Motion tracking software not patentable in the US

Too abstract and mathematical for the US courts?

Dennis Crouch put up this post about a judgment of the US Court of Federal Claims regarding the patentability of a motion tracking system, which is for a system that is a mix of software and hardware.

My understanding is that systems like that claimed are used in the Joint Strike Fighter Program F-35.  The F-35 pilot’s helmet has a visor display.  The relative orientation of the helmet to the cockpit is monitored and the image shown on the visor display changes with the orientation.  For example, an image captured by a downwardly pointed external camera may be shown on the visor when the pilot looks to the floor of the cockpit.

While not knowing the invention in detail or the prior art base, in my opinion, this is a great invention that is a significant advance in technology. Consequently, I was surprised that the court found that the claims defining the invention were found to be patent ineligible, Thales Visionix v. USA and Elbit Systems (Ct. Fed. Clm. 2015).

It appears that the main concern of the court was that the claims of US patent 6,474,158 are actually directed to an “abstract idea”, and a “building block of human ingenuity” and hence patent ineligible.

Here is claim 1:

1. A system for tracking the motion of an object relative to a moving reference frame, comprising:
a first inertial sensor mounted on the tracked object;
a second inertial sensor mounted on the moving reference frame; and
an element adapted to receive signals from said first and second inertial sensors and configured to determine an orientation of the object relative to the moving reference frame based on the signals received from the first and second inertial sensors.

A careful look at the claim reveals it features sensors on two (presumably) objects, and an “element” that receives signals from the sensors and calculates the relative orientation of the two objects.  The calculation could be done by software on a computer, for example.

To a physicist (like me) the language of the claim makes perfect sense, however I have a strong sense that it played into the hands of the defence, simply because it is (as good physics is) generic and abstract.  There is a strong lesson in this.

With this in mind, it’s good to have a look at what the court said (I’ve underlined parts that support my thesis):

Here, the Court … finds that TVI fails the first prong of the Alice analysis because the independent claims of the ‘159 Patent are directed to mathematical equations for determining the relative position of a moving object to a moving reference frame. Derived from Newtonian principles of motion and “borrowing the mathematics that an inertial navigation system uses to track an airplane relative to a rotating earth”, the navigation equation is undoubtedly a complex mathematical concept, and a solution to the problem of tracking two moving objects in relation to each other. However, the Court finds that this concept is a “building block of human ingenuity”, and the solution lies in the mathematical formulae, not the generic devices listed in the system claim. 

Accordingly, TVI’s claims fail the first prong of the Alice analysis because the claims are directed to the abstract idea of tracking two moving objects, and incorporate laws of nature governing motion, both of which are ineligible for patent protection.
[Regarding Alice Step 2] the system claim fails to transform the method claim into a patent-eligible invention. The plain language of Claim 1 describes generic, fungible inertial sensors that admittedly have already gained “widespread acceptance” in the field of motion tracking. Like the computer elements in Alice, these inertial trackers, when considered as an ordered combination in the claimed system, add nothing transformative to the patent. Although the concept of tracking the motion of a moving object relative to a moving reference frame may have been novel and nonobvious, the claimed system does nothing to ground this abstract idea in a specific way. The claims allow for the application of the navigation equation in almost endless environments, and are not limited to a fighter jet and a pilot’s helmet. . . . 

Ultimately, the concern that drives the exclusionary exceptions for abstract ideas and laws of nature from § 101 eligibility “[i]s one of pre-emption.” Alice. The Court finds that the scope of the subject patent’s claims is insufficiently limited under the holdings of Mayo and Diehr, and if the patent were considered to protect eligible subject matter, it would pre-empt the use of the underlying abstract idea of relative motion tracking by others in the field. The patent’s ineligibility is confirmed by the machine-or-transformation test, under which the claims are not tied to any specific machine and do not transform the nature of the patent into something more than the abstract mathematics behind it. At its core, the patent is seeking protection for the mathematical formulae used in determining the relative orientation of two moving objects. The Court is unwilling to afford patent protection to Plaintiff’s claim on this building block of motion tracking technology.

Because I’m not an American attorney I don’t have to be polite about the decision:  Describing the “tracking of two moving objects” as an abstract idea is madness, and although may be consistent with the law as developed by the Alice decision just shows how disconnected the US courts are to the art of invention in the twenty first century.  It appears that the biggest crime of the inventor(s) was to actually use brain power to come up with some great maths to enable a great invention!

Perhaps the court would prefer inventors to invent another steam engine, instead, preferably without using any mathematics.

There is a take-home message from this decision: Don’t use language that is too abstract in the claims otherwise you risk falling foul of Alice.

2 thoughts on “Motion tracking software not patentable in the US”

  1. You missed this: "Although the concept of tracking the motion of a moving object relative to a moving reference frame may have been novel and nonobvious, the claimed system does nothing to ground this abstract idea in a specific way. The claims allow for the application of the navigation equation in almost endless environments, and are not limited to a fighter jet and a pilot’s helmet. . . . " Significantly more means that the algorithm cannot be at the heart of the invention.

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