The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit recently ventured into the electric vehicle technology space, but only to invalidate a patent related to networked charging stations.1
ChargePoint, the patent owner, argued the invention improved networked charging stations that solve needs inherent in electric vehicle charging – namely, 1) allowing the stations to be managed from a central location, 2) allowing drivers to locate stations, and 3) allowing users to "interact intelligently" with the electricity grid.
ChargePoint asserted apparatus claims and argued that the invention is tangible and "builds a better machine" and, therefore, is neither abstract nor just an idea. The Court was not persuaded. The Court instead found that the asserted claims were "directed to the abstract idea of communication over a network to interact with a device connected to the network," and that the abstract idea "is associated with a physical machine that is quite tangible – an electric vehicle charging station."
Like in Berkheimer,2 the Court analyzed the patent specification. Unlike Berkheimer, ChargePoint's patent specification provided no lifeline to preserve the claims' validity. The Court found that the "specification also makes clear – by what it states and what it does not – that the invention  is the idea of network-controlled charging stations. . . . the specification never suggests that the charging station itself is improved from a technical perspective." In short, the patent is directed to the idea of communicating over a network applied to electric vehicle charging stations, instead of being directed to an improved charging station.
While this follows the Federal Circuit precedent and is not a surprising result,3 there are two valuable takeaways:
- The Court reiterated that tangible components – even drafted as apparatus claims – will not save patent claims when the invention is directed to an abstract idea. That puts patent claims that bolt references to physical components around a core abstract idea at risk.
- A patent's specification can help or hinder its survival but, in the end, the focus is still the claims. As the Court noted, "Even a specification full of technical details about a physical invention may nonetheless conclude with claims that claim nothing more than the broad law or abstract idea underlying the claims, thus preempting all use of that law or idea."