Thales patent eligibility ruling

HMD display
Not the Thales Head Mounted Display!

A recent Federal Circuit case, Thales Visionix Inc. v United States, continues the process of restoring sanity to the ongoing “Alice” patent eligibility mess.

As previously discussed, since the Supreme Court’s 2014 “Alice” decision, patent law has been burdened with an unworkable “is it abstract?” test for patent eligibility. This test is similar to a medieval test to determine witches:  Step 1:determine if the test subject is a witch abstract”;  Step 2:if so, does the witch float? is there something more?”

The Federal Circuit, charged with cleaning up patent law, has been slowly chipping away at this nonsense. In two earlier cases (Enfish and Rapid Litigation), the Federal Circuit established at least a few reasonable step 1 rules (such as read the entire claim), and now we have another.

Thales Visionix had a patent on a motion-tracking Head Mounted Display (HMD).  This patent claimed a HMD arrangement of inertial sensors and signal processing elements, used in the F-35 fighter jet. Any enemy pilot blown up by this HMD system might not consider this to be “abstract”, but a lower US court was not so easily impressed. They used their own “Alice: it’s abstract” weapon to shot down the HMD patent.

In the absence of rules (the Supreme Court thoughtfully declined to provide any), lower courts have often used a type of “guilt by association” logic, where if a given patent claim has some elements in common with another claim previously ruled to be abstract, then that claim is also abstract. The lower court argued that the Thales patent claims were abstract because the claims allegedly “used mathematical equations (previously determined to be abstract) for determining the relative position of a moving object to a moving reference frame”.

However the Federal Circuit disagreed.  They determined that just because a claim contains a patent ineligible (abstract) concept (e.g. mathematical equations) does not mean that the entire claim is (step 1) “abstract.” Rather, the question is if the patent ineligible concept (math, natural law) is being used to improve some other technique. If so, then the claim as a whole is not abstract. This is similar to their earlier, more biotech-focused, ruling in the Rapid Litigation case.

So as a medieval logic analogy, just because a woman has a cat does not automatically mean that the woman is a witch, if the cat is unusually good at catching mice. If improved mouse catching can be shown, the step 1 conclusion is that the woman is not a witch. There is no need to go on and subject the poor woman to a step 2 “witch float” test.  This is good, because there is a high casualty rate at step 2.

Patent claim charts

Patent claim chart, with one row not matching
Patent claim chart, with one row not matching

Think that someone is infringing on your patent?  Worried you are infringing, or want to show a patent reads on prior art?  Analyze with patent claim charts.

The basic idea behind a patent claim chart is to first break a given patent claim down into a series of smaller sections, and then to determine if each smaller section matches a corresponding aspect of a target of interest. This target may be a potentially infringing product or service, another patent, or even a public domain product or service (to try to show that a patent may be invalid).

Patent claim charts usually follow a row and column table format.  One column contains various sections from a claim of interest, spread out over a number of rows.  Another column contains various aspects of a target of interest, also spread out over a number of rows.  Rows containing sections from the claim column are compared with rows containing aspects from the target column.

If can be shown that every row from the claim column exactly matches up to one or more rows from the target column, then this suggests that claim does describe the target. Note, however, that although every claim row must match with a target row, there is usually no reverse requirement that every target row match-up with a claim row.

Sounds simple, but the devil is in the details.  Since patent claim charts are often part of an adversarial process, each side may feel under pressure to “slant” their claim charts in a way that favors their particular position.

Claim charts can be slanted in many ways.  One of the most common ways is to write the chart in a way that skips over important details, often by not breaking the claim down into small enough sections.

Some of the comparisons may not be accurate.  Also, remember that individual claim terms can sometimes be misleading because they may have been defined in the text of the patent application (or during prosecution), in a somewhat unexpected way.

So read and write claim charts with caution and skepticism.  Don’t use sloppy claim charts to initiate any legal action.  Of course, don’t blindly accept claim charts from others without doing your own independent analysis.

Common law trademarks

Common law trademarks can shield against Federal trademarks
Common law trademarks can sometimes shield against Federal trademarks

Think that a Federal US trademark applies throughout the US? Not always. Welcome to the murky world of common law trademarks.

