I know that the general idea is not new... if I remember correctly, these sort of ideas run at least back to the '60s, when they were known as "branch and bound algorithms". Thus my hunch is that while a particular implementation might well be under active patent, loads of prior art could be found for anything more general. So there's $0.02 worth of insight from someone with only $0.01 worth of knowledge on the topic. :-)
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