The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in a precedential decision authored by Judge Taranto, today affirmed-in-part, vacated-in-part and remanded a decision of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games America Inc. et. al. The case derives from the 2016 Federal Circuit decision determining that McRO’s challenged patent claims were directed to the display of lip synchronization and facial expressions of animated characters, which the court said were not directed to an abstract idea and were therefore patent eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. 101. In today’s ruling, the Court considered whether the district court’s decision on remand, which held that the Developer defendants and defendant-appellees “were entitled to summary judgment of noninfringement because the accused products do not practice the claimed methods and to summary judgment of invalidity because the specification fails to enable the full scope of the claims,” was correct.
On May 15, SAP America, Inc. filed a respondent’s brief with the Supreme Court in InvestPic, LLC v. SAP America Inc., a case in which InvestPic’s patent claims covering systems and methods for performing statistical analyses of investment information were invalidated under 35 U.S.C. § 101. Petitioner InvestPic is asking the nation’s highest court to determine whether the “physical realm” test for patent eligibility under Section 101 that the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit applied contravenes both the Patent Act and SCOTUS precedent. SAS’ brief contends in response that the mentions of “physical realm” are scant in the case record and that the present case provides a “textbook application” of Supreme Court precedent on claims involving mathematical equations.
In each of the recent Federal Circuit decisions on medical diagnostics inventions, Athena Diagnostics v. Mayo Collaborative Services, 2017-2508, (Fed. Cir. Feb. 6, 2019) (“Athena”) and Cleveland Clinic Found. v. True Health Diagnostics LLC, 2018-1218 (Fed. Cir. April 1, 2019; non-precedential) (“Cleveland Clinic II”), the court affirmed a district court ruling that found a medical diagnostic or a related patent invalid for being directed to ineligible subject matter. Athena and Cleveland Clinic II follow the hard stance taken by the Federal Circuit against medical diagnostics inventions, first in Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, Inc., 788 F.3d 1371, 1376 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (“Ariosa”) and next in Cleveland Clinic Found. v. True Health Diagnostics LLC, 859 F.3d 1352, 1361 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (“Cleveland Clinic I”). In Athena, the patent covered a method for diagnosing a disease in a subpopulation of affected individuals based on the discovery of a correlation between the disease and certain autoantibodies found only in that subpopulation. In Cleveland Clinic I, the patent claims were directed to diagnosing the risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (CVD) based on the correlation between elevated levels of a protein found in the blood and occurrence of atherosclerotic CVD. In Cleveland Clinic II, the claims were directed to methods of identifying elevated levels of the protein but did not include any recitation of the correlation…. The requirement for an improvement to the technology involved in carrying out the claimed method is a steep hurdle for the eligibility of most medical diagnosis inventions, since the essence of such inventions is applying a newly discovered correlation to deliver a practical benefit—not improving the technology used to provide the diagnosis. In this regard, medical diagnostic inventions are unique. This point was highlighted by the Athena dissent through reference to the amici curiae Five Life Sciences Patent Practitioners’ brief, which stated, “[medical] diagnostic methods . . . are so tightly bound to underlying natural laws and phenomen[a], they are especially susceptible to undue expansion of the eligibility standards…” Athena Dissenting opinion at 13.
Obtaining a U.S. software patent is still harder than it was five years ago, but studying these “lighthouse” cases can improve one’s chances of success. While the Federal Circuit’s decision in Berkheimer v. HP Inc., 881 F.3d 1360 (Fed. Cir. 2018) and the USPTO’s guidance to patent examiners on the Berkheimer decision have recently improved the landscape for software patents, the following cases contain critical lessons for drafters that can further ensure claims are patent eligible.
It’s been over eight years since the Supreme Court issued its Bilski v Kappos decision, over six years since the Supreme Court issued its Mayo v. Prometheus decision and over four years since the Supreme Court issued its Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank decision. In case anyone missed it, each of these three landmark cases was decided based on evidence on the record. Thus, the Supreme Court not only contemplated the need for evidence when determining patent eligibility for abstract ideas of man-made origin, but wholly embraced the practice. Yet despite the Supreme Court’s trio of evidence-based holdings, it was February of this year before a single three-judge Federal Circuit panel definitively ruled on the evidence issue in Berkheimer v. HP, and it was the end of May before a majority of the Federal Circuit signed on to the idea that determining whether a man-made something is well-understood (or well-known), routine and conventional is an issue of fact that should be based on objective evidence. That’s the better part of a decade of the Federal Circuit wandering the desert.
The USPTO Memorandum of November 2, 2016 as to Recent Subject Matter Eligibility Decisions (“USPTO Memo”) inappropriately attributes the phrase “computer-related technology” to McRO, Inc. dba Planet Blue v. Bandai Namco Games America Inc., 120 USPQ2d 1091 (Fed. Cir. 2016). The phrase “computer-related technology” does not appear in McRO or even in Alice Corp. Pty Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347 (2014); rather, it appears in Enfish, LLC, v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d 1327 (Fed Cir. 2016) and only after Enfish appropriately cites Alice.
