Targeted Advertising Still Patent Ineligible Subject Matter
The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that targeted advertising is still an abstract idea and that a system providing targeted advertising must utilize something more than generic features and routine functions to be eligible for patent protection. Free Stream Media Corp. v. Alphonso Inc., Case No. 19-1506 (Fed. Cir. May 11, 2021) (Reyna, J.)
Free Stream Media, d.b.a. Samba, owns a patent directed to “a system providing a mobile phone user with targeted information (i.e., advertisements) that is deemed relevant to the user based on data gathered from the user’s television.” The system has three main components: (1) a networked device (e.g., a smart TV) that collects primary data, including program information, location, weather information or identification information; (2) a client device (e.g., a mobile device) on which applications run and advertisements may be shown; and (3) a relevancy-matching server that uses the primary data to select advertisement or other targeted data based on a relevancy factor associated with the user. Specifically, the relevancy-matching server “may also be configured to render the targeted data to the user through the networked device and/or the sandboxed application of the client device.”
Samba asserted infringement of the patent against Alphonso. In response, Alphonso filed a motion to dismiss on grounds that the asserted claims of the patent were directed to patent ineligible subject matter under 35 USC § 101. Alphonso subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment of non-infringement. The district court denied the § 101 motion but granted the summary judgment motion. Samba appealed the non-infringement finding, and Alphonso cross-appealed the § 101 finding.
The Federal Circuit started with the § 101 finding by first addressing Alice step 1 (abstract idea). The Court rejected the district court’s finding that the asserted claims were directed to “systems and methods for addressing barriers to certain types of information exchange between various technological devices . . . being used in the same place at the same time,” i.e., to bypass the security sandbox, and not an abstract idea of tailored advertising. To the contrary, the Court found that the asserted claims were directed precisely to the abstract idea of tailored advertising—specifically, gathering information about television users’ viewing habits, matching the information with other content and sending that content to a second device. Reiterating its prior holdings with respect to Alice step 1, the Court explained that the asserted claims only provided for the result of overcoming a security sandbox, and did not at all describe how that result is achieved. The Court also explained that even if the claims did recite a method for bypassing a security sandbox, Samba failed to demonstrate that this was anything more than a mere use of a computer as a tool, or that it somehow “improves the operability of these devices beyond providing a user with targeted content using generic processes and machinery.”
Turning to Alice step 2 (inventive concept), the Federal Circuit explained that the claimed abstract idea of providing targeted advertisements was not patentable because it simply sought to work around the existing constraints of conventional televisions and mobile devices. Citing well-established precedent, the Court found that, even assuming the bypassing of a security sandbox had not been done before, the claims simply recited the use of generic features and routine functions to accomplish such a result. The Court thus reversed the district court and found the patent ineligible.
Since the Federal Circuit reversed the district court’s finding of patent eligibility, it declined to address the non-infringement finding.