The en banc Federal Circuit on September 13, 2013, heard oral argument on whether to overrule its en banc decision in Cybor Corp. v. FAS Technologies, Inc., 138 F.3d 1448 (Fed. Cir. 1998), and hold that claim construction can involve issues of fact reviewable for clear error, and that it is not entirely an issue of law subject only to de novo review. Lighting Ballast Control LLC v. Universal Lighting Technologies, Inc., Fed. Cir., No. 2012-1014, 3/15/2013.
Lighting Ballast Control LLC (LBC) owns a patent (5,436,529) on control and protection circuits for electronic lighting ballasts commonly used in fluorescent lighting. The patent includes the term “voltage source means” in the following context: “voltage source means providing a constant or variable magnitude DC voltage between the DC input terminals.” LBC sued Universal Lighting Technologies, Inc. (ULT).
District Court Decision
On appeal is the district court decision that a person of ordinary skill in the art would understand the claim term “voltage source means” to correspond to a rectifier or other voltage supply device. It thus rejected ULT’s argument that the term invokes Section 112 ¶6 and that the claim is invalid for indefiniteness for lack of specific structure in the specification. A Federal Circuit panel reversed in a nonprecedential decision, concluding from a de novo review that “voltage source means” does invoke Section 112 ¶6 and that the claim is invalid for indefiniteness. That panel decision was vacated when the appellate court decided to consider the claim construction issue en banc.
Judge Lourie, who was joined by Judges Dyk, Prost, Reyna and Wallach, in CLS Bank v. Alice Corp. wrote: “At its most basic, a computer is just a calculator capable of performing mental steps faster than a human could. Unless the claims require a computer to perform operations that are not merely accelerated calculations, a computer does not itself confer patent eligibility.”
One way that Judges probe generalized statements is to look for the boundaries to test the logic. If the statement cannot be stretched to apply to even similar scenarios then the logic of the statement is questioned and believed to be faulty and self-serving. So let’s see if the above statement can withstand even modest scrutiny.
The statement above, by any fair reading, says that if the core of the invention is something that a human could do but slower then the subject matter is patent ineligible. So what about robots? Robots are more efficient, stronger and faster than humans, but a human can do what a robot can do. So are robots patentable?
Chief Judge Rader’s band De Novo should play a dirge tonight.
On May 10, the Federal Circuit issued its en banc opinion in CLS Bank. Within 48 hours, I had twice read the 135 page decision. It may be a bullet to the head of the software industry. Don’t take my word for it: four different judges say so:
And let’s be clear: if all of these claims, including the system claims, are not patent-eligible, this case is the death of hundreds of thousands of patents, including all business method, financial system, and software patents as well as many computer implemented and telecommunications patents. If all of the claims of these four patents are ineligible, so too are the 320,799 patents which were granted from 1998-2011 in the technology area “Electrical Computers, Digital Processing Systems, Information Security, Error/Fault Handling.” Every patent in this technology category covers inventions directed to computer software or to hardware that implements software. In 2011 alone, 42,235 patents were granted in this area. This would render ineligible nearly 20% of all the patents that actually issued in 2011. If the reasoning of Judge Lourie’s opinion were adopted, it would decimate the electronics and software industries. There are, of course, software, financial system, business method and telecom patents in other technology classes which would also be at risk. So this is quite frankly a low estimate. There has never been a case which could do more damage to the patent system than this one.
That parade of horribles is not entirely fair to Judge Lourie’s concurrence. Judge Lourie based his opinion on the fact that the disputed patent is directed not just to electronics, but to an insignificant use of modern electronics to implement an arguably basic financial transaction. I doubt that Judge Lourie would expand the holding in CLS Bank far beyond that specific fact pattern. Nevertheless, as quoted above, the dissenting judges do not share even this much optimism.
After the Federal Circuit issued its en banc decision on May 10, 2013 in CLS Bank v. Alice Corp, the patent owner Alice Corp must be feeling like Alice in Alice in Wonderland, bewildered and frightened by the fantastical situation in which they find themselves:
(1) “bewildered” because an equally divided Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding that Alice’s claimed system to tangible machine components including a first party device, a data storage unit, a second party device, a computer, and a communications controller, programmed with specialized functions consistent with detailed algorithms disclosed in the patent, constitutes a patent ineligible “abstract idea;”
(2) “frightened” because, as Judge Moore puts it, “this case is the death of hundreds of thousands of patents, including all business method, financial system, and software patents as well as many computer implemented and telecommunications patents” (Moore Op. at 2); and
In what can only fairly be characterized as utterly ridiculous, 5 of the 10 judges on the Federal Circuit to hear CLS Bank v. Alice Corporationen banc would find that claims that satisfy the machine-or-transformation test are not patentable. While I think it is inappropriate to find the systems claims patent ineligible that isn’t what makes the decision utterly ridiculous. The decision is an embarrassment because 5 other judges would have found the systems claims patent eligible. Thus, we have an even split of opinion at the Federal Circuit.
The Federal Circuit decision in CLS Bank v. Alice Corp. is now being horribly mischaracterized in the media, which will now only further complicate the matter in the court of public opinion. This decision offers no precedent whatsoever regarding systems claims because it was a tie. Alice Corporation loses the systems claims not because that is the law of the land announced by the Federal Circuit, but rather because a single district court judge determined that the systems claims were patent ineligible. Had that same district court judge found the systems claims patent eligible then Alice would have prevailed.
In other words, the Federal Circuit is essentially abdicating its authority relative to whether systems claims are patentable to the district courts and presumably also to the Patent Trial and Appeals Board at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Whatever the district court or PTAB does is just fine. Well, not quite.
Well, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit sort of decided CLS Bank v. Alice Corporation earlier today. Truthfully, all the important questions that we thought might be answered remain completely and totally unanswered because there were only 10 judges who sat on the en banc tribunal and no more than 5 judges signed on to any one opinion.
The only thing we know is this — the Federal Circuit issued an extraordinarily brief per curiam decision, which stated:
Upon consideration en banc, a majority of the court affirms the district court’s holding that the asserted method and computer-readable media claims are not directed to eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. An equally divided court affirms the district court’s holding that the asserted system claims are not directed to eligible subject matter under that statute.
Thus, all of the asserted claims are not patent eligible. At the moment I am completely flabbergasted and don’t know what to say.
What a coincidence that the disputed patent in Harris Corp. v. Fed Ex Corp., decided by the CAFC last month, involved a plane’s black box technology! Of course, both the majority and the dissent of this Federal Circuit panel scrupulously follow the interpretative roadmap of Phillips v. AWH, 415 F.3d 1303 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (en banc), but ultimately, neither the majority’s “entirely reasonable” explanation nor the minority’s views on “natural” and “intuitive” interpretation provide a convincing analysis. We are left with the definite impression that the appellate judges, while giving lip service to Phillips, kept the real determinants of their thought process hidden inside the proverbial black box.
Over a dissent by Judge Wallach, Judges Clevenger and Lourie strictly interpreted the “antecedent basis” in the claims, resulting in a reversal of the trial judge’s claim interpretation, and a remand for him to reconsider his patent infringement judgment.
Harris’s patents cover methods and systems for using spread spectrum radio signals to send flight data from a plane’s “black box” to an airport receiver at the end of the flight. The invention includes steps of generating, accumulating and storing flight data in the plane during the flight, followed by a step of “transmitting the accumulated, stored generated aircraft data” once at the airport.
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