Under trademark law, certain types of legal rights, often called “common law trademark rights”, automatically (without any registration) go into effect as soon as someone starts using some sort of distinctive mark (word, logo) to identify a product or service that they are selling in commerce.

Common law trademarks are murky because it is often hard to determine who first used a particular mark to sell a particular product or service at a particular geographical location.

Sounds strange?  To better understand common law trademarks, think back to an earlier era when long distance communication was poor and most commerce was local. In earlier eras, Federal and state-level trademark registration systems were either non-existent or impractically hard to use.

Occasionally different merchants, located in geographically different areas and unaware of each other, would innocently start using confusingly similar marks for their local products and services. The problem might go undetected for years until one merchant eventually expanded into another’s geographic area. Customers would then get confused, and the merchants would file lawsuits.

It wasn’t fair to strip an innocent merchant of all rights to their mark.  As a compromise, at least for merchants who had been clearly acting in good faith, the courts would often award each merchant exclusive local trademark rights to their respective marks.  As a result, under common law, different merchants, operating in geographically different areas, could even legally use the same trademark.

Communications and transportation improved, and the need for a Federal level trademark system became apparent.  However Congress faced some problems: 1) due to Constitutional limitations, they believed that they lacked authority to phase out the older, state-level, common law system; 2) it wasn’t even a good idea to phase-out the older system because it was still very important to commerce. Congress’s solution was to acknowledge that the older system would continue to operate and to make the newer Federal trademark system “backward compatible” with the older common law trademark system.

The net effect is that although a Federal trademark normally gives exclusive rights throughout the US, there are some limited common law trademark exemptions or defenses, such as 15 U.S. Code § 1115 (b)(5) and (6).

Consider a merchant (company) who didn’t register a Federal trademark, but who was otherwise innocently using their mark in geographic region “A”.  Assume that this use was prior to the Federal trademark filing of a confusingly similar mark by another merchant, previously only selling in geographic region “B”.  Under 15 U.S. Code § 1115 (b)(5) and (6), the merchant in region “A” can argue “common law rights”, and with adequate proof keep using this mark in region “A”. The Federal trademark holder (the other merchant) will otherwise have full US rights outside of region “A”.

Copyrights and creativity

macaca_photograph300
Macaca self-photograph. No human creativity, so no copyright?

Copyright protection requires that a work have at least a minimum amount of human creativity, but the laws are vague as to what this minimum is.

Legally, US copyright protection is provided for information (typically preserved in a non-transitory medium) that has at least a small element of a human author’s own creativity. Courts have held that mere facts and ideas alone can’t be copyrighted. The amount of creativity can be very small, but it isn’t zero.  For example, using human judgment to select and compile facts according to personal criteria often qualifies, and an author’s annotations of facts may also qualify, but routine alphabetical sorting is not enough (Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone, 499 US 340, 1991) .

From an engineering or mathematical perspective, these rules may look vague. This is in part because copyright concepts date back hundreds of years, back to the early days of printing presses, and have evolved slowly over time through various laws and court decisions. However copyrights are big business, and copyright law enforcement tends to be efficient and harsh. So like them or not, the rules are important.

One area where the rules are fuzzy is short works, such as short sections of text or individual photographic images. What is the minimum work (creative information) that might get copyright protection?  The rules are not uniform throughout the world, and here we are discussing US laws.

Short text:  Very short text fragments are often considered too trivial (de minimis) for copyright protection, but the court will consider originality here, and more originality gets better protection. Although there is no minimum word-count cut off, text fragments of 11 words or less at the “news article” level of originality are often considered non-infringing.

Individual photographs:  Again the law requires a small amount of human creativity for copyright protection.  The US copyright office will not register works produced by non-humans, and lower court cases are consistent with this decision.  Additionally, exact copies of public domain work (Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp.) are also exempt from copyright. Otherwise, the courts often ignore the creativity requirement.  This raises some interesting questions for future cases. However, unless the law changes, assume that copyright applies to nearly all human-produced photographs, no matter how repetitious, trivial or otherwise non-creative.

There are other copyright exceptions.  Federal Government work is often not copyrightable.  Further, under “fair use”, there can be additional exceptions where it is OK to reproduce another’s copyrighted work.  Fair use rules are complex and will be the topic of another discussion.

