Claims for Keyword-Based Navigation of Hierarchically-Structured Data Found Abstract But Survive Motion to Dismiss
By James Korenchan --
Plaintiff Guada Technologies, LLC ("Guada") sued Defendant Vice Media, LLC ("Vice Media"), alleging infringement at least claim 1 of U.S. Patent No. 7,231,379 ("the '379 patent"). Vice Media then filed a motion to dismiss. Last week, Judge Richard G. Andrews of the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware ruled that the claims are directed to an abstract idea under 35 U.S.C. § 101, but that a factual issue remains as to whether the claims provide an inventive concept.
The '379 patent, entitled "Navigation in a hierarchical structured transaction processing system," relates at a high level to navigating through a hierarchical network of "choices" (e.g., transactions, or operations where information is accessed) to accomplish a goal. In such a network, choices are arranged as nodes in a graph structure. As an illustrative example, Figure 3 of the '379 patent is shown below, which is in the context of airline reservations.
In this example, the high-level choice to make a reservation is shown in the graph at the top of a hierarchy of nodes. As shown, for instance, the choices to reserve a domestic flight or an international flight are distinct nodes in the graph that branch from the reservation node. Other choices (i.e., flight classes) are then shown as nodes branching from the domestic flight and international flight nodes.
The background of the patent notes that it can be difficult to efficiently navigate through a graph of choices to reach a goal, particularly when there are many choices involved in doing so. In addition, the patent notes the disadvantages in how existing graphs and associated systems often require direct path traversal through a hierarchy. That is, such systems do not allow a user to jump from one node to another unless the two nodes are connected as part of the same path through the graph. The patent thus aims to provide more efficient navigation through a series of choices in a network of nodes by using keywords to allow a user to jump from one node to a non-connected node. In the context of this invention, a "keyword" for a choice is the most important word and serves as a shorthand way of referring to a node. As a simple example, if the node for a choice to make a reservation is "Would you like to make a reservation?", the keyword could be "reservation" (or "Reservations," as shown in Figure 3).
The '379 patent includes two independent claims of similar scope. As a representative example, claim 1 is provided as follows:
1. A method performed in a system having multiple navigable nodes interconnected in a hierarchical arrangement comprising:
at a first node, receiving an input from a user of the system, the input containing at least one word identifiable with at least one keyword from among multiple keywords,
identifying at least one node, other than the first node, that is not directly connected to the first node but is associated with the at least one keyword, and
jumping to the at least one node.
Guada argued that the invention solves existing problems in the art by not restricting user movement through a decisional network to adjacent nodes or starting over at a top node. And in oral arguments, Guada analogized the claims to those in McRO, asserting that the claims amount to computer improvement. However, Guada provided little substance to its McRO position:
Plaintiff argues that the claims here provide "implementation details," which are not "purely functional," but rather amount to computer improvement. First, argues Plaintiff, the "receiving an input" claim limitation "requires a specific user . . . who provides the input, provides the location where the input is received . . . , and what the input is . . . ." Second, argues Plaintiff, the "identifying at least one node . . . associated with the at least one keyword" limitation requires "nodes associated with keywords." Plaintiff argues that "nodes" in "the ordinary setup of a hierarchically arranged decision network" are "not associated with keywords." Third, argues Plaintiff, the "jumping" limitation "requires the system to directly traverse from one node/vertex to another node/vertex that is not directly connected."
In response, Vice Media cited CyberSource, noting that the claimed "nodes" and "interconnections" are not tangible objects and that the steps of each method claim can be performed mentally or with pen and paper. Even the concept of a hierarchical arrangement of nodes, Vice Media argued, is an abstract idea from mathematical graph theory.
The Court agreed with Vice Media, stating that the '379 patent provides no information as to how the "implementation details" allegedly provided by the claims improve computer functionality or even a computerized data set. Rather, the claims related to a "generic automation of a once-manual method." The Court also noted that keywords do not necessarily invoke computer functionality. For at least these reasons, the Court deemed all seven claims of the '379 patent to be directed to an abstract idea.
Guada also argued that claim construction issues precluded a grant of the motion to dismiss and proposed its own constructions to remedy those issues, but neither rendered the claims non-abstract. First, Guada argued that limitations in the preamble of each independent claim refer to "a computerized system of multiple nodes interconnected in a hierarchically arranged decisional network in which a user provides inputs or responses at each node to navigate through adjacent nodes in the hierarchical arrangement." But the Court stated that the construction at best places the claim into a more specific technological environment. Guada also provided specific constructions for the "jumping" limitations -- most notably of which being that the jumping limitation is an action required by the system, not the user. But the Court stated that this merely amounts to automating "the mental process of jumping from one node to another."
In its Alice prong two contentions, Guada argued that the claims recite two alleged inventive concepts. First, Guada argued that that "jumping" limitation is inventive because navigation in prior art hierarchical networks was not done the way that the patent purports. Second, Guada argued that using keywords to jump from node to node is inventive. Vice Media argued in response that both of these concepts were well-known at the time the patent was filed (November 2002), but provided no citation in support and thus did not provide the clear and convincing evidence of ineligibility required by Berkheimer.
As a result, the Court denied Vice Media's motion to dismiss and solidified this decision as another example of the increased difficulty in invalidating patents post-Berkheimer. Vice Media will have to improve its contentions and actually provide evidence at the summary judgment stage.
Guada Technologies LLC v. Vice Media, LLC (D. Del. 2018)
Memorandum Opinion by District Judge Andrews