On March 15, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit concluded that the software patent claims before it were invalid because the claimed subject matter fell within one of the judicially created exceptions to 35 U.S.C. § 101. Louis A. Coffelt, Jr. had accused Nvidia of infringing his claims to methods of determining how to color a pixel based on analysis of vectors in a simulated 3D spaces. In Coffelt v. Nvidia, No. 2017-1119, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 4512 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 15, 2017), the Court upheld the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California’s grant of a motion to dismiss on grounds that the asserted claims were directed to subject matter ineligible for patenting. The claims involved determining pixel colors by comparing the lengths of position vectors for positions of a geometric object in a steradian space. Mr. Coffelt had argued that the claimed methods were an improvement over the prior state of the art 2D shadow map framework.
The Federal Circuit held that the claims were directed to calculating and comparing regions in space, which it concluded was an abstract idea because it was a mathematical algorithm that could be implemented using a pen and paper. Unfortunately for the patent owner, the claims did not actually require that the pixels display the calculated color, keeping the claimed subject matter more in the realm of abstract data manipulation. The parties did not dispute that the claims methods were executable by a general-purpose computer. Accordingly, the Court held that there was no inventive concept in the claims that would render them significantly more than the identified abstract idea.
On one hand, this case illustrates the importance of tying an advance to its real-world effect in the claim language. It may have been helpful to the patentee if he could have argued that a physical change was made to the LEDs of a pixel as a result of the claimed methods. In addition, this case illustrates the importance of clearly identifying technical improvements achieved by a claimed invention in the specification. For example, the claims in each of DDR Holdings, Enfish , McRO, and Amdocs involved algorithms and data structures that could, at least theoretically, be performed or created using pen and paper and were implemented on general-purpose computers. In each of those cases, however, the patentee was able to point to some technological improvement that was made to the computer as a result of the claimed advance. Innovators in the software space should look closely at each of these cases and carefully draft their applications and claim language to increase the likelihood that their own patent claims will survive a subject-matter-eligibility challenge.
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