Electric Power Group LLC v. Alstom S.A., 2015-1778 is a precedential case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit that holds that claims directed to collecting and presenting information from a power grid, though “lengthy and numerous,” “do not go beyond requiring the collection, analysis, and display of available information in a particular field.” Rather, the claims state “those functions in general terms, without limiting them to technical means for performing the functions that are arguably an advance over conventional computer and network technology. The claims, defining a desirable information-based result and not limited to inventive means of achieving the result, fail under §101.”
The CAFC panel was made up of Judges Taranot, Bryson and Stoll, with Judge Taranto writing for the unanimous panel.
A representative (and indeed lengthy) claim in this case was:
12. A method of detecting events on an inter-connected electric power grid in real time over a wide area and automatically analyzing the events on the interconnected electric power grid, the method comprising:
receiving a plurality of data streams, each of the data streams comprising sub-second, time stamped synchronized phasor measurements wherein the measurements in each stream are collected in real time at geographically distinct points over the wide area of the interconnected electric power grid, the wide area comprising at least two elements from among control areas, transmission companies, utilities, regional reliability coordinators, and reliability jurisdictions;
receiving data from other power system data sources, the other power system data sources comprising at least one of transmission maps power plant locations, EMS/SCADA systems;
receiving data from a plurality of non-grid data sources;
detecting and analyzing events in real-time from the plurality of data streams from the wide area based on at least one of limits, sensitivities and rates of change for one or more measurements from the data streams and dynamic stability metrics derived from analysis of the measurements from the data streams including at least one of frequency instability, voltages, power flows, phase angles, damping, and oscillation modes, derived from the phasor measurements and the other power system data sources in which the metrics are indicative of events, grid stress, and/or grid instability, over the wide area;
displaying the event analysis results and diagnoses of events and associated ones of the metrics from different categories of data and the derived metrics in visuals, tables, charts, or combinations thereof, the data comprising at least one of monitoring data, tracking data, historical data, prediction data, and summary data;
displaying concurrent visualization of measurements from the data streams and the dynamic stability metrics directed to the wide area of the interconnected electric power grid;
accumulating and updating the measurements from the data streams and the dynamic stability metrics, grid data, and non-grid data in real time as to wide area and local area portions of the interconnected electric power grid; and
deriving a composite indicator of reliability that is an indicator of power grid vulnerability and is derived from a combination of one or more real time measurements or computations of measurements from the data streams and the dynamic stability metrics covering the wide area as well as non-power grid data received from the non-grid data source.
The CAFC’s Opinion
According to the CAFC, “we have recognized that merely presenting the results of abstract processes of collecting and analyzing information, without more (such as identifying a particular tool for presentation), is abstract as an ancillary part of such collection and analysis [emphasis added].” Here, what the precise nature of that “particular tool” might be to confer patent-eligibility is not clear, but it seems to possibly relate to a particular user interface. Such user interfaces, while containing some particularity, can still be recited in broad enough terms to encompass many plausible ways of practicing the invention. Note that the “displaying” steps of the above claim – steps five and six – do not require a monitor much less a particular UI (even in the most general terms), which typically would include various selectors to input commands to the computer.
The foregoing is bolstered by the CAFC’s declaration that “[t]he claims…do not require an arguably inventive device or technique for displaying information, unlike the claims at issue in DDR Holdings, LLC v. Hotels.com, L.P., 773 F.3d 1245, 1257 (Fed. Cir. 2014),” which found an “inventive concept in modification of conventional mechanics behind website display to produce dual-source integrated hybrid display.” The CAFC further explained that the claims at issue in the present case do not “require an arguably inventive distribution of functionality within a network, thus distinguishing the claims at issue from those in Bascom…[which found] sufficient inventive concept in ‘the installation of a filtering tool at a specific location, remote from the end users, with customizable filtering features specific to each end user’…The claims in this case specify what information in the power-grid field it is desirable to gather, analyze, and display…but they do not include any requirement for performing the claimed functions of gathering, analyzing, and displaying in real time by use of anything but entirely conventional, generic technology.”
Here, the CAFC appears to distinguish novel types of data collected from specific novel devices, or techniques for displaying that information, as a predicate for conferring eligibility.
The CAFC then approvingly noted that the district court invoked “an important common-sense distinction between ends sought and particular means of achieving them, between desired results (functions) and particular ways of achieving (performing) them.” As the district court reasoned, “‘there is a critical difference between patenting a particular concrete solution to a problem and attempting to patent the abstract idea of a solution to the problem in general.’” According to the CAFC, the claims at issue in this case do the latter, namely, “rather than claiming ‘some specific way of enabling a computer to monitor data from multiple sources across an electric power grid,’ some ‘particular implementation,’ they ‘purport to monopolize every potential solution to the problem’…Whereas patenting a particular solution ‘would incentivize further innovation in the form of alternative methods for achieving the same result’… allowing claims like [the ones at issue here] would ‘inhibit innovation by prohibiting other inventors from developing their own solutions to the problem without first licensing the abstract idea.’”
According to the CAFC, the district court’s analysis above “is one helpful way of double-checking the application of the Supreme Court’s framework to particular claims.”