Automated Crop Growing and Monitoring Patents Pass Alice Test: Vineyard Investigations v. E. & J. Gallo Winery

In denying a motion to dismiss for lack of patent-eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101, a court determined that U.S. Patents 8,528,834 and 6,947,810, relating to using sensors and data for growing and automated monitoring of crops, specifically grapevines, were not directed toward abstract ideas and sufficiently stated an inventive concept to be patent eligible.  Vineyard Investigations v. E. & J. Gallo Winery, No. 1:19-cv-01482-NONE-SKO (E.D.Cal. Dec. 30, 2020).

After considering whether claim construction was needed to resolve the patent-eligibility question in this case, the court determined that the asserted patents concern relatively non-technical concepts of sensors, external data sources, control systems, and emitters, and that formal claim construction was not necessary to flush out the claim scope.  Then without identifying or discussing any of the patent claims as representative, the court then moved into the Alice/Mayo two-part analysis of the asserted patents to determine if the asserted patents claimed patent-eligible subject matter.

In applying the two-part Alice/Mayo analysis, the court determined that the defendant did not meet its burden at part one of the test (are the claims directed to an abstract idea) in moving to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint.  The court agreed with the plaintiff’s arguments that it is common for improved agricultural systems to be held patent-eligible and that claimed improvements are not directed to an abstract idea.  The plaintiff, and the court, relied on Capstan AG Sys. V. Raven Indus., Inc., 228 F.Supp.3d 1235 (D. Kan. 2017) and Agri-Labs Holding LLC v. Taplogic, LLC, 304 F.Supp.3d 773 (N.D. Ind. 2018).  The court stated that, when accepting the allegations in the complaint as true, as with the patents in Capstan AG and Agri-Labs, the asserted patents improved a system and method for “the precise dispensing of water, fungicide, pesticide, and other chemicals to individual plants, in different areas of agricultural fields, in ways that were previously unavailable,” making them directed to more than abstract ideas.  See Capstan AG, 228 F.Supp. at 1239, 1241, 1244–46; Agri-Labs, 304 F.Supp.3d at 781, 785–86. The court found that the defendant’s claim that the asserted patents represent an abstract idea directed to a “longstanding activity” and “a fundamental business practice… automated using only generic components” was “based on an oversimplification of the Asserted Patents” and the asserted patents were not directed to an abstract idea.

Although not necessary in view of the court’s conclusion under Alice part one, the court also discussed part two of the Alice/Mayo analysis.  The court determined that, because in a motion on the pleadings the court was required to take the plaintiff’s allegations in the complaint as true, there was a sufficient inventive concept in the asserted patents when considering the plaintiff’s complaint and the asserted patents as a whole.  The court stated that, at the pleadings stage, plaintiffs’ assertion of improvements to the prior art, such as a higher level of automation and less human error and inefficiencies, was enough to show an inventive concept. 

As a result, the court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss.