Network Filtering and Aggregation Computer Program Patent Eligible Subject Matter

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that a number of related computer program and system patents for merging data in a network-based filtering and aggregating platform for enhancing networked accounting data records defines patent eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. section 101 and Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International, 134 S. Ct. 2347 (2014).  Amdocs (Israel) Ltd. v. Openet Telecom Inc., Case No. 2015-1180 (Fed.  Cir.  Nov.  1, 2016) (Available Here).  In an earlier case, the Federal Circuit had ruled that the claim term “enhance” as being dependent upon the invention’s distributed architecture and based thereon, the claim is eligible under Alice Corp’s Step Two because it contains a sufficient inventive concept.  See Amdocs (Israel) Ltd. v. Openet Telecom, Inc., 761 F.3d 1329 (Fed. Cir. 2014).

The AmDocs ‘065 patent concerns a system, method, and computer program for merging data in a network-based filtering and aggregating platform as well as a related apparatus for enhancing networking accounting data records. The ‘510 patent concerns a system, method, and computer program for reporting on the collection of network usage information. The ‘984 patent concerns a system and accompanying method and computer program for reporting on the collection of network usage information from a plurality of network devices. The ‘797 patent concerns a system, method, and computer program for generating a single record reflecting multiple services for accounting purposes.

Each patent’s written description describes the same system, which allows network service providers to account for and bill for internet protocol (“IP’) network communications. The system includes network devices; information source modules (“ISMs”); gatherers; a central event manager (“CEM”); a central database; a user interface server; and terminals or clients.

Importantly, these components are arrayed in a distributed architecture that minimizes the impact on network and system resources. Through this distributed architecture, the system minimizes network impact by collecting and processing data close to its source. The system includes distributed data gathering, filtering, and enhancements that enable load distribution.  This allows data to reside close to the information sources, thereby reducing  congestion in network bottlenecks, while still allowing data to be accessible from a central location. Each patent explains that this is an advantage over prior art systems that stored information in one location, which made it difficult to keep up with massive record flows from the network devices and which required huge databases.

The two-step framework set out by the Supreme Court in Alice Corp for distinguishing patents that claim so-called laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas from those that claim patent-eligible applications of those concepts, is now familiar law. See Alice, 134 S. Ct. at 2355 (following Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1289 (2012)). This framework is sometimes collectively referred to as Alice/Mayo.

First, the Court determines whether “the claims at issue are directed to one of those patent-ineligible concepts.” If so, then the Court considers elements of each claim both individually and “as an ordered combination” to determine whether the additional elements “‘transform the nature of the claim’ into a patent-eligible application.” Mayo, 132 S. Ct. at 1298, 1297.

The Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court describes Step Two of this analysis as a search for an ”inventive concept,” i.e., an element or ordered combination of elements that is “sufficient to ensure that the patent in practice amounts to significantly more than a patent upon the [ineligible concept] itself.” Mayo, 132 S. Ct. at 1294.

Whether the more detailed analysis is undertaken at Step One or at Step Two, the analysis presumably would be based on a generally-accepted and understood definition of, or test for, what an ‘abstract idea’ encompasses. However, a search for a single test or definition in the decided cases concerning § 101 from this court and from the Supreme Court, reveals that at present there is no such single, succinct, usable definition or test. The problem with articulating a single, universal definition of ‘abstract idea’ is that it is difficult to fashion a workable definition to be applied to as-yet-unknown cases with as-yet-unknown inventions.  “That is not for want of trying; to the extent the efforts so far have been unsuccessful it is because they often end up using alternative but equally abstract terms or are overly narrow.”  Amdocs (Israel) Ltd. v. Openet Telecom Inc., pg.  9.

Instead of a definition the Appeals Court opined, the decisional mechanism courts now apply is to examine earlier cases in which a similar or parallel descriptive nature can be seen-what prior cases were about, and which way they were decided. See, e.g., Elec. Power Grp., 830 F.3d at 1350 (Fed Cir. 2016).

AmDocs ‘065 Patent recited: A computer program product embodied on a computer readable storage medium for processing network accounting information comprising: [a] computer code for receiving from a first source a first network accounting record; [b] computer code for correlating the first network accounting record with accounting information available from a second source; and [c] computer code for using the accounting information with which the first network accounting record is correlated to enhance the first network accounting record.

The Court recognizes, as the district court recognized, that “[a]t some level, ‘all inventions … embody, use, reflect, rest upon, or apply laws of nature, natural phenomena, or abstract ideas.”‘ Alice, 134 S. Ct. at 2354 (quoting Mayo, 132 S. Ct. at 1293) (emphasis added).  “What relative level of abstraction should [the Court] employ?”  Amdocs (Israel) Ltd. v. Openet Telecom Inc., pp.  20 – 21.

In the AmDocs case, the claims are much closer to those in BASCOM and DDR Holdings than those in Digitech, Content Extraction, and In re TLI Comm’ns. Indeed, even if the Court were to agree that the claim is directed to an ineligible abstract idea under Step One, the claim is eligible under Step Two because it contains a sufficient ‘inventive concept.’ Claim 1 requires “computer code for using the accounting information with which the first network accounting record is correlated to enhance the first network accounting record.” See the ‘065 patent.

