In a few weeks the United States Supreme Court will hold oral arguments in Alice v. CLS Bank. At stake in this case is the future of software patents. Half of the Federal Circuit de facto ruled that software is patent ineligible. Of course they could not come right out and say that because it would contradict both settled Supreme Court precedent and patent laws enacted by Congress and codified in Title 35 of the United States Code. Nevertheless, the undeniable position of half of the Federal Circuit was that software is not patent eligible because to these Judges none of the claiming techniques that are used to write software patent claims result in patent eligible subject matter being claimed.
In preparation for the oral arguments we are shifting through the briefs. I have already written about the IBM brief, see Supreme Court “Abstract Idea Doctrine” is Unworkable. We plan multiple articles leading up to the oral argument that discusses the various briefs filed, and complete coverage of the oral arguments. Today, however, I write about the brief of the United States Government filed by the Solicitor General, which is simply disingenuous.
Truthfully, to call the Solicitor’s brief disingenuous is being charitable. The logic, if you can call it that, necessary for the Solicitor’s arguments to be correct is extraordinarily tortured, not to mention circular and dependent upon itself for support. The premise of the argument made by the Government is simply false. The Solicitor tells the Supreme Court that the patent claims in question are to an abstract idea, which is flat wrong. But in a bizarre twist the Solicitor pivots to then say that what is covered is not an abstract idea but it is not necessary for there to be an abstract idea protected in order for the claim to be patent ineligible as an abstract idea. Sadly, I’m not making this up.
The Federal Circuit has affirmed once again—this time in a sharply divided en banc decision—that it will subject a district court’s claim construction to de novo review on appeal. The case is Lighting Ballast Control v. Philips, and the appeal was the latest challenge to the standard of review set by the Federal Circuit over 15 years ago in Cybor Corp. v. FAS Technologies, Inc.
On the surface, this question of patent procedural law seems innocuous enough, but a glance at the title pages of the numerous amicus briefs (filed by an impressive roster of academic commentators and industry heavyweights) shows otherwise. The question of the appropriate standard of review for claim construction rulings is of immense importance to the patent bar.
At stake in Lighting Ballast was the Federal Circuit’s ruling 15 years ago in Cybor,that claim construction is subject to de novo review at the appellate level, despite the fact that the interpretation of patent terms often has factual underpinnings, a domain where trial judges are usually given a wide berth and significant deference. As the Supreme Court recognized in its landmark decision in Markman v. Westview Instruments, decided in 1996 shortly before Cybor, claim construction is a “mongrel practice” of both law and fact that often involves “construing a term of art following receipt of evidence.”
Cybor has been criticized both by Federal Circuit judges and by outside commentators, with most critics deriding Cybor’s blindness to the factual issues that are often implicit in the interpretation of what a patent means. While the question can sometimes be answered by reference to the terms of the patent alone—a traditional legal inquiry—it oftentimes also requires extrinsic evidence and the opinions of dueling experts on the state of the art and the technology in question—factual issues traditionally left alone absent “clear error.”
The oral argument schedule for the Supreme Court over the next few months is heavy on intellectual property cases.
The Court will hear oral argument as follows: on February 26, in two cases on granting (Octane Fitness) and reviewing (Highmark) attorneys’ fee awards; on March 31, in a case (Alice Corp.) on patent eligibility of system and computer-implemented method claims; on April 21, in a case (POM Wonderful) on claims under Section 43 of the Lanham Act challenging labels regulated by the Food and Drug Administration; on April 22, in a case (Aereo) on whether a provider of broadcast television programming over the Internet violates a copyright owner’s public performance right; on April 28, in a case (Nautilus) on the proper standard for finding indefiniteness invalidity for patents; and on April 30, in a case (Limelight) on joint liability for method claim infringement where all of the claimed steps are performed but not by a single entity.
What follows is the Introduction and Summary of the Argument included in the IBM amicus brief filed at the United States Supreme Court in Alice Corporation Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank International. While many attorneys contributed to this brief, as you will see them listed on the front cover, former Solicitor General of the United States Paul D. Clement is the Counsel of Record.
I think it is fair to say that the theme that comes through the loudest in the IBM brief is this: The abstract idea doctrine is unworkable. To that I say a resounding AMEN! If the Supreme Court cannot or will not tell us what an abstract idea is how can we any longer pretend that the jurisprudential path the Court has taken will lead to predictability? At least insofar as software is concerned there is a complete and total lack of predictability. There is also no uniform application of the law, which at least conceptually should raise concerns of disparate treatment of those similarly situated.
