disputed claim terms.


         “It is a bedrock principle of patent law that the claims of a patent define the invention to which the patentee is entitled the right to exclude.” Aventis Pharm., Inc. v. Amino Chems. Ltd., 15 F.3d 1363');">715 F.3d 1363, 1373 (Fed. Cir. 2013) (quoting Phillips v. AWH Corp., 15 F.3d 1303');">415 F.3d 1303, 1312 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc)). The patent claims in issue must be construed as a matter of law to determine their scope and meaning. See, e.g., Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc., 17 U.S. 370');">517 U.S. 370, 390 (1996), aff'g, 52 F.3d 967, 976 (Fed. Cir.) (en banc); Verizon Servs. Corp. v. Vonage Holdings Corp., 1295');">503 F.3d 1295, 1317 (Fed. Cir. 2007).

         “There is a heavy presumption that claim terms are to be given their ordinary and customary meaning.” Aventis, 715 F.3d at 1373 (citing Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1312-13; Vitronics Corp. v. Conceptronic, Inc., 1576');">90 F.3d 1576, 1582 (Fed. Cir. 1996)). Therefore, Courts must “look to the words of the claims themselves . . . to define the scope of the patented invention.” Id. (citations omitted); see also Summit 6, LLC v. Samsung Elec. Co., Ltd., 1283');">802 F.3d 1283, 1290 (Fed. Cir. 2015). The “ordinary and customary meaning of a claim term is the meaning that the term would have to a person of ordinary skill in the art in question at the time of the invention, i.e., as of the effective filing date of the patent application.” Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1313; see also ICU Med., Inc. v. Alaris Med. Sys., Inc., 1368');">558 F.3d 1368, 1374 (Fed. Cir. 2009). This “person of ordinary skill in the art is deemed to read the claim term not only in the context of the particular claim in which the disputed term appears, but in the context of the entire patent, including the specification.” Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1313; ICU, 558 F.3d at 1374.

         Intrinsic evidence is the primary resource for claim construction. See Power-One, Inc. v. Artesyn Techs., Inc., 599 F.3d 1343, 1348 (Fed. Cir. 2010) (citing Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1312). For certain claim terms, “the ordinary meaning of claim language as understood by a person of skill in the art may be readily apparent even to lay judges, and claim construction in such cases involves little more than the application of the widely accepted meaning of commonly understood words.” Phillips, 415 F.3d at 1314. For other claim terms, however, the meaning of the claim language may be less apparent. To construe those terms, the Court considers “those sources available to the public that show what a person of skill in the art would have understood disputed claim language to mean . . . [including] the words of the claims themselves, the remainder of the specification, the prosecution history, and extrinsic evidence concerning relevant scientific principles, the meaning of technical terms, and the state of the art.” Id.

         The claims “provide substantial guidance as to the meaning of particular claim terms.” Id. The Court may consider the context in which the terms are used and the differences among the claims. See Id. “Because claim terms are normally used consistently throughout the patent, the usage of a term in one claim can often illuminate the meaning of the same term in other claims.” Id. Because the claims “are part of a fully integrated written instrument, ” the Court may also consider the specification and the patent's prosecution history. Id. at 1315, 1317. When the claims use separate terms, “each term is presumed to have a distinct meaning.” Primos, Inc. v. Hunter's Specialties, Inc., 1 F.3d 841');">451 F.3d 841, 847 (Fed. Cir. 2006).

         The parties agree that certain disputed terms are means-plus-function limitations under 35 U.S.C. § 112(f).[6] “In enacting this provision, Congress struck a balance in allowing patentees to express a claim limitation by reciting a function to be performed rather than by reciting structure for performing that function, while placing specific constraints on how such a limitation is to be construed, namely, by restricting the scope of coverage to only the structure, materials, or acts described in the specification as corresponding to the claimed function and equivalents thereof.” Williamson v. Citrix Online, LLC, 1339');">792 F.3d 1339, 1347-48 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (citing Northrop Grumman Corp. v. Intel Corp., 325 F.3d 1346, 1350 (Fed. Cir. 2003)).

         Construing means-plus-function claim terms follows a two-step process. First, the Court must identify the claimed function. Williamson v. Citrix Online, LLC, 1339');">792 F.3d 1339, 1351 (Fed. Cir. 2015). Second, the Court must identify the corresponding structure in the patent specification that performs the function. See id.; Noah Sys., Inc. v. Intuit Inc., 1302');">675 F.3d 1302, 1311 (Fed. Cir. 2012); Omega Eng'g, Inc. v. Raytek Corp., 334 F.3d 1314, 1330 (Fed. Cir. 2003). The corresponding structure must be “capable of performing the claimed function.” Univ. of Pittsburgh of Commonwealth Sys. of Higher Educ. v. Varian Med. Sys., Inc., 1 Fed.Appx. 934');">561 Fed.Appx. 934, 951 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (citing Default Proof Credit Card Sys., Inc. v. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., 12 F.3d 1291');">412 F.3d 1291, 1298 (Fed. Cir. 2005); Budde v. Harley-Davidson, Inc., 250 F.3d 1369, 1379 (Fed. Cir. 2001)). The court must not, however, import “structural limitations from the written description that are unnecessary to perform the claimed function” or that do not actually perform the recited function. See Welker Bering Co. v. PHD, Inc., 550 F.3d 1090, 1097 (Fed. Cir. 2008) (quoting Wenger Mfg., Inc. v. Coating Mach. Sys., Inc., 1225');">239 F.3d 1225, 1233 (Fed. Cir. 2001)); Asyst Techs., Inc. v. Empak, Inc., 1364');">268 F.3d 1364, 1370 (Fed. Cir. 2001).


