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Programmable Caches Operable with Different Processors Enhancing Computer Performance Is Patent Eligible Subject Matter

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a trial court’s decision and held that a programmable memory caches, permitting the system to operate with different processors, which enhances computer performance is patent eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. sec 101 and the Supreme Court case of Alice Corp. Pty. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347 (2014). See Visual Memory LLC v. Nvidia Corp., Case No. 2016-2254 (Fed. Cir. Aug, 15, 2017) (Available Here).

The U.S. district court (the trial court) held that Visual Memory’s ‘740 Patent was drawn to patent ineligible subject matter. Reversing the trial court’s decision, the Federal Circuit concluded that the ’740 patent claims an improvement to computer memory systems and is not directed to an abstract idea.

The ’740 patent teaches that computer systems frequently use a three-tiered memory hierarchy to enhance performance. The three tiers include: 1) a low-cost, low speed memory, such as a magnetic disk, for bulk storage of data; 2) a medium-speed memory that serves as the main memory; and 3) an expensive, high-speed memory that acts as a processor cache memory. See the ’740 patent. Because the cache memory is the most expensive, it is typically smaller than the main memory and cannot always store all the data required by the processor. The memory hierarchy alleviates the limitations imposed by the cache’s size because it allows code and non-code data to be transferred from the main memory to the cache during operation to ensure that the currently executing program has quick access to the required data. Replacement algorithms determine which data should be transferred from the main memory to the cache and which data in the cache should be replaced. As a result, the code and non-code data to be executed by the processor are continually grouped into the cache, thereby facilitating rapid access for the currently executing program. These prior art memory systems lacked versatility because they were designed and optimized based on the specific type of processor.

The ’740 patent overcomes these deficiencies by creating a memory system with programmable operational characteristics that can be tailored for use with multiple different processors without the accompanying reduction in performance. The three caches possess programmable operational characteristics that are programmable based on the type of processor connected to the memory system. When the system is turned on, information about the type of processor is used to self-configure the programmable operational characteristics. Using a programmable operational characteristic based on the processor type can also improve the main memory.

Claim 1 of the Patent states: “A computer memory system connectable to a processor and having one or more programmable operational characteristics, said characteristics being defined through configuration by said computer based on the type of said processor, wherein said system is connectable to said processor by a bus, said system comprising: [a] a main memory connected to said bus; and [b] a cache connected to said bus; [c] wherein a programmable operational characteristic of said system determines a type of data stored by said cache.”

NVIDIA filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The district court granted NVIDIA’s motion. Under Step One of the Alice test, the trial court concluded that the claims were directed to the “abstract idea of categorical data storage,” which humans have practiced for many years. The trial court’s Step-Two analysis found no inventive concept. See Step One and Step Two Alice Corp. Pty. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2354 (2014) (quoting Mayo, 566 U.S. at 71).

The Federal Circuit analysis began with Alice Step One. The Appeals Court articulated with specificity what the claims are directed to, Thales Visionix Inc. v. United States, 850 F.3d 1343, 1347 (Fed. Cir. 2017), and “ask[ed] whether the claims are directed to an improvement to computer functionality versus being directed to an abstract idea.” Enfish, 822 F.3d at 1335 (“[S]ome improvements in computer-related technology when appropriately claimed are undoubtedly not abstract, such as a chip architecture, an LED display, and the like.”). “In Enfish, we held claims reciting a self-referential table for a computer database were patent-eligible under Alice step one because the claims were directed to an improvement in the computer’s functionality. We emphasized that the key question is ‘whether the focus of the claims is on the specific asserted improvement in computer capabilities (i.e., the self-referential table for a computer database) or, instead, on a process that qualifies as an ‘abstract idea’ for which computers are invoked merely as a tool.’ Id. at 1335–36. Moreover, it was appropriate to consider the technological improvement embodied in the claims at step one, we explained, because Alice does not ‘broadly hold that all improvements in computer-related technology are inherently abstract and, therefore, must be considered at step two.’ Id. at 1335.”

In Thales, the Court determined that claims reciting a unique configuration of inertial sensors and the use of a mathematical equation for calculating the location and orientation of an object relative to a moving platform were patent-eligible under Alice Step One. The Thales patented system achieved greater accuracy than these prior art systems by measuring inertial changes of the tracked object relative to the moving platform’s reference frame.

As an example in Visual Memory’s Dependent claims 2 and 3, the claims narrow the cache’s programmable operational characteristic to storing certain types of data (“only code data or . . . both code data and non-code data”) and buffering data from certain sources (“buffering of data solely from said bus master or . . . both from said bus master and said processor”), respectively. The Patent in suit specification explains multiple benefits for the patented system.

“As with Enfish’s self-referential table and the motion tracking system in Thales, the claims here are directed to a technological improvement: an enhanced computer memory system. The ’740 patent’s claims focus on a ‘specific asserted improvement in computer capabilities’ — the use of programmable operational characteristics that are configurable based on the type of processor— instead of ‘on a process that qualifies as an ‘abstract idea’ for which computers are invoked merely as a tool.’”

The Appeals Court discussed Content Extraction & Transmission LLC v. Wells Fargo Bank, 776 F.3d 1343 (Fed. Cir. 2014) and In re TLI Communications LLC Patent Litigation, 823 F.3d 607 (Fed. Cir. 2016). “In Content Extraction, we reviewed a series of patents claiming a method of using a computer and a scanner to extract data from hard copy documents, recognizing specific information in the extracted data, and storing that information in memory. In TLI Communications, the invention
involved assigning ‘classification data,’ such as timestamps or dates, to digital images, sending the images to a server, extracting the classification data, and having the server take the classification data into consideration when storing the digital images.” These patents defined ineligible patent subject matter.

Contrary to the Trial Court’s decision in the present case, a discussion of whether a patent specification teaches an ordinarily skilled artisan how to implement the claimed invention presents an enablement issue under 35 U.S.C. § 112, not an eligibility issue under § 101.

The Appeals Court then remanded the case to the trial court for further consideration.

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