By Dennis Crouch
Typically, Supreme Court patent cases alter Federal Circuit precedent, while – at the same time – leaving many open questions for the appellate court to address. That standard certainly fits the recent set of patent eligibility cases. In Alice Corp v. CLS Bank (2014) the Supreme Court outlined an eligibility test whose practical impact will vary greatly depending upon how it is implemented by the Patent Office and the court: broadly or narrowly?
In DDR Holdings v. Hotels.com, the Federal Circuit has affirmed the patent eligibility of DDR’s eCommerce patent. U.S. patent No. 7,818,399. Particularly, Judge Chen authored the majority opinion that was joined by Judge Wallach. Judge Mayer wrote in dissent. The case is close enough to the line that I expect a strong push for en banc review and certiorari. Although Judge Chen’s analysis is admirable, I cannot see it standing up to Supreme Court review and, the holding here is in dreadful tension with the Federal Circuit’s recent Ultramercial decision.
The basic idea behind DDR’s patent (as claimed) is to allow a website operator to include various pages within its website that each corresponds to a different merchant (such as a cruise line) with products being sold through a broker (such as a cruise broker). The various pages will have a look-and-feel that corresponds to the particular merchant (by including, for instance the cruise line logo). And, the system dynamically populates product options on the site by pinging the broker’s server. To accomplish all this, the invention uses computer networks in what appears to be standard form without what I would call “new technology.” Judge Chen writes that a major purpose of this setup is to be able to provide a diversity of stores while keeping customers on the same overall website. Representative claim 19 is posted below. The accused infringers summarize this as simply “syndicated commerce on the computer using the Internet.”
Patent Eligibility under Alice Corp: The two-step approach to eligibility decreed by Alice Corp first queries whether the invention is directed to an abstract idea. And, if so, then looks to whether the invention includes an “inventive concept” sufficient to “transform” that abstract idea into a patentable invention. In Alice, the Supreme Court particularly held that transformation is not satisfied by merely the recitation of generic computer limitations.
Here, Judge Chen finds that neither step of Alice Corp implicate the patent in question. In doing so, Judge Chen attempts to cabin-in the scope of ideas that qualify as “abstract ideas.”
Not An Abstract Idea: First, Judge Chen found the solution here to be internet-focused with no direct corresponding offline equivalence. That conclusion is important because it helps distinguish Alice Corp where the Supreme Court found the patented invention there abstract because it related to a longstanding business practice. Judge Chen writes:
[The asserted claims do not] recite a fundamental economic or longstanding commercial practice. Although the claims address a business challenge (retaining website visitors), it is a challenge particular to the Internet.
In the dissent, Judge Mayer challenges this conclusion by drawing an analogy to the pre-internet business of having kiosk within a mall or warehouse shore that sells third-party cruise vacation packages. Judge Chen rejects that analogy because it does not “account for the ephemeral nature of an Internet “location” or the near-instantaneous transport between these locations made possible by standard Internet communication protocols.” According to Judge Chen, those differences introduce new problems – and it is those problems that are particularly addressed by the patented invention.
In Ultramercial, the Federal Circuit found that even novel ideas can be abstract. Distinguishing from that case, Judge Chen writes that the claims here:
are different enough in substance from those in Ultramercial because they do not broadly and generically claim “use of the Internet” to perform an abstract business practice (with insignificant added activity). Unlike the claims in Ultramercial, the claims at issue here specify how interactions with the Internet are manipulated to yield a desired result—a result that overrides the routine and conventional sequenceof events ordinarily triggered by the click of a hyperlink.
Moving on, Judge Chen finds that – even if the claims are directed to an abstract idea – they do not preempt that idea but instead represent a “specific way” of creating a composite web page “in order to solve a problem faced by websites on the Internet.”
Writing in dissent, Judge Mayer argues that the patents at issue here are “long on obfuscation but short on substance. Indeed, much of what they disclose is so rudimentary that it borders on the comical.”
DDR’s claims … simply take a well-known and widely-applied business practice and apply it using a generic computer and the Internet. The idea of having a “store within a store” was in widespread use well before the dawn of eCommerce. For example, [NLG], one of the defendants here, previously “sold vacations at . . . BJ’s Wholesale Clubs through point of purchase displays.” . . . DDR’s patents are directed to the same concept. Just as visitors to [BJ’s] could purchase travel products from NLG without leaving the BJ’s warehouse, the claimed system permits a person to purchase goods from a third-party vendor, but still have the visual “impression that she is viewing pages served by the [original host merchant].” Indeed, any doubt as to whether the claimed system is merely an Internet iteration of an established business practice is laid to rest by the fact that one of the named inventors acknowledged that the innovative aspect of his claimed invention was “[t]aking something that worked in the real world and doing it on the Internet.” . . .
The solution offered by DDR’s claims, however, is not rooted in any new computer technology. Its patents address the problem of preventing online merchants from losing “hard-won visitor traffic,” and the solution they offer
is an entrepreneurial, rather than a technological, one. DDR has admitted that it did not invent any of the generic computer elements disclosed in its claims. There is no dispute, moreover, that at the time of the claimed invention the use of hyperlinks to divert consumers to particular web pages was a well-understood and widely-used technique. While DDR’s patents describe the potential advantages of making two web pages look alike, they do not disclose any non-conventional technology for capturing the “look and feel” of a host website or for giving two web pages a similar appearance.
In concluding that DDR’s claims meet the demands of section 101, the court focuses on the fact that “they recite a specific way to automate the creation of a composite web page . . . .” The Supreme Court, however, has emphatically rejected the idea that claims become patent eligible simply because they disclose a specific solution to a particular problem. . . . Indeed, although the claims at issue in Alice described a very specific method for conducting intermediated settlement, the Court nonetheless unanimously concluded that they fell outside section 101.
= = = = =
This case may end up again delaying the expected USPTO examiner guidance on abstract idea analysis.
= = = = =
The patent itself issued in 2006 but claims priority to a 1998 filing. Five inventors are listed including father-son pair: DD Ross, Sr. and Jr. – hence DDR Holdings.
= = = = =
Claim 19. A system useful in an outsource provider serving web pages offering commercial opportunities, the system comprising:
(a) a computer store containing data, for each of a plurality of first web pages, defining a plurality of visually perceptible elements, which visually perceptible elements correspond to the plurality of first web pages; (i) wherein each of the first web pages belongs to one of a plurality of web page owners; (ii) wherein each of the first web pages displays at least one active link associated with a commerce object associated with a buying opportunity of a selected one of a plurality of merchants; and (iii) wherein the selected merchant, the outsource provider, and the owner of the first web page displaying the associated link are each third parties with respect to one other;
(b) a computer server at the outsource provider, which computer server is coupled to the computer store and programmed to: (i) receive from the web browser of a computer user a signal indicating activation of one of the links displayed by one of the first web pages; (ii) automatically identify as the source page the one of the first web pages on which the link has been activated; (iii) in response to identification of the source page, automatically retrieve the stored data corresponding to the source page; and (iv) using the data retrieved, automatically generate and transmit to the web browser a second web page that displays: (A) information associated with the commerce object associated with the link that has been activated, and (B) the plurality of visually perceptible elements visually corresponding to the source page.