March 10, 2017
In only the eighth case out of approximately 100 since the 2014 Supreme Court decision in Alice v. CLS the Federal Circuit found claims of a patent challenged as being ineligible for patentability under §101 to indeed recite patent eligible subject matter.
In Thales Visionix Inc. v. U.S., decided March 8, 2017, the Federal Circuit reversed a decision of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims invalidating a patent on motion tracking technology for fighter jet helmet displays asserted against the U.S. government. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims had granted the government’s motion for judgment on the pleadings that the patent was invalid under §101 because the claims “(1) are directed to the abstract idea of using laws of nature governing motion to track two objects, and (2) provide no inventive concept beyond the abstract idea.” The Federal Circuit disagreed.
The patent at issue (U.S. 6,474,159) “discloses an inertial tracking system for tracking the motion of an object relative to a moving reference frame.” The patent disclosure described that “conventional solutions for tracking inertial motion of an object on a moving platform were flawed because both object- and platform-based inertial sensors measured motion relative to earth, and the error-correcting sensors on the tracked object measured position relative to the moving platform” and that “[a]ttempting to fuse this data produced inconsistent position information when the moving platform accelerated or turned.”
The inertial sensors disclosed in the ‘159 patent did not require measurement of inertial changes relative to the earth. Rather, “the platform (e.g., vehicle) inertial sensors directly measure the gravitational field in the platform frame.” “The object (e.g., helmet) inertial sensors then calculate position information relative to the frame of the moving platform . . . without input from a vehicle attitude reference system or calculating orientation or position of the moving platform itself.”
The patent disclosed that the non-conventional method and system described provided multiple advantages over the prior art. These advantages included increased accuracy, the ability to operate independently of other systems to determine the orientation and position of the aircraft, and reduction in complexity of installation.
The Federal Circuit compared the claims at issue to those in the 1981 Supreme Court case of Diamond v. Diehr. The Federal Circuit held that “[f]or the purpose of evaluating patent eligibility, the’159 patent claims are nearly indistinguishable from the claims at issue in Diehr.” Like the claims at issue in Diamond v. Diehr, the use of a mathematical formula in the claims of the ‘159 patent did not doom the claims to patent ineligibility because the claims were not directed to the mathematical formula itself. Rather, the claimed system and method utilized the mathematical formula in the context of a particular process and system. The Federal Circuit held that “[w]hile the claims utilize mathematical equations to determine the orientation of the object relative to the moving reference frame, the equations—dictated by the placement of the inertial sensors and application of laws of physics—serve only to tabulate the position and orientation information in this configuration. This arrangement is analogous to the claims in Diehr, which required the temperature measurement ‘at a location closely adjacent to the mold cavity in the press during molding’ . . . Just as the claims in Diehr reduced the likelihood that the rubber molding process would result in ‘overcuring’ or ‘undercuring,’  the claims here result in a system that reduces errors in an inertial system that tracks an object on a moving platform.” “Far from claiming the equations themselves, the claims seek to protect only the application of physics to the unconventional configuration of sensors as disclosed. As such, these claims are not directed to an abstract idea and thus the claims survive Alice step one.”
The Federal Circuit also compared the claims of the ‘159 patent to those at issue in two recently decided cases in which it found the claims at issue to be patent eligible under §101: Rapid Litigation Management Ltd. v. CellzDirect, Inc., which were directed to “an improved process of preserving a type of liver cell by taking previously frozen and thawed cells, separating viable cells from non-viable ones, and recovering and refreezing the viable cells,” and to those in Enfish LLC v. Microsoft Corp., which were “directed to a self-referential logical model for a computer database.” In Thales the Federal Circuit held that “[j]ust as a natural law can be utilized to create an improved laboratory technique for preserving liver cells,  so can the application of physics create an improved technique for measuring movement of an object on a moving platform. Just as claims directed to a new and useful technique for defining a database that runs on general-purpose computer equipment are patent eligible,  so too are claims directed to a new and useful technique for using sensors to more efficiently track an object on a moving platform.”
The Federal Circuit reiterated the rule established in Diamond v. Diehr, “[t]hat a mathematical equation is required to complete the claimed method and system does not doom the claims to abstraction.”
The text of the decision may be found here.