Pebble Tide LLC v. Arlo Technologies, Inc. (D. Del. 2020)

McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff LLP

McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff LLP

Claims Directed to Capture and Output of Digital Content Held Patent Ineligible

A few weeks ago, the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware granted Defendants' Rule 12 motions in three different cases, each naming Pebble Tide LLC (hereinafter, "Pebble") as Plaintiff.  The Defendants in the three cases were Arlo Technologies, Inc., Uniden America Corp., and Petcube, Inc.  In granting the Rule 12 motions, the Court found the claims of two asserted patents -- U.S. Patent Nos. 10,261,739 (the '739 patent) and 10,303,411 (the '411 patent) -- to be invalid as being patent ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101.

The asserted patents were in the same family and generally related to client-server interactions for capturing and outputting digital content, most notably in the context of printing.  The invention includes a system having an "information apparatus" (e.g., a smartphone having a digital camera, or another computing device that can capture digital content), a server, and a client device (e.g., a computing device for accessing digital content).  The patents state that the invention addresses a need in the art for users to be able to easily output information from information apparatuses to printers or other devices that output content, without having to depend on synchronizing with "stationary" computers such as desktop computers.  The invention also aims to output information to such devices without having to find and install device-dependent or other specific types of drivers, and without losing the original quality of captured content.  More particularly, the patents specifically note that, with the invention, "[u]nlike conventional output or printing, a user does not have to manually pre-install a device driver (e.g., printer driver) from a CD, floppy disk, or download the driver somewhere from a network," which "is well-suited for providing output capability to small and lower-cost mobile devices with limited memory space, power supply and processing capability to still be able to output or print to an output device."  The patents also note that with the invention, "hardware and software installation for static or permanent network connectivity may not be necessary for the output device."

The parties agreed that claim 1 of the '739 patent is representative of the two patents.  It recites:

1.  A system for outputting output data, comprising:
    an information apparatus that includes a digital capturing device for capturing digital content, at least one wireless communication module for wireless communication, and at least one processor, the at least one processor directs the at least one wireless communication module to:
        establish a wireless communication connection with one or more servers over a network that includes the Internet, the one or more servers being distinct devices from the information apparatus;
        transmit, over the wireless communication connection, a device object that includes device information related to the information apparatus, from the information apparatus to the one or more servers; and
        provide, over the wireless communication connection, the digital content captured by the digital capturing device of the information apparatus, from the information apparatus to the one or more servers;
    server software executable at the one or more servers, the one or more servers include at least a network communication interface for network communication, and the one or more servers include memory for storing at least part of the digital content received from the information apparatus;
    client software executable at a client device, the client device is a distinct device from the information apparatus and from the one or more servers, wherein the client device includes:
        one or more wireless communication units for wireless communication,
        an output device for outputting output data; and
        one or more processors for executing at least part of the client software, wherein the client software provides, via the one or more wireless communication units of the client device, one or more job objects to the one or more servers over the network, the one or more job objects including at least one of security information or identification information for accessing the one or more servers, and the one or more job objects further include subscription information for accessing the one or more servers;
    wherein the server software further:
        receives, via the at least one network communication interface, the digital content from the information apparatus;
        stores, in the memory of the one or more servers, at least part of the received digital content;
        generates, at the one or more servers, output data for output at the client device, the output data is related to at least part of the digital content received by the one or more servers from the information apparatus, and the generating of the output data is related, at least partly, to at least a portion of the device object received by the one or more servers from the information apparatus; and
        provides, via the at least one network communication interface of the one or more servers, at least part of the output data, from the one or more servers to the client device, for outputting at least part of the digital content received from the information apparatus, the providing of at least part of the output data is subsequent to the one or more servers having received the one or more job objects from the client software at the client device; and
    wherein the client software further:
        receives, via the one or more wireless communication units of the client device, at least part of the output data from the one or more servers, and the receiving of the at least part of the output data is subsequent to the client device having provided the one or more job objects to the one or more servers over the network; and
        outputs at least part of the output data, received at the client device, at the output device associated with the client device.

If you read this claim and found it to be a long-winded way of describing the storage, generation, and transmission of data, you aren't alone.

In Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int'l, the Supreme Court set forth a two-part test for determining whether a claim is directed to patent-eligible subject matter under § 101.  First, it must be determined whether the claim involves a judicially-excluded law of nature, a natural phenomenon, or an abstract idea.  If so, it must be determined whether the claim recites an inventive concept -- that is, an element or combination of elements that is sufficient to ensure that the claim is significantly more than the judicial exclusion.  But generic computer implementation of an otherwise abstract process does not qualify as significantly more, nor does an element or combination of elements that is well-understood, routine, and conventional.

In applying the first part of the Alice test, the Court deemed claim 1 to be directed to an abstract idea of "wirelessly outputting data from one device to another," citing Cellspin Soft, Inc. v. Fitbit, Inc. ("we have consistently held that similar claims reciting the collection, transfer and publishing of data are directed to an abstract idea") in support of this conclusion.  The Court also reached this conclusion based on the similarities between this claim and those held by the Federal Circuit to be abstract in ChargePoint, Inc. v. SemaConnect, Inc. ("abstract claims directed to transmitting data from one device to another").  The Court also found the claim to be lacking technical details, stating that both the claims and the patents' specification merely describe the recited components in functional terms.

Turning to second part of the Alice test, the Court shot down a variety of seemingly scattered attempts at Pebble arguing that the claims recite an inventive concept, even after considering some constructions that Pebble more-recently proposed.  For instance, the Court briefly dismissed Pebble's notions that the "information apparatus" (which the specification states "generally refer[s] to computing devices") or the interplay of the job object process and the device object process is inventive.

The main focus of the Court's discussion on part two was on whether the ordered combination of the conventional computer components and processes is an inventive concept.  Pebble unsuccessfully tried to analogize the combination of elements recited in claim 1 to the claims in Cellspin, which involved steps for acquiring and transferring data from a data capture device to a mobile device.  In response, the Court noted that:

[T]he claims use merely functional language and that nothing in the claims or the specification details how this purported combination achieved the touted results of solving the problem of widespread incompatibility between wireless devices and corresponding output devices.

Pebble was also unsuccessful in trying to analogize claim 1 to BASCOM Global Internet Services, Inc. v. AT&T Mobility LLC.  In BASCOM, the Federal Circuit found the plaintiff's ordered combination of claim elements to be inventive after the plaintiff had demonstrated that its claims recited a specific, discrete implementation of an abstract idea and that the patent itself describes how the claimed arrangement of elements is a technical improvement over the prior art.  By contrast, the Court here believed Pebble was not able to make such a demonstration:

When I asked Pebble Tide's counsel to identify where the asserted patents or complaints concretely describe a specific method that was unconventional, he was unable to do so....  In my view, this case is closer to the Two-Way Media decision of the Federal Circuit in 2017 where that Court held or found that a particular ordered combination of asserted limitations did not reveal an inventive concept because unlike in BASCOM, there, the claim used a conventional ordering of steps with conventional technology to achieve its desired results.

Thus, the Court found the claims of the asserted patents to be patent ineligible under § 101.  This case exemplifies patent-eligibly battles over lengthy claims that, despite their length, are supported by meager technical details and descriptions of improvements to computer technology.

Pebble Tide LLC v. Arlo Technologies, Inc. (D. Del. 2020)
Memorandum Order by District Judge Stark

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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