Halo and reckless infringement

The Halo decision
The Halo decision

The Halo decision; and how to avoid court-ordered punitive damages for culpable patent infringement (recklessly infringing known patents)

One problem that both startups and established corporations face is what to do in situations where their product might infringe on someone else’s patent.  If the corporation ends up in court, and a judge determines that the infringement was somehow unusually extreme (e.g. egregious), then the judge may punish the offender by awarding up to three times actual damages (punitive damages). This can severely damage or destroy the infringer.

But what is “unusually extreme”?  Is it when an engineer is worried about a particular patent, or a competitor sends a warning letter, but the company proceeds anyway?  How close does the product have to match the patent?

The law has been going back and forth on this.  Earlier the rules were strict. Then the rules became so lax that punitive damages were hardly ever awarded. Now, in the June 2016 case of Halo Electronics v. Pulse Electronics, SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) has clarified that the rules are somewhat in-between these two extremes.

In the Halo decision, SCOTUS clarified that what is relevant is “culpability”, which in essence is the state of mind of the person (actor) at the time of the conduct.  In a corporate setting, this is likely the state of mind of the decision makers at the time they either decided to launch the product, or decided to keep selling in the face of some knowledge of infringement.

In particular, the issue is one of acting recklessly (not like a normal person) and/or with willful misconduct while knowing that there was a patent infringement issue.  The court can determine this if the majority of the evidence supports this conclusion (i.e. preponderance of the evidence standard).

Getting advice of legal counsel:

Earlier, when the rules were strict, the courts, in essence, created a duty to get the advice of legal counsel before acting. However later, when the rules were lax, there was not much of a need for this.  Courts in this era set the threshold for punitive damages so high that such damages were almost never awarded.

Now, with the present rules, the situation is in-between.  Failure to get the advice of legal counsel does not automatically prove that a company acted recklessly. However getting advice before acting (e.g. launching a product) can help prove lack of recklessness. Timely advice can help establish that the company acted with normal caution, thus hopefully avoiding punitive damages.  But note that there is a timing issue:  the legal standard is the state of the mind at the time of the (infringing) conduct. SCOTUS is not impressed by legal arguments concocted afterwards.

Design patent infringement

Three-way visual comparison test
Three-way visual comparison test

Design patent infringement isn’t based on exact copying. Rather the test is if an “ordinary observer” will see “substantial similarity”. 

Determining if a particular design of interest does, or does not, infringe upon another design patent is an interesting gray area of intellectual property law.

According to the 2008 Federal Circuit ruling in Egyptian Goddess, Inc. v. Swisa, Inc.” 543 F.3d 665: to infringe, a given design does not have to be an exact copy of another design patent.  Rather, the question is one of “substantial similarity” under the “ordinary observer” test.

Great — what the heck is this, and how does this test determine design patent infringement?

The underlying idea is that customers looking to purchase a design patented product “Y” should not be deceived by similar looking product “X”.

So as a practical matter, you should run this test using ordinary observers. Realize that if you personally are involved, it may be difficult for you to be fully objective.  In this case, you are probably not a suitable “ordinary observer”.  Instead, determine if disinterested outsiders see “substantial similarity“.

Although sometimes the differences between a given design and a particular design patent may be so great that no further comparisons are necessary, sometimes the designs are close. Here a “three-way visual comparison test” can be useful. This test can be done by making a composite illustration showing the patented design on one side, the “accused design” (i.e. the design being investigated) in the middle, and other designs representing the closest prior art on the other side.

Essentially it is a pattern recognition problem.  The idea is to use the prior art examples to instruct the ordinary observers as to how much variation is typical in this field.  Then the ordinary observer can determine if the design of interest is overly close to the design patent of interest, or not.

This sort of approach was used to compare handheld blender designs in Braun Inc. V Dynamics Corp. 975 F.2d 815, in 1992.  As you can see in the above image, the “accused design” was visually much closer to the patented design than it was to the closest prior art. The court determined that the “accused design” was in fact infringing.

The best times to consider these issues are before you start producing and selling a new design. So if you have a new design that you are worried about, get the opinion of some neutral outsiders ASAP.  Indeed, consider running some focus groups as appropriate. If things look too close, consider making some further design changes, and trying again.

