Using Specific Data Structures Does Not Necessarily Survive Alice

John Kong | March 16, 2017

Intellectual Ventures I LLC, et al. v. Capital One Financial Corp., et al.

March 7, 2017

Before: Prost, Wallach and Chen.  Opinion by Prost.

Summary

This is the companion case to Intellectual Ventures I LLC, et al. v. Erie Indemnity Co. et. al., also decided on March 7, 2017.  Here, the court held that the claims are directed to the abstract idea of collecting, displaying, and manipulating data.  The recitation of specific XML data structures did not make the claims any less abstract or satisfy Alice step 2.  The claims also merely recited goals of the patent, in result-oriented language, without detailed features for how those goals are to be achieved.  As such, the claims did not provide the requisite inventive concept under Alice step 2.

Details

The subject patent 7,984,081 describes compatibility problems for XML documents created using unique formats for different companies.  XML documents have tags that define what data the system stores at each position within the document.  A company may create an XML document to publish various types of information that customers and partners use, such as invoices, purchase orders, and price lists.  But, attempting to share such XML documents with another user/company, such as to give access to the data contained therein, creates compatibility problems.  As described in the ‘081 patent:

While XML formats are convenient for the company that creates them, the partners of that company may find them incompatible with their own XML formats, relational data-base schemes, and message formats and therefore difficult to work with. In many cases, the user is forced to have programmer create a program to merge, filter and transform XML documents into the format they want. Thus, XML documents are very difficult for the businessperson or non-technical user to operate. Therefore, there is a need for a system that both allows the user to view and update XML documents in different formats, and allows the user to manipulate the data and perform actions without programming skills.

To fulfill this need, a “dynamic document” based upon data extracted from the original XML document is presented to the user.  The user can then use this dynamic document to make changes to the data displayed in the dynamic document, and the changes will be dynamically propagated back into the original XML document.  Representative system claim 21 of the ‘081 patent is reproduced below:

Claim 21. An apparatus for manipulating XML documents, comprising:

a processor;

a component that organizes data components of one or more XML documents into data objects;

a component that identifies a plurality of primary record types for the XML documents;

a component that maps the data components of each data object to one of the plurality of primary record types;

a component that organizes the instances of the plurality of primary record types into a hierarchy to form a management record type;

a component that defines a dynamic document for display of an instance of a management record type through a user interface; and

a component that detects modification of the data in the dynamic document via the user interface, and in response thereto modifies a data component in an XML document.

The “primary record types” (PRTs) and “management record types” (MRTs) are inventor coined terms that describe the organizational structure of the data involved.  A PRT is a data structure containing certain data extracted from XML documents.  A MRT is a collection of PRTs.

Alice Step 1

The court held that the claims are directed to the abstract idea of collecting, displaying, and manipulating data.  IV argued that the claim provides a concrete solution to a problem in computer programming by “dynamically managing multiple sets of XML documents.”  And, the claim relates to a specialized computer language – XML – that renders otherwise incompatible documents compatible through the unique dynamic document based on MRTs and PRTs.

However, the fact that the claim recites XML documents in particular (and not any other type of document), merely limits the claim to a particular technological environment for applying the underlying abstract idea – restricting the invention’s field of use.  This does not make the abstract idea any less abstract.

The recitation of PRTs and MRTs as specific data structures to interrelate various XML documents in a particular way merely encompasses the abstract idea itself of organizing, displaying, and manipulating data.  These specific data structures are merely “broadly defined labels for generic data types that transfer data from one type of electronic document to another.”  “The resulting dynamic document, in turn, is nothing more than an interface for displaying and organizing this underlying data.”  As for the weight given in a patent eligibility determination for the specificity of such data structures, the court cites Ultramercial for the proposition that “any novelty in implementation of the idea is a factor to be considered only in the second step of the Alice analysis.”

Alice Step 2

In the search for an “inventive concept” that is “significantly more” than the abstract idea, the court considered the claims to recite “a generic computer element – a processor – and a series of generic computer ‘components’ that merely restate their individual functions – i.e., organizing, mapping, identifying, defining, detecting, and modifying.”  Such claimed features are merely conventional steps, specified at a high level of generality, without sufficient particularity.

IV argued that the claims do recite sufficient particularity for how to manage and modify XML documents of varying formats and syntax in a way that unconventionally improved a technological process.  In particular, the claims recite the creation of a “dynamic document” based on PRTs and MRTs for a user interface, where modifications made thereto are dynamically propagated into the data components of the underlying XML documents.

