3D Computer Graphics Patent Claims Held To Lack Patentable Subject Matter

Claims of U.S. Patent Nos. 6,172,679 and 6,618,047, directed to “methods to reduce the number of visibility computations required to render a three-dimensional scene as a two-dimensional digital computer graphic image,” are not patent-eligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101, according to the court in Fuzzysharp Techs. v. Intel Corp., No. 12-CV-04413 YGR, (N.D. Cal. Nov. 7, 2013).  The court thought that the claimed method boiled down to “analyzing which parts of a scene will be visible and which will be hidden, and which may or may not be hidden/visible depending upon the vantage point of the viewer,” and was “unpatentably abstract.”

The ’047 patent was a continuation of the application for the ’679 patent, and the claims of each were directed to similar subject matter.  The court began its opinion by performing claim construction, and then turned to the question of whether to grant summary judgment of invalidity on Section 101 grounds.

The court reviewed Supreme Court precedent going back to Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 67 (1972), and also cited some of the now-familiar recent cases promulgating the “abstract idea” test, including Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1289 (2012); Bilski v. Kappos, 130 S. Ct. 3218, 3231 (2010); as well as very recent Federal Circuit cases including CLS Bank Int’l v. Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd., 717 F.3d 1269, 1282 (Fed. Cir. 2013), and Accenture Global Servs., GmbH v. Guidewire Software, Inc., 728 F.3d 1336, 1343 (Fed. Cir. 2013).

Applying the cases, the court found that the claims here “do not limit the mathematical formula to any specific use beyond the broad field of the invention of ‘computer graphics.’”  The court added that “the claims only state a reduction in computations, with no specific output.”  Because “any equations having the same ‘mathematical relationship of entities’” would “fall within the invention regardless of the physical properties or variables to which they are applied,” the claims here, like the claims directed to converting binary coded decimals in Gottschalk v. Benson, “would cover all applications other algorithm in the field of ’3-D computer graphics.’”

Moreover, the only steps added to the abstract formula in the claims were “conventional ‘post-solution’ activity.”  Certain steps of rendering were known in the prior art, and the claims “simply recite the steps of determining what part of well-known visibility computations may be omitted, omitting them, and carrying out the remaining computations as before.”  Thus, the claims “do not alter the remainder of the rendering process of which those computations are a part.”

The court concluded by stating that “the recitation that the method is to be used on conventional computer components does not make the abstract formula patentable.”  Although the claims recited physical components such as a “computer,” “computer storage,” and “Z-buffers,” the recitation “of these computer components” in the claims “does not impose a limitation sufficient to take the patents out of the realm of the abstract.”  The claims here were unlike the claims found patentable in Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 722 F.3d 1335 (Fed. Cir. 2013), in that they “suggest[ed] purely mathematical efficiencies, and do not require an ‘extensive computer interface’ involving multiple steps and limitations.”

I would offer an editorial comment, except that, as this opinion demonstrates, Section 101 patent-eligibility jurisprudence has become so tangled that it is almost impossible to offer any editorial analysis.

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