By Michael Borella --
Core Wireless Licensing brought an action against LG Electronics in the Eastern District of Texas. Core contended that LG infringed claim 21 of its U.S. Patent No. 7,804,850. LG moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the claim was invalid under 35 U.S.C. §§ 101 and 112.
The claim recites:
21. An apparatus comprising:
a memory adapted to store computer program instructions and a virtual transmission time interval;
a wireless transceiver;
a processor adapted to:
check to determine whether the apparatus is transmitting data packets in a current air interface transmission time interval; and
for the case where it is determined that the apparatus is not transmitting in the current air interface transmission time interval, to cause the transmitter to transmit a next data packet after a predetermined period associated with the virtual transmission time interval has elapsed, wherein the next data packet comprises at least one protocol data unit and the virtual transmission time interval is an integer multiple of the current air interface transmission time interval.
The claim is directed to reducing interference in a cellular wireless network (e.g., a 4G LTE network) by spacing out the transmissions from individual mobile devices. Particularly, a base station communicates with these devices to "schedule regular Transmission Time Intervals ('TTIs') between subsequent data transmissions." With respect to transmissions by mobile devices, the rate thereof "can be 'slowed down' or 'decelerated' by sending the data to the physical layer every n*TTI, instead of once every [TTI]." The '850 patent discloses that doing so can reduce overall interference between the devices and base station.
Multiple issues were brought by LG: subject matter eligibility under § 101, as well as enablement and written description under § 112. This discussion will focus on the eligibility contentions.
As set forth by the Supreme Court in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank, compliance with § 101 requires use of a two-prong test. First, one must first determine whether the claim at hand is directed to a judicially-excluded law of nature, a natural phenomenon, or an abstract idea. If so, then one must further determine whether any element, or combination of elements, in the claim is sufficient to ensure that the claim amounts to significantly more than the judicial exception. But generic computer implementation of an otherwise abstract process does not qualify as "significantly more."
LG took the position that claim 21 was merely directed to the abstract idea of traffic metering. Particularly, LG argued that:
Traffic metering is a basic, abstract concept. For example, freeway onramps are familiar bottlenecks for many drivers. Some freeways have adopted the use of traffic lights on these onramps to meter the flow of traffic onto the freeway. Instead of allowing cars to proceed from the onramp onto the freeway as they arrive, stoplights can inject an additional delay between cars to alleviate congestion. Claim 21 is directed to this same basic concept for packet transmissions – in particular, to modifying the time in between subsequent transmissions by an integer multiple.
In reviewing this contention, the Court focused on whether the claim was preempting any fundamental "building blocks of human ingenuity," such as methods of organizing human activity, fundamental truths, an idea of itself, an algorithm, and so on. Looking to the recent Federal Circuit opinion in BASCOM Global Internet Servs. v. AT&T Mobility LLC, the Court indicated that any claim that effectively preempts all uses of an abstract idea is ineligible. This demonstrates that the federal courts are putting more weight on the notion of preemption that the USPTO, which believes that a preemption analysis is baked into the two-prong test.
The preemption inquiry drove the Court's reasoning:
Although LG alleges that claim 21 is directed to the abstract idea of 'traffic metering,' LG does not argue that claim 21 would cover all traffic metering generally or even that claim 21 would preempt all forms of traffic metering in the context of mobile device networks. While there are some parallels between LG's freeway onramp analogy and claim 21, the claim is manifestly narrower than 'traffic metering' and does not cover what happens at a freeway onramp. Claim 21 restricts its applicability to a 'wireless' device with 'a processor' and 'a memory.' Moreover, claim 21 does not cover delaying any data transmission by any amount of time; claim 21 is limited to delaying the transmission of a 'protocol data unit' (a specific type of data packet) by exactly 'an integer multiple of the current air interface transmission time interval.'
Further, the Court invoked Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp. in concluding that claim 21 involves a purported improvement on a type of traffic metering that exists in wireless networks. Particularly, "[c]laim 21 assumes by its terms that the network imposes a fixed 'transmission time interval' during which data packets can be sent," and "teaches further delaying or metering the transmission by an integer multiple of the transmission time interval." According to the Court, claim 21 is therefore an "archetypal example of an invention directed to 'improving the functioning of the computer itself' or 'improving an existing technological process' that Courts have repeatedly held to be patent-eligible."
As a result, the Court found that the claim is directed to a specific technology that solves problems in mobile device networks, and is not abstract under the first prong of Alice.
When carrying out the § 101 inquiry, it is tempting to view a claim at a 10,000 foot level, and then make an analogy between this view of the claim and a known, conventional activity. But such an approach, though approved by the Supreme Court and Federal Circuit, attenuates the actual language of the claim, leading to a less objective scrutiny. This Court, on the other hand, focused on the precise claim language during its prong one analysis, and was not persuaded by LG's high-level comparison to freeway on-ramp metering.