The landscape of software patents has been in disarray since the Alice decision by the Supreme Court in 2014. In that case, the Supreme Court determined that the patent in question was directed to an “abstract idea” and that implementing those claims on a computer could not be patentable subject matter. Since that decision, a small body of case law has emerged in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit redefining what might be patentable software.
Though we normally do not write about specific patent law cases, McRo, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games touches on lip-syncing technology and includes named defendants like Electronic Arts, Capcom, Activision, Blizzard, Bandai Namco, Disney Interactive, Atlus, Naughty Dog, Sucker Punch, Sony Computer Entertainment, Square Enix…really a who’s who of triple-A publishers in the video game industry.
Two patents were enforced by the plaintiff, with the technology in question involving automatic lip-synchronization for animated characters. The goal was to replace manually syncing lip and facial expressions to identify specific phonemes (or distinctive sounds or groups of sounds) to create more realistic speech for characters over the methods previously used to do so in less time. Prior technology discussed the transition between resting facial expressions to “morph targets” for different sounds.
In its decision to confirm patentability, the court stressed the importance of how this technology was an improvement over relevant technology, with certain questions directing its finding. Does the technology focus on a specific method that improves relevant technology? Or does it merely invoke generic processes and machinery? The answer to these questions may determine whether the patent will be invalidated for being an abstract idea or upheld as an improvement. In this specific case, the court found that the claims were limited to a specific process for automatically animating characters using particular information and techniques. As a whole, the challenged claim used limited rules in a process “specifically designed to achieve an improved technological result in conventional industry practice” and, therefore, was not directed to an abstract idea.