Tuesday, May 24, 2016

PTAB: Nuijten Doesn't Apply to Method Claims

[Today's guest post is from Robert K S, who is a patent attorney from Cleveland, Ohio.]

Takeaway: The 35 U.S.C. § 101 prohibition against claims covering transitory signals per se, as articulated by the Federal Circuit in In re Nuijten, 500 F.3d 1346 (Fed. Cir. 2007), does not apply to method claims, since methods are processes and are therefore among the expressly permitted categories of statutory subject matter. Ex parte Kosuru, No. 2014-005593 (P.T.A.B. May 19, 2016).

Ex parte Kosuru
Appeal 2014-005593; Appl. No. 13/406,478; Tech. Center 2100
Decided: May 19, 2016

In the application underlying this appeal decision, all of the independent claims were method claims, and each recited an "input file being stored on a computer readable storage medium." Initially, the word "storage" was absent from the claims, and the examiner rejected all of the claims as directed to non-statutory subject matter under § 101, citing to In re Nuijten, 500 F.3d 1346, 1357 (Fed. Cir. 2007) ("A transitory, propagating signal . . . is not a 'process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter.' Those four categories define the explicit scope and reach of subject matter patentable under 35 U.S.C. § 101; thus, such a signal cannot be patentable subject matter.") The claims were amended to specify that the "medium" was a "storage medium," as above, but the examiner maintained the rejection on final.

The Federal Circuit held in Nuijten that a propagating signal itself, such as a radio broadcast, an electrical signal through a wire, or a light pulse through a fiber-optic cable, is not patentable subject matter. According to then-director David Kappos's January 26, 2010 memo to the examining corps, entitled "Subject Matter Eligibility of Computer Readable Media," the PTO interpreted the Federal Circuit's decision in Nuijten to mean that "[w]hen the broadest reasonable interpretation of a claim covers a signal per se, the claim must be rejected under 35 U.S.C. § 101 as covering non-statutory subject matter." The memo references the Nuijten opinion as well as the August 24, 2009 PTO memo, "Interim Examination Instructions for Evaluating Subject Matter Eligibility Under 35 U.S.C. § 101."

In their briefs in Kosuru, the appellants conceded that their claims were "drawn to" a computer-readable storage medium, but emphasized that the use of the word "storage" meant that the claims could not read on transitory signals and thus were subject-matter eligible. In support, the appellants referred to Ex parte Hu, No. 2010-000151 (B.P.A.I. Feb. 9, 2012), which held that "[w]hile a computer-readable medium is broad enough to encompass both tangible media that store data and intangible media that carry a transitory, and propagating signal containing information, a computer readable storage medium is distinguished therefrom as it is confined to tangible media for storing data" (emphasis added).

The examiner's only response was an allegation that the specification did not refer to "storage" media—a weak response given that the claims clearly recited "storage" and no rejection was made on § 112 grounds for lack of written description or enablement. The appellants' reply brief noted several specification paragraphs that mentioned algorithms "stored on" computer-readable media or on "a disk," but even absent this support, PTO policy evidently tolerates amendment language limiting claims to non-transitory embodiments even when such language is not explicitly supported, so long as non-transitory interpretations are not ruled out by the specification. See the above-mentioned 2010 memo ("A claim drawn to such a computer readable medium that covers both transitory and non-transitory embodiments may be amended to narrow the claim to cover only statutory embodiments . . . . Such an amendment would typically not raise the issue of new matter, even when the specification is silent . . .").

The PTAB resolved the appeal of the § 101 rejection on much broader grounds than the examiner and appellants had argued: "Unlike the claims at issue in In re Nuijten, each of the pending claims here recites a method—a series of acts or steps—and thus falls under the statutory category of 'process.'" Indeed, the examiner (and the Board) had only to read the opinion cited in support of the rejection to realize that, in Nuijten, disputed independent claim 14 was directed to "[a] signal," while claims 1-10, directed to "[a] method," and 11-13, "[a]n arrangement for embedding supplemental data in a signal," were not appealed because the PTO found them statutory without any fuss.

My two cents: Nuijten did not expressly hold that process claims cannot be rejected as "covering" transitory signals, because that issue was not before the Nuijten court. This case may provide useful support for countering Nuijten-type rejections of method claims.

Kosuru may have been a case of an examiner attempting to follow a PTO directive rather than the law upon which it was based. Transitory signal subject-matter analysis is a narrow area of subject-matter eligibility analysis. Like the words "directed to" used in broader subject-matter eligibility jurisprudence, including abstract-idea jurisprudence (see, e.g., Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int'l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2355 (2014); In re Benson, 441 F.2d 682, 684 (C.C.P.A. 1971)), the word "covers" used in the Kappos memo ("[w]hen the broadest reasonable interpretation of a claim covers a signal per se, the claim must be rejected . . .") can be interpreted overly broadly. When "covers" is read to mean "includes" or "involves" rather than "effectively claims" or "ties up," the PTO interpretation of Nuijten can be read as making ineligible even statutory categories like processes. The examiner and appellants got lost on a wild goose chase over whether the specification taught "storage" media, whereas the real question was the propriety of the examiner's initial decision as to whether the claims could be interpreted as attempting to capture, among whatever else, transitory signals per se.

