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Vehicle charging station patents short-circuit under Alice analysis

The U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, the court that hears all patent-related appeals, continues to wield the so-called Alice test to knock down patents for abstract ideas. As part of one such decision, the court explained that abstract ideas aren’t patent-eligible in the absence of an inventive concept that makes a claim “significantly more” than just the abstract idea — and the underlying abstract idea can’t provide that inventive concept.

The charge

The case involved four patents relating to electric vehicle charging stations. The patented inventions link charging stations together, allowing site hosts, drivers and utility companies to communicate in real time to address the various parties’ needs and preferences. The system allows:

  • Each station to be managed from a central location,
  • Drivers to locate stations in advance, and
  • Users to interact with the electricity grid (so they can supply electricity to the grid).

ChargePoint, Inc., the patent holder, sued SemaConnect, Inc., for patent infringement. The trial court dismissed the case before trial, finding the patents covered a patent-ineligible abstract idea. The case then moved to the Federal Circuit.

The road map

Courts have long held that abstract ideas aren’t patent-eligible. In Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, the U.S. Supreme Court established a two-part framework for determining whether an invention is a patent-ineligible abstract idea.

First, a court must determine whether the patent covers — or is “directed to” — an abstract idea. If so, the court then considers the elements of the claim to determine whether these additional elements, individually or taken together as an ordered combination, include an inventive concept that transforms the claim into a patent-eligible application of the abstract idea. The critical question is whether the patent claims an abstract idea that’s such a basic building block of scientific or technological activity that it would inhibit future innovation.

The Federal Circuit here weighed whether the challenged patent claims focused on an abstract idea. It also considered the patent specification (the detailed description of the invention) the four patents shared, noting that it has found a patent’s specification helpful in the first step of the Alice analysis. But the court added that even specifications packed with technical details about a physical invention can conclude with claims that cover nothing more than the broad abstract idea underlying the claims.

The court ultimately concluded that all four patents were directed to the abstract idea of “communication over a network for device interaction.” It described that idea as a “building block of the modern economy” and therefore patent-ineligible.

The court next turned its attention to the search for an inventive concept that would render the invention patent-eligible. It found that the claims and specification made clear that the only possible inventive concept that solves problems in the charging station industry was the network communication among the charging stations.

Network communication, however, was the abstract idea itself. And, the court said, an invention’s use of the abstract idea that the patent is directed to can’t supply the inventive concept that makes the invention significantly more than just the ineligible abstract idea.

A dead end

Despite ruling against the patents, the Federal Circuit acknowledged that “the inventors here had the good idea to add networking capabilities to existing charging stations to facilitate various business interactions.” Unfortunately for them, it also found “that is where they stopped, and that is all they patented” — a patent-ineligible abstract idea.

ChargePoint, Inc. v. SemaConnect, Inc., No. 18-1739, March 28, 2019, Fed. Cir.


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