Processing All Things Federal Circuit
October 28, 2022 - Last Week in the Federal Circuit

Last Week In The Federal Circuit (October 17 – October 21): Mapping The Section 101 Landscape


As we’ve noted, the Supreme Court is once again considering whether to take up patent eligibility: it recently CVSGed two more Section 101 cases. While we wait for the government’s views, the Federal Circuit will continue resolving Section 101 disputes, likely including some close cases resulting in split decisions. Our case of the week is one such case—the panel members disagreed on whether some claims passed muster under the Mayo/Alice test.

Case of the week: IBM v. Zillow Group, Inc., No. 21-2350

Panel: Judges Reyna, Hughes, and Stoll, with Judge Hughes writing the opinion and Judge Stoll dissenting in part

You should read this case if: you have a matter involving patent eligibility, particularly in the field of data visualization

This week’s case involves two patents related to graphical display technology. The first patent (the ’789 patent) covers methods for “coordinated geospatial and list-based mapping.” In the claimed methods, a user draws a shape on a map to select that area. The system then “synchronizes” the map with an associated list by displaying data in the list corresponding only to the selected area. (Think drawing a square on a map, resulting in a list showing restaurants only within that square.)

The second patent (the ’389 patent) claims methods of displaying objects on a map in visually distinct layers. By adjusting attributes like color and opacity, objects in one layer are brought to the front of the display and emphasized, while objects in other layers are sent to the back of the display and deemphasized.

The district court granted the accused infringer’s Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings, holding all asserted claims from both patents invalid under Section 101.

A partly divided Federal Circuit panel affirmed. Writing for the majority, Judge Hughes agreed with the district court that all claims at issue claimed ineligible subject matter.

On the ’789 patent, at Alice step one, the majority held that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of “limiting and coordinating the display of information based on a user selection.” The claims recite abstract steps: presenting a map, having a user select a portion of that map, and displaying a more limited data set to the user based on that selection. The majority explained that the claimed methods merely used a computer to automate those steps, and thus were not “an improvement specific to computing.”

At Alice step two, the majority concluded that the claims contain nothing that transforms the abstract idea into a patentable application. The patentee had alleged that the “synchronized display” and “user determined shape” limitations were inventive, unconventional concepts. But according to the majority, those allegations were not sufficiently “plausible and specific” to defeat a Rule 12 motion. The majority reasoned that those limitations used functional language at a high level of generality and provided no “specific technical solution beyond simply using generic computer concepts in a conventional way.”

As for the ’389 patent, the majority held at Alice step one that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of “organizing and displaying visual information.” The claims organize sets of visual information into layers and then present those layers on a generic device display. The majority stressed that just automating that process on a computer is not “an improvement in any computing technology.” Indeed, the majority noted that the same process of organizing and displaying visual information by varying color and shading “has long been done by cartographers creating paper maps.”

Moving onto the second Alice step, the majority concluded that the claims contained no inventive concept. Similar to its step one analysis, the majority explained that the claims use generic computer components to perform certain functions “without describing how any of those functions are performed.” And, again, the majority noted that the claimed steps “could be done using paper and ink and have long been done by cartographers.”

Judge Stoll dissented in part. She agreed with the majority that all ’789 patent claims and most ’389 patent claims were ineligible under Section 101. But she parted course on two dependent claims of the ’389 patent, which add limitations reciting “rearranging logic to rearrange the displayed layers” and “re-matching logic to re-match one or more objects to a different layer.” The patentee’s complaint and an attached expert declaration alleged that those limitations provided inventive solutions to the problem of overly cluttered computer displays. 

In Judge Stoll’s view, these allegations plausibly established that the dependent claims were “directed to a technical improvement in how a user interacts with a computer via the graphical user interface.” By failing to accept those allegations as true, the district court improperly held the dependent claims ineligible at the pleading stage.


Precedential opinions: 1

Non-precedential opinions: 3

Rule 36: 0

Longest pending case from argument: IBM v. Zillow Group, Inc., No. 21-2350 (132 days)

Shortest (non-Rule 36) pending case from argument: Microsoft Corporation v. Uniloc 2017 LLC, No. 21-2039 (44 days)