Amdocs v. Openet Telecom (E.D.Va. 2014)
In yet another case, a district court has invalidated a set of software patents as unduly abstract under Alice Corp., Mayo, and 35 U.S.C. 101. In this case, E.D. Va. Judge Brinkema issued a judgment-on-the-pleadings that all of the asserted claims of the four Amdocs patents were invalid as patent-ineligible. The Decision.
In Alice Corp., the Supreme Court outlined a two step process for determining eligibility: (1) determine whether the claim encompasses excluded subject matter and then (2) determine whether the claim includes “something more” sufficient to “transform the nature of the claim into a patent-eligible application.” As it turns out, neither of these tests are straightforward.
The patents-in-suit here relate to computer software designed for reporting network usage. Claim 16 of Amdocs Patent No. 6,836,797 is on point:
16. A computer program product stored in a computer readable medium for reporting on a collection of network usage information from a plurality of network devices, comprising:
computer code for collecting network communications usage information in real-time from a plurality of network devices at a plurality of layers;
computer code for filtering and aggregating the network communications usage information;
computer code for completing a plurality of data records from the filtered and aggregated network communications usage information, the plurality of data records corresponding to network usage by a plurality of users;
computer code for storing the plurality of data records in a database;
computer code for submitting queries to the database utilizing predetermined reports for retrieving information on the collection of the network usage information from the network devices; and
computer code for outputting a report based on the queries;
wherein resource consumption queries are submitted to the database utilizing the reports for retrieving information on resource consumption in a network; and
wherein a resource consumption report is outputted based on the resource consumption queries.
In applying Alice, Judge Brinkema first examined the claim to determine whether it is directed to an abstract idea. Brinkema’s particular approach here follows the “gist approach” used by other post-Alice district court decisions. Notably, to find the abstract idea, Brinkema “look[ed] past the mere claim language” to determine that the claim is “directed to the abstract idea of using a database to compile and report on network usage.” It is probably important to pause here to consider what considerations make us think that a network usage database creation and report tool is abstract. Unfortunately, Judge Brinkema does not.
At step two, Judge Brinkema looked for “something more” but found instead that “the claim does not add much” beyond the stated abstract idea.
In claim 16, a generic computer collects, filters, aggregates, and completes network communications information. The generic computer then stores the information in a database, and queries the database to retrieve reports. Collecting, filtering, aggregating, and completing network information amounts to “electronic recordkeeping,” which is “one of the most basic functions of a computer.” (quoting Alice). Similarly, storing and querying information in a database, and building reports based on that information, is one of the most basic functions of a database system. Accordingly, claim 16 is directed to a computer functioning in a conventional way, and a database functioning in a conventional way. The claim does not add any specific implementation beyond the abstract idea that information is collected and stored, and reports are generated.
The result then is that the claim is ineligible and thus invalid. The opinion similarly walks through other challenged claims and rejects them. Throughout the opinion, the Judge’s largest concern appears to be that the claims lack “specific hardware” as well as “any detail” regarding how the claimed functions actually operate.
The Judge was also clear that overall novelty is irrelevant to patent eligibility. “That argument misses the point. The concern of § 101 is not novelty, but preemption.”
A person may have invented an entirely new and useful advance, but if the patent claims sweep too broadly, or only claim the idea that was achieved rather than implementation of the idea, § 101 directs that the patent is invalid. Amdocs’s asserted claims recite such conventional operation, in such a general way, that even if the inventor had developed an actual working system, the patent claims could foreclose fields of research beyond the actual invention. Accordingly, all asserted claims are invalid as patent-ineligible.
= = = = =
Software?: Although the court made a few pushes for “hardware” in its analysis, it did not make any express statements that software is problematic from an eligibility standpoint. An open question following Alice Corp., is whether any claimed invention would be patent eligible if beginning with the preamble: “A computer program product stored in a computer readable medium…”