Two years after the Central District of California invalidated two 3-D animation patents under Section 101, the Federal Circuit reversed that court’s decision, finding that the lower court oversimplified the claims of a computer-related invention. McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., Nos. 2015-1080, et al., 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 16703 (Fed. Cir. Sep. 13, 2016) (opinion by Judge Reyna, joined by Judges Taranto and Stoll). While this case has stimulated discussion in the legal community, as being a ground-breaker for the patentability of software patents since the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2355 (2014), the Federal Circuit’s McRO decision conforms with existing principles in post-Alice Section 101 law. While the Federal Circuit disagreed with the lower court in applying these principles to the facts of this case, the McRO decision does not change the core principle that patent claims directed to specific improvements in computer technology are patent-eligible.
The patents at issue in McRo (U.S. Patent Nos. 6,307,576 and 6,611,278) involve 3-D computer animation. Their specifications describe that in the relevant art, applying the appropriate data points for basic sound phonemes, e.g. ‘aah,’ ‘ee,’ or ‘oo,’ was usually done using a “keyframe” approach. McRO, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 16703 at *7. In a keyframe approach, an animator sets the morph weights at certain important times, between which a computer program “interpolates” (filling in the data points between those morph weights). Id. at *8. The patents state that this method requires the animator to manually set a tediously high number of keyframes, which is time consuming, and can be inaccurate. Id.