In McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc.,1 the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals (“Court”) reversed the decision of the District Court of the Central District of California and found patentee McRO’s claims to be patentable under 35 U.S.C. § 101 as directed to a non-abstract idea under the first step of the two-step patent eligibility framework set forth by the Supreme Court in Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l.2,3

The Federal Circuit did not analyze the claims under the second step of the Alice framework because the court found the “ordered combination of claimed steps, using unconventional rules that relate sub-sequences of phonemes, timings, and morph weight sets”4 in claim 1 was directed to an improvement in computer animation rather than an abstract idea and prevented the preemption of all rules-based methods for automatically animating the lip synchronization and facial expression of a three-dimensional (“3D”) character.5

1. Procedural History

McRO filed a patent infringement action against several video game developers and publishers (“Defendants”) alleging infringement of U.S. Patent Nos. 6,307,576 (“the ‘576 patent”) and 6,611,278 (“the ‘278 patent”).6 Following a claim construction hearing, the Defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, asserting the claims in the ‘576 and ‘278 patents were directed to patent ineligible subject matter and therefore invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 101.7

The District Court held the claims were invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 101 because claim 1 of the ‘576 patent was “drawn to the [abstract] idea of automated rules-based use of morph targets and delta sets for lip-synchronized three-dimensional animation”8 and granted the motion.9

On appeal, the Federal Circuit deemed claim 1 of the’576 patent representative of the asserted claims and analyzed the patentability of the same.10

2. The Invention

Claim 1 of the’576 recites:

[a] method for automatically animating lip synchronization and facial expression of three-dimensional characters comprising:

obtaining a first set of rules that define output morph weight set stream as a function of phoneme sequence and time of said phoneme sequence;

obtaining a timed data file of phonemes having a plurality of sub-sequences;

generating an intermediate stream of output morph weight sets and a plurality of transition parameters between two adjacent morph weight sets by evaluating said plurality of sub-sequences against said first set of rules;

generating a final stream of output morph weight sets at a desired frame rate from said intermediate stream of output morph weight sets and said plurality of transition parameters; and

applying said final stream of output morph weight sets to a sequence of animated characters to produce lip synchronization and facial expression control of said animated characters11

(emphasis added).

The claimed invention relates to automatically animating lip synchronization corresponding to a facial expression of a 3D character to produce an accurate and realistic lip synchronization and facial expression of the same.12

The automation is realized by applying the claimed “first set of rules” to a time aligned phonetic transcription (TAPT) of a voice recording13 to determine morph weights sets or key frames marking transition start and end times for each TAPT sub-sequence.14 The final key frames are then applied to an animated character sequence to produce lip synchronization and facial expression control of the character.15

For example, the Court noted that applying the set of rules to a character transitioning from a point of silence to a point commencing speech16 automatically created a key frame between the points at which no phoneme is pronounced to depict more realistic speech by manipulating the character’s facial expressions to “wait until shortly before speaking to begin opening its mouth.”17

In contrast, the Court noted an animator in the prior art system would need to “subjectively identify the problematic sequence and manually fix it by adding an appropriate keyframe”18 between the points as a result of a computer interpolating a continuous transition between the same so that the character would not “open its mouth gradually from the beginning of the sequence through its first utterance.”19

3. The Alice Two-Step Patent Eligibility Framework

To determine whether claim 1 recited patent eligible subject matter, the Court applied the two-step framework set forth by the Supreme Court in Alice.20 The first step evaluates whether the claim is directed to a patent ineligible concept including a law of nature, a natural phenomenon or an abstract idea.21 If the claim is directed to a patent ineligible concept, the framework proceeds to the second step to determine whether the claim recites an element or combination of elements that amount to significantly more than the patent ineligible concept to transform the claim into patent eligible subject matter.22 The purpose of the framework is to prevent the patenting of a patent ineligible concept and thereby the preemption of the use of a law of nature, a natural phenomenon, or an abstract idea.23

