EFF recently learned about a patent that covered a method of filming a yoga class. We reviewed the patent and discovered that it was just as ridiculous as it sounded. Despite our familiarity with absurd patents and our concerns about cursory review at the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), we were still surprised that this one issued. It seemed the so-called "invention" wasn't the kind of thing that should be patented at all—or at the very least, was not something novel or nonobvious. Yet another stupid patent, and winner of our October accolades.
There's a silver lining to this story. The yoga community affected by this stupid patent wasn't willing to give in. Instead, the community fought back, and as our post was set to go live (and on the day EFF contacted the patentee's lawyers for comment), the patentee publicly disclaimed all interest in the patent. So this stupid patent is now a stupid ex-patent.
Even though the patent owner, YogaGlo, Inc., has already given up, we think the story of this patent is still worth telling. We think it reveals a lot about how our patent system is desperately broken. This story is one of a grave series of omissions and errors that resulted in a patent that should never have been granted in the first place, and a patent applicant incentivized to do everything in its power to keep filing for more. This blog post goes into this history in detail.
Filing for a Patent on Filming a Yoga Class
U.S. Patent No. 8,605,152 claims to cover a "method and apparatus for yoga class imaging and streaming." To be clear, the patent involves slightly more than just filming a class, but not much. The claims require, among other things, "a studio having a front area and a rear area," "a line of sight corridor," and an "image capturing device" at a "height of about three feet." In non-patent speak: a room, a direct view of the instructor, and a camera positioned about three feet above the ground. Figure 2 from the patent, shown below, is described as "an embodiment of the present invention," and shows all the elements of the claimed "invention."
The yoga patent came out of U.S. Patent Application No. 13/763,569 (the "'569 Application"), filed on February 8, 2013. Derik Mills, the CEO of YogaGlo, Inc., a Santa Monica based company that strives to provide "the experience of being in the class at your home," listed himself as the inventor.
At the time the '569 Application was filed, a related patent was also making its way through the PTO. Mills had previously filed U.S. Patent Application 13/220,621 (the "'621 Application") on August 29, 2011. Both applications claimed priority (meaning there was a claim to an earlier date of "invention") to a previous application filed August 27, 2010.
This sort of "continuation practice"—having multiple applications relating to the same or related inventions—is common at the PTO. What was not common, however, was that the original '621 Application was literally identical to the original '569 Application: Mills sought to claim the exact same thing through both the '569 and '621 Applications. (It is unclear why Mills filed two applications with exactly the same claims. One possibility is that Mills felt his chances with the second examiner were better than the first.)
Often, similar or related applications are assigned to the same examiner. But Mills' applications were given to two different examiners for review (we're not sure why). The '569 Application was assigned to Examiner Nhon T. Diep and the '621 Application was Examiner Mohammad J. Rahman.
Both the '569 Application and the '621 Application were initially rejected. Diep initially rejected the '569 Application on July 3, 2013, on two grounds: double patenting (can't get two patents on the same thing) and obviousness (the "invention" was not different enough from what came before). In making the obviousness rejection, Examiner Diep relied exclusively on patents or patent applications. Shortly after that, on August 5, 2013, Rahman (faced with the exact same claims that had just been rejected) rejected the '621 Application for the same reasons.
But from there, the two applications and their histories at the PTO diverge.
"YogaGlo intends to enforce its intellectual property rights"
On August 26, 2013, despite having both its patent applications initially rejected on multiple grounds, YogaGlo sent demand letters to its competitors, including Yoga International. In the letter, YogaGlo (through its lawyers) pointed to its patent applications and stated its belief that Yoga International "streams online fitness classes that mimics [sic] the method and technique of YogaGlo's U.S. patent application." Although YogaGlo did not explicitly demand that Yoga International remove the videos it believed infringed YogaGlo's not-yet-existing rights, it warned that the letter "shall serve as actual notice of the existence of the YogaGlo Patent Applications" and "upon patent issuance, damages may be due retroactively to the date of patent publication."
Yoga International, concerned by the idea that a company could get a patent on filming a yoga class, decided to fight back. It told the yoga community about the letter and the yoga community went into uproar. Yoga Alliance, another Yoga organization, started a petition asking YogaGlo to withdraw its patent applications and received over 14,000 signatures.
YogaGlo responded with its own interpretation of the situation, saying that it filed for the patents "in order to continue to provide our community with this distinctive online yoga class experience at an affordable price." In effect, YogaGlo's argument appeared to be that without patent protection, it would cease to exist.
