CAFC finds broadly claimed computer memory system eligible under first step of Alice.

Thomas Brown | September 21, 2017

Visual Memory LLC v Nvidia Corporation

August 15, 2017

Before O’Malley, Hughes and Stoll. Precedential Opinion by Stoll, joined by O’Malley; Dissent by Hughes.

Summary:

Visual Memory sued Nvidia for infringement of USP 5,953,740 (the ‘740 patent).  The district court granted Nvidia’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim (rule 12(b)(6)) based on patent ineligible subject matter. The CAFC reversed and remanded finding that the computer memory systems claims of the ‘740 satisfied the first step of Alice.

Details:

The ‘740 patent is drawn to cache memories, of a computer memory system, each having 1) different functions and each having 2) programmable operational characteristics that are programmed based on the type of processor connected to the memory system.  For example, depending on the type of processor (Intel 386 or Intel 486), the internal cache 16 can store both code and noncode data (Intel 486), or it can store only code data (Intel 386).  Similarly, write buffer cache 20 can be programmed to buffer data “solely from a bus master other than the system processor,” (Intel 386) or to buffer “data writes by any bus master including the system processor” (Intel 486).  The computer memory system detects the processor type during start up and configures the different caches based on the detected processor.

 

 

 

 

 

As explained in the disclosure of the ‘740 patent, the caches of the prior art systems lacked versatility because they were designed and optimized based on the specific type of processor selected for use in that system.  As further explained in the disclosure of the ‘740 patent, by separating the functionality for the caches and defining those functions based on the type of processor, the patented system can “achieve or exceed the performance of a system utilizing a cache many times larger than the cumulative size of the subject caches.”

For example, claim 1 recites:

  1. A computer memory system connectable to a processor and having one or more programmable operational characteristics, said characteristics being defined through configuration by said computer based on the type of said processor, wherein said system is connectable to said processor by a bus, said system comprising:

a main memory connected to said bus; and

a cache connected to said bus;

wherein a programmable operational characteristic of said system determines a type of data stored by said cache.

The District Court found that the claims were directed to the “abstract idea of categorical data storage,” which humans have practiced for many years and there was no inventive concept because the claimed computer components—a main memory, cache, bus, and processor—were generic and conventional.

The District Court reasoned that “The ’740 patent’s programmable operational characteristics did not provide the inventive concept, according to the court, because they represent generic concepts that determine the type of data to be stored by the cache, and the patent fails to explain the mechanism or accomplishing the result.”

The CAFC relies on both Enfish and Thales which were found to be patent eligible under the first step of Alice.  Relying on the analysis of those cases, the CAFC found that “the ’740 patent claims demonstrates that they are directed to an improved computer memory system, not to the abstract idea of categorical data storage.”

Specifically, the CAFC reasoned:

As with Enfish’s self-referential table and the motion tracking system in Thales, the claims here are directed to a technological improvement: an enhanced computer memory system. The ’740 patent’s claims focus on a “specific asserted improvement in computer capabilities”—the use of programmable operational characteristics that are configurable based on the type of processor instead of “on a process that qualifies as an ‘ abstract idea for which computers are invoked merely as a tool.”

And like the patents at issue in Enfish and Thales, the specification discusses the advantages offered by the technological improvement.

Accordingly, this is not a case where the claims merely recite the “use of an abstract mathematical formula on any general purpose computer,” “a purely conventional computer implementation of a mathematical formula,” or “generalized steps to be performed on a computer using conventional computer activity.”

In contrast, the dissent appears to argue that claim 1 is 1) too broadly recited and 2) that there are possible enablement issues since the ‘740 patent fails to describe how to implement the “programmable operational characteristics.”

Here, the ’740 claims are not directed to a specific means or method of implementing a “programmable operational characteristic.” Claim 1, for instance, claims a system comprising a main memory and a cache connected to a bus, with a “programmable operational characteristic” that “determines a type of data stored by said cache.” ’740 patent col. 6 ll. 28–38. The claim does not provide any specific limitations on the “programmable operational characteristic,” making it a purely functional component. The “programmable operational characteristic” is nothing more than a black box for performing the abstract idea of storing data based on its characteristic, and the patent lacks any details about how that is achieved. The remaining computer elements in the claims (cache, memory, bus) are nothing more than a collection of conventional computing components found in any computer. See id. at col. 1 ll. 51–col. 2 ll. 56

I disagree, therefore, with the majority that combining the black box of a “programmable operational characteristic” with conventional computer equipment constitutes a specific improvement in computer memory systems. Because the ’740 patent does not describe how to implement the “programmable operational characteristic” and requires someone else to supply the innovative programming effort, it is not properly described as directed\to an improvement in computer systems.

Takeaway:  This case is a great tool along with Enfish and Thales for arguing patent eligible subject matter under the first step of Alice.

U.S. Patent 5,953,740

Full Opinion

 

 

 

 

 

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