US 8,644,161

Claims of US patent 8,644,161 in the name of Fairfield Industries were found to be patent eligible subject matter under 35 USC 101 because the claim includes an inventive concept.


Broad description of the invention
The patent claims methods and systems that, broadly speaking, relate to a seismic sensor array comprising seismic acquisition units that communicate data in a relay that use transmission parameters to prevent interference.

Characteristic Claim
Representative claim 1 of the `III patent reads:
A method of seismic data acquisition comprising:
Providing a plurality of seismic data acquisition units, each unit comprising a transceiver configured to wirelessly communicate seismic data with one or more of the other seismic data acquisition units in the plurality of seismic data acquisition units;
Providing a [sic] one or more concentrator units each comprising a receiver configured to wirelessly receive seismic data from at least one of the seismic data acquisition units; and
Wirelessly communicating acquired data from the acquisition units to the concentrator units;
Wherein, during the step of wirelessly communicating acquired data from the acquisition units to the concentrator unit comprises using a string of the seismic data acquisition units to wirelessly communicate acquired seismic data; and
Wherein, during the step of wirelessly communicating acquired data from the acquisition units to the concentrator units, a first pair of acquisition units communicate with each other at the same time that a second pair of acquisition units communicate with each other; and
Further comprising:
Assigning first and second transmission parameters to the first and second pairs of acquisition units to substantially prevent communication interference between the first and second pairs.
The patent at issue US 8,644,111 is incorporated into a seismic sensor array, which is used to produce detailed images of the rock types beneath the earth's surface. These arrays consist of a grid of seismic acquisition units placed over a large area, with units spaced at intervals of 25 to 200 meters. Each of the units obtains data from the earth below its placement, and this data is ultimately transmitted to a central control station.
Data from an individual seismic acquisition unit can be transmitted through cables or wirelessly. In wired systems, individual acquisition units transmit data directly to the central control station, or to an intermediate data collection station, such as a concentrator. Similarly, in wireless systems, each individual unit can communicate directly with a central station or by means of an intermediate station. In the prior art, some wireless systems assigned one intermediate station to collect and concentrate data from multiple individual units. This intermediate station or concentrator would then transmit data from its source units to the central control station.
Fairfield contends that the claim contains a number of key innovations. First, the claim utilizes a string of seismic acquisition units that communicate data in a relay. Unlike prior methods in which the acquisition units transmitted data directly to a concentrator or to a central control station, the claimed method requires each acquisition unit in a chain to transmit its data to the next unit in the chain. The receiving unit then relays the information, along with its data, to the next unit in the chain, and so forth, until the data reaches a concentrator or the central control station. Fairfield argues that the use of this relay method is critical to the claim. Second, as described in clause 4 and 5 of the claim, the claim requires the assignment of different transmission parameters to each string of units. The different transmission parameters are designed to substantially prevent interference when multiple strings of units are simultaneously relaying data.
Section 101 of the Patent Act defines the subject matter that may be patented. 35 U.S.C. § 101. This section reads, in relevant part,
"[w]hoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor."
Id. This language has long been understood to exempt abstract ideas from patent protections. See Assoc. for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 133 S. Ct. 2107, 2109 (2013) ("[B]ut laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas . . . lie beyond the domain of patent protection.") (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). The animating principle behind this exemption is one of preemption. Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Intern., 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2355 (2014). Courts should be wary of allowing a patent that would effectively grant total control over an abstract idea, thereby thwarting others from innovating in the field. Cf. Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1289, 1293 (2012) ("[M]onopolization of those tools through the grant of a patent might tend to impede innovation more than it would tend to promote it."). The Supreme Court has cautioned, however, that "an invention is not rendered ineligible for patent simply because it involves an abstract concept." Alice, 134 S. Ct. at 2354.
In Alice, the Court outlined a framework for determining whether claims are directed toward an abstract idea, and therefore are ineligible for patent protection. The Court instructed lower courts to apply the two-part test first described in Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1289 (2012). Courts must first determine whether the claims at issue are directed to an abstract idea. Alice, 134 S. Ct. at 2355. If so, then courts must inquire whether the claim's elements, considered both individually and as an ordered combination, transform the nature of the claim into a patent-eligible application. Id. If the elements are sufficiently transformative, the claim survives a section 101 abstractness challenge. In determining the eligibility of a particular patent, the claims must be considered as whole; it is "inappropriate to dissect the claims into old and new elements and then to ignore the presence of the old elements in the analysis." Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 188 (1981).
