On March 31, 2014, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case that could determine the fate of software patents in the United States. Recently, IBM filed an amicus brief at the United States Supreme Court in the case of Alice Corporation Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank International. While many attorneys contributed to this brief, former Solicitor General of the United States Paul D. Clement is the Counsel of Record on behalf of IBM.
I think it is fair to say that the IBM brief can be summarized as follows: ‘The abstract idea doctrine is unworkable.’ Bravo! If the Supreme Court cannot define the term “abstract idea,” which they have never done, how can it be at all appropriate for the Court to apply the doctrine as if it has meaning? At least with respect to software, there is also no uniform application of the patent laws, which at least conceptually should raise concerns of disparate treatment of those similarly situated.
Something needs to be done to once and for all acknowledge that software is patent eligible. Even having to say that and hope it is what ultimately happens is truly saddening in the year 2014. Software is all around us and empowers practically everything, and according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from August 2013, somewhere between 50% to 60% of all patent applications filed deal in some way with software. Software is the very backbone of innovation and the fact that we have to wonder whether it is patent eligible more than 46 years after the first software patent issued is really an indictment of the judicial system as it relates to patent law and jurisprudence.
On February 12, 2014, the Federal Circuit issued its decision in Solvay S.A. v. Honeywell International. In this case, Solvay S.A. appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Delaware in favor of defendant Honeywell International. The district court held that asserted claim 1 of Solvay’s U.S. Patent No. 6,730,817 was invalid under pre-AIA 35 U.S.C. § 102(g)(2). The question at the heart of this appeal, as dictated by the specific factual scenario, was whether an invention conceived by a foreign inventor and reduced to practice in the United States qualifies as prior art under § 102(g)(2). This was the operative question because engineers working at the Russian Scientific Center for Applied Chemistry (“RSCAC”) first conceived the invention, which was reduced to practice in this country by Honeywell personnel pursuant to the RSCAC’s instructions, and they did not abandon, suppress, or conceal it.
At trial, Honeywell argued that the invention was conceived by Russian inventors outside the United States and reduced to practice in the United States by Honeywell personnel following the Russian inventors’ instructions before the ’817 patent’s priority date. As a result, Honeywell argued, the invention qualifies as §102(g)(2) prior art. A jury ultimately determined that, as required by § 102(g)(2), the Russian Scientific Center for Applied Chemistry did disclose the invention of claim 1 in the 1994 Russian patent application, which means that they did not abandon, suppress, or conceal the invention. Based on the jury verdict, the district court entered judgment for Honeywell, finding asserted claim 1 invalid under § 102(g)(2).
In 1998, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in State Street Bank & Trust Co. v. Signature Financial Group, Inc., did away with what had previously been come to be known as the business method exception to patentability. The Federal Circuit, per Judge Giles Sutherland Rich (shown left), pointed out that the business method exception had never been invoked by either the Federal Circuit or its predecessor court, the CCPA. Judge Rich explained that “[s]ince the 1952 Patent Act, business methods have been, and should have been, subject to the same legal requirements for patentability as applied to any other process or method.”
Although the United States Supreme Court did away with that test when it issued its decision in Bilski v. Kappos, it is still nevertheless illustrative and the best test that is out there. Simply stated, in order to have a patentable business method, it is necessary for the invention to accomplish some practical application. In other words, in order for a business method to be patent eligible, it must produce a “useful, concrete and tangible result.” Judge Rich was correct to point this out and the Supreme Court has made a horrible mess of the law as it applies to business methods and computer-implemented innovations because it fails to understand what Judge Rich really meant.
If you really understand what Judge Rich meant by “useful, concrete and tangible result,” you come to the inescapable conclusion that it is the appropriate test. Indeed, those drafting patent application would do well to really target the description of the invention to satisfy the test.
The United States Constitution is a relatively short document, but one that has provided guiding principles for over 220 years. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution granted Congress the power to grant patents and copyrights for limited times in order to promote the progress of science and the useful arts. Clearly demonstrating just how important the Founding Fathers perceived a patent system to be, at the prompting of George Washington in his first State of the Union Address, the young Congress passed the the Patent Act of 1790 as the third Act of Congress.
Section 1 of the Patent Act of 1790 explained that a party would be awarded a patent in the event that it was deemed a sufficiently important discovery or invention:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That upon the petition of any person or persons to the Secretary of State, the Secretary for the department of war, and the Attorney General of the United States, setting forth, that he, she, or they, hath or have invented or discovered any useful art, manufacture, engine, machine, or device, or any improvement therein not before known or used, and praying that a patent may be granted therefor, it shall and may be lawful to and for the Secretary of State, the Secretary for the department of war, and the Attorney General, or any two of them, if they shall deem the invention or discovery sufficiently useful and important…
Patent Act of 1790, Ch. 7, 1 Stat. 109-112 (April 10, 1790).
Years hence we may look back to Tuesday, January 14, 2014 as the turning point in the battle against abusive patent litigation. On January 14, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced the settlement with one of the more notorious patent trolls. See NY Attorney General Settles Investigation into Patent Troll. This operator, MPHJ Technologies, is the owner of patents dealing with scanning technology and has claimed that thousands of small businesses infringe its patents. MPHJ has been one of the entities used by those in the anti-patent community as an example of a patent system run amok. At the end of the day, at least for those who carefully pay attention and look at the facts, this is not a story about the patent system in any way, shape or form. It is a story about a bully that engaged in reprehensible pre-litigation scare tactics.
Unfortunately, in his announcement of the settlement, Attorney General Schneiderman went too far in condemning legal patent activities in the name of defining what is a patent troll. Schneiderman said:
Patent trolls – sometimes referred to as “patent assertion entities” – are not innovators. They buy patents owned by others and then try to turn a profit by aggressively pursuing businesses they claim infringe the acquired patents. In virtually all cases, the businesses targeted by patent trolls did not copy other companies’ technology. Instead, patent trolls argue that that independently developed technology or business processes used by the target – and in some cases, everyday business activities – require a license linked to the troll’s patents.
The problem with this definition is that there is nothing illegal or immoral about acquiring patents, there is nothing illegal or immoral about enforcing patents and seeking out licensing agreements, and independent creation has never been a defense to patent infringement. Thus, it is unfortunate that legitimate patent activities that are clearly legal were at least to some extent compared with the deceitful activities of MPHJ.