Below I provide additional thoughts on the IBM Summary of the Argument in the format of comments from the peanut gallery, or perhaps as a patent law equivalent to Mystery Science Theater 3000. In order to differentiate my thoughts/comments from IBM amicus brief, my comments are italicized, colored, indented and tagged with the IPWatchdog logo.
In the CLS Bank v. Alice Corp upcoming Supreme Court case, Alice poses the question… “Whether claims to computer-implemented inventions – including claims to systems and machines, processes, and items of manufacture – are directed to patent-eligible subject matter…”
That’s absolutely the wrong way to phrase a question about inventions. Equally wrong is the same boiled down twin sister question “Is software patentable” which has now been debated around the world for almost 50 years.
As the recipient of the first software patent in 1968 and a founder of Applied Data Research (ADR), the first company to market software products, I have intensely followed and written about the software patent controversy for almost 50 years.
Here’s why the Alice question should not be answered by the Supreme Court in its present form.
Earlier today the United States Supreme Court declined to accept Soverain v. Newegg, which will allow one of the more pronounced travesties of justice to stand as if the Federal Circuit got it correct in the first place. Soverain President Katharine Wolanyk said, “We are obviously disappointed by the Supreme Court’s denial of our Cert. petition, and are troubled by the precedent it leaves in place.”
Everyone who has objectively looked at the case knows that the Federal Circuit made a terrible mistake, but now that won’t be corrected and a serial patent infringer that has made a business practice of ignoring patent rights gets to use the Soverain technology for free. And just when you think things couldn’t get more strange, Newegg makes a bizarre comment with misogynistic undertones.
“The witch is dead, hurray,” said Lee Cheng, Newegg’s Chief Legal Officer. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Cheng is calling Wolanyk a witch. Of course he will deny such a charge and he and his supporters will proclaim their innocence. But this is no different than liberals working “weight” into every comment or tweet they make about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. This type of not so subtle dig is what those familiar with Newegg have come to expect. It is this juvenile, over the top, holier-than-thou attitude that Newegg personifies.
When it comes to the history of software patents it seems that everyone believes they are an expert. Unfortunately, few in the popular press actually take the time to get the story correct. In fact, there is a popular misconception in media that the Federal Circuit was the court that first authorized software patents. I have dealt with this nonsense in the past, and now have to deal with it once again. None other than the Wall Street Journal has published an article on the topic that is simply fiction.
The clearly erroneous Wall Street Journal article in question was published on December 15, 2013, under the title Jimmy Carter’s Costly Patent Mistake. The article, written by Gordon Crovitz, seems to take the position that patents stifle innovation, although Crovitz thesis is not explicitly stated. It would be erroneous enough to state that patents stifle innovation when all of the evidence is to the contrary, but that isn’t the major Crovitz sin in this article, although it is a whopper of a lie often told by patent critics.
Before proceeding, allow me to state what should otherwise be obvious: if patents stifle innovation you would expect run-away innovation in places where there is no patent system, but that isn’t what you see. You see extraordinary poverty, no economy and zero innovation where there are not patent rights. Likewise, you see economies established, domestic innovation and innovation from overseas flowing into countries that adopt strong patent rights. Furthermore, the entire point of a patent system is to grant exclusive rights that force creative, inventive and entrepreneurial individuals who are blocked to design around, which is exactly what happens. Designing around patents leads to enormous leaps in innovation. See Forfeiting Our Future Over Irrational Fear of Software Patents. And for those who don’t get it and erroneously state that we are seeing historic levels of patent litigation, read your history. There were close to 600 patent litigations associated with the invention of the telephone, and smart phone litigation has been but a small fraction of that number. Furthermore, the smartphone as we know it came out in 2007. In the past six years have the over abundance of patents stopped smartphone innovation? Hardly, and everyone who is at all honest knows that to be 100% true. So why the pretending about patents stopping innovation? Obviously there is real patent hatred and critics, like Crovitz, simply ignore facts and prefer their own brand of fantasy over truth.
As ridiculous as it is to suggest that patents stifle innovation, this ill-defined Crovitz thesis isn’t the major issue with the fiction published by the Wall Street Journal. There is objective and verifiable error in his article that even those with an agenda will have to admit.
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