Full Fed. Circ. Won't Review 'Dangerous' Alice Reversal
By Matthew Bultman
Law360 (February 12, 2019, 4:49 PM EST) -- The Federal Circuit said Tuesday it would not reconsider a ruling that unwound Google LLC’s Alice win on three spreadsheet patents — a decision the search engine giant has warned is “dangerous” and could have far-reaching consequences.
The court’s refusal to rehear the case en banc leaves in place an October panel ruling that found a Delaware federal judge was wrong to hold the Data Engine Technologies LLC patents do not claim eligible subject matter under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 Alice v. CLS Bank decision.
The landmark Alice ruling held abstract ideas implemented using a computer are not patent-eligible under Section 101 of the Patent Act.
The Federal Circuit panel decided Data Engine’s patents, which cover a method of implementing a spreadsheet interface with notebook tabs, are not directed to an abstract idea but rather an improved method for navigating complex electronic spreadsheets.
In asking for a rehearing, Google argued that using tabs to identify pages in documents was an idea that long predated computers. It said the ruling invites patent applicants to claim “electronic metaphors” of familiar concepts.
“If electronic tabbing can be patented, why not electronic photo ‘albums’ that resemble physical albums, electronic ‘buttons’ on calculators that mimic the physical buttons of traditional calculators, or electronic document ‘bookmarks’ analogous to physical bookmarks?” Google wrote in a November brief.
“Alice,” the brief continued, “was supposed to have put an end to patents on computerization of abstract ideas.”
An attorney for Google declined to comment, and counsel for Data Engine could not immediately be reached.
The spreadsheet patents were part of a lawsuit that Data Engine, a subsidiary of patent licensing company Acacia Research Corp., filed against Google in 2014. It has alleged that Google Docs and Google Sheets infringe.
Chief Judge Leonard Stark of the District of Delaware granted Google’s motion for judgment on the pleadings in September 2016, finding the patents covered nothing more than the abstract idea of “using notebook-type tabs to label and organize spreadsheets.”
But the Federal Circuit said navigating electronic spreadsheets could be burdensome and the patents addressed that problem by “providing a highly intuitive, user-friendly interface with familiar notebook tabs for navigating the three-dimensional worksheet environment.”
The appeals court noted that such technological improvements have been found patent-eligible in other cases since Alice was decided, including Core Wireless v. LG , a January 2018 case in which the Federal Circuit found two computer display patents were not directed to an abstract idea.
“The claimed method [in Data Engine’s patents] does not recite the idea of navigating through spreadsheet pages using buttons or a generic method of labeling and organizing spreadsheets,” the panel wrote. “Rather, the claims require a specific interface and implementation for navigating complex three-dimensional spreadsheets using techniques unique to computers.”
The appeals court did find that Judge Stark correctly ruled one claim of the tab patents was invalid because it was directed not to the tabs, but to a more general method of identifying spreadsheet pages.
It also held a fourth Data Engine patent, which covered methods of tracking changes to data in spreadsheets, was invalid under Alice.
The patents at issue are U.S. Patent Numbers 5,590,259; 5,784,545; 6,282,551; and 5,303,146.
Data Engine is represented by Amir Alavi, Alisa A. Lipski and Iftikhar Ahmed of Ahmad Zavitsanos Anaipakos Alavi & Mensing PC.
Google is represented by Amelia G. Yowell of King & Spalding LLP and Dan L. Bagatell and Andrew T. Dufresne of Perkins Coie LLP.
The case is Data Engine Technologies LLC v. Google LLC, case number 2017-1135, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
--Additional reporting by Ryan Davis. Editing by Aaron Pelc.
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