A recent opinion by the Federal Circuit suggests that there will be considerable uncertainty about the respective boundaries of §§ 101 and 112 in the years ahead. In Trading Technologies Intl. Inc. v. CQG, Inc., Judge Newman wrote on behalf of a unanimous panel, following up on her concurrence in Bascom… Of particular interest is her continued endorsement of a flexible approach to § 101 and the traditional measures of patentability, such as § 112. Judge Newman wrote that the “threshold level of eligibility is often usefully explored by way of the substantive statutory criteria of patentability,” and that this approach is in harmony with the Supreme Court’s reasoning in in Alice.
When addressing the issue of generality vs. particularity, we come across a situation where the inventors described the most crucial aspect of the invention, the classification unit, in general terms in the claim. Consequently, in the PTAB’s assessment, the representative claim did not rise above the threshold test of patentability under section 101. But much of what the PTAB seems concerned about relates to disclosure and there is nothing in the PTAB panel decision in Itagaki to suggest that the PTAB reviewed the specification to determine whether the somewhat generally described terms were given particularized meaning by the applicant. It also raises questions about how the PTAB could have properly conducted an obviousness review if the classification unit was so abstract as to be infirm from a patent eligibility point of view.
The Alice/Mayo framework is the decisional approach adopted by the United States Supreme Court for determining whether a patent claim exhibits, such as software patent claims, embody patent eligible subject matter… Over the last six months the Federal Circuit has provided a great deal of clarity, with 9 judges (Judges Moore, Taranto, Hughes, Chen, Newman, O’Malley, Reyna, Stoll, and Plager) signing on to decisions that found software patent claims to be patent eligible. What follows is a a summary of the significant developments over the last six months.
In a nutshell, if you are going to write a patent application in such a way that at the end of the it the reader is left wondering what the innovation is, what the problem being solved is, or the technical particulars on how the innovation actually solves the problem, you should not expect a patent. In other words, if you write your patent applications without actually defining the technological solution and how it is implementing the desired functionality you describe, and how that is an improvement, you will not get a patent because the claims will be patent ineligible. On the other hand, if you write your patent applications to describe (and claim) an invention that is adequately described so that someone of skill in the art will understand what is innovative (i.e., how and why), thick with technical disclosure and explanation as to how computer functionality is being improved, or even generic components are working in unconventional ways, then you will get a patent because your claims will be patent eligible.
Earlier today the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued a new memorandum to patent examiners on recent software patent eligibility decisions from the Federal Circuit. The memo sent to the patent examining corps from Robert Bahr, who is Deputy Commissioner for Patent Examination Policy, explains that this most recent memorandum provides examiners with discussion of McRo, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games America and BASCOM Global Internet Services v. AT&T Mobility.
Join us on Thursday, November 3, 2016 at 2pm ET for a discussion on drafting patent applications to overcome Alice, with JiNan Glasgow of Neopatents and Gene Quinn of IPWatchdog. In addition to taking as many of your questions as possible we will address the following: (1) Brief overview of Alice, Enfish, TLI Communications, BASCOM, McRo and FairWarning IP. (2) What these most recent Federal Circuit cases teach about drafting software patents. (3) How to cope with being unexpectedly assigned to an Art Unit.
In a September 13, 2016 decision relating to subject matter eligibility of software patents under 35 U.S.C. § 101, the Federal Circuit vacated the district court’s order granting Defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), and held that McRO’s patents were eligible for protection under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The disputed patent claims recited a method for “automatically . . . producing accurate and realistic lip synchronization and facial expressions in animated characters.” The McRO patents identified that a problem in the prior art was that animators, even using the assistance of computers, had to manually manipulate the character model for lip movement. The McRO patents solved this problem by using rules to automatically depict more realistic synchronization of lip movements and speech.
It is hard to ignore the fact that the Federal Circuit again continued to point out that the innovation at issued was an improvement. This should give patent practitioners important clues into how to characterize software related innovations so as to maximize the likelihood of prevailing in Alice inspired challenges and rejections. Hopefully the United States Patent and Trademark Office will not ignore McRo and will issue guidance to patent examiners. Taking a “nothing to see here” approach to this case would be inexcusable.
A case currently pending before the Federal Circuit is anticipated to provide greater guidance into the answer to this question, namely, how district courts should determine whether a claim is directed to an abstract idea. The case, McRo, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games America, No. 2015-1080, recently heard oral argument on December 11, 2015. The panel’s questioning indicated that its anticipated decision may provide greater insight into how district courts are to determine whether a claim is, in fact, directed to an abstract idea. The patents are directed to automatic three-dimensional lip-synchronization for animated characters. Whereas prior art lip-synchronization required manually synchronizing an animated character’s lips and facial expressions to specific phonemes, the patents are directed to rules for automating that process.