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McRO, Inc. v. Namco Bandai, et al.
Central District of California
No. CV 12-10322
September 22, 2014

In a case described by the court as illustrating "the danger that exists when the novel portions of an invention are claimed too broadly," a patent on automated rules for animating lip synchronization has been found invalid under 35 U.S.C. 101. See Op. at 22.

McRO, Inc., d.b.a. Planet Blue ("McRO") brought 29 different lawsuits in the Central District of California against some of the biggest names in gaming alleging infringement of two patents related to automated methods for synchronizing an animated character's mouth with dialogue. The defendants included Electronic Arts, Disney Interactive, Namco Bandai, Konami, Sega, Square Enix, Capcom, Sony, and Activision Blizzard, among others. The court consolidated the lawsuits into two cases based on filing dates (CV 12-10322 and CV 13-1872).

All the defendants joined in filing a motion for judgment on the pleadings based on unpatentability of the claims under 35 U.S.C. 101. The defendants argued that the patents-in-suit were directed to a "fundamental, abstract animation practice," namely, "the abstract idea of rules-based synchronization of animated mouth movement.  See Op. at 12. While the court disagreed with defendants as to the abstract idea claimed, the court ultimately held that the point of novelty in the claims represented an abstract idea and thus was unpatentable under 101. See Op. at 19. Importantly, the court's analysis was primarily based on a thorough discussion in the patent of the manual processes employed in the prior art..

The two patents-in-suit were U.S. Pat. Nos. 6,307,576 and 6,611,278. Claim 1 of the '576 patent is representative and was analyzed by the court:
1. A method for automatically animating lip synchronization and facial expression of three-dimensional characters comprising:
obtaining a first set of rules that define output morph weight set stream as a function of phoneme sequence and time of said phoneme sequence;
obtaining a timed data file of phonemes having a plurality of sub-sequences;
generating an intermediate stream of output morph weight sets and a plurality of transition parameters between two adjacent morph weight sets by evaluating said plurality of sub-sequences against said first set of rules;
generating a final stream of output morph weight sets at a desired frame rate from said intermediate stream of output morph weight sets and said plurality of transition parameters; and
applying said final stream of output morph weight sets to a sequence of animated characters to produce lip synchronization and facial expression control of said animated characters.
Initially, the court noted that these claims do not appear to be directed to an abstract idea on their face.  Op. at 13. Further, the court noted that the claims do not cover the prior art methods of computer-assisted, but non-automated, lip synchronization. Id. Additionally, the court cited defendant's non-infringement positions as evidence that the claims did not preempt all manners of automating lip synched animation. See Op. at 14. The court observed that, in section 101 motions, the parties positions are flipped: the patentee must argue that noninfringing alternatives exist and the defendant must argue that there are no noninfringing alternatives. Id.

In one of the clearer statements to date on 101 analysis, the court proceeded to argue that the claims must be evaluated in the context of the prior art:


Op. at 14. The court's analysis centered on identifying the point of novelty over the admitted prior art. As mentioned above, the patent contained a thorough discussion of prior art techniques whereby animators would manually set "morph weight values" to animate a character's mouth based on the dialogue. According to the court, the patentee, and the patent itself, the novelty of the claims (and the inventive step) was in the use of automated timing rules to automate the animation process:


Op. at 18 and 19. This left "an abstract idea at the point of novelty" and prevents "the development of any additional ways to use that abstract idea in the relevant field." See Op. at 19 (citing Alice Corp.Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int'l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2360 (2014)). Thus, the court found the claims invalid under 35 U.S.C. 101. See Op. at 18, 23.

The court observed: "One unintended consequence of Alice, and perhaps of this and other decisions to come, is an incentive for patent applicants to say as little as possible about the prior art in their applications." Op. at 19. Indeed, the patent's thorough discussion of prior art methods provided a strong argument that they had merely automated a previously manual process.