The court concluded, however, that the specific use of PRTs, MRTs, and a dynamic document did not sufficiently transform the abstract idea into a patent eligible invention.  The PRTs and MRTs are merely generic data structures.  “The mere fact that the inventor applied coined labels to conventional structures does not make the underlying concept inventive.”  The court compared this to Alice’s finding of an abstract idea despite Alice’s claims reciting technical-sounding data structures “shadow credit records” and “shadow debit records.”  The use of a “dynamic document” also “provides little more than an unspecified set of rules for displaying and organizing MRTs in a user interface” that doesn’t sufficiently transform the abstract idea into a patent eligible invention.

IV also argued that the claimed combination as a whole overcomes the previous problem of incompatibility of XML documents with different XML syntaxes, different XML formats, different relational database schemes, and different message formats.

However, the court noted that nothing in the claims specifically recite what steps are to be undertaken to overcome the stated incompatibility problems with XML documents.  The claims do not recite how modifications to the dynamic document are propagated to the XML documents.  The limitation of “in response thereto modifies a data component in an XML document” is merely a result-oriented feature, with insufficient detail for how a computer accomplishes it.  The court quotes Elec. Power Grp, “cautioning against claims so result focused, so functional, as to effectively cover any solution to an identified problem.”

Analysis

The specification does describe how modifications to the dynamic document result in updates to underlying XML document data and properties.  The procedure involves the definition of the dynamic document for mapping how changes to the MRTs should update one or more XML documents.  Through the data inter-relationships between PRTs, MRTs, and dynamic documents, the user defines how changes to dynamic documents result in automatically updating XML document data.  For instance, the ‘081 patent describes:

A DD is also a tool for users to update a PRI and thereby the MRs and DDs that reference the PRT. Each DD corresponds to one MRT and each DD pane corresponds to one or more of the PRTs used by its MRT. The advantage of using DDs to create multiple data view and update transactions is that the data relationships can be radically restructured from that of the MRT.

The DDs are created by the user based on the types of information that the user wants to view and update. The user selects which of the PRTs in the MRT to include in the dynamic document pointer (DDP). For user viewing or update, the invention creates DDP records by accessing the field values in its underlying PRT’s PRIs and its underlying MRPI’s calculated fields.

The user specifies how to update production data sources (other than the PRTs) by defining as many separated transactions types as desired. Then the system, for any single update to the DD, automatically creates Production Data source Update Transactions Instances (UTs) and posts them to the appropriate data source.

All changes to any data is entered by the user through DDs or fetches from a production data source. All changes can affect multiple DDs and MRTs. For example, if the user changes a customer’s discount percentage and multiple MRTs use that field in their calculations, the present invention must update many MRPIs and DDPs for that one change. Therefore, when the user enters a change, the present invention first updates the affected PRT and then the MRPIs and finally the DDPs that use that PRT. The updates to the MRPIs have been described above with reference to FIGS. 4 and 5.

Of course, a lot more detail is provided in the specification.  Like Enfish, part of the invention here does in fact involve the data structures themselves.  The intricate data interlinks described in this invention provide a mechanism by which user changes in the dynamic document results in updates to underlying XML document fields.  But, as noted by the court, such details are not recited in the claim.

One saving grace in Enfish was the court’s interpretation of a means-plus-function (MPF) claim element that pulled into the claim the specification’s four step process that linked the claim to a specific use of the self-referential database data structure.  Had such MPF interpretation occurred here, perhaps some of the specific implementation details described in the specification for updating underlying data sources for updates to the dynamic document may have saved these claims.  In fact, the claimed “components” could have been interpreted as MPF claim elements, but were not.  No claims construction determination was provided.  Note also that the patent includes a set of method claims and a set of MPF claims.  The court did not address any claims containing MPF claim elements.

The specification is replete with specific implementation details and algorithms.  However, the specification does not clearly emphasize the aspects of the invention details that overcome the stated incompatibility problems with XML documents.  Merely saying “use of dynamic documents” is not enough.  What is missing is the specific characteristics about the dynamic documents that overcome the stated incompatibility problems.  If it is in the data inter-relationships that define how changes to the dynamic document are automatically propagated to appropriate data sources in the underlying XML documents, it would help to emphasize this more in the specification.

Takeaways

  • Both this case and its companion case illustrate that reciting specific data structures does not guarantee surviving Alice. If the data structure itself is a key aspect of the invention, like in Enfish, then a claimed specific implementation involving it may survive Alice (as in Enfish).  But, as this case shows, it would also help if the specification emphasized how specific characteristics of the data structure overcome the incompatibility problems in the XML document arts.
  • This case also reminds us that result-oriented functional limitations at a high level of generality is not enough to survive Alice step 2. If data inter-relationships define how changes to the dynamic document are automatically propagated to appropriate data sources in the underlying XML documents, then the claim must recite appropriate details of such features to survive Alice step 2.
  • Comparing this case with Enfish also highlights how means-plus-function claim interpretation could have been useful to survive Alice in this case.

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