Addressing the patentability of claims directed to digital image branding functions, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a district court’s determination that claims across three related patents were invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 101 for lacking patent-eligible subject matter. Sanderling Mgmt. Ltd. v. Snap Inc., Case No. 21-2173 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 12, 2023) (Chen, Cunningham, Stark, JJ.)
Sanderling owns three patents, each titled “Dynamic Promotional Layout Management and Distribution Rules.” The three patents share a common specification and are generally directed to a method using distribution rules to load digital imaging branding functions to users when certain conditions are met. The specification explains that a distribution rule is “a rule used in determining how to target a group of end users, for instance, a rule that determines that only a group of end users having certain characteristics and/or match a certain requirement.”
Sanderling asserted each of the three patents against Snap in the Northern District of Illinois. Snap moved to transfer venue to the Central District of California and to dismiss the case under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim based on the allegation that the asserted patents’ claimed ineligible subject matter under § 101. After the case was transferred, the Central District of California found the claims patent ineligible and granted Snap’s motion to dismiss. Sanderling appealed.
The Federal Circuit reviewed the decision by engaging in the two-step Alice framework for subject matter eligibility. Under step one, the Court determined that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of providing information—in this case, a processing function—based on meeting a condition (e.g., matching a GPS location indication with a geographic location). The Court explained that for computer-related inventions, the relevant question is whether the claims are directed to an improvement to computer functionality or to an abstract idea. The Court found that the claims in issue were not directed to an improvement in computer functionality, but instead to the use of computers as a tool—specifically, a tool to identify when a condition is met and then to distribute information based on satisfaction of that condition.
Even if directed to an abstract idea, patent claims may still be eligible under step two of the Alice framework if there are additional features that constitute an inventive concept. The Federal Circuit, however, found that the claims failed this step also. The Court explained that if a claim’s only inventive concept is the application of an abstract idea using conventional and well-understood techniques, the claim has not been transformed into a patent-eligible application of an abstract idea. The distribution rule of the asserted claims was just that: the application of the abstract idea using common computer components. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision that the patent claims were invalid under § 101.
Practice Note: On appeal, Sanderling argued that the district court erred at step one of the Alice analyses by failing to construe certain claim terms that were allegedly crucial to the determination. The Federal Circuit noted that while Sanderling identified terms it wanted the district court to construe, it failed to provide proposed constructions and identify how its constructions would make any difference to the Alice analysis. Accordingly, it is important for patent owners faced with a § 101 challenge to properly identify any claim constructions that affect patentability and how such constructions affect the Alice framework.