Last Friday in a note to subscribers, I predicted, tongue-in-cheek, an 80% probability that #AliceStorm would continue this morning.  Some days I’m glad to wrong. Today is one of those days.

 Yes, a patent eligibility decision was announced this morning. But this time it upheld the patent.

Wavetronix LLC v. Iteris, Inc., 1-14-cv-00970 (TXWD January 22, 2015, Order) (Sparks, J.)

Here is the patent:  Monitoring signalized traffic flow, US 7991542 which deals with identifying when cars are potentially going to run a red light, and extending the time of the green signal.  

1. At a roadway mounted sensor, the roadway mounted sensor monitoring vehicles on a portion of a roadway, a method for monitoring a signalized traffic flow, the method comprising:

an act of receiving sensor data, the sensor data indicating the presence of one or more vehicles within a continuous range of the monitored portion of the roadway, the received sensor data representing a portion of a signal that was transmitted by the roadway sensor into the portion of the roadway;

an act of using the received sensor data to determine estimated times-of-arrival of the one or more vehicles to a traffic control point associated with the monitored portion of the roadway, two or more times while the one or more vehicles are within the continuous range;

an act of determining a level of efficiency and safety for the traffic flow within the vicinity of the traffic control point based upon the estimated times-of-arrival; and

an act of reporting the level of efficiency and safety to a traffic control unit that is actively controlling the monitored signalized traffic flow.

The court correctly focuses on the evidence of “improvements to other technologies”–including citing the defendant Iteris' own white paper–and links the use of a mathematical formula (implied but not claimed) to the analogous situation in Diehr, which improved curing technology, and to the preemption analysis.  The court also disregards the cliché paper and pencil mental steps argument. 

Claiming the '542 Patent is similarly directed at an abstract process generically implemented, Iteris contends "a human with no more than a high-school level education can readily accomplish each of the steps taught [by the '542 Patent] with nothing more than a paper and a pencil." Def. 's Opp'n [#33] at 23.

The Court disagrees, and is unpersuaded Alice is applicable to this case. Merely employing a mathematical formula does not render a claimed method unpatentable where the method improves upon an existing technological process, Alice, 134 5. Ct. at 2358 (citing Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175 (1981)), and the evidence presently before the Court indicates the '542 Patent significantly improved upon existing technological processes for providing dilemma zone protection. Some previous purported solutions, for example, were based upon virtual loops or physical loops buried in the ground, and did not really solve the problem: for example, those solutions created delays by overextending green lights, failed to account for faster traffic, and required the end user to correctly estimate the speed of the fastest-moving traffic in order to function effectively. See Iteris White Paper at 3-4 (describing the problems with loop-based solutions to the dilemma zone problem). Wavetronix improved upon those solutions by devising a process which by making use of a mathematical formula enables accurate real-time tracking of vehicles as they approach an intersection.

The '542 Patent does not claim the mathematical formula itself, the concept of the dilemma zone, or an unimproved application of either. The Court therefore finds Iteris' s argument fails to raise a substantial question as to the validity of the '542 Patent. See Diehr, 450 U.S. at 187 (rejecting abstract-subject-matter argument where the process at issue "admittedly employs a well-known mathematical equation, but . . . do[es] not seek to pre-empt the use of that equation" and instead "seek[s] only to foreclose from others the use of that equation in conjunction with all of the other steps in the claimed process"). (emphasis added).

 Bravo! That’s how it’s done.

  • Bravo, indeed!
    I’m pleased to note that the logic of this decision closely matches that of Diamond v. Diehr – and for largely the same reasons: the invention is an application of a mathematical algorithm to a specific, clear, real-world problem, with indisputable practical value. I’d enjoy seeing similar cases receive approval for a large set of similar control systems: elevators, train control, air traffic control…
    Perhaps this is how software inventors might retake the field: one hard-fought yard at a time. Might take years, but I believe that this outcome is not only inevitable, but essential for a functioning patent system of the 21st century (and a functioning technology industry).

  • Richard Stern

    The preamble is good–real problem and not a business method. But are the steps eligible ones?
    Step [a] is a data-gathering step, which the cases deprecate. Step [b] is calculating mathematically the times at which the two carts will arrive at the intersection. Step [c] is a determining stepa level of efficiency and safetyanother mathematical calculation. Step [d] is reporting the results of the calculation in step [c]. Does this sound like Flook?
    Suppose the claim had one or more additional steps in which some significant post-solution activity occurs: After reporting the results of the calculation in step [d], calculate whether the two cars are going to occupy the same space if things proceed as they are going. If so, send a signal to the traffic control unit that keeps the light red. Would this make the case more like Diehr (where the mold is opened after the calculation) and less like Flook?

  • Richard
    Your analysis is exactly what the courts are doing: you can always map a given step into disfavored class (data gathering, post-solution, math). But that begs the question, because its the content of those steps that matters. Taking a reductionist approach like this is not what the Supreme Court has been instructing, and is certainly not treading carefully.

  • Nice way of presentation.