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Does Not Compute: Faster Processes Aren’t Enough for Subject Matter Eligibility

In yet another opinion addressing subject matter eligibility and application of the Supreme Court’s Alice decision, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found claims directed to graphical displays and user interfaces subject matter ineligible as directed to abstract ideas. IBM v. Zillow Group, Inc., Case No. 21-2350 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 13, 2022) (Reyna, Hughes, Stoll, JJ.) (Stoll, J., dissenting in part).

IBM sued Zillow for allegedly infringing several patents related to graphical display technology. The district court granted Zillow’s motion for judgment on the pleadings that sought a ruling that two of the asserted patents claimed patent-ineligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. IBM appealed.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit applied the Alice two-step analysis to determine whether the claims at issue were directed to a patent-ineligible concept, such as an abstract idea, and if so, whether additional claim elements (considering each element both individually and as an ordered combination) transformed the nature of the claim into a patent-eligible application. As discussed in the Supreme Court Alice and Mayo decisions, the second step is “a search for an ‘inventive concept’—i.e., an element or combination of elements that is ‘sufficient to ensure that the patent in practice amounts to significantly more than a patent upon the [ineligible concept] itself.’”

The representative claim of the first patent was directed to a method for coordinated geospatial and list-based mapping, and the method steps recited viewing elements having “geospatial characteristics” in a given viewing area of a map space and displaying a list of the elements in that space. The user then draws a selected area within the map space, having elements that may be inside or outside of the selected area. The elements having the geospatial characteristics within the selection area are selected and those outside the selected area are deselected. The map display and the list are then synchronized and concurrently updated to reflect what has been selected and deselected.

The district court concluded that “the patent was directed to the abstract idea of responding to a user’s selection of a portion of a displayed map by simultaneously updating the map and a co-displayed list of items on the map,” reasoning that the claimed method could be performed manually, for example, by putting a transparent overlay on a printed map, drawing on it with a marker, and then blocking off the “unselected area” of the map and corresponding list items with opaque paper cut to appropriate sizes. To choose a different “selection area,” the user would erase the prior markings, remove the paper and start over. The district court noted that “alterations to hardcopy materials were made or auditioned in this manner” long before computers, and concluded that “[t]he [] patent merely contemplates automation using a computer.”

The Federal Circuit agreed that the claims failed to recite any inventive technology for improving computers as tools and were instead directed to an abstract idea for which computers were invoked merely to limit and coordinate the display of information based [...]

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The Name of the Game Is the Claims, Even if Specification Is Shared

Once again addressing the application of Alice, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit partially reversed a district court’s dismissal of several patents as subject matter ineligible for error in analyzing their claims together because of a shared specification despite different claim features. Weisner v. Google LLC, Case No. 021-2228 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 13, 2022) (Reyna, Hughes, Stoll, JJ.) (Hughes, J., dissenting in part)

Sholem Weisner sued Google for infringement of four related patents describing ways to “digitally record a person’s physical activities” and use the digital record. The patents’ common specification described how individuals and businesses can sign up for a system to exchange information (e.g., “a URL or an electronic business card”), and as they encounter people or businesses that they want recorded in their “leg history,” the URLs or business cards are recorded along with the time and place of the encounters. Google moved to dismiss the suit under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), arguing that the patent claims were directed to ineligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101, and that Weisner had failed to meet the minimum threshold for plausibly pleading his claim of patent infringement under the Twombly and Iqbal standards (Twiqbal). The district court agreed and granted dismissal under Twiqbal. After holding a hearing on patent ineligibility, the district court also granted dismissal under § 101 but granted Weisner leave to amend his complaint. In his amended complaint, Weisner added infringement allegations, allegations related to patent eligibility and an “Invention Background and System Details Explained” section. Google again moved to dismiss the amended complaint based on both § 101 and Twiqbal, which the district court granted. Weisner timely appealed.

The Federal Circuit applied the Alice two-step analysis to determine whether the claims at issue were directed to a patent-ineligible concept, such as an abstract idea, and if they were, whether the elements of each claim, both individually and as an ordered combination, transformed the nature of the claim into a patent-eligible application. As discussed in the Supreme Court cases Alice and Mayo, the second step is “a search for an ‘inventive concept’—i.e., an element or combination of elements that is ‘sufficient to ensure that the patent in practice amounts to significantly more than a patent upon the [ineligible concept] itself.’”

