Vehicle Intelligence v. Mercedes-Benz (Fed. Cir. 2015) (Non-precedential opinion)
Vehicle Intelligence and Safety LLC is the owner of United States Patent Number 7,394,392 vehicle safety improvements. In particular, the patent claims systems and methods for testing vehicle operators and then taking control of the vehicle if the operator is deemed impaired. Senior Judge Hart of the Northern District of Illinois ruled on the pleadings (12(c)) that the asserted claims were invalid as being drawn to patent-ineligible subject matter under Section 101 of the Patent Act. On appeal, the Federal Circuit here affirms – holding that “the disputed claims cover only abstract ideas coupled with routine data-gathering steps and conventional computer activity.” An early potential strike against the patent that the inventor, Kevin Roe, is also the patent attorney who prosecuted the case and the litigator who filed the appellate briefs.
Claim 16 reads as follows:
A system to screen an equipment operator, comprising:
a screening module to screen and selectively test an equipment operator when said screening indicates potential impairment of said equipment operator, wherein said screening module utilizes one or more expert system modules in screening said equipment operator; and
a control module to control operation of said equipment if said selective testing of said equipment operator indicates said impairment of said equipment operator, wherein said screening module includes one or more expert system modules that utilize at least a portion of one or more equipment modules selected from the group of equipment modules consisting of: an operations module, an audio module, a navigation module, an anti-theft module, and a climate control module.
In applying Alice Corp., Federal Circuit began with step one – is the claim drawn to ineligible subject matter? Answer: Yes. Here, the court found the claims directed toward “the abstract idea of testing operators of any kind of moving equipment for any kind of physical or mental impairment.”
Although the court did not explain particularly how the testing of operators for impairment fits within the definition of an abstract idea, the court made clear that one element of its decision was based upon the fact that the claims were broadly written and not limited to particular impairments, particular screening or testing methods, the method of programming the claimed “expert system,” or the “nature” of the control.
[C]ritically absent from the entire patent is how the existing vehicle equipment can be used to measure these characteristics; assuming these measurements can be made, how the decision module determines if an operator is impaired based on these measurements; assuming this determination can be made, how the decision module decides which control response to make; and assuming the control response decision can be made, how the “expert system” effectuates the chosen control response. At best, the ‘392 patent answers the question of how to provide faster, more accurate and reliable impairment testing by simply stating “use an expert system.” Thus, in the absence of any details about how the “expert system” works, the claims at issue are drawn to a patent ineligible abstract idea, satisfying Mayo/Alice step one.
An important take-away from this analysis is that the concept of an abstract-idea is closely tied-in with the novelty of the claims themselves – even at step-one of Alice. Thus, contrary to what many patent attorneys continue to believe, whether a concept is an “abstract idea” will depend upon the invention’s priority dates. However, on that same point, the Court rejected Vehicle Intelligence’s argument that its claim did not embody that broad concept of “testing-operators and taking control” since prior patents held by other companies already disclosed and claimed other methods of achieving those same results. The court rejected that notion since full-preemption is not a requirement of the Alice test.
Readers will also notice the linkage between the court’s analysis for eligibility and the doctrines of written description and indefiniteness. The suggestion in this case appears to be that the same claim could have been eligible if the patentee had provided (in the specification) a full explanation of how to implement its system.
On step two of Alice, the court found that “nothing” in the claims disclosed “any inventive concept sufficient to transform the abstract idea of testing operators of any kind of moving equipment for any kind of physical or mental impairment into a patent-eligible application of that idea.” On this point, the patentee argued that its claims were tied to particular device (one of “an operations module, an audio module, a navigation module, an anti-theft module, and a climate control module.”). However, the court found that the patent did not include enough of an explanation of “how the methods at issue can be embedded into these existing modules.”
The court also notes that being “tied to particular machines” is not “sufficient to confer eligibility.”
Although non-precedential, the case will certainly reverberate – especially the court’s refusal to limit the definition of ‘abstract idea’ and its continued acceptance of judgment-on-the-pleadings as the proper method for dismissing cases on Section 101.