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.
the claim rests upon the idea of a relay system, the claim builds upon this
concept by adding nonconventional elements, such as the assignment of different
transmission parameters to avoid jumbled communication. These additional
elements narrow the scope of the claim, and minimize the risk of preemption.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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