Patent Claims to Use of Inertial Sensors Fail the Alice Test

The Court of Federal Claims recently held that patent claims for determining the orientation of a pilot in a fighter jet, although reciting hardware elements, were invalid as directed to a patent-ineligible abstract idea under 35 U.S.C. § 101. Thales Visionix, Inc. v. The United States, No. 14-513C (Ct. Cl. July 20, 2015). Accordingly, the court granted the defendant’s motion under FRCP 12(c).

Plaintiff Thales Visionix, Inc. (“TVI”) sued the United States, alleging that use of helmet-mounted display systems in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter infringed claims of U.S. Patent No. 6,474,159, directed to motion-tracking relative to a moving platform. The court applied the familiar two-step Alice test to the asserted claims. First, the court determined whether the claims were directed to an abstract idea. A representative claim included two inertial sensors, and an “element” adapted to receive signals from the sensors. The court held that even though the independent claims included “a system of generic inertial sensors and a receiving element,” the claims were “directed to mathematical equations for determining the relative position of a moving object to a moving reference frame.” Thus, the claims were directed to the abstract idea of “tracking two moving objects and incorporat[ing] laws of nature governing motion, both of which are ineligible for patent protection.”

Turning to the second step of the Alice test, whether the claims include an inventive concept that would “transform [the] abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention,” the court found none. By using generic sensors, the court determined that the claims do not transform the abstract nature of the navigation equations into a patent-eligible invention. Notably, the court held that “[the] overriding purpose of the patent well overtakes the concrete elements and data gathering steps,” and the patent was therefore ineligible under § 101.

The court contrasted Diamond v. Diehr, which also used a mathematical formula, but focused on its application “in a structure of process that is designed to be protected by the patent laws.” 450 U.S. 175, 175-76 (1981). While the claims in Diehr were directed to physically transforming synthetic rubber, the claims in the ‘159 patent were broad enough to encompass the navigation equations themselves without limitations to a specific set of devices. The use of “generic inertial trackers and receivers” preempts the equations themselves, rather than a specific use of the equations in a defined system.

The court also found that the ‘159 patent failed the machine-or-transformation test, noting that the claims are “not tied to any particular machine that is integral to the claimed method of determining the relative orientation of two tracked objects.” While TVI argued that the invention was directed toward use in a fighter jet and pilot helmet, “the claim language is not so limiting.” Furthermore, the inertial sensors “are not a particular machine” but rather “can be a range of devices” that merely “fill the role of gathering data to feed into the navigation equation and improve upon the field of motion tracking.” As such, the claims are not tied to a particular machine. Similarly, transforming data into orientation information was not convincing as “transforming data from one form to another does not qualify as the kind of transformation regarded as an important indicator of patent eligibility.”

This case is a reminder to draft claims so that they are directed toward a physical system (although the drafter here may have though he or she did that). The court’s emphasis on preemption illustrates that broad claim scope can be a disadvantage to patent owners during litigation. Focusing patent claims away from abstract ideas and toward concrete, defined, specific elements will strengthen the claims. Here, recited sensors carried no weight for the purpose of the § 101 analysis. Perhaps a narrower claim scope directed to a specific system in a fighter jet would have passed the Alice test.

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