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Federal Circuit Says Online Dating Patent No Match for Alice

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The U.S. Court of Appeals has affirmed a district court’s invalidation of an online dating app patent as claiming patent ineligible subject matter under Section 101 of the Patent Statute, as analyzed under the Alice two-step framework. The Court of Appeals reminded patent owners that neither fact discovery nor claim construction are necessarily required for patent invalidation at the initial pleading stage of the case.

In a previous issue of Monthly Insights, we reported on a series of district court decisions invalidating patents for online dating or match-making apps and systems.[1] In Trinity Info Media, LLC V. Covalent, Inc.,[2] the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“CAFC”) has now affirmed one of those district court decisions, agreeing that the online dating app patent claims patent-ineligible subject matter under Section 101 of the Patent Statute, as analyzed under the Alice two-step framework. 

Starting in 2020, patentee Trinity Info Media (formerly known as Trinity Intel Media, hereinafter “TIM”) initiated a patent licensing and enforcement campaign against a number of owners and operators of online dating apps and websites. Coffee Meets Bagel, Inc. was sued in October 2020 for its allegedly infringing dating and social networking service of the same name. Several months later, TIM sued Raya App, Inc. (its dating app called RAYA), The League App, Inc. (for the accused app called LEAGUE), and Covalent, Inc. (for its dating and social networking service called KIPPO). In each of these lawsuits, the accused infringer was alleged to be promoting “quality, curative matches based on various criteria including age, location, appearance, lifestyle and income level,” and all of the accused apps were alleged to be “designed to connect profile users and offer introductory information for matches.”

The representative claims of TIM’s patents recited the same basic invention in different forms: as a “poll-based networking system,” as a “computer-implemented method for creating a poll-based network,” and as a “computer program product for creating a poll-based network.” None of these different claiming styles made any substantive difference when analyzed using the now-familiar two-step Alice framework.

Initially, TIM argued on appeal that it was entitled to conduct fact discovery and that the district court was required to conduct claim construction (i.e., Markman) proceedings before deciding the question of patent subject matter eligibility under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The CAFC quickly and easily rejected this argument, noting that it has repeatedly affirmed § 101 rejections at the initial motion-to-dismiss-the-complaint stage, before claim construction or significant discovery has commenced. This has been settled law for at least the past six years, yet patentees continue to raise the point without explaining why their cases are different. This is particularly surprising since the CAFC has explained exactly what is required to avoid invalidation at the pleading stage: “the patentee must propose a specific claim construction or identify specific facts that need development and explain why those circumstances must be resolved before the scope of the claims can be understood for § 101 purposes.” Patentees continue to ignore this requirement to their detriment.

Turning to the two-step Alice analysis, at step one the CAFC concluded that the claims of TIM’s patents were directed to the abstract idea of matching based on questioning. More specifically, the Court found that the independent claims are focused on collecting information, analyzing it, and displaying certain results, which places them in the “familiar class of claims directed to a patent-ineligible concept.” As it noted, a “human mind could review people’s answers to questions and identify matches based on those answers.” Moreover, in now-familiar fashion, the CAFC held that none of the hand-held device, or the claimed action of “swiping,” or the claimed processors, web servers, database, or “match aggregator” made any difference to the outcome of the step one analysis. The specifications of TIM’s patents merely confirmed that “the asserted claims are directed to an abstract idea that merely seeks to use computers as a tool, not on an improvement in computer capabilities.”

At step two of the Alice analysis, TIM’s arguments that the asserted claims include and inventive concept sufficient to transform the abstract idea into a patent-eligible application were deemed to not match the requirements of existing CAFC precedent. Statements in TIM’s complaint for infringement were deemed to be merely conclusory. At best, its arguments as to inventiveness were viewed as merely reflecting the improved speed inherent with applying the abstract idea with a computer, a notion that the CAFC has repeatedly held to be inadequate to save claims directed to abstract ideas at Alice step two. None of the generic computer technology arranged as one would conventionally expect computer technology to be arranged made any difference. Reviewing the other dependent claims of TIM’s patents, the CAFC said that all recited “insignificant data-gathering steps” that “add nothing of practical significance to the underlying abstract idea.”

It appears that patentees suing dating website owners have not yet gotten the message that “no means no” or, in other words, systems and methods for matching people for introductions and dating are not within the scope of patent-eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. But the world would be a dull and boring place if every potential suitor gave up completely after the first failed approach, so some patent litigators will continue to pursue the objects of their clients’ dating app patent affections until there are no more valid dating app patents remaining, it seems.


[1] “Patenting Internet and Online Dating Apps: The Current State of Affairs,” https://www.obwbip.com/newsletter/patenting-internet-and-online-dating-apps-the-current-state-of-affairs (Feb. 28, 2023).

[2] No. 22-1308, ___ F.4th ___, 2023 WL 4536366 (Fed. Cir. Jul. 14, 2023).