The court performed its 101 analysis by stripping out of all the prior art techniques from the claim, boiling the claim down to a point of novelty. This is also the approach used in obviousness analysis under 35 U.S.C. 103. During obviousness analysis, the difference between the claimed invention and the prior art is assessed against the skill and knowledge of one of ordinary skill in the art. The patentee in this case presented evidence of a defendant characterizing the claimed invention as "revolutionary." Such a characterization would typically carry considerable weight in obviousness analysis. However, the court stated that:


Op. at 20. Thus, it would appear that even if a non-obvious and "revolutionary" concept was presented by the point of novelty, but that concept was an "abstract idea" that prevents "the development of any additional ways to use that abstract idea in the relevant field," the claim would be patent ineligible and invalid under 35 U.S.C. 101.

The court summed up its ruling: "When examined in light of the prior art, the claims are directed to an abstract idea, and lack an 'inventive concept' 'sufficient to ensure that the patent in practice amounts to significantly more than a patent upon the [abstract idea] itself.'" Op. at 23 (citing Alice, 134 S. Ct. at 2351).

We will continue to provide updates on relevant decisions on patentability under Alice.


U.S. Patent No. 7,666,079: Video game processing apparatus, a method and a computer readable medium that stores a program for processing a video game
Issued February 23, 2010, to Square Enix


Summary:

The ‘079 patent is designed to help the monotonous tendencies of RPG attack battles. In past RPG games, a player’s character had a choice of two kinds of battle attacks (indirect and direct attacks). A direct attack would be something physical like a sword, while an indirect attack would involve things outside of the player (magic, for example). In earlier RPG games, a player would attempt a direct or indirect attacked based on whether the enemy was within range to receive the attack. If the enemy were within range, the player’s attack would succeed. The present invention seeks to enhance the player’s gameplay by allowing for certain factors to prevent the attack from succeeding. Under this invention the player must now take into account the speed of the enemy, the enemy’s skill/moves set, and the distance between the two characters.

Abstract:

Specification of an attack for a player character is received by means of an attack specifying operation of the player. A direct attack reaction is determined in the case where it is determined that the attack hits an enemy character A. The direct attack reaction indicates a reaction of the direct attack target character that suffers the direct attack. The enemy character A is then caused to execute the determined direct attack reaction. In the case where it is determined that an indirect attack to be caused by contact between the enemy characters A, B hits an enemy character B when the enemy character A executes the direct attack reaction, an indirect attack reaction indicating a reaction of the enemy character B that suffers the indirect attack is determined. The enemy character B is then caused to execute the determined indirect attack reaction.

Illustrative Claim:

1. A video game processing apparatus that causes an image display apparatus to display a player character on an image display screen of the image display apparatus, the video game processing apparatus controlling progress of the video game by controlling an action of the player character to be displayed on the image display screen in accordance with operations by a player, the video game processing apparatus comprising: an attack specifying receiver that receives specification of an attack for the player character by an attack specifying operation of the player; a direct attack hit determiner that determines whether the attack from the player character hits a direct attack target enemy character movable on a field in the video game, when the attack specifying receiver receives the attack specification; a direct attack reaction determiner that determines a direct attack reaction in accordance with direct reaction determination information including attack content of the player character, a kind of ground level in a battle field where a battle is executed, and a weight preliminarily set as a weight of the direct attack target enemy character, when the direct attack hit determiner determines that the attack hits the direct attack target enemy character, the direct attack reaction indicating a reaction of the direct attack target enemy character that suffers the direct attack; a direct attack reaction executor that causes the direct attack target enemy character to execute the direct attack reaction determined by the direct attack reaction determiner; an indirect attack hit determiner that determines whether an indirect attack hits an indirect attack target enemy character other than the direct attack target enemy character when the direct attack target enemy character executes the direct attack reaction by the direct attack reaction executer, the indirect attack being caused by contact between the direct attack target enemy character and the indirect attack target enemy character movable on the field; an indirect attack reaction determiner that determines an indirect attack reaction when the indirect attack hit determiner determines that the indirect attack hits the indirect attack target enemy character, the indirect attack reaction indicating a reaction of the indirect attack target enemy character that suffers the indirect attack; and an indirect attack reaction executor that causes the indirect attack target enemy character to execute the indirect attack reaction determined by the indirect attack reaction determiner, wherein the direct attack target enemy character is a non-player character.

