Tuesday, November 03, 2009

BPAI Gives Green Light to Nixing "Black Box" Software Patents Under 35 USC 112

Ex Parte Rodriguez, Appeal 2008-000693, October 1, 2009 (Precedential Opinion)

The application was directed to a computer-based system and method for configuring and verifying a "structurally variable and complex system."  Exemplary claim 1 reads as follows:
1. An apparatus comprising:
a system configuration generator configured to generate a random system configuration file of a structurally variable and complex system;
a system builder configured to (i) build a system level netlist and (ii) generate system parameters in response to said random system configuration file; and
a simulation verification environment configured to verify said structurally variable and complex system in response to said system level netlist, wherein said simulation verification environment is configured to provide automatic random verification of said structurally variable and complex system in response to said random system configuration file.
The text in the specification generally mirrored the claim language, where generic block diagrams were used for describing system components.  Importantly, the disclosure was based on "a conventional general
purpose digital computer" and the specification did not provide any examples of how algorithms were constructed.  Instead, the specification stated that "appropriate software coding can readily be prepared by skilled programmers based on the teachings of the present disclosure, as will also be apparent to those skilled in the relevant art(s)."

The BPAI reviewed the claims and found them to be indefinite under 35 U.S.C. 112.

Starting with the means-plus-function (MPF) claims, the BPAI relied on Aristocrat Techs. Austl. Pty Ltd. v. Inter. Game Tech., 521 F.3d 1328 (Fed.Cir. 2008) for the proposition that MPF claims in which the disclosed structure is a computer, or microprocessor, programmed to carry out an algorithm, the disclosed structure is not the general purpose computer, but rather "the special purpose computer programmed to perform the disclosed algorithm."  As such,  the corresponding structure for a 112 ¶ 6 claim for a computer-implemented function is the algorithm disclosed in the specification.

Turning to the application, the BPAI found that the disclosure was similarly lacking:
The cited portion of the Appellants' Specification describes generally that the system 100 may provide automated random verification of complex and structurally variable systems. However,  the cited portion of the Specification does not provide an algorithm by which the system is able to perform the functions recited in claim 10 to provide automated random verification of complex and structurally variable systems.

The Appellants have failed to disclose any algorithm, and thus have failed to adequately describe sufficient structure, for performing the functions recited in the means elements contained in claim 10 so as to render the claim definite. Accordingly, claim 10 is unpatentable under 35 U.S.C. 112, second paragraph, as indefinite. Aristocrat, 521 F.3d at 1333.

The BPAI next turned to a claim that recited features such as "a system configuration generator configured to . . .", "system builder configured to . . ." and "simulation verification environment configured to . . ." and found that these claims were also subject to 35 USC 112 ¶ 6:
We agree that the claim elements do not use the term "means" which would normally indicate that the claim element is intended to be a "means plus function" element . . . However . . . [w]e must determine "whether the term is one that is understood to describe structure, as opposed to a term that is simply a nonce word or a verbal construct that is not recognized as the name of structure and is simply a substitute for the term 'means for.'

We have looked to both general and subject matter specific dictionaries and we find no evidence that any of these terms have achieved recognition as a noun denoting structure. Therefore, based upon our consultation of dictionaries, a review of the record before us, and a search of the prior art patents in this field, we conclude that none of these three terms is an art-recognized structure to perform the claimed function, and claim 1 does not recite any other structure that would perform these claimed functions . . . we conclude there is no structural context for determining the characteristics of these claim elements other than to describe the function of each element. We further conclude that these claim elements are verbal constructs that are not recognized as the name of a structure and are simply a substitute for the term "means for."

Again, the BPAI found the lack of algorithmic disclosure in the specification rendered the claim indefinite.

Alternately, the BPAI rejected the claims under section 112, first paragraph, ruling that the claim elements are purely functional (i.e., there is no particular structure to support the function being performed) and thus were not enabled without undue experimentation.

Turning to the Wands factors for determining undue experimentation (In re Wands, 858 F.2d at 737) the BPAI considered: (1) the quantity of experimentation necessary, (2) the amount of direction or guidance presented, (3) the presence or absence of working examples, (4) the nature of the invention, (5) the state of the prior art, (6) the relative skill of those in the art, (7) the predictability or unpredictability of the art, and (8) the breadth of the claims.  The BPAI ruled
We recognize that functional language does not, in and of itself, render a claim improper . . . [however] the scope of the functional claim language here in claim 1 is not enabled to its entire scope . . . Appellants' claim recites no meaningful structure. Instead, the scope of the functional claim language of claim 1 is so broad and sweeping that it includes all structures or means that can perform the function. It is not limited to any corresponding structure, material, or act disclosed in the specification and equivalents thereof.

[W]ith this opinion we do not mean to imply that all functional language will violate the Halliburton rule as it does here. We note that functional claim language tied to a definite structure in the claim . . . is unlikely to give rise to an enablement rejection where a person of ordinary skill in the art would likely know how to make and use the embodiments that give rise to the structure. However, in this case and those like it, the purported "structures" in the claims are essentially black boxes not connoting any structure to the skilled artisan, and are merely circularly defined by their desired functions. For the reasons expressed above, these "structures" are not enabled and are properly rejected under 5 112, first paragraph.

Read/download a copy of the opinion here (link)

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