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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What’s the Harm in Allowing Software Patents?

As many of you undoubtedly already know, the United States Supreme Court will soon decide whether software is patent eligible in the United States. The fact that such a question needs to be addressed in the year 2014 would be comically funny if it were not so tragically sad. Software has been patented in the United States since 1968, which means software has been patentable in the United States for the last two generations. Yet the Supreme Court is poised to decide whether software is or should be patent eligible in Alice v. CLS Bank, which will be argued to the Court on March 31, 2014.

What is the harm in allowing software patents?  Saying that software is not patentable subject matter is akin to saying that a car battery is not patentable subject matter. No one could seriously argue that a new and non-obvious car battery would not be patentable subject matter. In fact, that is exactly what many researchers are trying to find right now, albeit not the same type of car battery that we are used to inserting under the hood.

Any car is itself just a bunch of pieces of metal that sit there fastened together to create a tangible shell that has taken on an identifiable structure. The car has lots of potential, but without some kind of fuel it doesn’t even have potential energy. It merely has potential to move from place to place under appropriate conditions. A car without a battery isn’t something that is useful in any real world sense of the word.

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IBM Brief: Abstract Idea Jurisprudence Is Unworkable

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.

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Concrete and Tangible is the Right Test for Patent Eligibility

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.

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Microsoft Files Application on Digital Art Program

Recently, we took a look at some recent Microsoft Xbox patents over at IPWatchdog as a part of our ”Companies We Follow” series. In doing our research, we noticed an interesting innovation related to Microsoft’s digital art programs, which is included in most versions of its computer operating systems, such as Windows. This digital paint program includes more dynamic functions for the artist’s palette, such as a more realistic experience involving oil paints and worn-out brushes.

The application is U.S. Patent Application No. 20130326381, which is titled Digital Art Program Interaction and Mechanisms.

Digital applications for creating art have long been found on computing devices. From basic programs that offer the ability to draw straight lines with a mouse, to applications for mobile devices that respond to user touch through a touchscreen, digital art programs on consumer devices have greatly increased in capability during recent years. Today, graphic designers and artists are capable of using computer software to create intricate images that achieve many of the same aesthetic effects of actual paints or other materials.

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