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McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games America Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit

September 13, 2016

MCRO, INC., DBA PLANET BLUE, Plaintiff-Appellant
v.
BANDAI NAMCO GAMES AMERICA INC., NAUGHTY DOG, INC., KONAMI DIGITAL ENTERTAINMENT, INC., SEGA OF AMERICA, INC., ELECTRONIC ARTS INC., OBSIDIAN ENTERTAINMENT, INC., DISNEY INTERACTIVE STUDIOS, INC., SQUARE ENIX, INC., NEVERSOFT ENTERTAINMENT, INC., TREYARCH CORPORATION, CAPCOM USA, INC., SONY COMPUTER ENTERTAINMENT AMERICA LLC, ATLUS U.S.A., INC., SUCKER PUNCH PRODUCTIONS, LLC, INFINITY WARD, INC., LUCASARTS, A DIVISION OF LUCASFILM ENTERTAINMENT COMPANY LTD. LLC, WARNER BROS. INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT, A DIVISION OF WARNER BROS. HOME ENTERTAINMENT INC., ACTIVISION PUBLISHING, INC., BLIZZARD ENTERTAINMENT, INC., VALVE CORPORATION, CODEMASTERS USA GROUP, INC., CODEMASTERS SOFTWARE INC., CODEMASTERS, INC., THE CODEMASTERS SOFTWARE COMPANY LIMITED, Defendants-Appellees

         Appeals from the United States District Court for the Central District of California in Nos. 2:12-cv-10322-GW-FFM, 2:12-cv-10323-GW-FFM, 2:12-cv-10327-GW-FFM, 2:12-cv-10329-GW-FFM, 2:12-cv-10331-GW-FFM, 2:12-cv-10333-GW-FFM, 2:12-cv-10335-GW-FFM, 2:12-cv-10337-GW-FFM, 2:12-cv-10338-GW-FFM, 2:12-cv-10341-GW-FFM, 2:12-cv-10342-GW-FFM, 8:13-cv-01870-GW-FFM, 2:14-cv-00332-GW-FFM, 2:14-cv-00336-GW-FFM, 2:14-cv-00358-GW-FFM, 2:14-cv-00383-GW-FFM, 2:14-cv-00352-GW-FFM, 2:14-cv-00417-GW-FFM, 8:13-cv-01874-GW-FFM, 2:14-cv-00389-GW-FFM, 2:14-cv-00439-GW-FFM, Judge George H. Wu.

          Jeffrey A. Lamken, MoloLamken LLP, Washington, DC, argued for plaintiff-appellant. Also represented by Michael Gregory Pattillo, Jr.; John Francis Petrsoric, Mark Stewart Raskin, Robert Alan Whitman, Mishcon de Reya New York LLP, New York, NY; JohnM. Whealan, Chevy Chase, MD.

          SONAL NARESH Mehta, Durie Tangri LLP, San Francisco, CA, representing defendants-appellees Electronic Arts Inc., Capcom USA, Inc., Activision Publishing, Inc., Blizzard Entertainment, Inc., argued for all defendants-appellees.

          Edward R. Reines, Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, Redwood Shores, CA, for defendants-appellees Bandai Namco Games America Inc., Sega of America, Inc., Disney Interactive Studios, Inc., Neversoft Entertainment, Inc., Treyarch Corporation, Atlus U.S.A., Inc., Infinity Ward, Inc.. LucasArts. a Division of LucasFilm Entertainment Company Ltd. LLC, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, a Division of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Inc.

          Basil Trent Webb, Shook, Hardy & Bacon, LLP, Kansas City, MO, for defendants-appellees Naughty Dog, Inc., Sony Computer Entertainment America LLC, Sucker Punch Productions, LLC. Also represented by John D. Garretson, Beth A. Larigan.

          Wendy J. Ray, Morrison & Foerster LLP, Los Angeles, CA, for defendants-appellees Konami Digital Entertainment, Inc., Square Enix, Inc. Also represented by Benjamin J. Fox.

          Andrew David Tsu, Spach Capaldi & Waggaman LLP, Newport Beach, CA, for defendant-appellee Obsidian Entertainment, Inc. Also represented by THOMAS Walling.

          Jan Patrick Weir, Michelman & Robinson, LLP, Irvine, CA, for defendant-appellee Valve Corporation. Also represented by Joseph James Mellema; Theodore J. Angelis, David T. McDonald, K&L Gates LLP, Seattle, WA.

          KEVIN W. KiRSCH, Baker & Hostetler LLP, Cincinnati, OH, for defendants-appellees Codemasters, Inc., Code-masters USA Group, Inc., Codemasters Software Inc., The Codemasters Software Company Limited. Also represented by Jared A. Brandyberry; Barry Eastburn BRETSCHNEIDER, Washington, DC.

          Charles Duan, Public Knowledge, Washington, DC, for amici curiae Public Knowledge, Electronic Frontier Foundation. Also represented by Vera Ranieri, Electronic Frontier Foundation, San Francisco, CA.

          Andrew John Pincus, Mayer Brown LLP, Washington, DC, for amicus curiae BSA I The Software Alliance. Also represented by Paul Whitfield Hughes.

          Before Reyna, Taranto, and Stoll, Circuit Judges.

          Reyna, Circuit Judge.

