In its Elec. Power Group v. Alstom, Inc. decision dated August 1, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed the District Court for the Central District of California’s grant of a motion for summary judgment on subject-matter-ineligibility grounds. Elec. Power Group had sued Alstom for infringement of several patents generally directed to computer-implemented performance monitoring and reporting on an electric power grid.
When discussing the two-part test for patent eligibility from the Supreme Court’s Mayo and Alice decisions, the Court characterized the first part as “looking at the ‘focus’ of the claims, their character as a whole,” and the second part as “looking more precisely at what the claim elements add. The Court held that the claims were directed to a process of gathering and analyzing information of a specified content, then displaying the results. In so doing, the Court conceded that the claims were lengthy and included many limitations on the types and sources of information and the technology for generating, collecting, and analyzing that information, but maintained its analysis at a high level of generality. Noting that information itself is intangible, the Court concluded that the claims were directed to an abstract idea.
The Court concluded that the claims did not claim a particular technical means for performing the analysis or an advancement in computer or network technology, emphasizing that the claims did not require a new source or type of information or a new technique of analyzing that information. The Court then found that generic computer implementation did not render the claims a patent-eligible application of the underlying abstract idea.
Interestingly, the Court praised the District Court’s use of a European-style, problem-solution approach to patent-eligibility that it opined was grounded in common sense. The District Court had characterized the claims as attempting to patent the abstract idea of a solution to the problem of monitoring a power grid, rather than a particular, concrete solution to that problem. The Court noted that claims drafted in a result-focused, functional manner, such as the asserted claims in this case, were more likely to be directed to ineligible subject matter.
Many software claims, including those found to be patent-eligible in DDR Holdings, Enfish, and Bascom, are presented in similar functional terms simply because software can be written in many programming languages using different syntax and strategies to achieve the same result. Moreover, the claims in DDR Holdings, Enfish , and Bascom , like the claims invalidated in this decision, merely required gathering and analyzing information of a specified content, then displaying the results. This decision further reveals the split among various panels of the Federal Circuit, some of which are willing to dig into the details of a claim and others of which keep their focus at a high level of abstraction from the claim language when analyzing claims for their subject-matter eligibility. Without clear standards governing when a claim is directed to a patent-eligible improvement in computer technology, the outcome to a subject-matter eligibility challenge for a computerized invention will be at least somewhat unpredictable, particularly in those cases like Bascom that the Court has characterized as close calls.
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