Can you hear me? Court turns deaf ear to wireless radio patent-holder
Cases regarding the patent eligibility of abstract ideas continue to pile up at the Federal Circuit, which hears all patent-related appeals. In its recent ruling in Affinity Labs of Texas, LLC, v. DIRECTV LLC, the court found that two patented inventions failed both parts of the patent eligibility test.
Airing grievances Affinity Labs owned a patent covering a system for streaming regional broadcast signals to cell phones outside the region served by the broadcaster. A cell phone could be configured to wirelessly download an application for requesting and receiving network-based content from outside the broadcast region. The phone’s display would allow the user to select particular content. When DIRECTV began marketing a system that allows its customers to receive regional radio broadcasts on their cell phones when outside the broadcast regions, Affinity sued, alleging patent infringement. The trial court decided that Affinity’s patent claims were patent-ineligible subject matter and entered judgment against the plaintiff. Affinity appealed to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.
Reviewing the Supreme Court’s test
Under the U.S. Patent Act, patents may be obtained for “any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.” The U.S. Supreme Court has held that abstract ideas, laws of nature, and natural phenomena are not patentable subject matter. In Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., the Court established a two-part test for determining patent eligibility:
- A court must determine whether the patent contains one of the nonpatentable subject matters.
- If so, a court then considers whether the invention contains any additional elements — individually or in combination — that transform the invention into an inventive concept that would make it patentable. The court determines whether additional elements contained within the patent claims are “more than ‘well-understood, routine conventional activity.’”
In Alice Corp Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, the Court applied the test to challenge claims that contain only abstract ideas. It ruled that the patent failed the test as an abstract idea because it “merely required generic computer implementation.”
Screening out abstract ideas
The Federal Circuit applied the two-part test in Affinity. First, it determined that the concept of providing out-of-region access to regional broadcast content is an abstract idea. The court pointed out that the practice of conveying regional content to out-of-region recipients has been used by nearly every form of media that has a local distribution. The practice takes several forms, ranging from mailing copies of a local newspaper to an out-of-state subscriber to using satellites to disseminate broadcasts of sporting events. Affinity’s patent covered the function of wirelessly communicating regional broadcast content to an out-of-region recipient — not a particular way of performing that function. The company’s patent included nothing about how to implement such broadcasting on a cell phone, only addressing the idea itself. Furthermore, the patent wasn’t related to the solution of a “technological problem” or an improvement in computer or network functionality. The court conceded that the streaming system was limited to the delivery of out-of-region content to cell phones (as opposed to any electronic device). However, that didn’t change the result. Both the Supreme Court and Federal Circuit have repeatedly ruled that merely limiting an abstract idea to a particular existing technological environment doesn’t make the idea any less abstract.
Freezing the patent
The appeals court next considered whether any additional features in Affinity’s patented system constituted an inventive concept that would make the system patent-eligible even though it related to an abstract idea. It found no such concept. Affinity argued that the use of a downloadable application for presenting a graphical user interface capable of listing content for streaming on a cell phone was novel. The court disagreed, stating that the patent simply described the use of generic cell phone features (for example, a storage medium and graphical user interface), as well as routine functions (such as transmitting and receiving signals), to implement the underlying abstract idea. As the court ruled in Alice, generic computer implementation is insufficient to transform a patent-ineligible abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention. Without further specification of a particular technology for displaying the defined content, Affinity’s user-downloadable application didn’t constitute a sufficiently inventive concept.
The appeals court ultimately affirmed the trial court’s judgment that Affinity’s streaming system was a patent-ineligible abstract idea. In doing so, it emphasized that similar inventions that are “so result-focused, so functional, as to effectively cover any solution to an identified problem” are often found patent-ineligible. •
Affinity Labs of Texas, LLC v. DIRECTV LLC, No. 2015-1845, -1846, -1847, -1848, Sept. 23, 2016 (Fed. Cir.) Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., No. 10-1150, March 20, 2012 (U.S.) Alice Corp Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, No. 13-298, June 19, 2014 (U.S.) Affinity Labs of Texas, LLC v. Amazon.com Inc., No. 2015-2080, Sept. 23, 2016 (Fed. Cir.)
Another patent, another patent-ineligible idea
On the same day the Federal Circuit issued its opinion in the DIRECTV case (see main article), it also published its decision in a case Affinity had brought against Amazon.com. In that matter, Affinity alleged that Amazon’s Music system infringed its patent for a method of targeted advertising in which advertisements are selected for delivery to portable device users “based on at least one piece of demographic information.” The Amazon system allows users to stream music from a “customized library.” The court noted that little of the patent actually dealt with targeted advertising. Instead, most of it addressed media systems that stream content to a handheld wireless electronic device, similar to the patent in the DIRECTV case. Applying the two-part Mayo/Alice patent eligibility test, the court determined that streaming and playing content on a portable device was an abstract idea. Additionally, the patent claims don’t contain an inventive concept. Simply put, the interface’s customization features weren’t sufficiently transformative. As in the DIRECTV case, the court concluded that such systems weren’t patent-eligible.