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.

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.

Rapid Litigation: Biotech patent win

Cleaning up a legal mess
Rapid Litigation v Cellzdirect: Federal Circuit cleaning up a patent mess

In Rapid Litigation v Cellzdirect, the Federal Circuit has further cleaned up the patent eligibility mess caused by SCOTUS’s Alice and Mayo decisions.

In 2012 and 2014, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS), which wanted to invalidate a few pesky financial and medical diagnostics patents, decided to use legal “nuclear weapons” rather than legal “fly swatters“.  The SCOTUS legal nuclear weapons were the now infamous two-step “abstract material” patent eligibility test.  Step 1 of this test is summarized below:

Step 1) Determine if the patent is directed to “abstract” subject material.  If not then congratulations, the patent passes this test and is patent eligible.  

SCOTUS refused to define “abstract material”. This allowed the USPTO and the lower courts to run amok and start randomly invalidating patents. This, in turn, started to damage US biotech and software startups, which need patents to get funding, as well as for protection from larger competitors.

The Federal Circuit, one step below SCOTUS, and charged with cleaning-up patent law, waited several years for SCOTUS to correct itself, to no avail.  However, their recent (mid-2016) series of patent eligibility decisions, first Enfish, then Bascom, now Rapid Litigation (Celsis) v Cellzdirect suggest that the Federal Circuit is now getting serious about damage control.

“Abstract” is just as undefined for biotech as it is for software, but for biotech, it seems have more of a “natural law-ish” flavor.  Arguably a technologically illiterate approach since everything involves natural laws, but alas SCOTUS has no STEM majors.

Fortunately, some Federal Circuit judges are STEM majors, and they have the power to do at least some damage control by providing official interpretations/clarifications of SCOTUS decisions. Here they clarified that in step 1, “directed to” is not the same thing as “involving”.

The patent in this case, 7,604,929, was about an improved method of freeze storing liver cells (cryopreservation of hepatocytes).  Before the patent, everyone in the field believed that freezing damages living cells, and that multiple freeze-thaw cycles should be avoided.  The inventors discovered that some hepatocytes were resistant to this problem, and used this discovery to invent an improved hepatocyte cryopreservation method.  This method first freeze-thawed the cells, then used a density gradient to select for the freezing resistant cells, and then refroze these resistant cells again, producing very freeze resistant hepatocytes.

An earlier court had ruled this patent invalid by arguing that discovering that some hepatocytes could survive multiple freeze-thaw cycles involved a “law of nature”. However, the Federal Circuit pointed out that “involved” isn’t enough grounds to invalidate a patent, because the ‘929 methods also claimed other steps, such as using density gradients.  So “directed to” is more than just “involves“.

This Federal Circuit decision makes it harder to invalidate biotech patents, at least in the most common cases where the claims also have other steps in addition to the “natural law” steps.  The fact that the ‘929 claims were relatively simple helps to further clarify the legal issues.