Another potentially winning argument in this case might have been to argue that the claimed "input file" cannot reasonably be interpreted as encompassing transitory signals, since, even under broad interpretations, "file" has a meaning of a record of greater-than-transitory permanence such that it can be stored and retrieved at arbitrary times. After this PTAB decision, such an argument is superfluous in view of the fact that an Applicant can simply point out that the claims are couched as methods.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Enfish Mayo Step One Inquiry Fails to Save Claims Directed to Assigning Classification Data to Digital Images From Being Deemed an Abstract Idea

Takeaway: The Federal Circuit utilized the updated Mayo analysis set forth in the recent Enfish v. Microsoft decision to affirm a lower court’s ruling that the claims at issue were directed to patent-ineligible subject matter. In part, the Federal Circuit found the claimed subject matter was directed to the abstract idea of assigning “classification data” to digital images and that the claims merely recited generic components that did not provide an “inventive concept” that would transform the otherwise patent-ineligible abstract idea into a patent-eligible application of the concept. (TLI Communications LLC, v. AV Automotive, L.L.C., 2015-1372, -1376, -1377, -1378, -1379, -1382, -1383, -1384, -1385, -1417, -1419, -1421, May 17, 2016)

TLI Communications LLC, v. AV Automotive, L.L.C.
2015-1372, -1376, -1377, -1378, -1379, -1382, -1383, -1384, -1385, -1417, -1419, -1421
Decided: May 17, 2016

In a recent precedential decision, the Federal Circuit invalidated claims reciting an invention that assigns “classification data,” such as a date or a timestamp, to digital images as being directed to an abstract idea under 35 U.S.C. § 101 even in light of the updated Mayo step one inquiry as set forth in Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., No. 2015-2044 (Fed. Cir. May 12, 2016). More specifically, the decision in Enfish clarified that the relevant inquiry at Mayo step one was “to ask whether the claims are directed to an improvement to computer functionality versus being directed an abstract idea. See Enfish slip op. at *11.

Claim 17, which is representative of the subject matter, recited:

A method for recording and administering digital images, comprising the steps of:

recording images using a digital pick up unit in a telephone unit,

storing the images recorded by the digital pick up unit in a digital form as digital images,

transmitting data including at least the digital images and classification information to a server, wherein said classification information is prescribable by a user of the telephone unit for allocation to the digital images,

receiving the data by the server,

extracting classification information which characterizes the digital images from the received data, and

storing the digital images in the server, said step of storing taking into consideration the classification information.

At Mayo step one (i.e., determining whether the claims at issue are directed to a patent-ineligible concept), the Federal Circuit found that the subject matter of claim 17 was drawn to the concept of classifying an image and storing the image based on its classification. The Federal Circuit noted that the claim required “concrete, tangible components such as 'a telephone unit' and a 'server.'“ However, the Federal Circuit went on to state that the “specification makes clear that the recited physical components merely provide a generic environment in which to carry out the abstract idea of classifying and storing digital images in an organized manner” and that the specification's emphasis that the “present invention 'relates to a method for recording, communicating and administering [a] digital image' underscores that claim 17 is directed to an abstract concept.”

As mentioned above, the Federal Circuit utilized the recent clarification to Mayo step one set forth in Enfish to examine whether the claimed subject matter was directed to an improvement in computer functionality or whether the claimed subject matter was directed to an abstract idea. In supporting its conclusion that the claims were directed to an abstract idea, the Federal Circuit found that the claims were not directed to a specific improvement to computer functionality. Instead, the Federal Circuit found that the claims were directed to usage of conventional or generic technology in a well-known environment.

Of note, the Federal Circuit focused its discussion on the appellant's specification. For instance, the Federal Circuit states that the “specification does not describe a new telephone, a new server, or a new physical combination of the two” and that the “specification fails to provide any technical details for the tangible components, but instead predominantly describes the system and methods in purely functional terms.” The decision points to the description of the “telephone unit” in the specification as having “the standard features of a telephone unit” and that “cellular telephones may be utilized for image transmission.” Additionally, the decision points to the description of the server as being described “simply in terms of performing generic functions such as storing, receiving, and extracting data.”

In concluding its Mayo step one analysis, the Federal Circuit likened the claims at issue to the claims at issue in Content Extraction v. Wells Fargo Bank, which were directed to “collecting data,” “recognizing certain data within the collected data set,” and “storing the recognized data in memory.”

