Networking Charging Stations is an Abstract Idea; Even an Apparatus Can be Abstract

In Chargepoint, Inc. v. Semaconnect, Inc., [2018-1739] (March 28, 2019), the Federal Circuit affirmed the 12(b)(6) dismissal of a claim of infringement of U.S. Patent Nos. 8,138,715; 8,432,131, 8,450,967, and 7,956,570 because the claims charging stations for electric vehicles were ineligible for patenting.

ChargePoint contended that its inventors created improved charging stations that address the various needs inherent in electric vehicle charging by creating networked charging stations.

At step one of the Mayo/Alice inquiry, the court must first determine whether the claims at issue are directed to a patent-ineligible concept. Because at some level, all inventions embody, use, reflect, rest upon, or apply laws of nature, natural phenomena, or abstract ideas, it is not enough to merely identify a patent-ineligible concept underlying the claim; the court must determine whether that patent-ineligible concept is what the claim is “directed to.”

With respect to claims 1 and 2 of the ‘715 patent, the Federal Circuit found that looking at the problem identified in the patent, as well as the way the patent describes the invention, the specification suggests that the invention of the patent is nothing more than the abstract idea of communication over a network for interacting with a device, applied to the context of electric vehicle charging stations. In short, the inventors here had the good idea to add networking capabilities to existing charging stations to facilitate various business interactions, but that is where they stopped, and that is all they patented. The Federal Circuit thus concluded that the claims were directed to an abstract idea.

With respect to claims 1 and 8 of the ‘131 patent. The Federal Circuit noted that claim 1 of the ‘131 patent was similar to claim 1 of the ‘715 patent. ChargePoint argued that the electricity flow is modified based on demand response principles, but the Federal Circuit found that this does nothing to make this claim directed to something other than the abstract idea. The Court noted that demand response is itself an abstract concept—a familiar business choice to alter terms of dealing to help match supply and demand. The Federal Circuit said that adding one abstract idea to another abstract idea does not render the claim non-abstract. Thus the Federal Circuit concluded that claims were also directed to the abstract idea of communicating over a network.

Claims 1 and 2 of the ‘967 patent are method claims that are similar to the apparatus claims the Federal Circuit had already analyzed. ChargePoint focused its arguments on the ability to modify an electric vehicle charging station’s operation based on a demand response business policy, but the Federal Circuit pointed out that the patent never discusses any technical details regarding how to modify electricity flow, and the fact that any modifications are made in response to a demand response policy merely adds one abstract concept to another. The Federal Circuit concluded that We thus conclude that claims 1 and 2 of the ʼ967 patent are directed to the abstract idea of communicating over a network.

Lastly, with respect to claims 31 and 32 of the ‘570 patent, while the Federal Circuit noted that these claims were in a different form than claim 1 of the ʼ715 patent, it found the analysis of that claim applicable. The Federal Circuit said that the only improvement alleged is use of the concept of network communication to interact with the particular devices. This remains the focus of these two claims, thus making both directed to an abstract idea.

The Federal Circuit concluded that while the eight claims on appeal vary in some respects, they are all directed to the abstract idea of communicating over a network for device interaction. The Court said that communication over a network for that purpose has been and continues to be a “building block of the modern economy.”

At Step II of the Alice inquiry, the Federal Circuit noted that the alleged “inventive concept” that solves problems identified in the field is that the charging stations are network-controlled. But network control is the abstract idea itself, and a claimed invention’s use of the ineligible concept to which it is directed cannot supply the inventive concept that renders the invention ‘significantly more’ than that ineligible concept. The Federal Circuit analyzed the asserted technical improvements of each claim, but concluded that they were insufficient to make the claimed inventions not abstract.