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Data Engine Technologies LLC v. Google LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit

October 9, 2018

GOOGLE LLC, Defendant-Appellee

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Delaware in No. 1:14-cv-01115-LPS, Chief Judge Leonard P. Stark.

          Benjamin F. Foster, Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing PC, Houston, TX, argued for plaintiff-appellant. Represented by Amir H. Alavi, Iftikahr Ahmed, Alisa A. Lipski.

          Daryl Joseffer, King & Spalding LLP, Washington, DC, argued for defendant-appellee. Represented by Amelia Grace Yowell; Jonathan K. Waldrop, Marcus Barber, John Walter Downing, Darcy L. Jones, Kaso-witz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP, Redwood Shores, CA; Dan L. Bagatell, Perkins Coie LLP, Hanover, NH.

          Before Reyna, Bryson, and Stoll, Circuit Judges.


         Data Engine Technologies LLC ("DET") appeals the district court's entry of judgment on the pleadings holding that the asserted claims of DET's U.S. Patent Nos. 5, 590, 259; 5, 784, 545; 6, 282, 551; and 5, 303, 146 are ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The district court held that the asserted claims are directed to abstract ideas and fail to provide an inventive concept. We conclude that, with the exception of claim 1 of the '551 patent, the asserted claims of the '259, '545, and '551 patents ("Tab Patents") are directed to patent-eligible subject matter. These claims are not abstract, but rather are directed to a specific improved method for navigating through complex three-dimensional electronic spreadsheets. We agree, however, that the asserted claims of the '146 patent, reciting methods for tracking changes to data in spreadsheets, are directed to the abstract idea of collecting, recognizing, and storing changed information. After a searching review, we find nothing in these claims that provides an inventive concept sufficient to render the claims patent eligible. Accordingly, we affirm-in-part, reverse-in-part, and remand.


         I. The Tab Patents

         The Tab Patents are titled "System and Methods for Improved Spreadsheet Interface With User-Familiar Objects," and claim priority to April 8, 1992.[1] The Tab Patents claim systems and methods for making complex electronic spreadsheets more accessible by providing familiar, user-friendly interface objects-specifically, notebook tabs-to navigate through spreadsheets while circumventing the arduous process of searching for, memorizing, and entering complex commands.

         The Tab Patents teach that the advent of electronic spreadsheets offered dramatic improvements in creating, editing, and using spreadsheets to organize and process data. Despite such advantages, twenty-five years ago, electronic spreadsheets were not easy to use. '259 patent col. 2 ll. 57-59. Users were required to master complex commands in order to perform basic operations within a spreadsheet. Id. at col. 2 ll. 28-29. To find an appropriate command for an operation, users would navigate through complex menu systems, with the proper command buried under several menus. Id. at col. 2 ll. 29-32. "Finding this approach to be unworkable, many users [would] memorize frequently-needed commands instead." Id. at col. 2 ll. 41-42. Because such commands were arbitrary (e.g., "/Worksheet Global Default Other International"), users could only master a very small fraction of available commands and features. Id. at col. 2 ll. 40-47, 53-56.

         The Tab Patents specifically identify problems with navigation through prior art three-dimensional or multipage electronic spreadsheets. The Tab Patents explain that the complex commands required to manipulate each additional spread of the three-dimensional spreadsheet diminished the utility and ease of use of this technology.

         The invention claimed in the Tab Patents provided a solution to this problem. Specifically, the Tab Patents are directed to and claim a method of implementing a notebook-tabbed interface, which allows users to easily navigate through three-dimensional electronic spreadsheets. As shown in Figure 4G of the '259 patent below, the Tab Patents provide "an electronic spreadsheet system including] a notebook interface having a plurality of notebook pages, each of which contains a spread of information cells, or other desired page type." Id. at col. 3 11. 48-52. In contrast to conventional electronic spreadsheets, the method claimed in the Tab Patents "includes user-familiar objects, i.e., paradigms of real-world objects which the user already knows how to use" such as notebook tabs. Id. at col. 6 11. 52-58. "In this manner, complexities of the system are hidden under ordinary, everyday object metaphors," providing a "highly intuitive interface-one in which advanced features (e.g., three-dimensionality) are easily learned." Id. at col. 6 11. 58-63.

         (Image Omitted)

         Figure 2D below shows more closely an individual spreadsheet page with notebook tabs located along the bottom edge of the page.

