CAFC Holds Patent-Ineligible Claims to Ranking Stations in Ad-hoc Radio Network: Cisco Systems, Inc. v. Uniloc 2017

Patent claims directed to “determining a master/slave rank of each station” in an ad hoc radio network are directed to the patent-ineligible “abstract idea of selecting the highest ranked station.” Cisco Systems, Inc. v. Uniloc, 2017, No. 2019-2048 (Fed. Cir. May 13, 2020) (opinion by Judge Moore, joined by Judges O’Malley and Taranto) (non-precedential). The Federal Circuit therefore affirmed a decision by the Northern District of California under FRCP 12(c) dismissing a cause of action for patent infringement of claim 6 of U.S. Patent No. 6,980,522 based on patent-ineligibility under 35 U.S.C. § 101.

Claim 6 of the ’522 patent recites:

A method of operating an ad-hoc radio communication system having a plurality of stations formed into at least one network, the method comprising the step of:

determining a master/slave rank of each station in the network representative of the station's suitability for acting as master in the network using antenna performance characteristics of each station in view of the antenna's local environment; and enabling a station with the highest rank to be master.

Under Alice step one, district court had held claim 6 directed to the patent-ineligible abstract idea of “ranking stations based on antenna performance characteristics and selecting the station with the highest rank to act as master in a network.” The Federal Circuit agreed, discounting the patent owner’s argument that claim 6 recited an improvement to computer network functionality. There were, the court noted “no specific asserted improvements,” but instead “[c]laim 6 is directed to the abstract idea of selecting the master based on antenna performance.”

Unlike Finjan, Inc., v. Blue Coat Systems Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2018), Thales Visionix, Inc. v. U.S. (Fed. Cir. 2016), and other cases where a technical improvement supported patent-eligibility, here the claim did not recite any technical structure or specific arrangement. As the court put it, “[t]he entirety of the claim is simply the abstract idea [of ranking] and nothing more.”

The patent owner also argued that claim 6 should have survived Alice step one at the motion to dismiss stage because it had made allegations as to why the claimed invention was unconventional. The court disagreed, because the patent owner had made only general statements that were “sweeping conclusory statements” and not “factual allegations.”

Alice step two could not save the ’522 patent; there was no saving inventive concept. Instead, as the patent owner admitted, “the ’522 patent [uses] known computer hardware and . . . wireless protocols (like Bluetooth).”

Lessons for Practice

Broad claims can survive patent-eligibility challenges, but also can be a bellwether for patent ineligibility. The broader the claim, the less likely it is to have technical detail to support patent-eligibility at either Alice step one or step two.