4. Analysis

Under the first step of the Alice framework, the Court analyzed the specific features of claim 1 and determined whether the specific features improved a relevant technology and prevented preemption of all processes for realizing automated animated lip-synchronization of 3D characters.24

The Court disagreed with the District Court that claim 1 was “drawn to the [abstract] idea of automated rules-based use of morph targets and delta sets for lip-synchronized three-dimensional animation.”25 The Court found that the District Court’s characterization of the claim was an oversimplification of the features of claim 1 by “failing to account for the specific requirements of the claims.”26

In determining the patentability of a method, the Court emphasized a “court must look to the claims as an ordered combination, without ignoring the requirements of the individual steps.”27 The Court noted claim construction required an interpretation of the claims as “limited to rules that evaluate sub-sequences consisting of multiple sequential phonemes.”28 The Court also noted the rules “define a morph weight set stream as a function of phoneme sequence and times associated with said phoneme sequence”29 and the claims require “applying said first set of rules to each sub-sequence … of timed phonemes.”30

Following the direction of the Supreme Court in Alice, the Court then addressed whether claim 1 was directed to (1) a specific means for improving a relevant technology (e.g., computer animation) or (2) a result that is the abstract idea and is executed by generic processes and machinery.31 The Court concluded claim 1 was directed to an improvement in computer animation rather than an abstract idea because of the “automatic use of rules of a particular type.”32 The Court reasoned that the use of the claimed rules, rather than a computer, achieved the automation of tasks previously completed by animators by a method previously not performed.

For example, the Court determined that even if the process used by animators (e.g., manually fixing a problematic sequence by adding an appropriate key frame) were automated by rules, the process would be outside the “scope of the claims because it does not evaluate sub-sequences, generate transition parameters or apply transition parameters to create a final morph weight set.”33

Therefore, the Court distinguished the invention of claim 1 from the respective patent ineligible inventions in Parker v. Flook,34 Bilski v. Kappos,35 and Alice where the “claimed computer-automated process and the prior method were carried out in the same way.”36

The Court further distinguished the invention of claim 1 from an abstract idea such as a method of organizing information, a mathematical formula or a fundamental economic practice (i.e., “business method”) by noting the method of claim 1 “uses a combined order of specific rules that renders information into a specific format that is then used and applied to create desired results: a sequence of synchronized, animated characters.”37

Subsequently, the Court addressed whether the claimed rules preempted all rules-based automated 3D animation methods.38 Referring to the language of claim 1, the Court concluded the specific structure of the claimed rules did not preempt all rules-based automated 3D animation methods because methods utilizing a different rule structure were not foreclosed.39 Specifically, the Court noted the absence of a “showing that any rules-based lip-synchronization process must use rules with the specifically claimed characteristics.”40

The Court did not analyze claim 1 under the second step of the Alice framework because the Court held claim 1 recited patent eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The analysis under the second step was not necessary because the Court found claim 1 was directed to an improvement in computer animation rather than an abstract idea and prevented the preemption of all rules-based automated 3D animation methods.41

5. Takeaways

The Court emphasized specific claim features cannot be ignored when determining the patent eligibility of a claim and reiterated the decision in Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp. that a claim is not directed to an abstract idea when an improvement in a technology relevant to the claim is realized by the claim.

The Court also clarified that a claim that recites the automation of a prior method performed by humans can be patent eligible if the claim is performed by a specific means (e.g., the rules) different than the prior method. Therefore, the Court emphasized determining and evaluating the specific means or method for producing a particular result (e.g., automatically animating the lip synchronization and facial expression of a 3D character) over the particular result produced by the claim.

The decision is also notable for its preemption analysis. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has not emphasized preemption in its Interim Eligibility Guidance materials for responding to rejections under 35 U.S.C. § 101. Therefore, patent prosecutors should consider raising non-preemption arguments where applicable under the first step of the Alice framework which may be helpful in avoiding analysis under the second step of the Alice framework and overcoming rejections under 35 U.S.C. § 101.