In the earlier Amdocs case, the Court construed “enhance” as being dependent upon the invention’s distributed architecture. 761 F.3d at 1338–40 (quoting ‘065 patent).  The Court construed “enhance” as meaning “to apply a number of field enhancements in a distributed fashion.”  The Court took care to note how the district court  explained that “[i]n this context, ‘distributed’ means that the network usage records are processed close to their sources before being transmitted to a centralized manager.”  The Court also specifically approved of the district court’s “reading the ‘in a distributed fashion’ and the ‘close to the source’ of network information requirements into the term ‘enhance.”‘

The “enhancing” limitation depends not only upon the invention’s distributed architecture, but also depends upon the network devices and gatherers — even though these may be generic-working together in a distributed manner. The patent explains that field enhancements are defined by network service providers for each field in which the network service provider wants to collect data.  See the ‘065 patent. “A field enhancement specifies how the data obtained from the trigger of the enhancement procedure is processed before it is placed in a single field in the central database 175.”

The “gatherers” provide enhancement. (“As mentioned above, the gatherers 220 provide data enhancement features to complete information received from the ISMs 210.”). The gatherers also operate in a distributed fashion (citing the patent) and the gatherers depend upon the ISMs which receive information from network devices (citing the patent).

Claim 1 is therefore distinct from the ineligible subject matter claims in Digitech, Content Extraction, and In re TLI Comm’ns. The claim in Digitech was not tied to any particularized structure, broadly preempted related technologies, and merely involved combining data in an ordinary manner without any inventive concept.  

Similarly, AmDocs claim is distinct from the representative claim in Content Extraction, which involved the generic, well-known steps of collecting data, recognizing data, and storing data. See 776 F.3d at 1347. Unlike the claim in Content Extraction, claim 1 of the ‘065 patent depends upon a specific enhancing limitation that necessarily incorporates the invention’s distributed architecture-an architecture providing a technological solution to a technological problem. This provides the requisite ‘something more’ than the performance of “well-understood, routine, [and] conventional activities previously known to the industry.” See Alice, 134 S. Ct. at 2359.

AmDocs claim 1 solves a technological problem (massive data flows requiring huge databases) akin to the problem in DDR Holdings (conventional Internet hyperlink protocol preventing websites from retaining visitors).  Claim 1 is also like the claims in BASCOM because even though the system in the ‘065 patent relies upon some arguably generic limitations, when all limitations are considered individually and as an ordered combination, they provide an inventive concept through the use of distributed architecture. This is similar to the design in BASCOM which permitted the invention to have a filtering tool with the benefits of a filter on a local computer and the benefits of a filter on an ISP server. The benefits in BASCOM were possible because of customizable filtering features at specific locations remote from the user.

AmDocs ‘510 Patent recites : A computer program product stored in a computer readable medium for reporting on a collection of network usage information from a plurality of network devices, comprising: [a] computer code for collecting network communications usage information in real-time from a plurality of network devices at a plurality of layers; [b] computer code for filtering and aggregating the network communications usage information; [c] computer code for completing a plurality of data records from the filtered and aggregated network communications usage information, the plurality of data records corresponding to network usage by a plurality of users; [d] computer code for storing the plurality of data records in a database; [e] computer code for submitting queries to the database utilizing predetermined reports for retrieving information on the collection of the network usage information from the network devices; and [f] computer code for outputting a report based on the queries; [g] wherein resource consumption queries are submitted to the database utilizing the reports for retrieving information on resource consumption in a network; and [h] wherein a resource consumption report is outputted based on the resource consumption queries.

This claim defines patent eligible subject matter for reasons similar to those that undergirded the eligibility of the ‘065 patent claims.

Amdocs Claim 16 requires, inter alia, that the network usage information is collected in real-time from a plurality of network devices at a plurality of layers and is filtered and aggregated before being completed into a plurality of data records. In Amdocs I, the Court approved of the district court’s construction of “completing” to mean “enhance a record until all required fields have been populated,” in which “enhance” carried the same meaning as the same term in the ‘065 patent.

The collection, filtering, aggregating, and completing steps all depend upon the invention’s unique distributed architecture-the same architecture outlined in our earlier analysis of the ‘065 patent. An understanding of how this is accomplished is only possible through an examination of the claims in light of the written description.

The written description explains that the distributed architecture allows the system to  efficiently and accurately collect network usage information in a manner designed for efficiency to minimize impact on network and system resources. This enables load distribution, and that is an advantage over the prior art because it makes it easier to keep up with record flows and allows for smaller databases.

The majority opinion addressed the dissent’s arguments and stated that the claims at issue, understood in light of that written description, are eligible for patenting.  “To be clear: ruling these claims to be patent-eligible does not mean that they are valid; they have yet to be tested under the statutory conditions for patentability, e.g., §§ 102 (novelty) and 103 (non-obvious subject matter), and the requirements of § 112 (written description and enablement), issues raised in [defendant] Openet’s defensive pleadings.”

The Federal Circuit reversed the district court’s order granting defendant Openet’s motion for judgment on the pleadings.

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