Finally, a party seeking to invalidate a patent on the basis of ineligible subject matter must prove invalidity by clear and convincing evidence. Zoltek Corp. v. U.S., No. 96-166 C, 2014 WL 1279152, *3 (Fed. Cir. 2014). Because this threshold is high, Rule 12(b)(6) dismissals for lack of eligible subject matter are rare.
At the first stage of the Alice inquiry, courts are asked to determine whether the claims at issue are directed to an abstract idea. This analysis is premised upon "the longstanding rule that an idea of itself is not patentable." Alice, 134 S. Ct. at 2349 (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). The Court has rejected attempts to patent ideas such as a mathematical formula or algorithm, or a fundamental economic practice. See e.g., Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63 (1972) (holding that a mathematical formula without substantial practical application is not a patentable process); Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584 (1978) (holding that an algorithm is not patentable subject matter); Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593 (2010) (holding that the concept of hedging risk is not patentable subject matter). However, the Court has refused to delineate the outer boundaries of the abstract ideas category. Alice, 134 S.Ct. at 2357.
Wireless Seismic contends that the claims in the `111 patent are directed to the abstract idea of replacing the cables in seismic sensor arrays with wireless communications. Relatedly, it also argues that the claims are directed to the concept of relaying messages through intermediaries, a method that has been known and used for years.
Fairfield disputes this characterization, arguing that the claim is directed to the patenteligible concept of wirelessly transmitting data from seismic acquisition units utilizing a relay. It argues that the claim is narrowly tailored to a specific method of data transmission and has nothing to do with replacing cables.
The Court acknowledges that identifying the precise nature of the abstract idea at issue here is not easy. As the Supreme Court recognized in Alice, "[alt some level, all inventions . . . embody, use, reflect, rest upon or apply laws of nature, natural phenomena, or abstract ideas." Alice, 134 S. Ct. at 2347. Thus, any claim, described at a certain level of generality, can be challenged as directed to an abstract idea. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the twopart test outlined in Alice is new, and lower courts have received little guidance on how to determine whether a claim is directed to an abstract idea. As discussed below, however, this Court need not probe this dilemma further. Even under Wireless Seismic's characterization of the abstract idea, the `111 patent's claims satisfy step two of the Alice test, and are therefore patent-eligible.
The Supreme Court has described step two of the Alice test as "a search for an inventive concept — i.e., an element or combination of elements that is sufficient to ensure that the patent in practice amounts to significantly more than a patent upon the ineligible concept itself." Alice, 134 S. Ct. at 2335 (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). A claim that is directed to an abstract idea "must include additional features to ensure that the claim is more than a drafting effort designed to monopolize the abstract idea." Id. at 2357 (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). Courts are instructed to determine whether a claim "suppl[ies] a new and useful application of the [abstract] idea." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). The Court has made clear that limiting the use of an abstract idea to a particular technological environment is insufficient to transform a patent-ineligible idea. Id. at 2359. Expressing an abstract idea "while adding the words `apply it'" is similarly insufficient. Id.
Fairfield argues that the inventive concept requirement has been met for two reasons. First, the use of a string of acquisition units and different transmission parameters to effectively transmit the data in a relay is transformative. Second, the claims are tied to particular machines, seismic data acquisition units and concentrator units.
In order to be considered inventive, a concept must go beyond "well-understood, routine, conventional activity, previously engaged in by those in the field." Mayo, 132 S. Ct. at 1299; see also In re BRCA 1- and BRCA 2-Based Hereditary Cancer Test Patent Litigation, Nos. 2014-1361, 2014-1366, 2014 WL 7156722, *8 (Fed. Cir. Dec. 17, 2014). Fairfield contends that the claim's use of a string of acquisition units to relay data is transformative because it differs from the data transmission methods previously used. Since each acquisition unit only transmits its data to the next unit in the chain, this relay method allows the array to use short-range radio frequencies to transmit the data back to a central control station. Data can be transmitted from even the most remote location in the array to the central station without the use of high-power, long-range signals, which generally require a license from a local governing authority. In order to reduce interference during simultaneous data transmission, each string of units communicating in a relay can employ a different transmission parameter. The use of different parameters prevents signals from one string from disrupting the communication of signals within another string.
