February 25, 2020

Patents Directed to a Method for Ranking Online Merchants Withstand Early Section 101 Challenge by the Government

Holland & Knight Section 101 Blog
Anthony J. Fuga
Section 101 Blog

The plaintiff in Wanker v. United States accuses the government of infringing four patents, all of which relate generally to a method for comparing products and services through the use of various weighting factors to assign a merchant a relative ranking.

The asserted patents identify alleged shortcomings in the prior art regarding the inability to provide a ranking based on a wide variety of factors related to consumer purchasing habits and decisions. To overcome the shortcomings, the plaintiff alleged that the asserted patents added a step to the functionality of the database: "the pre-query entering of information before the database begins generating results." The plaintiff also alleged the claimed improvements were implemented "through unconventional user interface and data processing technology" that were not well known or routine at the time of the invention. As a result of these improvements, consumers received an improved design and technology providing "functionality, cost-effective use, and usability that was unavailable" by online product comparison tools at the time of the invention.

The § 101 Analysis

The U.S. government moved to dismiss the complaint in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, arguing that the asserted patent claims are directed to the abstract idea of "comparing merchants offering a specified product/service by weighing certain factors." The plaintiff countered, arguing that the patents are directed to "solutions that are necessarily rooted in computer network shopping systems to overcome a problem arising in that field."

At Step One of the Alice inquiry, the court acknowledged that the claims, on their face, are directed to the abstract idea of collecting, analyzing, manipulating and displaying data. While the plaintiff alleged the claims are "directed to improvements in the relevant technology," neither the specification nor the claims provide support for this argument. The court noted that the specification does discuss increases in efficiency associated with the calculation of an aggregate score for each merchant, but "such increases in efficiency as to the process itself do not amount to the improved computer capabilities" that the plaintiff alleged claims.

The court found that the concept of ranking merchants according to a series of weighting factors is directed to the abstract idea of collecting, analyzing, manipulating and displaying data.

The court began its Step Two analysis by looking at the plaintiff's allegations regarding technological and functional improvements. The court, citing Berkheimer, quickly dismissed a number of the plaintiff's allegations claims as merely conclusory statements.

However, the court did find that the plaintiff made a number of concrete factual allegations in the complaint regarding functional improvements considered unconventional at the time of the invention. For instance, the plaintiff alleged that the systems and methods add a step to the functionality of the database by allowing the pre-query entering of information before the database begins generating results. Importantly, the court found that this alleged improvement recited in Claim 1 of the asserted patent.

Similarly, the plaintiff identified a problem regarding merchants' ability to skew search results in their favor. The plaintiff alleged in the complaint that the asserted patent claimed a new system whereby "query information is designed by the consumer and reflects the consumer's, not merchants', values." Claim 1 of the asserted patent again enacts this alleged improvement by requiring the weighting factors to be entered by the consumer.

The government asserted that the claims are not a technical improvement or an advancement in computer technology, and labeled the plaintiff's allegations as "mere attorney argument." The court disagreed. The plaintiff's allegations, when accepted as true, "do create at least a factual dispute as to whether the claimed combination was conventional or routine."

The court found that, based on the Federal Circuit's line of cases stemming from both Berkheimer and Aatrix, the plaintiff's submissions of concrete, factual allegations regarding the inventive concepts would make a finding of invalidity under § 101 improper at the early stage of litigation. Accordingly, the court denied the government's motion to dismiss.

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