         This appeal is from a grant of judgment on the pleadings under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) that the asserted claims of U.S. Patent Nos. 6, 307, 576 ("the '576 patent") and 6, 611, 278 ("the '278 patent") are invalid. The United States District Court for the Central District of California found that the asserted claims are directed to patent-ineligible subject matter and are therefore invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 101 ("§ 101"). McRO, Inc. v. Sony Computer Entm't Am., LLC, 55 F.Supp.3d 1214 (CD. Cal. 2014) ("Patentability Op"). We hold that the ordered combination of claimed steps, using unconventional rules that relate sub-sequences of phonemes, timings, and morph weight sets, is not directed to an abstract idea and is therefore patent-eligible subject matter under § 101. Accordingly, we reverse.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background

         The '576 patent and the '278 patent were both issued to Maury Rosenfeld and are both titled "Method for Automatically Animating Lip Synchronization and Facial Expression of Animated Characters." The '278 patent is a continuation of the '576 patent and shares the same written description.

         1. Admitted Prior Art

         The patents relate to automating part of a preexisting 3-D animation method. As explained in the background of the patents, the admitted prior art method uses multiple 3-D models of a character's face to depict various facial expressions made during speech. See generally '576 patent col. 11. 14 to col. 2 1. 37. To animate the character as it speaks, the method morphs the character's expression between the models. The "neutral model" is the 3-D representation of the resting, neutral facial expression of an animated character. The other models of the character's face are known as "morph targets, " and each one represents that face as it pronounces a phoneme, i.e., makes a certain sound. This visual representation of the character's face making a sound is also called a "viseme." McRO Br. 7. An example morph target for the "ahh" phoneme is shown below. Each of these morph targets and the neutral model has identified points, called "vertices, " in certain places on the face. The set of differences in the location of these vertices (and the corresponding point on the face) between the neutral model and the morph target form a "delta set" of vectors representing the change in location of the vertices between the two models. For each morph target, there is a corresponding delta set consisting of the vectors by which the vertices on that morph target differ from the neutral model.

         (IMAGE OMITTED)

         Defs.'Br. 8.[1]

         Facial expressions are described as a function of the amount each morph target, and its corresponding delta set, is applied to modify the character model. "In producing animation products, a value usually from 0 to 1 is assigned to each delta set by the animator and the value is called the 'morph weight.'" '576 patent col. 111. 63-65. The set of morph weights for all the delta sets is called a "morph weight set." The neutral model is represented by a morph weight set with all morph weights of 0. A desired morph target is represented by the morph weight of 1 for that morph target's delta set and a morph weight of 0 for all other delta sets.

         The power of this prior art animation method is in generating intermediate faces by using morph weights between 0 and 1 to blend together multiple morph targets. For example, the face halfway between the neutral model and the "oh" face can be expressed simply by setting the "oh" morph weight to 0.5, i.e., 50%, as shown below at the left. The model halfway to the next syllable, in turn, could be expressed by setting both the "oh" morph weight and that for the next syllable each to 0.5, creating a blend of those two delta sets. McRO Br. 11; see also Defs.' Br. 8-11. For each morph weight set, the resulting facial expression is calculated by determining the displacement of each vertex from the neutral model as the product of the morph weights in the morph weight set and the corresponding delta sets for the morph targets. '576 patent col. 2 ll. 2-15.[2]

         (IMAGE OMITTED)

         McRO Br. 11.

         Animation of the character and lip synchronization preexisting the invention was generally accomplished by an animator with the assistance of a computer. Animators used "a 'keyframe' approach, where the artist set[] the appropriate [morph] weights at certain important times ('keyframes')" instead of at every frame. '576 patent col. 2 ll. 31-33. Animators knew what phoneme a character pronounced at a given time from a "time aligned phonetic transcription" ("timed transcript"). This listed the "occurrence in time" of each phoneme the character pronounced, as shown in the example below. Id. at col. 1 ll. 32-34.

         (IMAGE OMITTED)

         McRO Br. 7.

         Animators, using a computer, manually determined the appropriate morph weight sets for each keyframe based on the phoneme timings in the timed transcript. "For each keyframe, the artist would look at the screen and, relying on her judgment, manipulate the character model until it looked right-a visual and subjective process." McRO Reply Br. 4 (emphasis removed); Defs.' Br. 10 ("Using the [timed transcript], the animator would decide what the animated face should look like at key points in time between the start and end times, and then 'draw' the face at those times."). Because the pronounced phoneme and drawn keyframe corresponded in time, this prior art process synchronized the lips and facial expression of the 3-D character. A computer program would then interpolate between the keyframes set by the animator, creating the intermediate frames by determining the appropriate morph weight sets at intermediate points in time simply based on continuously transitioning between the keyframes. '576 patent col. 2 ll. 32-36.

         2. Claimed Invention

         The patents criticize the preexisting keyframe approach as "very tedious and time consuming, as well as inaccurate due to the large number of keyframes necessary to depict speech." '576 patent col. 2 ll. 35-37. They suggest the

present invention overcomes many of the deficiencies of the prior art and obtains its objectives by providing an integrated method embodied in computer software for use with a computer for the rapid, efficient lip synchronization and manipulation of character facial expressions, thereby allowing for rapid, creative, ...

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