Software, Open Source and Programmers

On August 12, 2014, I spoke with computer expert Bob Zeidman (pictured left) on the record for an in-depth interview that published on IPWatchdog.com. The interview lasted approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes and was over 11,000 words in length. I think it was an excellent and intriguing discussion about the reality of software, both from a coding and market perspective. We also spoke at length about the Supreme Court’s decisions in Alice v. CLS Bank, Bilski v. Kappos, and Diamond v. Diehr. We also discussed what type of disclosure might be enough to satisfy both the Patent Office and the Supreme Court, which is increasingly becoming the arbiter of all things patent-eligible.

While a lengthy conversation like this would be of interest to those who work in the area, there were a number of intriguing points raised during our interview that I hope all patent practitioners would be interested in. For that reason, I offer here highlights of the interview. For the complete interview, please see A Conversation about Software and Patents.

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The Future Software Patent Application

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Alice v. CLS Bank, many in the patent community are starting to realize just how different things will be moving forward. Initially, some convinced themselves that nothing had really changed substantively, which was bolstered by the initial USPTO guidance. But quickly that bubble burst as the Patent Office started issuing supplemental office actions and even withdrawing notices of allowance, all to issue Alice rejections. So what will a software patent application look like that has allowable claims? That is a very good question.

U.S. Patent No. 8,515,829 (“the ’829 patent”) may provide some answers. It is a patent issued to Google, which is titled Tax-free giftingSee Google Patents Tax-Free Gifting. Generally speaking, the invention relates to a system and related techniques for gifting, and paying for, digital content, including media, such as audio and video. The core of the invention, as suggested by the title, relates to giving someone something tax-free. The invention relates to a method that allows for the giver of the gift to pay for the tax imposed by the jurisdiction where the gift (i.e., gift card) is redeemed.

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Judge Michel Sounds Off About Alice v. CLS Bank

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Paul Michel, who we in the patent community know as the former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. When Judge Michel stepped down as Chief Judge and retired several years ago, he told me that he decided to retire so he could say what needed to be said on behalf of the patent system, something he felt he couldn’t do while a member of the federal judiciary. Judge Michel has been true to his promise. He keeps an active schedule.

Judge Michel has been generous with his time over the past several years, and I have interviewed him on a number of topics. Most recently we discussed the Supreme Court’s patent decisions during the October 2013 term, spending most of our discussion on Alice v. CLS Bank.

Below are the highlights of my interview with Judge Michel. If you would like to read the entire interview, which lasted for approximately one hour and spans over 9,000 words, please see: Judge Michel says Alice Decision ‘will create total chaos’.

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PTO & Alice – Things Have Really Changed

Despite what the United States Patent and Trademark Office suggested in their initial guidance to patent examiners, the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice v. CLS Bank has substantially changed the prosecution landscape for computer implemented inventions (i.e., software).

At least initially, the USPTO guidance to examiners seemed extremely patentee friendly. In a memo to the patent examining corps, the USPTO explained that the reason Alice’s claims were determined to be patent ineligible was because “the generically-recited computers in the claims add nothing of substance to the underlying abstract idea.” The USPTO then went on to point out to patent examiners that there is no new category of innovation that is patent ineligible, nor is there any new or special requirements for the eligibility of either software or business methods. Deputy Commissioner for Patent Examination Policy Andrew Hirshfeld explained: “Notably, Alice Corp. neither creates a per se excluded category of subject matter, such as software or business methods, nor imposes any special requirements for eligibility of software or business methods.”

Hirshfeld also explained that there is now a slight change in the way applications are to be examined when claims involve abstract ideas. Essentially, it was said, Alice stands for the proposition that the same analysis should be used for all types of judicial exceptions and the same analysis should be used for all categories of invention. Still, even recognizing this shift in analysis, Hirshfeld told examiners: “[T]he basic inquiries to determine subject matter eligibility remain the same as explained in MPEP 2106(I).” (emphasis added). Therefore, this initial guidance clearly took the position that nothing has changed from a substantive law point of view as far as the USPTO was concerned.

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Three Things from SCOTUS Oral Argument in Alice v. CLS Bank

On Monday, March 31, 2014, the United States Supreme Court held oral arguments in the much-anticipated software battle between patentee Alice Corporation, the petitioner, and CLS Bank, the respondent who was victorious below thanks to an equally divided Federal Circuit.

Oral arguments are but one piece of the overall puzzle, so we can easily make too much of their importance, but they are the only way the concerned public can see behind the curtain at the Supreme Court. By many accounts, oral arguments are the least significant piece of the puzzle with many, if not most, Justices relying most heavily on the briefs. Indeed, during oral argument, Justice Breyer specifically stated that he had read each of the amici briefs, which seems a near herculean task given the number of other cases the Supreme Court considers and the sheer volume of briefs filed in this case. 

Even with oral arguments being less important than they may seem, there will be all kinds of attempts to predict what the likely outcome will be based on this sneak peek. Of course, it is impossible to know how a Justice will decide based on the questions asked during oral argument. Case in point — did anyone think the Chief Justice would rule in favor of Obamacare? But for now, the oral argument transcript is all we have to rely on. So with that in mind, here are three things that piqued my interest during the oral arguments.

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