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Although the two steps in the Alice framework involve overlapping scrutiny of the content of the claims, the U.S. Supreme Court's formulation makes clear that the first-stage filter is a meaningful one, sometimes ending the 35 U.S.C.S. § 101 inquiry. In this regard, a court must articulate with specificity what the claims are directed to, and ask whether the claims are directed to an improvement to computer functionality versus being directed to an abstract idea.
Visual Memory, LLC’s ‘740 patent purported to overcome the prior art memory systems’ deficiencies by creating a memory system with programmable operational characteristics that can be tailored for use with multiple different processors without the accompanying reduction in performance. Visual Memory sued NVIDIA for infringement of the '740 patent. Believing the claims to be directed to patent-ineligible subject matter, NVIDIA filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The district court granted NVIDIA's motion. Under step one of the Alice test, the court concluded that the claims were directed to the "abstract idea of categorical data storage," which humans have practiced for many years. The court's step-two analysis found no inventive concept because the claimed computer components—a main memory, cache, bus, and processor—were generic and conventional. Visual Memory appealed the district court’s decision.
Were the claims of the ‘740 patent directed to a patent-ineligible subject matter?
The court held that the ‘740 patent claimed an improvement to computer memory systems and was not directed to an abstract idea. The claims in this case were directed to a technological improvement: an enhanced computer memory system. The '740 patent's claims focused on a specific asserted improvement in computer capabilities—the use of programmable operational characteristics that were configurable based on the type of processor—instead of on a process that qualified as an 'abstract idea' for which computers were invoked merely as a tool. Accordingly, this was not a case where the claims merely recited the "use of an abstract mathematical formula on any general purpose computer," "a purely conventional computer implementation of a mathematical formula," or "generalized steps to be performed on a computer using conventional computer activity." The judgment of the district court was reversed.