U.S. Patent No. 7,677,967: Battle school
Issued March 16, 2010


Summary:
The ‘967 patent is aptly named “Battle school” because it deals with a lesser-explored kind of game—the educational game.  The invention describes a type of game whereby two players can engage in battle against each other. Unlike traditional games, however, after a user selects an attack, he is asked a question by the other user. If the first player answers the question correctly, his character performs an effective attack. The type of question asked by the user may be pre-selected from a list, or created by the user, but it is supposed to be a question related to a certain educational topic. Interesting concept described in this patent, how it will be applied will be something to surely keep track of.

Abstract:

Educational materials are presented in the format of games such as role-playing where participants progress through game storylines within a game environment. Each game participant is assigned a game character having unique and dynamic attributes that can be modified as the character progresses through the game storylines. The characters encounter challenges and participate in game actions that require the participant to answer questions that correspond to educational materials that are contextually unrelated to the game storylines. In order to successfully modify a character's attributes, obtain possessions for the character, progress through the storyline, to be successful in battle sequences or to obtain a desired reward, the participants must correctly answer the questions they are presented. To obtain a successful result, it is also sometimes necessary for a participant to recruit other participants having different assigned characters with different attributes to collaborate and work with the participant.

Exemplary Claim:

1. A method for presenting and testing educational materials within a computer game environment in which multiple human participants play the role of assigned virtual game characters that engage in battle sequences within the game environment and wherein the success of battle attacks and defensive actions involving the assigned characters during the battle sequences within the game environment are determined by a combination of assigned strengths, weaknesses and attributes of the assigned virtual game characters, as well as types of questions asked and the answers given by the multiple human participants that reflect personal mastery of the educational materials, the method comprising: identifying a plurality of virtual game characters, corresponding to a virtual game environment, that are stored on a computing system and that each comprise a corresponding and unique set of game attributes that include at least an attack attribute and a defense attribute for participating in a battle sequence involving at least two virtual game characters within the virtual game environment; assigning a first virtual game character to a first human participant from a pool of available virtual game characters; assigning a second virtual game character to a second human participant from the pool of available virtual game characters; presenting the virtual game environment on the computing system with the first virtual game character in a storyline and that includes game actions that the first virtual game character participates in, and wherein the game actions include at least one of modifying the unique set of attributes that correspond to the first virtual game character, obtaining possessions for the first virtual game character, and/or using the first virtual game character to interact with a second virtual game character that is assigned to a second human participant; identifying rules that define battle between the first and second virtual game characters, wherein said rules define types of questions that can be asked by the first and second human participants to initiate an attack with one or more virtual weapons wielded by the first and second virtual game characters during the battle within the virtual game environment and a potential for inflicting battle damage during the attack with the one or more virtual weapons, wherein battle damage comprises a reduction of one or more character attributes, and wherein the types of questions that can be asked and the potential for damage is based at least in part on the defined attack and defense attributes of the first and second virtual game characters; presenting questions to the first human participant through the virtual game environment when the first virtual game character participates in particular game actions within the virtual game environment, wherein at least some of the presented questions are educational questions, which correspond to educational materials, and that are provided at least in part by the second human participant submitting one or more particular questions, wherein the one or more particular questions that can be submitted by the second human participant are limited to the attack attribute of the second virtual game character and are at least restricted to less than all questions that are available to be asked during battle by all of the available virtual game characters, and wherein said educational questions also correspond to one or more virtual battle attacks that are preformed with a virtual weapon and that are directed to the first virtual game character within the virtual game environment and that originate from the second virtual game character assigned to the second human participant, and wherein the first human participant defends the first virtual game character from the one or more attacks by answering said educational questions correctly; rewarding the first virtual game character with a positive outcome to the particular game action within the virtual game environment for correct answers received from the first human participant in a response to the presented questions, including at least successfully defending the first virtual game character from suffering battle damage resulting from the one or more attacks by the virtual weapon within the virtual game environment, and wherein the battle damage comprises a reduction of at least one character attribute of at least the first or second character in the virtual game environment; and assessing mastery of the educational materials by the first human participant, wherein assessing mastery of the educational materials is based on an evaluation of rewards received by the first virtual game character within the virtual game environment and by evaluating progress of the first virtual game character within the game, which includes an evaluation of whether the one or more attacks are successfully defended.