Reviving abandoned patents

The reanimation of dead patents!
The reanimation of dead patents!

Have an accidentally abandoned US patent or patent application?  These can often be revived if you promptly file a USPTO petition for revival.

It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.” Miracle Max, “The Princess Bride”.

The USPTO declares both patents and patent applications to be “abandoned” for various reasons. Patents are usually declared abandoned for failure to pay maintenance fees. Patent applications are usually declared abandoned for failure to respond to USPTO office communications (and pay any needed fees) within the time stated on the office action.

Don’t despair.  Many of these are initially only “mostly dead”, rather than “all dead”, and can be revived by promptly filing a petition to “revive”, paying the appropriate revival fee (and other fees due), and generally fixing whatever other problem caused the abandonment in the first place.

The key word here is “prompt”.  Here, the USPTO attempts to distinguish between “unintentional abandonment” and “intentional abandonment”.  As you might imagine, this can be a rather subjective determination that can often be decided by the length of the delay and explanations of the circumstances.

A determination of “intentional abandonment” means that the patent is legally now “all dead”, which is why it is important to act promptly.

The issue of what is “unintentionally abandoned” is a tricky gray area in patent law. Although often a form statement such as, “the entire delay was unintentional” will suffice, the longer the delay, the more that this strains credibility, and the greater the chance that additional explanation will be required/and or the petition to revive may be denied.

The general rule is thus that you should try to initiate the revival actions as quickly as possible.  Fortunately, this is “quick” by legal standards, rather than “quick” by video gamer standards.

As a very rough and informal rule of thumb, which you should not rely upon, petitions filed within about six months of abandonment often have a good chance of succeeding. Petitions filed up to two years after abandonment can often also work (although the risk of rejection may increase). Even after two years or more, a petition to revive may be accepted, but here the situation does become more problematic. The petitions office may require more of an explanation for the delay, and the chances that the petition will be denied can be substantially greater.

Note that “expired” patents – patents that have died because their full patent term (often 20 years from the filing date) is up, are “all dead”.  They cannot be revived.

Contractor ownership of IP

Agree on IP ownership in advance
Agree on IP ownership in advance

The ownership rules for copyrights, patents, and other IP vary depending on if the IP creator is an employee or an independent contractor.

In today’s world, the distinction between employee and independent contractor is often blurred, but legally, these two forms of working are very different.  As a result, whether you are working as an employee or independent contractor, or hiring employees or independent contractors, it is good to be aware of how these different types of work engagements impact IP ownership rights.

These laws can vary from state to state.  Consider California. Generally, work done by an employee for an employer, at the employer’ request, does belong to the employer. However the IP assignment process is not always automatic (patents, for example, generally need to be assigned to the employer in writing).

One of the reasons why California has a booming high-tech economy is that California labor code sections 2870-2872 mandate (with certain exceptions) that work that does not relate to an employer’s business (and is done with the California employee’s own time and materials) generally belongs to the employee. However, this section of California law may not protect independent contractors.  So if you are an independent contractor, you may want to negotiate this.

US copyright law (writing, art, software, etc.) also distinguishes between employees and contractors. For employees, copyright ownership for works made for the employer typically goes to the employer. However for independent contractors, absent a signed written agreement (such as a work made for hire agreement) that copyright ownership is being transferred, often ownership remains with the independent contractor.  So if you are hiring an independent contractor, absent a written agreement, just because you paid for something doesn’t automatically mean that you own it!

How to distinguish an employee from an independent contractor?  Generally, the difference is the amount of control.  For an independent contractor, whoever is paying can control the work result, but generally not how the work is done.  By contrast, even an employer who gives his employees freedom still has the legal right to specify how the work is done.

Regardless of work arrangement, it is always a good idea to work out the issues of who is going to own what in writing and in advance.  For employees, spell this out with a proprietary information and inventions agreement. For independent contractors, negotiate and sign an agreement on these issues before starting work.  This topic often comes up in due diligence.

Sending Alice to Planet Blue

Planet Blue -- Neptune perhaps?
Planet Blue — Neptune perhaps?

Forget “patent invalid because abstract”, the Planet Blue decision finds the real issue is preemption, and non-preemptive software claims are not abstract.

