By James Korenchan —

In August 2018, Plaintiffs Ubisoft Entertainment, S.A. and Ubisoft, Inc. (collectively, „Ubisoft”) sued Defendant Yousician Oy („Oy”), alleging that Oy’s software products infringed Ubisoft’s U.S. Patent No. 9,839,852 (the ‚852 patent).  In November 2018, Oy moved to dismiss on grounds that the claims of the patent are directed to patent-ineligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101.  On August 9, 2019, Judge Louise W. Flanagan of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina granted the motion and dismissed Ubisoft’s complaint.

The ‚852 patent is generally related to Ubisoft’s music video game, Rocksmith®, which is an interactive game designed to help users learn how to play guitar, such as by allowing users to play guitar along with visual learning aids displayed on a screen and providing users with useful feedback and statistics based on their performance.  More particularly, the claims of the ‚852 patent relate to a computer program that receives signals from a guitar device while a user is playing a song, assesses the user’s performance  of the song, and determines a portion of the song where the user can improve the performance.  Once the program determines where the user can improve, the program changes a difficulty level of the fingering notations for the determined portion of the song (e.g., changing a frequency or speed at which the notations are presented) and generates a „mini-game” targeted to improving the user’s performance of the determined portion.  As an example, the mini-game might prompt the user to play the determined portion (or the entire song) without missing a note or without the aid of the displayed fingering notations.

Claim 1 is provided as follows as a representative example:

1.  A non-transitory computer readable storage medium with a computer program stored thereon, wherein the computer program is operable to present an interactive game for playing a song on a guitar, wherein the computer program instructs one or more processors to perform the steps of:
    presenting, on a display device, a plurality of fingering notations corresponding to the song to be played by a user;
    receiving, from a guitar input device, an analog or digital audio signal when the guitar is played by the user, wherein the received signal corresponds to the song played by the user;
    assessing a performance of the song as played by the user, based on the assessed performance, determining a portion of the performance that should be improved;
    based on the assessed performance and the determined portion of the performance that should be improved, selectively changing a difficulty level of at least a portion of the presented plurality of fingering notations corresponding to the song; and
    generating at least one mini-game different from the game for the song being played targeted to improving the user’s skills associated with the performance of the determined portion.

The ‚852 patent criticizes conventional techniques (e.g., CDs, video tapes, music teachers/books) for learning how to play musical instruments as limited in their quality of instruction and the manners in which they present information.  As such, the ‚852 patent purports to improve on existing techniques with an „interactive method and system” that provides an integrated learning approach as well as audio and visual feedback.  Specifically, Ubisoft alleges that the claimed invention improves over the prior art by assessing a user’s performance for improvement, selectively changing the difficulty level of the song based on the assessment, and generating a different game target to improve the user’s skills based on the assessment.

Abstract Idea

Regarding step one of the Alice test, the Court asserted that the ‚852 patent is directed toward the abstract idea of teaching guitar by evaluating a user’s performance and generating appropriate exercises to improve that performance.  According to the Court, a „typical music teacher” performs the steps of claim 1 when teaching a musical instrument.

In reaching its abstract idea conclusion, the Court found the Federal Circuit’s 2016 decision in Apple Inc. v. Ameranth, Inc. to be instructive.  The patents in Ameranth were related to a computerized menu for ordering food.  The Federal Circuit struck down the claims of those patents as patent ineligible, asserting that the claims did not involve a way of programming or designing the software to create menus, but instead „merely claim[ed] the resulting systems” for a practice that has historically been done verbally.

Here, the Court asserted that the ‚852 patent merely claims the resulting systems for evaluating a user’s performance and generating appropriate exercises.  More particularly, the Court asserted that the ‚852 patent merely adds a computer to well-established, real world activities that have been historically performed by music teachers and does not claim or describe details as to how the video game software assesses the user’s performance, targets a particular portion of the performance, and generates a mini-game targeted towards improving the user’s skill with regard to that portion.  Without such details, the Court found the claims to be more akin to those in Electric Power Group — namely, those directed to „collecting information, analyzing it, and displaying certain results of the collection and analysis” without a claimed technological improvement.  And, to explain why no technological improvement was present, the Court cited to the ‚852 patent’s specification:

[T]he ‚852 patent’s specification does not describe an improvement regarding operating computers and states instead „[t]he invention may be applied as a standalone game engine system or as a component of an integrated software solution,” and that „the processes presented herein are not inherently related to any particular computer, processing device, article or other apparatus.”

The Court thus concluded that the claims are directed toward an abstract idea.

Inventive Concept

Turning to step two of the Alice test, the Court found no additional element or combination of elements in the claims that elevated the claim beyond, in its view, wholly generic computer implementation of established teaching methods.  The Court highlighted what it believed to be the „only arguable inventive concept” in the claims:  the limitation of changing the difficulty level of a song responsive to the assessment of the user’s performance, such as in real time while the song is being played.  Indeed, Ubisoft had argued that a human music teacher cannot selectively change a difficulty level of the same song that the user was playing in the manner recited by the claims.  But after further examination, the Court ultimately found the concept to be „vague and lacking innovation” in the sense that the claims and specification did not explain how the difficulty level feature (and, likewise, the targeted mini-game generation feature) would be accomplished in a level of detail beyond what a music teacher would normally do (e.g., changing a frequency or speed of the presented fingering notations, breaking the song into sections having different difficulties).

Ubisoft also argued that the dependent claims of the ‚852 patent further emphasize the improvements that the claimed invention provides to existing approaches, but the Court dismissed the claims as substituting a generic computer for a human teacher, instead distinguishing them from the types of improvements to computer technology identified by the Federal Circuit over the past three years in Ancora Techs., Inc. v. HTC Am., Inc.; Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp.; Data Engine Techs LLC v. Google LLC; and others.  Ubisoft also found no help in the prosecution history of the ‚852 patent, as the Court paid no heed to the Examiner’s previous decision of patent eligibility and noted that the mini-game generation feature — the one feature the Examiner hadn’t found in the prior art — was not a technological improvement or an advance in computer function.

Lastly, the Court dismissed Ubisoft’s arguments that Oy failed to prove that the recited steps in the claims are well-understood, routine, and conventional.

Thus, the Court concluded that the claims were patent-ineligible and granted Oy’s motion to dismiss.

Ubisoft Entertainment, S.A. v. Oy (E.D.N.C.)
Order by District Judge Louise W. Flanagan