U.S. Patent No. 6,421,056: Three-dimensional image processing apparatus
Issued July 16, 2002, to Nintendo Co. Ltd.


Summary: 

The ‘056 patent set out to solve a practical problem that had existed in previous vide games. Before, if a background image (e.g., a wall) or another character came between the player and the “camera,” the player could not view his character in that three-dimensional world. In the system described here, however, if it is determined that there is a possibility of a collision between the operable object and a polygon plane of the other object, the camera position can be changed so that the other object does not exist between the operable object and the camera.

Abstract:

A three-dimension image processing apparatus includes a CPU. When the CPU detects by collision determination that another object, e.g., a wall, is existent between an operable object and a camera, it calculates such a moving angle of the camera that an eye of the camera to the operable object is not obstructed by the other object. The camera is moved in accordance with the moving angle to a position where the operable object and the other object existing in a photographed three-dimensional space are displayed on a display.

Illustrative Claim:

1. An image processing apparatus for use in displaying an image of a player controlled object and another object existing in a three-dimensional space from a predetermined point of view, comprising: an external memory for storing data of the player controlled operable object, the other object, and a predetermined program; an input device which inputs data which alters the position of the operable object in the three-dimensional space; operable object position data generating circuitry which generates player controlled object position data so as to alter the position of the player controlled object in the three-dimensional space based on the data input via said input device; three-dimensional data generating circuitry for creating three-dimensional data based on the data stored in said external memory and the operable object position data; a point of view position data generator for generating position data representative of a point of view position in the three-dimensional space for viewing the player controlled object; a detector for detecting whether or not the other object is existent between the viewing position and the current player controlled position; point of view position data altering processing circuitry for altering the point of view position data such that the other object is not existent between the point of view position and the player controlled object position when said detector detects existence of the other object; a display data generator for displaying the image of the player controlled object from a predetermined position in the three-dimensional space based on the three-dimensional data and the point of view position data; and image signal generating circuitry which outputs an image signal to said display based on the display data created by said display data creating generator.
Related Patents:

U.S. Patent No. 6,590,578
U.S. Patent No. 6,283,857
U.S. Patent No. 5,973,704


U.S. Patent No. 6,626,760: Video game apparatus and memory medium therefor
Issued September 30, 2003, to Nintendo Co. Ltd.



Summary:

The ‘073 patent allows a player to lock his character onto a non-player object with the press of a button (the ‘Z’ button when playing the Nintendo 64). Once a player presses the Z button, the camera will automatically adjust so as to give the player the best view of the object he has locked on to and thus make it easier to see or attack that object. The camera is designed to go behind the player and give him a forward-facing view of the action which allows him to see the non-player object in front of him clearer.

Abstract:

A video game apparatus includes an RCP. The RCP performs a conversion process on image data to display a player object or non-player object according to image data transferred from an external ROM to a RAM, and supplies the image signal through the display. The RCP detects whether or not there exists a non-player object at around the player object on the display in response to an operation of a Z button. If a non-player object is detected, the RCP selects the non-player object as an attention non-player object. At this time, the hypothetical camera is changed in position and photographing direction such that photographing can be made for the player object directly facing the non-player object.

Illustrative Claim:

1. A video game apparatus coupled to a display, comprising:

a first image data generator for generating first image data to display a player object;

a second image data generator for generating second image data to display non-player objects;

an image processor for supplying an image signal to said display according to at least one of said first image data and said second image data in order to display, in a virtual three-dimension space on said display, at least one of the player object and the non-player object photographed through a hypothetical camera;

a controller including a first operation member to instruct a moving direction of the player object and a second operating member that is operated when attention is to be paid by the player object to the non-player object;

a non-player object detector for detecting whether the non-player object exists or not, in response to an operation of said second operating member;

A selector for selecting as an attention non-player object the non-player object detected by said non-player object detector; and

a camera controller for changing the position of said hypothetical camera such that photographing can be made on the player object directly facing the attention non-player object selected by said selector.

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