There were four asserted patents in issue. For the first two patents, Weisner attempted to argue that the claims improved “the functioning of the computer itself” or “an existing technology process” by “[1] automatically recording physical interactions and [2] limiting what is recorded to only specific types of interactions that are pre-approved and agreed to by an individual member and a vendor member.” However, the Federal Circuit was unconvinced that this was the type of improvement found in Enfish to bring claims into the realm of inventiveness. Instead, the Court agreed with the district court that, consistent with past precedent, this was no different than travel logs, diaries, journals or calendars used to keep records of a person’s location, and that [...]

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New Patent Eligibility Bill May Impact What Subject Matter Is Patentable

On August 2, 2022, Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) introduced the Patent Eligibility Restoration Act of 2022. Senator Tillis’s bill addresses patent subject matter eligibility by modifying 35 U.S.C. § 101 to mitigate areas in which it has been considered problematic in view of recent judicial decisions/exceptions construing it while retaining its core features. For some in the biotechnology space, “problematic” Supreme Court decisions have included May Collaborative Services (2012), Myriad Genetics (2013), Alice Corp. (2014) and their Federal Circuit progeny.

The core features for eligibility will remain in the statute as: “[w]hoever invents or discovers any useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefore.”

The bill provides express exceptions, including:

  • A mathematical formula, apart from useful invention or discovery
  • An unmodified human gene, as that gene exists in the human body
  • An unmodified natural material, as that material exists in nature.

However, the bill further states that genes or natural material that are “purified, enriched, or otherwise altered by human activity, or otherwise employed in a useful invention or discovery,” would not be considered unmodified and would be eligible for patents. One of the goals of the bill is to override case law that has made it  difficult to receive patents on diagnostics inventions and otherwise blurred the line between what inventions are considered abstract.

Processes that are excluded from eligibility under the bill include:

  • Nontechnological economic, financial, business, social, cultural or artistic processes
  • Mental processes performed solely in the human mind
  • Processes occurring in nature wholly independent of, and prior to, any human activity.

Under current law, the question of what constitutes a technological solution that would render an otherwise abstract idea patent eligible is a hotly contested one often determined on a case-by-case basis. The European Patent Convention’s eligibility exclusions include presentations of information and mathematical methods. However, if there is a technical use applied to those types of inventions, they are patent eligible.

The bill was reportedly drafted following three years of work by Senator Tillis’ team, including a series of US Senate hearings in 2019 with Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and meetings with an array of industries. Updates will be posted to the IP Update blog as legislative developments warrant.

Practice Note: Readers are encouraged to check out the IP Update report that discusses a recent presentation by the PTO that shares recommendations for dealing with § 101 rejections during prosecution, which can be found here.




PTO Presentation Seeks to Clarify Subject Matter Eligibility Requirements

On August 9, 2022, the US Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) gave a public presentation, “Subject Matter Eligibility Under 35 U.S.C. § 101: USPTO Guidance and Policy.” During the presentation, the PTO indicated that its goal is to identify eligible subject matter and not reject patent applications under 35 U.S.C. § 101 where possible. However, subject matter eligibility must be determined in accordance with Supreme Court precedent as set forth in Bilski v. Kappos (2010); Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs, Inc. (2012); Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. (2013); and Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International (2014). The PTO presented several biotech examples demonstrating how subject matter ineligible claims could be redrafted to encompass eligible subject matter.

The PTO presented a detailed explanation of the two-step subject matter eligibility flowchart in MPEP § 2106 and emphasized the differences between the two prongs of Step 2A. The first prong is to evaluate whether the claim recites a judicially recognized exception to eligibility. If the claims do not recite an exception, they qualify as eligible subject matter. If the claims do recite a judicial exception, the analysis proceeds to the second prong of Step 2A, which is to evaluate whether the claims recite additional elements that integrate the exception into a practical application of the exception. If the claims do recite additional elements integrating the exception into a practical application of the exception, they qualify as eligible subject matter. If the claims do not do so, the analysis proceeds to Step 2B to determine whether the claims recite additional elements that amount to significantly more than the judicial exception.

While there is significant overlap between Step 2A prong two and Step 2B, the PTO noted that under Step 2A prong two, the additional elements may be well understood, routine, conventional activity, unlike in Step 2B. For example, if conventional steps were used to affect a particular treatment or prophylaxis for a disease or medical condition, or if conventional material was used in an unconventional application, the claims would be subject matter eligible.

The PTO warned against claiming methods as a series of mental processes, mere data gathering or steps that merely apply the judicial exception.