Except that for at least the first few years of YogaGlo's existence, this wasn't true. YogaGlo, it seemed, had been flourishing for many years without the patent protection it now felt it needed.
Patent Protection Not Required Nor Deserved
Patents are only supposed to be granted on what is novel and nonobvious. The Patent Office, in initially rejecting YogaGlo's patents, relied on other patents and patent applications. But filming a yoga class didn't seem to us like something that should (or would) be in a patent or patent application. Filming methods just aren't something that are traditionally patented (nor should they be).
Instead, it seemed to us that prior art for systems and methods for filming would most likely be found in actual films. So in order to help understand just how "novel" YogaGlo's invention was, we did an Internet search for other, similar "systems" and "methods." Below is a collection of just some of the videos we found, all uploaded or filmed before YogaGlo filed its patent application:
Based on our search, it seems like YogaGlo's patent should never have issued. But even more interesting is that last screen shot. Its similarity to Figure 2 of YogaGlo's patent applications is not surprising, because it is from YogaGlo's own website—and it's dated July 28, 2009.
This is a problem for YogaGlo. Even if something is novel and nonobvious, a patent should not be granted if the application is filed more than one year after the "invention" is made, used, or sold. This is commonly referred to as the "one-year statutory bar." Basically, you can't patent something once the public has known about it for over a year. The public policy rationale is that patents are meant, in part, to get inventors to disclose their inventions to the public. If the invention has already been disclosed, the applicant didn't need the patent "carrot".
The one-year statutory bar is well known by patent practitioners and is often used to invalidate a patent or prevent one from issuing. One organization, after receiving YogaGlo's letter, found YogaGlo's invalidating videos and recognized their importance. After receiving YogaGlo's letter, and before any patent issued, that organization sent YogaGlo's lawyers a letter and pointed to the videos as prior art,.
And Yoga International wasn't the only ones who noticed that YogaGlo shouldn't be able to get a patent. A comment on YogaGlo's own website on the post about YogaGlo's patent applications, dated before any patent issued, also highlighted the videos:
That link at the end? That's to the "Manual of Patent Examining Procedure" and the section on the one-year statutory bar.
Back at the Patent Office
Because YogaGlo filed its original patent application (the one to which both its applications claimed priority to) on August 27, 2010, more than one year after it had posted videos using its "invention," no patent should have been allowed. The one-year statutory bar prohibits it.
But if the PTO doesn't know about prior art, it can't use it to reject an application. This is why the patent office relies on patent prosecutors (the people who file applications on behalf of inventors) to bring to light prior art known to the applicant. The PTO itself will do a search, but it's expected that prosecutors will point out art too. Indeed, they have a duty to do so.
In prosecuting the two applications, Mills and YogaGlo were represented by patent prosecutor working at the same office as the lawyer who sent Yoga International and others the letter about YogaGlo's patent applications. This is also the same the law firm office that received the responses, including its mention of YogaGlo's own invalidating videos. But despite the duty of disclosure, neither Mills, YogaGlo's lawyers, nor anyone else associated with YogaGlo notified the PTO about YogaGlo's own videos that implicated the one-year statutory bar.
At this point, its important to note is that the '569 Application was filed under what's called the "Accelerated Examination Program." This program allows applicants to get their applications reviewed more quickly if they can meet certain requirements, including making a statement regarding the "most closely related" prior art and how the "invention" is different than what came before. (Normally a hopeful patentee isn't required to particularly point this art out. It's enough to merely list it on a form). YogaGlo identified and discussed some prior art, but it failed to bring up the most damning examples: its own videos.
So on October 7, 2013, when it came time to address the examiner's initial rejection, YogaGlo did not identify its own videos and correct the failure to identify them at the outset. Instead, it filed an "amendment" and "request for reconsideration" of its '569 Application. YogaGlo modified its claims slightly, and argued that the claims were now patentable. The reason? The prior art, according to YogaGlo, didn't disclose "a line of sight corridor." In plain English: YogaGlo argued that when filming a teacher from eye level at the back of the room, it wasn't known or obvious to keep students from blocking the camera's view of the teacher (yes, really).
Incredibly, Mills and YogaGlo—despite Yoga International's letter, posts on their blog, and explicit recognition of the duty of candor—never told the PTO about its videos. Instead, on October 29, 2013 and without explanation, Examiner Diep allowed YogaGlo's patent, having never been given the chance to consider the art that was so clearly important.
