Claims Directed to Television Survive Abstract Idea Challenge
By Joseph Herndon --
In a recent decision from the U.S. District Court Northern District of California, involving Free Stream Media Corp. v. Alphonso Inc., claims of a television system patent survived a motion to dismiss under 35 U.S.C. § 101.
The Plaintiff in this action is Free Stream Media Corp., which does business as Samba TV (Samba). Samba charged Alphonso with infringement of U.S. Patent No. 9,386,356, entitled "Targeting with Television Audience Across Multiple Screens."
As the patent title reflects, the claimed invention involves the concept of targeting content—including advertising—to television viewers. A stated goal of the invention reflected in the '356 patent is to take advantage of a missed "revenue opportunity," specifically, the chance to profit by targeting ads to a person's smartphone based on information collected about the person, such as what the person has watched on television.
The '356 patent describes that a networked device (e.g., a television, a set-top box, a computer, a multimedia display, an audio device, a weather measurement device, a geolocation device) may have access to information associated with a user. For example, the information may comprise an identification of a movie viewed by the user, weather information, a geolocation information, and/or a behavioral characteristic of the user when the user interacts with the networked device. Furthermore, the networked device may present to the user information that is irrelevant to the user. As a result, the user may get tired, annoyed, and/or bored with the networked device. Additionally, the user may waste a significant amount of time processing the information that is irrelevant to the user. Therefore, a revenue opportunity may be missed, because an interested party (e.g., a content creator, a retailer, a manufacturer, an advertiser) may be unable to access an interested audience.
To address this missed "revenue opportunity," the '356 patent proposes using a "relevancy matching server" that is connected to the person's networked device (e.g., television) and mobile device (e.g., a phone or tablet). The user's TV viewing information is gathered as "primary data," defined as "data that may be associated with a user and matched with targeted data."
The television may provide the primary data directly (e.g., by identifying the show title or specific commercial being broadcast), or it may capture snippets of audio or video "fingerprint data" from which the current broadcast can be identified. The invention's "relevancy matching server" then searches a database to find matching "targeted data" (e.g., an advertisement) that relates to what is on the television, and displays the selected targeted ad on the person's mobile device.
Claim 1 serves as an example of the claims, and is reproduced below:
1. A system comprising:
a television to generate a fingerprint data;
a relevancy-matching server to:
match primary data generated from the fingerprint data with targeted data, based on a relevancy factor, and
search a storage for the targeted data;
wherein the primary data is any one of a content identification data and a content identification history;
a mobile device capable of being associated with the television to:
process an embedded object,
constrain an executable environment in a security sandbox, and
execute a sandboxed application in the executable environment; and
a content identification server to:
process the fingerprint data from the television, and
communicate the primary data from the fingerprint data to any of a number of devices with an access to an identification data of at least one of the television and an automatic content identification service of the television.
Alphonso insisted that the '356 patent "claims nothing more than the abstract idea of selecting and sending targeted data to a person's mobile phone or tablet, based on information gathered about the person, such as what the person has watched on TV."
Reviewing Alphonso's motion to dismiss, the District Court applied the Alice two-step framework for determining patent eligibility of the claims.
Samba relied heavily on Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d 1327 (Fed. Cir. 2016), which supports the notion that a dividing line can be drawn between patents which merely describe using a computer and/or the internet to carry out pre-existing and well-known tasks and techniques, and those that relate to the functioning of computers themselves (e.g., specific asserted improvement in computer capabilities). The former will virtually always fail under Alice unless some "inventive concept" can be found in the second step of the analysis; the latter are substantially less easily characterized as merely abstract ideas.
But Alphonso insisted that the '356 patent likewise claims nothing more than the same basic abstract idea—it teaches targeting advertising (or other data) to a consumer based on using data gathered about what the consumer is watching on TV, i.e., "know your audience."
Here, the District Court sided with Samba. The District Court found that the '356 patent is not directed at merely the abstract idea of targeting advertising. Rather, it describes systems and methods for addressing barriers to certain types of information exchange between various technological devices, e.g., a television and a smartphone or tablet being used in the same place at the same time.
To be sure, the end goal of the invention is to improve the delivery of relevant information—i.e., targeting advertising (or other content)—but that does not mean that it does nothing more than direct a person of ordinary skill in the art to use a computer system to implement a conventional and known process.
The District Court found that the claims are directed at specific techniques for connecting the content on a television and a mobile device through purported technological improvements. As such, the claims pass step 1 of the Alice test and the analysis need go no further.
Because the District Court found that the '356 patent purports to overcome particular technological barriers to such targeting, Alphonso's characterization of it as claiming only an abstract idea failed, and the motion to dismiss was denied.
Notably, the District Court distinguished OpenTV, Inc. v. Netflix, Inc., 76 F. Supp. 3d 886 (N.D. Cal. 2014), a case that Alphonso urged is instructive here. In OpenTV, one of the patents described "[a] method for providing targeted programming to a user outside of the user's home." The OpenTV court concluded that the patent did not pass Alice muster because: "The concept of gathering information about one's intended market and attempting to customize the information then provided is as old as the saying, 'know your audience.' Like the concepts in Bilski and Alice, the mere fact that generic computer processors, databases, and internet technology, can now be used to implement the basic idea, with certain perceived greater advantages, does not give rise to a patentable method."
Alphonso argued that OpenTV showed that such concepts included in the '356 patent are abstract, and further argued that on their face the claims do not expressly refer to, or obviously address, technological barriers, or how such barriers are being overcome through the invention. But the District Court found that because the claims plainly describe methods and systems that call for the very kinds of communications between devices that are not possible through conventional devices operating in standard fashion, this distinguishes the OpenTV decision.
The District Court further noted that to the extent Alphonso argued that the patent does not adequately explain how the barriers are overcome when the described system and methods are employed, such issues do not support a finding of patent ineligibility under Section 101, but rather, are addressed under 35 U.S.C. § 112.
I agree with the District Court's decision, but it just seems that it should have been arrived at much more quickly. The claim explicitly recites "a television," "a relevancy-matching server," "a mobile device," and "a content identification server," each of which processes data and communicates various data amongst each other. How we have come to a place in the law where "a television" is an abstract idea is a bit puzzling for sure.
Order Denying Motion to Dismiss by District Judge Richard Seeborg