By Dennis Crouch
Digitech Image v. Electronics for Imaging (Fed. Cir. 2014)
Digitech sued dozens of companies for infringing its U.S. Patent No. 6,128,415. As I wrote back in April 2014, basic idea behind the invention is to tag digital images with particular information about the camera and its color/spatial image qualities in a form that is device-independent. The patent includes claims directed to both a “device profile” and a “method of generating a device profile.” The profile is simply a set of data elements regarding the camera qualities discussed above and the method simply involves generating and combining those data elements. This sort of tagging of digital images has become ubiquitous and so the patent could be quite valuable – except that the Federal Circuit has held the patent invalid as lacking subject matter eligibility under 35 U.S.C. §101.
Claim 1 is drafted as follows:
1. A device profile for describing properties of a device in a digital image reproduction system to capture, transform or render an image, said device profile comprising:
first data for describing a device dependent transformation of color information content of the image to a device independent color space; and
second data for describing a device dependent transformation of spatial information content of the image in said device independent color space.
The District Court found the claims invalid and that decision has been affirmed by the Federal Circuit. Decision by Judge Reyna, joined by Judges Moore and Hughes. Because subject matter eligibility is a question of law, the Federal Circuit reviews that issue de novo without giving deference to the district court analysis.
Most subject matter eligibility cases rely upon the non-statutory limitations on eligibility (abstract idea, law of nature, natural phenomenon). However, the court here begins with the statute:
Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.
35 U.S.C. §101. The statute identifies four categories of patent eligible inventions: processes, machines, manufactures, and compositions of matter. In considering the “device profile” claim, the appellate panel concluded that the claim did not properly fit within any category and is therefore not eligible for patenting. The court writes:
Data in its ethereal, non-physical form is simply information that does not fall under any of the categories of eligible subject matter under section 101.
At the Federal Circuit, the patentee argued that one of skill in the art would understand that the claims required hardware or software within a digital image processing system. However, in an implicit claim construction, the appellate panel rejected that argument – finding that the claims are not so limited. “The claims encompass all embodiments of the information contained in the device profile, regardless of the process through which this information is obtained or the physical medium in which it is stored.” The underlying problem with this analysis is the reality that data is always stored in a physical form lest it disappear.
This first portion of the opinion has the important resulting holding that patent eligible subject matter must be in “a physical or tangible form.” Quoting Burr v. Duryee (1863) (“a concrete thing, consisting of parts, or of certain devices and combination of devices”). The court declined to discuss how it would hold if the claimed data structure had been linked to a physical item such as some sort of computer hardware. Of course, this physicality test as an absolute rule was seemingly rejected by the Supreme Court in Bilski.
In the second part of the short opinion, the Federal Circuit addressed the method claims. Those claims clearly passed the statutory category test as being drawn to processes. For the method claims then, the court turned to the abstract idea limitation recently discussed by the Supreme Court in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 573 U.S. ___ (2014).
Alice Corp. offers a two-step process for determining patent eligibility of a claimed invention:
- Building Block: First, determine whether the claim recites or is directed to a patent-ineligible concept such as an abstract idea, law of nature, or product of nature.
- Something More: Second, determine whether the claim recites sufficient additional inventive features such that the claim does not solely capture the abstract idea.
As the Court wrote in Alice:
At some level, “all inventions . . . embody, use, reflect, rest upon, or apply laws of nature, natural phenomena, or abstract ideas.” Mayo. Thus, an invention is not rendered ineligible for patent simply because it involves an abstract concept. See Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U. S. 175, 187 (1981). “[A]pplication[s]” of such concepts “‘to a new and useful end,’” we have said, remain eligible for patent protection. Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U. S. 63, 67 (1972).
Accordingly, in applying the §101 exception, we must distinguish between patents that claim the “‘buildin[g] block[s]‘” of human ingenuity and those that integrate the building blocks into something more, Mayo, 566 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 20), thereby “transform[ing]” them into a patent-eligible invention, id., at ___ (slip op., at 3). The former “would risk disproportionately tying up the use of the underlying” ideas, id., at ___ (slip op., at 4), and are therefore ineligible for patent protection. The latter pose no comparable risk of pre-emption, and therefore remain eligible for the monopoly granted under our patent laws.
Although the Supreme Court provided this two-step framework, it left some gaps for lower courts to discern, such as the meaning of “abstract idea” and “something more.”
The process claim at issue here is directed to a method of generating a device profile and includes three steps:
[Transform First Data] generating first data for describing a device dependent transformation of color information content of the image to a device independent color space through use of measured chromatic stimuli and device response characteristic functions;
[Transform Second Data] generating second data for describing a device dependent transformation of spatial information content of the image in said device independent color space through use of spatial stimuli and device response characteristic functions; and
[Combine Data] combining said first and second data into the device profile.
In reading these steps, the Federal Circuit identified what it sees as the abstract idea:
The two data sets are generated by taking existing information—i.e., measured chromatic stimuli, spatial stimuli, and device response characteristic functions—and organizing this information into a new form. The above claim thus recites an ineligible abstract process of gathering and combining data that does not require input from a physical device.
According to the court, the reason this result is abstract is that it is simply a “process that employs mathematical algorithms to manipulate existing information to generate additional information.” As the Supreme Court wrote in Flook,
If a claim is directed essentially to a method of calculating, using a mathematical formula, even if the solution is for a specific purpose, the claimed method is nonstatutory.
Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584 (1978).
After identifying the abstract idea, the Court considered and rejected the notion that the patent provided “something more” that would be sufficient to transform the result into something patentable.
The Federal Circuit did not raise or discuss the presumption of validity afforded patents under 35 U.S.C. §282. In i4i, the Supreme Court ruled that invalidity for missing the §102(b) statutory-bar date must be proven with clear and convincing evidence. However, that defense is a question of fact. As discussed above, subject matter eligibility is a question of law and such questions are generally not controlled by the same evidentiary standards.
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A major difficulty in abstract idea cases is defining the “abstract idea.” Here, the court’s description of the abstract idea at issue is somewhat confusing. Its clearest statement is that it is the “abstract process of gathering and combining data that does not require input from a physical device.” That statement has the qualities of (1) being well known and old; (2) being totally divorced from any physical device or technology; and (3) focused on information transformation rather than the transformation of anything in the physical realm. These clues here closely follow the machine-or-transformation test that the Federal Circuit implemented in its Bilski decision. Later, the Supreme Court rejected the reasoning that the MoT test was the absolute test, but agreed that it served as an important clue of subject matter eligibility.