Patent Claims to Cellular Network Messaging Survive Summary Judgment

Case:  Comcast Cable Communications, LLC et al. v. Sprint Communications Company L.P., No. 12-859 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 24, 2016).

Result: Summary judgment of patent-ineligibility under 35 U.S.C. § 101 denied (in the course of deciding a myriad of summary judgment motions).

Patents: U.S. Patent No. 6,885,870 (“Transferring of a message”).  Claim 1 recites:

A method for inquiring about information relating to a wireless terminal of a cellular network, from the cellular network by a messaging server external to the cellular network, wherein the method comprises:

sending an inquiry from the messaging server to the cellular network to determine said information relating to the terminal, the inquiry comprising a first identifying said terminal, the first identifier being a specific identifier external to the cellular network;

mapping said first identifier to a specific second identifier in the cellular network, the second identifier being an internal identifier of the cellular network;

determining said information relating to the terminal with the aid of said second identifier;

sending a response message in response to said inquiry from the cellular network to said messaging server external to the cellular network, in which response message the information relating to said terminal is indicated with the aid of said first identifier.

Abstract Idea (Alice Step 1): alleged to be “matching identifiers to retrieve information.”  The defendant “analogize[d] to a customer of a bank and a bank teller,” stating that

[W]hen a customer goes to the bank to retrieve her account balance, the bank teller needs the customer’s bank account number because the customer’s information is tied to her account. But the customer may not know or remember her bank account number. To remedy the issue, the customer provides a different identifier that she knows—her home address, phone number, or social security number, for example. The bank teller than matches that identifier with the customer’s internal identifier—her bank account number—in order to retrieve the requested information. The teller will then hand the customer a receipt containing her account number and her balance.

The court disagreed, observing that “the ‘870 patent does not present a clear-cut case at Alice step one because the patent does not claim a known economic or business practice implemented on a generic computer.”  Instead, “[t]he claims of the ‘870 patent involve the familiar concept of matching identifiers to retrieve information, but that concept is employed to the end of solving a technological problem unique to a particular cellular network implementation.”

Inventive Concept (Alice Step 2): The court noted that Alice step two could reinforce findings under Alice step 1.  Here, the “claims are specific to a particular implementation of a network with an external messaging server that lacks access to information used inside the cellular network.” There was “no danger of preempting all methods of cellular network messaging because the ‘870 patent is limited to a ‘specific, discrete implementation.’”

Takeaway: Sometimes a technical environment goes a long way.  Perhaps the claims of the ’870 patent could be analogized to long-standing business practices, but an analogy is only that.  Here, the court was able to point to messaging in and about a technical environment.  That, and probably also the fact that the motion came up at the summary judgment stage, and not at the pleadings stage before discovery had gotten under way, seems to have moved the court toward finding the ’870 patent claims to recite patent-eligible subject matter under Section 101.