Last week, the Court of Federal Claims invalidated a patent that was asserted against the U.S. Government in a lawsuit regarding the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The case—Thales Visionix, Inc. v. United States, No. 14-513C—is interesting for many reasons: the Court of Federal Claims does not handle many patent infringement cases (we blogged about a recent one involving the Navy here), the Court ruled on the hot topic (for patent law) of patent abstractness, the case ended at the early stage of judgment on the pleadings, and—quite frankly—fighter jets are undeniably cool.
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(F-35 photo obtained from www.jsf.mil)
Plaintiff Thales Visionix, Inc. (“TVI”) owns U.S. patent No. 6,474,159 (“the ‘159 patent”), which claims systems for using inertial tracking sensors to determine the orientation of a tracked object relative to a moving reference frame. TVI asserted that Lockheed Martin—a prime contractor to the U.S. Government on the F-35 project, infringes the ‘159 patent by installing a helmet-mounted display in F-35 fighter jets. The F-35 is the first tactical fighter jet in 50 years without a heads-up display, instead using a helmet-mounted display that enables the pilot to look in any direction and still be able to see displayed information. Under 28 U.S.C. Section 1498, TVI sued the government in the Court of Federal Claims for monetary damages arising from the alleged patent infringement.
Based on the pleadings alone, the U.S. Government moved for judgment of invalidity under 35 U.S.C. Section 101, a section of the patent statute pertaining to eligibility. Claim 1 of the ‘159 patent is representative and states as follows:
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.
In last year’s Alice decision, the U.S. Supreme Court set forth a two-part test for determining patent eligibility. The first part of the test involves a determination of whether the patent claims at issue are directed to an abstract idea, law of nature, or natural phenomenon. The second part of the test involves a consideration of whether the elements of each claim transform the nature of the claim into a patent-eligible application. Applying that test, the Court of Federal Claims in TVI v. United States found at the first step of the test that the claims of the ‘159 patent are directed to the abstract idea of tracking two moving objects and incorporate laws of nature governing motion. At the second step of the test, the Court found that the claimed system does nothing to ground the abstract idea in a specific way, such that the claims cover application of a navigation equation in almost endless environments. The Court noted that the claims of the ‘159 patent are not limited to a fighter jet and a pilot’s helmet, suggesting that more narrowly drawn claims might have survived the patent-eligibility test.
The topic of patent eligibility under Section 101 is an area of law that is relatively unsettled, and this result adds to the body of case law interpreting the Alice decision. It is significant that a patent case can end at the judgment on the pleadings stage even in the Court of Federal Claims, which does not adjudicate many patent cases (compared to district courts). This case is also a reminder of the multidisciplinary nature of cases at the Court of Federal Claims—here pushing the edges on a leading topic in patent law.