         (Image Omitted)

         In this preferred embodiment, "each page identifier is in the form of a tab member (e.g., members 261a, 262a, 263a) situated along a bottom edge of the notebook." Id. at col. 8 ll. 13-15. Although these tabs are labeled A, B, and C, etc., they are typically given descriptive names assigned by the user. Id. at col. 8 ll. 19-23. To move to different spreadsheet pages, the user selects the corresponding tab for that page. Id. at col. 8 ll. 45-47. Thus, "instead of finding information by scrolling different parts of a large spreadsheet, or by invoking multiple windows of a conventional three-dimensional spreadsheet, the present invention allows the user to simply and conveniently 'flip through' several pages of the notebook to rapidly locate information of interest." Id. at col. 8 ll. 51-57. This improved interface allows for "rapidly accessing and processing information on the different pages, including, for example, displaying a plurality of page identifiers for selecting individual pages." Id. at col. 3 ll. 53-56.

         Although these spreadsheet interfaces have become ubiquitous, Quattro Pro, the first commercial embodiment of the claimed invention, was highly acclaimed as having revolutionized three-dimensional electronic spreadsheets. During prosecution, DET submitted contemporaneous articles showing the state of the art at the time of the invention and evidencing the significance of the claimed methods to spreadsheet technology. For example, PC World, a leading computer magazine, published a frontpage article, "Quattro Pro for Windows: The Ultimate 3-D Spreadsheet." J.A. 981. The article reflected the industry's view that "keeping large, complex worksheet projects organized, manageable, and reliable ha[d] long been a major concern for serious spreadsheet users" and that existing spreadsheets had "data and results hidden all over the place." J.A. 982. The article touts the claimed notebook-tabbed spreadsheet interface as a solution to that problem, explaining that it "makes developing nifty applications far easier for the average spreadsheet user, and [that] intelligent command organization makes navigation efficient." Id. PC World published another cover story naming Quattro Pro "The Best of 1992," again lauding it as "the first spreadsheet to make three-dimensional modeling an accessible, useful analytic tool." J.A. 1007. The article stated that "[o]ne of the keys to the product's success is a notebook metaphor, in which each worksheet page can be assigned a descriptive name and users can navigate through the set by clicking on page tabs." Id.

         Similarly, in 1992, InfoWorld named Quattro Pro the product of the year for productivity applications. In doing so, InfoWorld wrote:

We collected all the word processors, spreadsheets, databases, personal information managers, and other productivity applications and asked ourselves a question: "Which of these programs really changed the way an individual user goes about handling data? Does any one stand out as a productivity booster?"
Our answer was Quattro Pro for Windows. The reason: Borland designed this program from the ground up and examined how spreadsheet users would work in a Windows environment. The notebook metaphor, with pages and tabs for different worksheets, simplifies handling large worksheets. The "interface builder" lets a user design custom dialog boxes without extensive macro programming. And, of course, Quattro Pro's graphics are stellar.

         J.A. 1008 (emphasis added). In total, DET submitted seven articles dated between 1992 and 1993, all touting the advantages of its use of notebook tabs to improve navigation through three-dimensional spreadsheets. See J.A. 981-1010.

         DET filed suit against Google LLC, asserting claims 1-2, 12-13, 16-17, 19, 24, 46-47, and 51 of the '259 patent; claims 1-2, 5-7, 10, 13, and 35 of the '545 patent; and claims 1, 3, 6-7, 10, 12-13, 15, and 18 of the '551 patent. The district court considered claim 12 of the '259 patent representative of all asserted claims of the Tab Patents. See Data Engine Techs. LLC v. Google Inc., 211 F.Supp.3d 669, 677-78 (D. Del. 2016) ("District Court Op."). Claim 12 of the '259 patent recites:

12. In an electronic spreadsheet system for storing and manipulating information, a computer-implemented method of representing a three-dimensional spreadsheet on a screen display, the method comprising:
displaying on said screen display a first spreadsheet page from a plurality of spreadsheet pages, each of said spreadsheet pages comprising an array of information cells arranged in row and column format, at least some of said information cells storing user-supplied information and formulas operative on said user-supplied information, each of said information cells being uniquely identified by a spreadsheet page identifier, a column identifier, and a row identifier;
while displaying said first spreadsheet page, displaying a row of spreadsheet page identifiers along one side of said first spreadsheet page, each said spreadsheet page identifier being displayed as an image of a notebook tab on said screen display and indicating a single respective spreadsheet page, wherein at least one spreadsheet page identifier of said displayed row of spreadsheet page identifiers comprises at least one user-settable identifying character;
receiving user input for requesting display of a second spreadsheet page in response to selection with an input device of a spreadsheet page identifier for said second spreadsheet page;
in response to said receiving user input step, displaying said second spreadsheet page on said screen display in a manner so as to obscure said first spreadsheet page from display while continuing to display at least a portion of said row of spreadsheet page identifiers; and receiving user input for entering a formula in a cell on said second spreadsheet page, said formula including a cell reference to a particular cell on another of said spreadsheet pages having a particular spreadsheet page identifier comprising at least one user-supplied identifying character, said cell reference comprising said at least one user-supplied ...

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