Digital Messaging and Data Processing Patent Claims Survive Section 101/Alice Challenge

For the second day in a row, this blog focuses on a case upholding the patent-eligibility, under 35 U.S.C. § 101, of patent claims that recite processing and transmitting data.  In Signal IP, Inc. v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc., No. 2-14-cv-02454 (CD Cal., March 22, 2016), the court upheld the patent-eligibility of claims of US Patent No. 5,954,775, directed to messages with different data types, and US Patent No. 5,714,927, directed to improvements in detecting vehicle radar blind spot coverage.

This case is even more notable than the ContourMed case discussed yesterday, because here the court’s holding came on a motion for summary judgment, and was dispositive.  But these and other cases upholding patent-eligibility are significant because they bely an approach often taken by other courts and by the US Patent and Trademark Office during patent prosecution.  That is, USPTO examiners often reject claims under Section 101 if the claims recite data processing or messaging without actuating a device, and conversely withdraw such rejections when such recitations are added by amendment.  The present case provides solace for those inclined to believe that the USPTO’s approach is often overly-simplistic.

US 5,954,775 – Data Messaging

Claim 6 of the ’775 patent recites:

A method of accommodating communication of first and second types of data at first and second message rates over a common communication link comprising the steps of:

establishing a message rate interval on the common communication link;

devoting a portion of each message rate interval to the first type of data and reserving a remaining portion of each message rate interval for the second type of data;

providing the first type of data at a first message rate sufficient to form a complete message within the devoted portion of each message rate interval;

providing the second type of data at a second message rate sufficient to form only a fragment of a complete message in the remaining portion of each message rate interval, thereby requiring a plurality of consecutive message rate intervals to form a complete message of the second type of data; and

transmitting at least one of the first and second types of data in the respective portions of each message rate interval.

The court declined to reach the first part of the Alice/Mayo test, whether the claim was directed to an abstract idea, because the second part of the test, the “inventive concept” prong, was met.  The court found that the claims included “specific limitations that recite a specific process for transforming two types of data into a single, efficient data stream by use of a ‘message rate interval’ and fragmentation of messages.”  These concepts were “sufficiently inventive,” even though “not tied to specific structures or machines.”  Summary judgment of invalidity under Section 101 was therefore denied.

US Patent No. 5,714,927 – Vehicle Blind Spot Detection and Alerting

Claims 1, 2, and 6 of the ’927 patent, at issue here, recite:

1. In a radar system wherein a host vehicle uses radar to detect a target vehicle in a blind spot of the host vehicle driver, a method of improving the perceived zone of coverage response of automotive radar comprising the steps of:

determining the relative speed of the host and target vehicles;

selecting a variable sustain time as a function of relative vehicle speed;

detecting target vehicle presence and producing an alert command;

activating an alert signal in response to the alert command;

at the end of the alert command, determining whether the alert signal was active for a threshold time; and

if the alert signal was active for the threshold time, sustaining the alert signal for the variable sustain time, wherein the zone of coverage appears to increase according to the variable sustain time.


2.  The invention as defined in claim 1 wherein the variable sustain time is an inverse function of the relative vehicle speed.


6.  The invention as defined in claim 1 including:

determining host vehicle speed; and

selecting the threshold time as a function of the host vehicle speed.

The defendants “argue[d] that the ’927 Patent claims are directed to a mathematical algorithm,” and to “the abstract idea of ‘varying the length of time that an alert stays on based on the relative speed of two vehicles.’”  Begging the question of what is an “algorithm,” the court found that the ’927 patent claims did not recite one, except perhaps in the “broadest sense.”  The court explained that “[t]he relevant claim steps are not mathematical in nature; they describe concrete steps to be performed.”

Further, the court bolstered those who like to rely on the approach of arguing that claims are patent-eligible where they rely on a technical solution to a technical problem.  The above claims of the ’927 patent, the court explained, “solve at least two blind-spot-system-specific practical problems arising from the use of radars: (i) failure to detect a vehicle in the blind-spot zone because of the vehicle’s reflectivity; and (ii) ‘flickering’ alerts when a vehicle drives near the edge of the blind-spot zone.”  Neither of these problems, the court explained, was “mathematical,” and therefore, evidently, not an unpatentable abstract algorithm.

Then, as if the defendants had not already suffered enough, the court explained that the claims, already found to be not directed to abstract ideas, moreover recited an inventive concept.  Somewhat repeating its abstract idea analysis, the court explained that the ’927 patent “describes a technical solution to a technical problem” because “[i]t addresses at least three technical problems in blind-spot detection systems: dropouts, flickering, and limited radar coverage.”  The patent was limited to radar systems. Further, the claims did not “preempt a wide field,” interestingly evidenced by the fact that various automobile manufacturers had other solutions.