by Dennis Crouch
McRO (Planet Blue) v. Activision Blizzard, et al. (C.D. Cal. 2014) Decision PDF
In his second major Section 101 decision in as many weeks, Judge Wu (C.D. Cal) has relied upon Alice Corp. (2014) to invalidate all of McRO’s asserted patent claims. The case is quite important because it is one of the first major applications of Alice Corp. to invalidate non-business-method claims. Here, the invention is directed toward a specific technological problem that had troubled the field of animation – automatically animating lip synchronization and facial expression of animated characters. See U.S. Patent Nos. 6,307,576 (“‘576 Patent”) and 6,611,278 (“‘278 Patent”). The appeal will be interesting and may serve as one of the Federal Circuit’s first opportunities to draw a new line in the sand.
The problem addressed by the invention is that it has been historically quite difficult to match-up animation audio and video — so that the character’s mouth and face are moving to match the sound overlay. Historically, this has been very expensive and time consuming to do well. What you might call the ‘gist’ of the invention is simply a data transformation — from an audio signal to a visual animation output. The details are a bit more technical. According to claim 1 of the ‘278 patent, the invention operates by first creating a set of phoneme sequences keyed to a pre-recorded audio sequence. Then, those phenome sequences are used to create a set of morph-weight-set streams (based upon a set of factors provided by the animators). Those morph-streams are then used as input sequences for the animated characters to provide both timing and movement of facial expressions, including emotion. The inventions claim priority back to 1997.
1. A method for automatically animating lip synchronization and facial expression of three-dimensional characters comprising:
obtaining a first set of rules that defines a morph weight set stream as a function of phoneme sequence and times associated with said phoneme sequence;
obtaining a plurality of sub-sequences of timed phonemes corresponding to a desired audio sequence for said three-dimensional characters;
generating an output morph weight set stream by applying said first set of rules to each sub-sequence of said plurality of sub-sequences of timed phonemes; and
applying said output morph weight set stream to an input sequence of animated characters to generate an output sequence of animated characters with lip and facial expression synchronized to said audio sequence.
In writing about this patent claim, Judge Wu noted that – in isolation – it appears tangible and specific rather than abstract.
They are tangible, each covering an approach to automated three-dimensional computer animation, which is a specific technological process. They do not claim a monopoly, as Defendants argue, on “the idea that the human mouth looks a certain way while speaking particular sounds,” “applied to the field of animation.” Further, the patents do not cover the prior art methods of computer assisted, but non-automated, lip synchronization for three-dimensional computer animation.
Further, the defendants raised a defense of non-infringement – explaining that their particular method of automated lip synchronization is not even covered by the patents. Thus, Judge Wu writes: “At first blush, it is therefore difficult to see how the claims might implicate the ‘basic underlying concern that these patents tie up too much future use of’ any abstract idea they apply.”
However, Judge Wu recognized that the Supreme Court’s analysis of Alice Corp was not done in a vacuum but rather made reference to what was already known in the the art and asked whether the claimed invention extended that knowledge with an inventive concept that goes beyond a mere abstract idea. In Judge Wu’s words the Section 101 eligibility of “the claims must be evaluated in the context of the prior art.”
Judge Wu’s approach was to identify the point-of-novelty for the claimed invention and then consider whether that point-of-novelty was itself an abstract idea. That approach was made easy because the patents admitted that many elements of the invention were already part of thee prior art. However, the patents claimed the new elements as the use of rules that define morph sets as a function of the phonemes which the court sees an an abstract idea that cannot be patented because it would allow the patentee to “preempt the field of automatic lip synchronization for computer-generated 3D animation … using a rules-based morph target approach.” Thus, the claims are invalid.
Judge Wu does show some sympathy to the patentee here — indicating that it appears to be a nice and important invention – just one that is not patent eligible.
But a § 101 defect does not mean that the invention was in the prior art. The invention here may have been novel, but the claims are directed to an abstract idea. And the patent’s casual – and honest – description of the prior art was made at a time when, under the then-prevalent interpretation of the law, such admissions were unlikely to be harmful. One
unintended consequence of Alice, and perhaps of this and other decisions to come, is an incentive for patent applicants to say as little as possible about the prior art in their applications.
Although he does not cite the Supreme Court’s 1946 decision in Halliburton v. Walker, Judge Wu does offer closing remarks that hearken back to the principle that patent claims must be specific at the point-of-novelty. He writes: “This case illustrates the danger that exists when the novel portions of an invention are claimed too broadly.”
There are many interesting aspects to the decision, but I wanted to post these initial thoughts before moving forward.