Patent on Online Airline and Venue Seat Selection Upheld as Anticipated by Expedia

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By Tony Dutra  


Microsoft Corp.'s Expedia travel software anticipated patents on selecting seats on a plane or at a sports or entertainment venue, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled April 26 in a nonprecedential decision (Ceats Inc. v. Continental Airlines Inc., Fed. Cir., No. 2012-1614, 4/26/13).

The court affirmed the lower court's invalidity determination based on corroboration of Microsoft's earlier invention that included a specification for the software, videos on the usability of Expedia, and a checklist for testing by non-Microsoft end users.

Available Seat Info by Cursor Hovering Over

Ceats Inc. holds four related patents (U.S. Patent Nos. 7,454,361; 7,548,866; 7,660,728; and 7,548,869) claiming “electronic means by which people can select the exact seat or seats they want.” The patent claims cover displaying a text box of information when a user places a mouse cursor over a portion of a picture of an airplane or other seating chart.

For all the claims except those of the '869 patent, the information displayed pertains to “available individual seats.” For the '869 patent, reference is to “sets of available individual seats.”

Ceats filed a patent infringement lawsuit against 26 airline and eight online ticket reservation companies in April 2010.

A jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas found all claims infringed but also invalid for anticipation and obviousness. Chief Judge Leonard Davis denied Ceats's post-trial motions and Ceats appealed.

A 'Set of Seats' May Be Just One

Chief Judge Randall R. Rader affirmed the lower court's decisions. The court first addressed whether the evidence presented at trial was adequate corroboration of the testimony of two Microsoft software engineers involved in writing the Expedia code.

The court rejected Ceats's arguments as to the sufficiency of the corroborating evidence, all of which was recorded in 1996, before Ceats's invention date. In this case, the court said, the test specification corroborated Microsoft's intent to include the patented technology in Expedia, the usability study videos showed that the company did in fact create that system, and the post-release testing checklist corroborated that the functionality was available after public release.

The second question on appeal related to the '869 patent only and whether the “set of seats” limitation could be broadly construed to include a single seat, in which case its claims were anticipated by Expedia as well.

The court noted a figure in the specification showing seats at a bar, labeled S100 to S117, and determined that the patent identified each individual seat as its own set.

Finally, the court rejected Ceats's argument related to a purported erroneous jury instruction, concluding that the instructions in their entirety adequately described the law on anticipation.

Judge Sharon Prost joined the court's opinion.

Dissent: A Set Is a Group of Things

Judge Alvin A. Schall dissented as to the determination that “sets” could be a single seat.

He concluded that the “S” in the bar seats implied “Standard Seating” as opposed to a “P” for “Premium Seating.” Accordingly, the inventors did not redefine “set” contrary to the normal dictionary meaning, he said, which is “a collection or group” of things.

Since the record did not show that Expedia provided information about any grouping of two or more seats, Schall would have reversed the invalidity judgment as to the '869 patent and remanded for damages as to the asserted claim of that patent.

Michael S. Nadel of McDermott, Will & Emery, Washington, D.C., represented Ceats. Mark A. Lemley of Durie Tangril, San Francisco, represented the airlines and ticket brokers. J. Michael Heinlen of Thompson & Knight, Dallas, presented alternative grounds for affirmance, which the court did not reach, on behalf of AirTrans Airways Inc.

By Tony Dutra  

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