MCro, Inc. DBA Planet Blue v. Bandai Namco Games America Inc. et al.

Docket No. 2015-1080 (etc.)

September 13, 2016

Brief Summary: DC decision of unpatentability of claims directed to 3-D animation reversed because, e.g., “the claimed computer-automated process and the prior method were” not “carried out in the same way”.

Summary: McRO appealed DC finding that the claims of US 6,307,576 and 6,611,278 (CON of ‘576) directed to 3-D animation methods (e.g., lip synchronization) are invalid under 35 USC § 101. The technology relates to the use of “multiple 3-D models of a character’s face to depict various facial expressions made during speech” using “neutral model” (resting, neutral facial expression) having “morph targets” on a character’s face that each represent a certain sound. Each morph target in the neutral model has identified points (“vertices”) on the face and “[t]he set of differences in the location of these vertices (and the corresponding point on the face) between the neutral model and the morph target form a ‘delta set’ of vectors” which is applied to the character model to describe facial expressions. In prior methods, “[a]nimators used a ‘keyframe’ approach, where the artist set[] the appropriate [morph] weights at certain important times (‘keyframes’) instead of at every frame” (manually using a computer) to generate a “‘time aligned phonetic transcription’ (‘timed transcript’)” that “listed the ‘occurrence in time’ of each phoneme the character pronounced”. A computer program would “interpolate between the keyframes set by the animator” to “creat[e] the intermediate frames”. The patents criticize the keyframe approach as “very tedious”, “time consuming” and “inaccurate” and “aim to automate 3-D animator’s task, specifically, determining when to set keyframes and setting those keyframes” using rules to “determine the morph weight outputs”. The DC opinion “loosely tracks the two-step” Alice framework, stating that “[f]acially, these claims do not seem directed to an abstract idea” and “attempt[ing] to ‘factor out conventional activity’ by comparing the claims to the admitted prior art process that the patent sought to improve”. The DC concluded that “the claim adds to the prior art…the use of rules, rather than artists, to set the morph weights and transitions between phonemes” but also that the claims were invalid under § 101 as “merely call[ing] for application of the abstract idea of using rules” (“they…preempt the filed of…lip synchronization using a rules-based morph target approach” and “the novel portions…are claimed too broadly”). The FC panel opinion explained that it reviews such decisions de novo (Ariosa, FC 2015). Under the first step of the Alice analysis, the FC panel concluded that “the incorporation of the claimed rules” into the claims, “not the use of the computer, that ‘improved [the] existing technological process’ by allowing the automation of further tasks..unlike Flook, Bilski, and Alice, where the claimed computer-automated process and the prior method were carried out in the same way” (“the automation goes beyond merely ‘organizing [existing] information into a new form’ or carrying out a fundamental economic practice” (Digitech, FC 2014); “While the result [a sequence of synchronized, animated characters] may not be tangible, there is nothing that requires a method ‘be tied to a machine or transform an article’ to be patentable.” (Bilski)). The FC panel therefore did not reach step 2 of Alice and reversed the DC decision.

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