As previously discussed, in recent years the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) issued a series of confused rulings such as the “Alice” and “Mayo” decisions.  SCOTUS ruled that “abstract” inventions were not patentable, but didn’t define “abstract”, thus making the issue very subjective and bringing much confusion to software and biotech patents.

Fortunately, perhaps realizing that they did more harm than good, SCOTUS has recently started to decline further cases of this type.  They are apparently now leaving it to the Federal Circuit (the court right below SCOTUS) to clean things up.

Over the past few months, the Federal Circuit has initiated a number of damage control efforts, including their “Enfish”, “Bascom”, and “Rapid Litigation” decisions.  Now with another case, “Mcro, Inc. v. Bandi Namco Games, we have still more damage control. (Mcro calls itself “Planet Blue”, so we will call this the “Planet Blue” decision.)

The “Planet Blue” patent involved some improved methods of lip synchronization for animated cartoons, and their claims covered some novel but general rules to do this.  A lower court had originally invalidated these as being abstract, but the Federal Circuit reversed and said that the claims were OK.

As per their earlier Enfish decision, the Federal Circuit did not simply assume that software is “abstract” (under Alice step 1).  Instead, they asked the broader question, why is “abstract” a problem anyway?  As they interpreted it, “The concern underlying the exceptions to § 101 is not tangibility, but preemption.”  [Emphasis added]

Some history about patents and “preemption”: Back in1853 Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, tried to get a claim for the use of electromagnetism for any method of printing characters or signs. However, this particular claim omitted any other details. The 1853 SCOTUS said “no”, because claims where “it matters not by what process or machinery the result is accomplished” (e.g. are preemptive) are not going to be allowed.

In Planet Blue, the Federal Circuit (possibly giving up on the more recent rulings as being hopelessly confused), has essentially gone back to the 1853 Morse case for some coherent guidance.  The Federal Circuit ruled that with regards to the Planet Blue claims, “The claim uses the limited rules in a process specifically designed to achieve an improved technological result in conventional industry practice… Claim 1 of the ’576 patent, therefore, is not directed to an abstract idea.” In other words, this passes Alice “step 1”, and you get a free “get out of abstract patent eligibility rejections” card.

The big win here is that “preemption” is a more objective issue, and by changing the analysis from “abstract” to “preemption”, we remove a lot of randomness from the patent process. To me, this looks like an important ruling, and good news for software patents, biotech patents, and indeed all types of patents.

Writing patent claims

A patent claim is like a jigsaw puzzle piece
A patent claim is like a jigsaw puzzle piece

Writing patent claims is analogous to describing multidimensional jigsaw puzzle pieces using words.  Your claims have to fit in the spaces between prior art.

Patent claims are the most important part of a patent because the claims are legally enforceable.  Claims are also the trickiest part because they have to follow many rules.  Claims should describe your invention, not read on the prior art, and not be obvious variations on prior art. Claims should also be precise enough that others can clearly determine what it is that you are claiming.

Like a jigsaw puzzle:  As a useful analogy, consider each patent claim to be somewhat like a multidimensional jigsaw puzzle piece. Each claim should be written using words and clauses that, in addition to describing your invention, “bend in” to avoid prior art, and “bend out” when there is no prior art.

From the patent examiner’s standpoint, he or she is looking at your claims in the context of the other prior art (the other pieces). The examiner is determining if each of your particular claim “pieces” is fitting nicely into the holes between prior art, or if they are hitting the other prior art “pieces”.  If there is overlap, the examiner will, at a minimum, want you to make your claims “bend in more” to avoid that prior art.  Part of the process of writing patent applications is to try to anticipate where this might happen and to write the patent in a way that gives you more options to “bend in” and “bend out” during the patent examination process.

There is one big difference between jigsaw puzzles and patent claims, however.  In jigsaw puzzles, although the different pieces can’t overlap, the gap between the different pieces can be made very small.  Think of this gap as the area where, given that one piece is “bending in“, it is “obvious” that the other piece must “bend out“.

Unlike jigsaw puzzles, examiners often require that this “gap” be big enough so that the shape of your jigsaw puzzle piece (claim) is not immediately obvious in view of the shape of the neighboring pieces.  In fact, a big part of the patent examination process is negotiating the extent of this gap, and how best to amend the claims accordingly.