The Federal Circuit recently held in Chamberlain Group, Inc. v. Techtronic Industries Co. that the “movable barrier operator” claimed in Chamberlain’s U.S. Patent 7,224,275 is invalid as being directed to a patent ineligible abstract idea. Representative claim 1 of the ‘275 Patent recites:
1. A movable barrier operator comprising:
- a controller having a plurality of potential operational status conditions defined, at least in part, by a plurality of operating states;
- a movable barrier interface that is operably coupled to the controller;
- a wireless status condition data transmitter that is operably coupled to the controller, wherein the wireless status condition data transmitter transmits a status condition signal that:
- corresponds to a present operational status condition defined, at least in part, by at least two operating states from the plurality of operating states; and
- comprises an identifier that is at least relatively unique to the movable barrier operator, such that the status condition signal substantially uniquely identifies the movable barrier operator.
You might be saying to yourself “This is basically a garage door opener. What can possibly be abstract about a garage door opener? Surely that is a tangible and concrete thing, and not an abstraction!” As will be discussed below, the abstract idea exception to patent eligibility is not about whether or not something is of a physical nature. Rather, the abstract idea exception is often applied to patent claims that solely recite general computing principles accomplished by conventional elements used in conventional ways.
Although the physical nature of the device gives claim 1 the initial appearance of eligibility, it should be noted that the components are all simply generic computing elements, namely a processor with a radio and another communication path (e.g., a serial port). The only thing the device of claim 1 is recited to do is to transmit a status signal with two pieces of information: 1) a status of the controller; and 2) an identifier of the device.
In other words, the device simply yells it’s name and status into the vast and uncaring void, perhaps never being heard, perhaps never doing anything else.
While under other circumstances, one might argue that this signal is somehow a tangible manifestation that impacts the world in technically significant and transformative ways, the specification states that “the status condition information does not comprise a control signal as such (meaning that the status condition information does not comprise an instructional signal but rather presents only informational content).” U.S. Patent No. 7,224, 275 col. 3, lines 10-13 (emphasis added). Further, the Court noted that “the specification makes clear that transmitting information wirelessly was conventional at the time the patent was filed and could be performed with off-the-shelf technology… Yet wireless transmission is the only aspect of the claims that CGI points to as allegedly inventive over the prior art.” Chamberlain Group, Inc. v. Techtronic Industries Co., Appeal Nos. 2018-2103, 2018-2228 at 10 (Fed. Cir. 2019).
The “conveyance and manipulation of information using wireless communication and computer technology [using] tangible components [that were] conventional and were used in conventional ways” is not eligible for patent protection. Affinity Labs of Texas, LLC v. DIRECTV, LLC, 838 F. 3d 1253, 1261 (Fed. Cir. 2016). The Court in this case held that once you strip away the abstract notion of conveying status information from claim 1, all that remains in the claim are conventional components used in a conventional way. Because “no inventive concept exists in the asserted claims sufficient to transform the abstract idea of communicating status information about a system into a patent-eligible application of that idea,” the patent was deemed invalid as directed to ineligible subject matter. Chamberlain at 10.
Applicants and practitioners should be careful to avoid merely reciting the use of computer networks for what they are intended, i.e., moving information around. For example, when the nature of the information is generic and not related to any particular functional outcome, the mere transmission of such information is unlikely to be viewed by the Patent Office as solving a technical problem via a technical solution as outlined by the Patent Office’s new patent eligibility guidelines. While claim 1 above could perhaps have been saved by reciting inventive steps regarding how the signal is generated and/or the technical effect of transmitting that information in a particular computing context, claim 1 as presently presented merely recites a device that transmits, regardless of whether anything on the network might be listening, “My name is Bob and I’m currently on!”
Good for you Bob. You’re not eligible for patent.