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 [...]