As noted, the PTO highlighted techniques for transforming subject matter ineligible claims into subject matter eligible claims. These techniques include reciting properties that naturally occurring compositions do not possess, showing that the claimed composition possesses properties not found in naturally occurring compositions, using a conventional material or conventional method in an unconventional application and specifying a particular treatment.

Practice Note: Readers may be interested in an IP Update Legislative Alert reporting on a bill introduced by Senator Tillis to amend §101, which can be found here.




Standard Techniques Applied in Standard Way to Observe Natural Phenomena? Not Patent Eligible

In what may be another blow to diagnostic patents, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the patent ineligibility of claims that it held to be directed to detecting natural phenomena by conventional techniques. CareDx, Inc. v. Natera, Inc., Case No. 2022-1027 (Fed. Cir. July 18, 2022) (Lourie, Bryson, Hughes, JJ.)

CareDx is the exclusive licensee of three Stanford University patents directed to diagnosing or predicting organ transplant status by using methods to detect a donor’s cell-free DNA (cfDNA). When an organ transplant is rejected, the recipient’s body destroys the donor cells, releasing cfDNA from the donated organ’s dying cells into the blood. Detecting the naturally increased levels of donor cfDNA (due to the deteriorating organ condition) can be used to diagnose the likelihood of an organ transplant rejection.

The representative claims were summarized as having four steps for detecting a donor’s cfDNA in a transplant recipient:

  1. “Obtaining” or “providing” a “sample” from the recipient that contains cfDNA
  2. “Genotyping” the transplant donor and/or recipient to develop “polymorphism” or “SNP” “profiles”
  3. “Sequencing” the cfDNA from the sample using “multiplex” or “high-throughput” sequencing, or performing “digital PCR”
  4. “Determining” or “quantifying” the amount of donor cfDNA.

CareDx filed two lawsuits, one alleging that Natera’s kidney transplant rejection test infringed the patents, and another alleging that Eurofins Viracor’s various organ transplant rejection tests infringed one of the patents. Natera and Eurofins moved to dismiss the complaints for failing to state a claim because of a lack of patent-eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The magistrate judge who reviewed the motions recommended that they be denied, finding that the claims were a “purportedly new, unconventional combination of steps” to detect natural phenomena. Although the recommendation was vacated with regard to Natera because the complaint was amended, the district court adopted the magistrate’s recommendation as to Eurofins with modified reasoning that the patent “specifications raise doubts about the patents’ validity” by suggesting that the steps were neither new nor unconventional. Still, the district court was wary of ruling prematurely and denied the motion so that the parties could conduct discovery to develop the record on what was considered conventional in the art.

Following expert discovery relating to § 101 eligibility, Natera and Eurofins moved for summary judgment on patent ineligibility. The district court denied summary judgment, citing a factual dispute as to the conventionality of the techniques for performing the claimed methods. Natera and Eurofins moved for certification of interlocutory appeals of the district court’s denial. After conferring with the parties, the district court agreed to reconsider its decision in view of case law raised in the certification motion. After reconsideration, the district court granted the summary judgment motions of ineligibility, finding that the asserted claims were directed to the detection of natural phenomena—specifically, the presence of donor cfDNA in a transplant recipient and the correlation between donor cfDNA and transplant rejection—and concluding that based on the specification’s many admissions, the claims recited only conventional techniques.

CareDx appealed, arguing [...]

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Federal Circuit Reverses Judge Stark Decision, Finds Computer Network Patent Eligible

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit concluded that a representative claim was directed to a patent-eligible improvement to computer functionality, and therefore reversed a decision authored by Judge Leonard P. Stark as a sitting judge in the US District Court for the District of Delaware. Mentone Solutions LLC v. Digi International Inc., Case Nos. 21-1202, -1203 (Fed. Cir. Nov. 15, 2021) (Moore, C.J.) (nonprecedential).

Mentone Solutions sued Digi International for infringement of Mentone’s patent directed to an improvement in dynamic resource allocation in a GPRS cellular network utilizing shifted uplink status flags (USF). Digi moved to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), arguing that the patent claims were not patent eligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The district court granted the motion to dismiss, holding that the representative claim was patent ineligible for being “directed to the abstract idea of receiving a USF and transmitting data during the appropriate timeslots.” Mentone appealed.

The Federal Circuit began its analysis with a detailed explanation of the claimed technology and how its use of a “shifted USF” improved the normal operation of the communication system, noting that the shifted USF specifically allowed a mobile station to access previously restricted multi-slot configurations.

