Subject-Matter Eligibility May Depend on Decision-Maker’s Willingness to Consider Details

On November 10, 2015, the Central District of California denied a motion for summary judgment in the patent infringement suit underlying Timeplay, Inc. v. Audience Entertainment LLC, Case No. CV 15-05202. The patent’s claims are directed generally to a multiplayer gaming system including a primary display, handheld controllers with secondary displays, and a server configured to provide display signals to the primary and secondary displays and download software modules to the handheld controllers. The defendant, Audience Entertainment, had alleged that the claimed subject matter was ineligible for patenting under 35 U.S.C. § 101 as being directed to an abstract idea. More specifically, Audience Entertainment had argued that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of allowing multiple people to play a game together implemented on generic computer hardware.

Before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board of the U.S. Patent Office, claims similar to these are frequently invalidated as being directed to abstract ideas. For example, Ex parte Allibhoy et al., No. 2013-003248, 2015 Pat. App. LEXIS 10321 (P.T.A.B. Oct. 14, 2015) involved the Board sustaining a patent-ineligibility rejection for claims directed to controlling and auditing interactions between a third party content/service provider and an end user over a computer network. The Board found that the claim was directed to an abstract idea, reasoning that the claimed process steps could be performed mentally. The Board then found that computer implementation did not save the claim.

In its overview of the case law on subject-matter eligibility, the Court stated that the focus of the inquiry into whether a claim is directed to an abstract idea should focus on the purpose of the claim. The Court then drew a contrast between “patents claiming improvements to modern technology and those claiming well-known concepts untethered to any particular technology or technological environment,” suggesting that the former were more likely to be patent-eligible than the latter.

The Court first found that Audience Entertainment had not shown that the claim was directed to an abstract idea. In reaching its conclusion, the Court specifically focused on the elements limiting the claims’ scope to only certain kinds of multiplayer gaming that were the main purpose of the claimed system and required hardware elements, which the Court stated should simply be stripped away at that stage of the analysis. The Court went on to find that Audience Entertainment had not shown that the claims lacked an inventive concept that would render them a patent-eligible application, even if they had been directed to an abstract idea. The Court reasoned that the claimed subject matter solved problems unique to the computer field, and included specific hardware and software limitations that focused on the claims’ apparent purpose of enabling multiplayer gaming with primary and supplementary secondary screen displays.

In cases like Allibhoy, the Examining Corps and the Board at the U.S. Patent Office frequently dissect the claims into new and old, and hardware and nonhardware, elements when considering patent-eligibility, with the result that many claims are rejected as being directed to abstract ideas. To the extent possible, practitioners and applicants should consider arguing that such dissection is improper because the details, when considered in combination, may reveal that there is more to a claim than it may seem at first blush.