by Dennis Crouch
McRO v. Bandai Namco, et al. (Fed. Cir. 2016)
In an important Eligibility case, the Federal Circuit has ruled that MRCO’s software patent claims are eligible — rejecting District Court Judge Wu’s judgement on the pleadings that the non-business-method claims are invalid as effectively claiming an abstract idea. In my 2014 post in the case I wrote that the case may serve as an opportunity fo the Federal Circuit “to draw a new line in the sand.”
The invention at issue is directed toward a specific 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 patented method employed by the invention is to key the audio signal to a set of phenome sequences and then create a set of morph-weight-set streams used as input sequences for the animated characters. The morph stream input provides both timing and movement of facial expressions, including emotion. The inventions claim priority back to 1997.
In its decision, the Federal Circuit holds “that the ordered combination of claimed steps, using unconventional rules that relate sub-sequences of phonemes, timings, and morph weight sets, is not directed to an abstract idea and is therefore patent-eligible subject matter under § 101. Accordingly, we reverse.” Thus, the court followed its precedent in Enfish and holds here that the claims do not even meet Alice Step-One. In addition to the 20+ defendants, briefs were also filed by EFF, Public Knowledge, BSA and The Software Alliance. The Decision here was authored by Judge Reyna and joined by Judges Taranto and Stoll.
A patent may not effectively cover an abstract idea, law of nature, or natural phenomena. Alice Corp. The Supreme Court in Alice/Mayo established its two-step framework that first asks whether a patent claim is “directed to” one of these eligibility exceptions. If so, the claim can be saved if it also includes an “inventive concept” that sufficiently transforms the nature of the claim. However, “[i]f the claims are not directed to an abstract idea, the inquiry ends.” McRO at 20.
One problem with the two step framework is based upon the fact that all inventions can be boiled down to an ineligible abstract idea. In Mayo, the Supreme Court recognized this risk in its statement that “all inventions at some level embody, use, reflect, rest upon, or apply laws of nature, natural phenomena, or abstract ideas.” This starting point, risks removing any teeth from Alice/Mayo Step-1. The Federal Circuit, however, has refused to follow that pathway but instead has set down precedent that courts “must be careful to avoid oversimplifying the claims” in seeking a gist or abstraction. TLI Commc’ns.
A second problem with the framework is that the meaning of “abstract” has not been fully defined. Here, the Federal Circuit attempts to provide a rough framework based upon the idea of preemption. The court looked particularly for (1) specific limitations that help avoid preemption (e.g. Morse); and (2) more than merely automation of existing human activity. The court also emphasized that the eligibility analysis must consider the claim as a whole.
The court writes:
Here, the structure of the limited rules reflects a specific implementation not demonstrated as that which “any [animator] engaged in the search for [an automation process] would likely have utilized.” Myriad. By incorporating the specific features of the rules as claim limitations, claim 1 is limited to a specific process for automatically animating characters using particular information and techniques and does not preempt approaches that use rules of a different structure or different techniques. See Morse. When looked at as a whole, claim 1 is directed to a patentable, technological improvement over the existing, manual 3-D animation techniques. The claim uses the limited rules in a process specifically designed to achieve an improved technological result in conventional industry practice. Alice. Claim 1 of the ’576 patent, therefore, is not directed to an abstract idea.
I have pasted claim 1 below:
1. A method for automatically animating lip synchronization and facial expression of three-dimensional characters comprising:
obtaining a first set of rules that define output morph weight set stream as a function of phoneme sequence and time of said phoneme sequence;
obtaining a timed data file of phonemes having a plurality of sub-sequences;
generating an intermediate stream of output morph weight sets and a plurality of transition parameters between two adjacent morph weight sets by evaluating said plurality of sub-sequences against said first set of rules;
generating a final stream of output morph weight sets at a desired frame rate from said intermediate stream of output morph weight sets and said plurality of transition parameters; and
applying said final stream of output morph weight sets to a sequence of animated characters to produce lip synchronization and facial expression control of said animated characters.