Reviewing the district court’s § 101 eligibility determination de novo, the Federal Circuit applied the Supreme Court’s two-step Alice framework, first determining whether the representative claim was directed to an abstract idea. The Court explained that in cases involving software, step one often turns on whether the claim focuses on specific asserted improvements in the computer’s capabilities rather than on an abstract idea which merely invoked a computer as a tool.

The Federal Circuit compared the claim in issue to those at issue in Packet Intelligence v. NetScout Sys., in which the Court found that the challenged claims were directed to a problem unique to computer networks and that the patent specification provided details on how the solution to the network problem was achieved. In Packet Intelligence, the Court looked to the patent specification to inform its understanding of the claimed invention and found that the specification made clear that the claimed invention solved a challenge unique to computers.

Similarly, in this case, the Federal Circuit explained that the representative claim did not recite generalized steps to be performed on a computer but rather a particular method of breaking the timing between the downlink USF and the subsequent uplink transmission. The Court noted that the term “shifted USF” was coined by the inventor, and that the specification and figures informed the Court’s understanding of the term, the claimed invention, the technical solution and how the elements of the claim work together to provide the solution. The Court concluded that the claimed invention solved a challenge unique to computer networks and was directed to patent-eligible improvements in computer functionality.

The Federal Circuit rejected the district court’s characterization of the claim as directed to the abstract idea of “receiving a USF and transmitting data during the appropriate [...]

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Authentication Claim Under Alice—A Two-Step Process

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found patent claims directed to a method of authenticating the identity of a user performing a transaction at a terminal was patent-eligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101 and reversed the district court’s entry of judgment on the pleadings. CosmoKey Solutions GmbH & Co. KG. v. Duo Security LLC, Case No. 20-2043 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 4, 2021) (Stoll, J.) (Reyna, concurring).

CosmoKey sued Duo for patent infringement and Duo moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that all claims of the patent at issue are ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The district court analyzed the claims under the Alice two-step framework. At step one, the court agreed with Duo, finding that the patent claims were directed to the abstract idea of authentication—the verification of identity to permit access to transactions. Relying on Federal Circuit precedent, the court reasoned that “authentication” is an abstract concept. Moving to step two, the court determined that the patent merely teaches generic computer functionality, reasoning that the patent itself admits that “the detection of an authentication function’s activity and the activation by users of an authentication function within a pre-determined time relation were well-understood and routine, conventional activities previously known in the authentication technology field.” After the court granted Duo’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, CosmoKey appealed.

Applying Third Circuit law, the Federal Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision and provided more insight into the “inventive concept” analysis and “two-step” process framework. The Federal Circuit first acknowledged that while it had previously found claims directed to authentication to be abstract, it also found claims directed to specific verification methods that depart from earlier approaches and improve technology eligible under § 101.

The Federal Circuit disagreed with the district court’s broad characterization of the claims under Alice step one, finding instead that the claims and written description suggest that the claims are directed to a more specific authentication function. Nevertheless, the Court noted that it did not need to answer this question because the patent claims satisfy Alice step two. Under step two, the Court focused on the purported technical advance and found that the invention provides a “specific improvement to authentication that increases security, prevents unauthorized access by a third party, is easily implemented, and can advantageously be carried out with mobile devices of low complexity.” The Court explained that the district court erred in its interpretation of certain sections of the specification. Specifically, the court read the specification to describe prior art that shows the steps were routine or conventional. However, the Court pointed out that the last four steps of claim one of the patent solved a technical problem in the field using steps that were not conventional.

Judge Jimmie V. Reyna concurred with the decision but took issue with the Court’s dismissal of analyzing the claims under Alice step one, finding the approach “extraordinary and contrary to Supreme Court precedent.” He noted that step two does not operate independently of step one, [...]

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Bascom Cannot Save Your Claims if Your Own Patent Says You Used Known Technology

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a district court determination that claims of several patents were patent ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101 because they did not recite an innovation with sufficient specificity to constitute an improvement to computer functionality. Universal Secure Registry LLC v. Apple Inc., Case No. 20-2044 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 26, 2021) (Stoll, J.)

Universal Secure Registry (USR) sued Apple, Visa and Visa U.S.A. (collectively, Apple), asserting four patents directed to securing electronic payment transactions, which USR alleged allowed for making credit card transactions “without a magnetic-stripe reader and with a high degree of security” (e.g., allegedly Apple Pay or Visa Checkout). Apple moved to dismiss the complaint under Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 12(b)(6), arguing that the asserted patents claimed patent-ineligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The Delaware magistrate judge, quoting Visual Memory v. NVIDIA (Fed. Cir. 2017), determined that all the representative claims were directed to a non-abstract idea because “the plain focus of the claims is on an improvement to computer functionality itself, not on economic or other tasks for which a computer is used in its ordinary capacity.”

