Multi-Player Gaming System Survives Patent-Eligibility Challenge

Finding that patent claims reciting hardware elements and functionality of a multi-player gaming system encompassed more than an abstract idea, and, moreover, claimed an innovative concept, a court denied a motion to dismiss for lack of patent-eligible subject matter under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Timeplay, Inc. v. Audience Entertainment LLC, No. CV 15-05202 SJO (JCx) (C.D. Cal. Nov. 10, 2015).

U.S. Patent Number 8,951,124 included claims to “a multi-player game system.” A representative independent claim recited “a game server,” “a display system,” “a plurality of handheld game controllers,” and “a communication controller.” Various functionality was associated with each of these elements.

The court began by noting that it was appropriate to rule on patent-eligibility at the pleading stage. The claimed subject matter must be understood, but need not be subjected to a formal claim construction. Then, having concluded that a ruling was appropriate on a Rule 12 motion, the court proceeded with its analysis.

The court disagreed with the defendant’s contention that the claims were directed to an abstract idea. The parties appeared to agree that the claims were “directed to the ‘idea of multi-player gaming using a hand-held controller that has a display screen where the players are also in front of a shared display.’” The defendants did not meet their burden of showing “that such an idea, which is by definition limited to the field of multi-player gaming and which requires the use of multiple hardware components—unlike the claims in Bilski and Alice which, at least in theory, could be performed without a computer—is ‘abstract’ within the meaning of Section 101.”

Further, the court thought that the claims, even if they did recite an abstract idea, included sufficient additional “inventive concept.” Although the claims included generic computer terminology, to read these claims as simply directed to a method of organizing human activity (gaming) would ignore “the stated purpose of the patented invention and the limitations of the claims themselves.” The defendant’s reading of Section 101 would “swallow all of patent law.”

The claims here were “far more similar to those in both Diamond v. Diehr and DDR Holdings, LLC v. Hotels.com, L.P.” Unlike the claims in Alice, the claims here recited hardware that was not simply generic. Instead, presently recited hardware elements such as “a handheld gaming controller equipped with a screen and the capability of downloading software” went beyond simply linking a claimed method to a particular technological environment.

Yet further, even if the claim elements were all generic, “the claims would not necessarily be patent-ineligible.” This was because “the specification and file history of the '124 Patent indicate that the individual components of the claimed system operate together to improve the functioning of multi-player gaming systems in a manner that was sufficiently novel to satisfy the Patent and Trademark Office Examiner.”

The practice tips for patent owners here seem clear. Although mileage will always vary in different courts, this case provides an example of how showing that claim elements are more than generic hardware, and how a novel combination of claim elements is presented, can pass the Alice abstract idea test.

Accused infringers may learn from this case as well. Over and above the manner in which the substantive law of patent-eligibility was applied here, this case offers a procedural lesson. Motions to dismiss on patent-eligibility grounds at the pleading stage have had much traction since Alice. But the defendant here suffered the worst-case scenario in bringing such a motion. The court explicitly stated that claim construction was not necessary to rule on the patent-eligibility question, and then proceeded to shut the door to the defendant's arguments on that question. What the defendant may have thought was a potent weapon in its arsenal for defending the litigation is now evidently extinguished with the litigation barely underway.