In its Mayo step two analysis (i.e., whether the claims at issue include an “inventive concept”), the Federal Circuit found that the claims failed to recite any “elements that individually or as an ordered combination transform the abstract idea of classifying and storing digital images in an organized manner into a patent-eligible application of that idea.” Similar to its analysis set forth above with respect to Mayo step one, the Federal Circuit found that the claims at issue merely recited generic computer components “insufficient to add an inventive concept to an otherwise abstract idea” and that ”the recited physical components behave exactly as expected according to their ordinary use.”

As such, the Federal Circuit affirmed the lower court's decision that the claims at issue were directed to an abstract idea and, thus, invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 101.

My two cents: Again, this decision provides a lesson that the any specification should include as much technical detail as possible. For example, this Federal Circuit decision focused on the inadequacies of the specification (e.g., the specification described the system in purely functional terms, only describing the components in terms of performing generic functionality, etc.). Additionally, the Enfish decision notes that the specification in that case explained that the prior art database structures were inferior to the claimed invention. Thus, Applicants may consider including explanations of  why Applicant’s technology is superior to the prior art in the specification. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

PTAB Deems Method for Providing Funds to a Player at a Gaming Facility as Patent-Ineligible Subject Matter

Takeaway: A PTAB panel affirmed an Examiner's rejection of the claimed subject matter as being directed to patent-inelgible subject matter.  In part, the panel found the claimed subject matter was directed to the abstract idea of transferring funds between various institutions and that the claimed subject matter did not include additional elements that would provide an "inventive concept" transforming an otherwise patent-ineligible abstract idea into a patent-eligible application of the concept.  (Ex parte Nicholas, No. 2016-003046, PTAB Apr. 22, 2016)


Ex parte Nicholas
Appeal 2016-003046; Appl. No. 14/186,522; Technology Center 3700
Decided: April 22, 2016
In a recent decision, the PTAB upheld an Examiner's rejection that a method for providing funds to a player (using a portable electronic device) for providing funds to a player at a gaming facility as directed to patent-ineligble subject matter.  Claim 18, which was illustrative of the subject matter claimed, recited:
A method of providing funds to a player at a gaming facility comprising:

a portable electronic device sends a wireless communication to a funding establishment that supports a financial card;

the funding establishment supporting the financial card by storing an authorized level of credit available to the player from the financial card in memory;

the wireless communication containing data that identifies a) a specific financial card and a specific electronically-stored account established at the gaming facility on a server and b) an amount of funds to be applied against the financial card and transferred to the specific financial account;

the specific financial account receiving the transferred amount of funds and the gaming facility allowing electronic transfer of the transferred amount of funds; and

the specific financial account electronically transferring funds to a fund-providing electronic apparatus in the gaming facility.

In upholding the Examiner's rejection under 35 U.S.C. § 101 as directed to patent-ineligible subject matter, the PTAB analyzed the claim utilizing the Mayo framework set forth in Alice v. CLS Bank.  In its analysis, the PTAB agreed with the Examiner that the claim was directed to the patent-ineligible abstract idea of "the fundamental economic practice of funds transfers" under Mayo Step 1.
The Appellant disagreed with this characterization by stating “there is no substantive evidence according to any authoritative definition that supports the [Examiner’s] assertion [that claim 18 is directed to an abstract idea].” Then, the Appellant asserted that the claimed subject matter did “not represent a fundamental economic [practice], but encompasses a series of steps among multiple defined apparatus in which distinct lines of communication and specific steps are performed . . . in a specific field of actual transfer of value in a specific business field.”
The PTAB dismissed this characterization by finding that the claimed limitations of transferring funds between various institutions and facilities as "well-established and fundamental building block of the modern financial system."
The PTAB then moved its analysis to Mayo Step 2 to determine whether the claimed subject matter recited any additional elements that would transform the subject matter into "a patent-eligible application of the abstract idea."  However, the PTAB utilized the Appellant's specification and prior art to find that the recited elements of "a portable electronic wireless device capable of wireless communication, a gaming facility server, and a financial institution memory are generic electronic components that are well-understood, routine, and conventional in the industry."  For instance, the PTAB cited to the Appellant's specification to find that casino patrons routinely carry portable electronic devices on their persons and that gaming kiosks were “mainstays within casinos."
Appellant argued that the claimed subject matter recited "three or more distinct and separate electronic elements (personal data transmitter, electronic gaming machine, local gaming server with accounting functions, and financial institution server) which 'represent far more than an abstract idea in itself'" and that the claimed subject matter increased the speed and the security of financial transactions "in which value is immediately made available for wagering[, which] has been a long felt business need improved by the present technology.”
The PTAB quickly dismissed with this argument by reiterating that the Appellant's specification described electronic components that were well-understood, routine, and conventional in the industry and that the speed/security of the claimed subject matter were "merely characteristic of electronic funds transfers generally."
Based upon these findings, the Board sustained the Examiner's rejection of the claimed subject matter as being directed to patent-ineligible subject matter.
My two cents:  This decision provides a lesson that the any specification should include as much technical detail as possible such that an Applicant can rebut any assertions that the specification merely describes devices/components that are well-understood, routine, and conventional.