In addition, the use of a relay method affords greater flexibility. Within the array, there are multiple possible transmission pathways from outlying units to the central control station. Thus, the relay pathway can be altered to account for changes in environmental conditions, such as weather or interference from other electrical devices operating in the vicinity. This flexibility also offers greater reliability, as overall data transmission is unaffected by the failure of any individual acquisition unit. Should an individual unit fail, its neighboring units can use a different pathway to transmit their data up the chain.
The Court is persuaded that the use of a string of acquisition units with differing transmission parameters is an inventive concept that surpasses routine or conventional activity. The claims outline a specific method of data transmission that is a new and useful application of a generic relay system. See Alice, 134 S. Ct. at 2358. The practical application in the claim, including the use of acquisition units to receive and transmit data from other acquisition units, demonstrates that this claim amounts to more than a patent on the abstract concept of a relay. Thus, the Court finds that the use of a string of seismic acquisition units and different transmission parameters constitute inventive concepts that transcend the abstract idea of a relay.
The claim's close connection to a specific machine, the seismic acquisition unit, further supports a finding of patent-eligibility. The relevance of this connection stems from the machineor-transformation test, which states that an invention is only a process if (1) it is tied to a particular machine or apparatus, or (2) it transforms a particular article into a different state or thing. Cf. Bilski, 561 U.S. at 602 (outlining the machine-or-transformation test). The Bilski Court explicitly rejected this standard as the "sole test" for determining whether an invention is a patent-eligible process. Id. at 604. Nevertheless, the Court stated that the test served as a "useful and important clue" in a section 101 analysis. Id.; see also Ultramercial Inc. v. Hula, LLC, 772 F.3d 709, 716 (Fed. Cir. 2014). Thus, the `111 patent's claim's connection to the seismic acquisition unit can guide this Court's analysis of its patent eligibility.
Under the machine-or-transformation test, a claimed process may be patent-eligible if it is tied to a particular machine or apparatus. Id. In order to transform a claim, however, "the use of the machine must impose meaningful limits on the claim's scope . . . [T]he addition of the machine must play a significant part in permitting the claimed method to be performed, rather than function solely as an obvious mechanism for permitting a solution to be achieved more quickly." Helios Software, LLC v. SpectorSoft Corp., No. 12-081-LPS, 2014 WL 4796111, *17 (D. Del. Sept. 18, 2014) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). Applying this test, courts have rejected attempts to construe generic computers and the Internet as machines that place meaningful limitations on a claim's scope. See e.g., Ultramercial, 722 F.3d 709; Helios Software, 2014 WL 4796111.
Although the fact that this claim is tied to the seismic acquisition units is not dispositive, it does strongly support Fairfield's argument that the claim is not directed to an abstract idea. Seismic acquisition units are integral to the claimed method. The acquisition units perform their typical function of acquiring seismic data from beneath the earth's surface, but also serve the additional function of receiving and transmitting data from neighboring acquisition units. The use of the acquisition units for localized receipt and transmission is specific and central to the claim, thereby placing a meaningful limit on its scope.
Further, seismic acquisition units are significantly less generic or conventional than an all-purpose computer or the Internet. Courts have rejected the use of a computer as sufficiently limiting under the machine-or-transformation test because "prior to the information age, a computer was not a machine at all; rather, it was a job title: a person employed to make calculations." Bancorp, 687 F.3d at 1277-8 (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). This context illustrates "the interchangeability of certain mental process and basic digital computation." Id. at 1278. Where a computer is used in the place of an individual's mental process, it does not help a claim overcome patent ineligibility.
By contrast, the use of seismic acquisition units in the `111 patent do far more than replace a mental process or abstract concept, such as a relay. The units receive signals reflected by subsurface seismic reflectors in response to a generated acoustic signal[2] and transmit that seismic data to a central location. In the claimed method, these units also acquire this seismic data from neighboring units and wirelessly communicate that data up the chain. These processes surpass the basic idea of a relay, which has been employed by individuals since time immemorial. Because the operation of the acquisition units does not merely substitute technology for an abstract idea, the connection between the claim and the acquisition units is highly probative of patent-eligibility.

Wireless Seismic has not demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence that the `111 patent is ineligible under section 101