The district court judge disagreed, concluding that the representative claims failed at both Alice steps, and granted Apple’s motion to dismiss. The district court found that the claimed invention was directed to the abstract idea of “the secure verification of a person’s identity,” and that the patents did not disclose an inventive concept—including an improvement in computer functionality—that transformed the abstract idea into a patent-eligible application. USR appealed.

In assessing the claims under the Alice two-part test, the Federal Circuit noted that in cases involving authentication technology, patent eligibility often turns on whether the claims provide sufficient specificity to constitute an improvement to computer functionality itself. For example, in its 2017 decision in Secured Mail Solutions v. Universal Wilde, the Court (at Alice step one), held that claims directed to using a conventional marking barcode on the outside of a mail object to communicate authentication information were abstract because they were not directed to specific details of the barcode, how it was processed or generated or how it was different from long-standing identification practices. Similarly, in its 2020 decision in Prism Technologies v. T-Mobile, where the claims broadly recited “receiving” identity data of a client computer, “authenticating” the identity of the data, “authorizing” the client computer and “permitting access” to the client computer, the Court held at Alice step one that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of “providing restricted access to resources,” not to a “concrete, specific solution.” At step two, the Court determined that the asserted claims recited conventional generic computer components employed in a customary manner such that they were insufficient to transform the abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention.

The claims in issue fared similarly. The district court held that the representative claim was not materially different from the Prism claims, and the Federal Circuit agreed. Although the [...]

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Without More, Mere Automation is Abstract—Not Construing Interchangeable Terms Doesn’t Give Them the Cold Shoulder

In the latest development relating to patent eligibility of content-based identifier patents, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed decisions finding patent claims ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101. PersonalWeb Techs. LLC v. Google LLC, YouTube, LLC, Case No. 20-1543 (Fed. Cir. Aug. 12, 2021) (Prost, J.) (consolidating PersonalWeb Techs. LLC v. Facebook, Inc., Case No. 20-1553, and PersonalWeb Techs. LLC, Level 3 Commc’ns. LLC v. EMC Corp., VMWare, Inc., Case No. 20-1554).

PersonalWeb sued technology companies in the Eastern District of Texas in 2011 over three of its patents. The patents were directed to data-processing systems that assign each data item a substantially unique content-based identifier, generated by hash algorithm, which changes when the content changes and is used to perform data-management functions. Several defendants successfully motioned for transfer to the Northern District of California, where their companies were headquartered and/or their employees responsible for the development of the accused products were based. After claim construction in Texas, the cases were transferred and stayed pending several inter partes reviews before the US Patent Trial & Appeal Board (Board). Previous decisions before the Federal Circuit affirmed the Board’s findings that using hash-based identifiers for data management was disclosed in the prior art, that content-based identifiers in performing file-management functions, such as backing up files, were also known and other independently unpatentable aspects were recited in the claims. After the stay was lifted, the California court granted the defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings that the remaining asserted claims were patent ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101. PersonalWeb appealed.

To assess patent eligibility, the Federal Circuit applied the two-step Mayo/Alice framework. Under step one (determining whether the claims at issue are directed to a patent-ineligible concept, such as an abstract idea), the Court considered the focus of the claimed advance over the prior art and found that the claims were directed to an abstract idea. PersonalWeb contended that its claims were directed to “a substantially unique, algorithm-derived, content-based identifier for all data items in a networked computer, which allows a computer within a network containing diverse computing and storage systems to locate and distribute data without knowing either the file system of any device within the network or the conventional name of any data item.” However, the Court adopted the district court’s view, which was that the patents were directed to “(1) using a content-based identifier generated from a ‘hash or message digest function,’ (2) comparing that content-based identifier against something else, [that is,] another content-based identifier or a request for data; and (3) providing access to, denying access to, or deleting data.” Given the focus in Mayo/Alice step one of “whether the claims of the asserted patents fall within the excluded category of abstract ideas,” and citing to parallel examples from precedent cases, the Court concluded that the claims were directed to the use of an algorithm-generated content-based identifier to perform the claimed data-management functions, which include controlling access to data items, retrieving and delivering copies [...]

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