         A. Derrick and Related Terms

         The parties dispute the proper construction of the terms “derrick” and “within the derrick” as used in Claim 1 of the '851 Patent, the '781 Patent, and the '069 Patent. Additionally, the parties dispute whether the term “derrick” has the same meaning as the terms “drilling superstructure” and “interconnected superstructure” as used in Claims 10 and 32 of the '851 Patent, Claim 30 of the '781 Patent, Claim 17 of the '069 Patent, and Claim 32 of the '071 Patent.

         1. Derrick, Drilling Superstructure, and Interconnected Superstructure

         Transocean proposes that the terms “derrick, ” “interconnected superstructure, ” and “drilling superstructure” be given the same construction, specifically, “a single structure that supports the loads of drilling operations.” Noble disputes that the three terms have the same meaning. Noble argues that a “derrick” is a “framework that supports the loads of drilling operations.”[7] Although Noble appears to agree that a derrick is a drilling superstructure, Noble argues that “interconnected superstructure” should be construed to require two separate structures that are connected to each other.

         The specification of the '851 Patent provides that the preferred embodiment has a traditional four-sided derrick. The specification further provides that the invention includes other structures such as “tripod assemblies or even two adjacent upright but interconnected frames.” The example of a “derrick” comprised of two adjacent but interconnected frames demonstrates that the “derrick” is a single unit, even when the frames are separate but interconnected. Consequently, the terms “derrick, ” “drilling superstructure, ” and “interconnected superstructure” each identify a single unit.[8]

         In addition to the preferred embodiment, each illustrated embodiment and each of the examples identified in the specifications of the '851 Patent, includes a framework. Transocean's argument that the derrick does not require a framework, including its reliance on the invention described in U.S. Patent No. 2, 503, 516 (“the Shrewsbury Patent”), is unpersuasive.[9] The “shell” in the Shrewsbury Patent, which Transocean argues is a “derrick, ” had an identifiable structure, i.e., a framework.[10" name= "FN10">10]Indeed, it had a wall that was firm and thick enough to make the shell water-tight. See Shrewsbury Patent, Exh. 13, Col. 3, lines 20-22.

         Based on the foregoing, the Court construes the terms “derrick, ” “drilling superstructure, ” and “interconnected superstructure” to mean “a single framework that supports the load of drilling operations.”

         2. Within the Derrick

         Claim 1 in the '851 Patent, the '781 Patent, and the '069 Patent includes the limitation that something be “within the derrick.”[11" name="FN11">11] For example, Claim 1 of the '851 Patent requires that the means for transferring tubular assemblies be positioned “within the derrick.” Transocean originally argued that “within the derrick” should be construed to mean “a location within the operational area supported by the derrick.” The Court finds no support for Transocean's original proposed construction that “within” means inside some vague “operational area” rather than in a defined space. Transocean later changed its proposed construction to “connected to and/or inside the derrick.” See Transocean's Post Hearing Submission, Exhibit 1A [Doc. # 62-1], p. 15. Noble argues that the term should be construed to mean “inside the derrick.”

         It is uncontested that the ordinary meaning of “within” is “inside.” Transocean argued during the Markman hearing, however, that other claims in the Patents-in-Suit require that equipment or activity is “within the periphery of the derrick” and, therefore, “within the derrick” must have a different meaning. The Court finds this argument unpersuasive. The “periphery” can mean the surrounding area lying beyond the body's strict limits. See It can also mean “the external surface of a body.” See The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966); see also“the outside surface of an object”). Therefore, construing the term “within the derrick” as meaning inside the derrick adequately differentiates that term from the claim term “within the periphery of the derrick.”

         Transocean argues also that “within the derrick” cannot mean “inside the derrick” because the motion compensation system is located within the derrick despite sitting on top of it. See Power Point Slide in “Within the Derrick” section [Doc. # 59-2], ECF pp. 17-18. Transocean's position that the motion compensation system sits on top of the derrick is not supported by the intrinsic record. Instead, the Patents-in-Suit place the motion compensation system “at the top” of the derrick, not “on top” of the derrick. See, e.g., '851 Patent Col. 6, line 41. The Patents-in-Suit provide that only the mini-derricks are located on top of the derrick. For example, the '851 Patent states that the “derrick top serves to carry a first and second mini-derrick which guide a sheave and hydraulic motion compensation system.” See '851 Patent Col. 6, lines 35-36. The mini-derricks “guide” the motion compensation system, which is itself located “within a single, multi-purpose derrick.” See '851 Patent Col. 8, line 5. The language does not suggest that the motion compensation system is located inside the mini-derricks. Indeed, as noted above, the '851 Patent provides that the ...

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