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 [...]