Thales Visionix v. USA and Elbit Systems (Ct. Fed. Clm. 2015).
Suing the government is always an interesting proposition because it is government-employed judges who decide whether or not the government is liable. In the U.S. claims of patent infringement against the Federal Government (or its contractors, typically) are brought in the Court of Federal Claims (CFC).
Here, Thales sued the Government and its contractor Elbit systems for infringing its U.S. Patent No. 6,474,159 used to track the relative motion between two moving objects. The allegation is that the invention is used in F-35 helmet-mounted displays – when the pilot turns his head, the relative tracking system shifts the display information.
The ‘159 patent is expressly directed to “cockpit helmet-tracking,” although it is not expressly limited to those applications. See Claim 1:
1. A system for tracking the motion of an object relative to a moving reference frame, comprising:
a first inertial sensor mounted on the tracked object;
a second inertial sensor mounted on the moving reference frame; and
an element adapted to receive signals from said first and second inertial sensors and configured to determine an orientation of the object relative to the moving reference frame based on the signals received from the first and second inertial sensors.
Reading claim 1, you’ll note the requirement of two sensors physically mounted upon two different objects as well as a signal receiver configured to receive data and compute the relative orientations. Further claims define the types of sensors as well as mechanisms for computation.
In the lawsuit, the United States Government raised the defense that the patent lacks subject matter eligibility – as impermissibly directed to an abstract idea. In its opinion, the CFC agrees;
Here, the Court … finds that TVI fails the first prong of the Alice analysis because the independent claims of the ‘159 Patent are directed to mathematical equations for determining the relative position of a moving object to a moving reference frame. Derived from Newtonian principles of motion and “borrowing the mathematics that an inertial navigation system uses to track an airplane relative to a rotating earth”, the navigation equation is undoubtedly a complex mathematical concept, and a solution to the problem of tracking two moving objects in relation to each other. However, the Court finds that this concept is a “building block of human ingenuity”, and the solution lies in the mathematical formulae, not the generic devices listed in the system claim. Accordingly, TVI’s claims fail the first prong of the Alice analysis because the claims are directed to the abstract idea of tracking two moving objects, and incorporate laws of nature governing motion, both of which are ineligible for patent protection.
[Regarding Alice Step 2] the system claim fails to transform the method claim into a patent-eligible invention. The plain language of Claim 1 describes generic, fungible inertial sensors that admittedly have already gained “widespread acceptance” in the field of motion tracking. Like the computer elements in Alice, these inertial trackers, when considered as an ordered combination in the claimed system, add nothing transformative to the patent. Although the concept of tracking the motion of a moving object relative to a moving reference frame may have been novel and nonobvious, the claimed system does nothing to ground this abstract idea in a specific way. The claims allow for the application of the navigation equation in almost endless environments, and are not limited to a fighter jet and a pilot’s helmet. . . .
Ultimately, the concern that drives the exclusionary exceptions for abstract ideas and laws of nature from § 101 eligibility “[i]s one of pre-emption.” Alice. The Court finds that the scope of the subject patent’s claims is insufficiently limited under the holdings of Mayo and Diehr, and if the patent were considered to protect eligible subject matter, it would pre-empt the use of the underlying abstract idea of relative motion tracking by others in the field. The patent’s ineligibility is confirmed by the machine-or-transformation test, under which the claims are not tied to any specific machine and do not transform the nature of the patent into something more than the abstract mathematics behind it. At its core, the patent is seeking protection for the mathematical formulae used in determining the relative orientation of two moving objects. The Court is unwilling to afford patent protection to Plaintiff’s claim on this building block of motion tracking technology.