Microsoft Dodges Infringement, But Can’t Kill Pivot Table Patents

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By Peter Leung

Microsoft Corp.’s software doesn’t infringe two patents on exporting data to spreadsheets, a federal appeals court held Oct. 30 while also ruling the patents themselves aren’t invalid.The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a trial court ruling that several of the claims in patents held by MasterMine Software Inc. were invalid as indefinite because they covered both methods and systems. A patent claim can cover a method for performing a task, or an apparatus, which is often referred to as a system ( MasterMine Software, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp. , Fed. Cir., No. 16-2465, 10/30/17 ).

A patent can have some claims covering methods and other claims covering systems, but a single claim can’t cover both, under a 2005 Federal Circuit decision in IPXL Holdings LLC v. Amazon.com Inc. The new decision relaxes that prohibition.

MasterMine Software’s U.S. Patent Nos. 7,945,850 and 8,429,518, both relate to data mining and automatically exporting data from customer relationship management software to spreadsheets. MasterMine alleged that Microsoft’s Dyanmics CRM software, and its “Export to Excel” feature infringe the patents.

The trial court had ruled that Microsoft didn’t infringe the patents but also that several of MasterMine’s patent claims were indefinite because they covered both in one claim, making it difficult to tell when a claim has actually been infringed.

Limits, Not Methods

The Federal Circuit said that MasterMine’s claims didn’t try to cover both a system and a method. The purported method elements were actually allowable functional language that showed the limits of the claimed system by describing how it works, the court said.

The patent claims in question cover a reporting module that allows the software to export data to a spreadsheet. According to the patent claims, the module presents database fields for the user to choose, receives those selections from the user, and generates a database query from the selection.

The court said though the system claims use active verbs such as “presents” and “receives,” those elements aren’t methods. Instead, they are used to describe how the patented system—the reporting module—works.

MasterMine’s patent claims are also different from the invalidated claims in IPXL, the court said. The IPXL patent claims focus on the user’s specific actions, an attempt to cover those activities as part of a method, while MasterMine’s patent claims just describe what its reporting modules can do, the court said.

Unlike in IPXL, there isn’t any uncertainty as to what MasterMine’s patent claims actually cover, the court said.

The Federal Circuit also affirmed the trial court’s interpretation of “pivot table,” a crucial term in the patents. MasterMine admitted that under that definition, Microsoft doesn’t infringe.

The district court interpreted pivot table to mean an “interactive set of data displayed in rows and columns that can be rotated and filtered to summarize or view the data in different ways,” a construction that the Federal Circuit said is supported by the patent specification.

Judge Kara F. Stoll wrote the decision, which Judges Pauline Newman and Kathleen M. O’Malley joined. Frederickson & Byron PA represented MasterMine, while Walters Wilson LLP represented Microsoft.

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter Leung in Washington at pleung@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mike Wilczek at mwilczek@bna.com

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