To be clear, Examiner Diep did a search for prior art. He searched databases available at the PTO, but he did not do a YouTube (or even general Internet) search. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he did not find YogaGlo's videos, or the many other videos that predated YogaGlo's "invention," among the patent databases he searched. The '569 Application issued on December 10, 2013, almost two months after YogaGlo received the information pointing out YogaGlo's prior art videos, and more than four years after YogaGlo had first started posting its videos.
If at First You Succeed, Try Again?
Having received one patent, YogaGlo continued to seek a second through its '621 Application. On February 5, 2014, like with the '569 Application, YogaGlo modified its claims slightly and argued that the claims of the '621 Application were now patentable. Again YogaGlo did not disclose its own videos. But unlike Examiner Diep, Examiner Rahman searched for prior art on YouTube. Below is part of his results:
Through this YouTube search, Examiner Rahman was able to easily find YogaGlo's own videos that implicated the one-year statutory bar. On that basis, the '621 Application was finally rejected on March 7, 2014.
But in a practice that has become all too common at the patent office, the "final" rejection became not so final. On September 17, 2014, YogaGlo asked the examiner to reconsider the application. In an act that can only be called brazen, YogaGlo argued that it's own videos were not prior art, because "while the video appears to show the line of sight corridor, it is clear that it does not show the widening of the corridor as shown in Fig. 1"
Here is Figure 1 from the application with another frame from that "John Friend" video:
We're having a hard time figuring out how this does not blow YogaGlo's claim out of the water. When looking at the frame (a different one than that cited by the examiner), YogaGlo's argument seems completely frivolous to us. But because the examiner cited to a different frame, YogaGlo was able to cite to some minute distinction between its claim and the picture Examiner Rahman found, and ignored the rest of its video. But even if a distinction exists, why does it matter? Is this really something that's a "patentable distinction" over the prior art? Should someone be entitled to a patent every time a room is set up differently or a camera is moved slightly?
Practices at the PTO encourage applicants to keep filing, and to make this sort of meaningless distinction. Examiner Rahman had already finally rejected this application once. But YogaGlo is insistent. Unfortunately, if Examiner Rahman wants to get this work off his plate, the quickest and easiest way is to allow the patent. And applicants know this.
Symptom of a Larger Problem
YogaGlo's patent never should have been filed, and never should have issued. Even more importantly, hopeful patentees should not be incentivized to continue to push for patents despite clear evidence showing the claims are invalid.
In the broader view, it seems unlikely that patents are needed in order to incentivize people to develop new systems and methods for filming. Hollywood has existed for many generations without every director rushing out to patent new styles and angles of filming. Most likely, this is because patenting a new way of filming just doesn't seem like something that patents were meant to protect, and nor are they needed in order to encourage the next Stanley Kubrick. And YogaGlo seems to acknowledge this: their own statement says they wanted to protect the "look and feel" of their videos. This is not something our patent system was designed to protect. But our culture of overclaiming of intellectual property rights likely encouraged YogaGlo to file for a patent and incentivized YogaGlo to seek it at all costs—including honesty. We don't know why YogaGlo's decided to not disclose its own videos, but its failure to do so seems questionable (at best). We asked YogaGlo's lawyer for comment, but he declined.
The PTO relies on applicant disclosures, and should be able to, but in this case, it is clear that such reliance was misplaced. And what is also clear is that an incentive exists to not disclose. The fee worksheet in the file history for the '569 patent application shows that YogaGlo paid $663 when it filed its application. After paying a few more thousand in fees during the pendency of the application, YogaGlo got an almost twenty-year monopoly on its systems and methods for filming a yoga class.
We strongly believe that YogaGlo's patent never should have issued. And we're glad YogaGlo has belatedly agreed. YogaGlo's pending patent application is as deeply flawed as the issued patent. It should do the right thing and abandon its application too. Although pressure from the Yoga community convinced YogaGlo to do the right thing at least with respect to the issued patent, for most people getting rid of a patent is not so easy. To invalidate a patent, the cost is a minimum of $6,000, which is the cost of filing an ex parte re-examination.
Fortunately for the Yoga community, people were willing and able to fight back. But often communities aren't able to do so, and EFF can't help with every stupid patent we find (trust us, we see a lot of them). This is why reform is needed: too many incentives exist to encourage patent applicants to be less than forthcoming, and it is too expensive and difficult to challenge stupid patents. We hope that in telling this story we can start a dialog on how to fix the system to make sure that no one gets a stupid patent on filming a yoga class again.
Reposted from the EFF Deeplinks Blog