As I read CLS Bank v. Alice, I wondered if 35 USC 101 is really a question about the claims or about the specification? 35 USC 101 states:
Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.
This section does not say anything about the claims and while the claims define the invention they are not the invention. To suggest otherwise is to confuse reality and elevate the draftsman’s art above the inventor’s work.
Judge Lourie, who was joined by Judges Dyk, Prost, Reyna and Wallach, in CLS Bank v. Alice Corp. wrote: “At its most basic, a computer is just a calculator capable of performing mental steps faster than a human could. Unless the claims require a computer to perform operations that are not merely accelerated calculations, a computer does not itself confer patent eligibility.”
One way that Judges probe generalized statements is to look for the boundaries to test the logic. If the statement cannot be stretched to apply to even similar scenarios then the logic of the statement is questioned and believed to be faulty and self-serving. So let’s see if the above statement can withstand even modest scrutiny.
The statement above, by any fair reading, says that if the core of the invention is something that a human could do but slower then the subject matter is patent ineligible. So what about robots? Robots are more efficient, stronger and faster than humans, but a human can do what a robot can do. So are robots patentable?
Chief Judge Rader’s band De Novo should play a dirge tonight.
On May 10, the Federal Circuit issued its en banc opinion in CLS Bank. Within 48 hours, I had twice read the 135 page decision. It may be a bullet to the head of the software industry. Don’t take my word for it: four different judges say so:
And let’s be clear: if all of these claims, including the system claims, are not patent-eligible, this case is the death of hundreds of thousands of patents, including all business method, financial system, and software patents as well as many computer implemented and telecommunications patents. If all of the claims of these four patents are ineligible, so too are the 320,799 patents which were granted from 1998-2011 in the technology area “Electrical Computers, Digital Processing Systems, Information Security, Error/Fault Handling.” Every patent in this technology category covers inventions directed to computer software or to hardware that implements software. In 2011 alone, 42,235 patents were granted in this area. This would render ineligible nearly 20% of all the patents that actually issued in 2011. If the reasoning of Judge Lourie’s opinion were adopted, it would decimate the electronics and software industries. There are, of course, software, financial system, business method and telecom patents in other technology classes which would also be at risk. So this is quite frankly a low estimate. There has never been a case which could do more damage to the patent system than this one.
That parade of horribles is not entirely fair to Judge Lourie’s concurrence. Judge Lourie based his opinion on the fact that the disputed patent is directed not just to electronics, but to an insignificant use of modern electronics to implement an arguably basic financial transaction. I doubt that Judge Lourie would expand the holding in CLS Bank far beyond that specific fact pattern. Nevertheless, as quoted above, the dissenting judges do not share even this much optimism.
After the Federal Circuit issued its en banc decision on May 10, 2013 in CLS Bank v. Alice Corp, the patent owner Alice Corp must be feeling like Alice in Alice in Wonderland, bewildered and frightened by the fantastical situation in which they find themselves:
(1) “bewildered” because an equally divided Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s holding that Alice’s claimed system to tangible machine components including a first party device, a data storage unit, a second party device, a computer, and a communications controller, programmed with specialized functions consistent with detailed algorithms disclosed in the patent, constitutes a patent ineligible “abstract idea;”
(2) “frightened” because, as Judge Moore puts it, “this case is the death of hundreds of thousands of patents, including all business method, financial system, and software patents as well as many computer implemented and telecommunications patents” (Moore Op. at 2); and
While the Supreme Court has done away with the “useful, concrete and tangible result” test from State Street Bank v. Signature Financial, in Bilski v. Kappos, 8 out of 9 Justices (i.e., everyone except Justice Scalia) signed onto an opinion that recognized that the patent claims in State Street displayed patent eligible subject matter. Indeed, the dissenters in Bilski specifically acknowledged that the claims at issue in State Street did not deal with processes, but dealt with machines. See Footnote 40 of the Steven’s dissent.
The import of this is that machines are specifically patent eligible subject matter, so if the claims of State Street are to machines then claims that are similarly configured would also be directed to machines and therefore patent eligible. So if the systems claims at issue in CLS Bank v. Alice Corp. are configured similarly to those that now stand invalid that would mean that Judges Lourie, Dyk, Prost, Reyna and Wallach have ignored the Supreme Court. Any fair comparison of the claims, as shown below, demonstrates this rather conclusively.
Similarly, the United States Supreme Court famously ruled in Diamond v. Diehr, that the United States Patent and Trademark Office inappropriately rejected claims to a computerized process for molding raw, uncured synthetic rubber into cured precision products. Ultimately, thanks to the decision of the Supreme Court the inventors, Diehr and Lutton, received U.S. Patent No. 4,344,142. If the claims in Diamond v. Diehrare similar to those that now stand invalid that would be further proof the Federal Circuit as a whole has ignored the Supreme Court.
By now most are likely already familiar with the unfortunate reality that the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a non-decision in CLS Bank v. Alice Corporation on Friday, May 10, 2013. There were 10 judges who heard the case en banc, with 7 of the 10 finding that the method claims and computer-readable medium claims were not patent eligible. While there may be reasonable room for a difference of opinion relative to those claims, it was the system claims that specifically and clearly recited tangible structure that has thrown the patent law of software into such disarray. 5 Judges would have found that the systems claims were patent ineligible (Judges Lourie, Dyk, Prost, Reyna and Wallach), and 5 Judges would have found the systems claims were patentable subject matter (Chief Judge Rader, Judges Newman, Moore, Linn and O’Malley). For more see Federal Circuit Nightmare in CLS Bank and 5 CAFC Judges Say Computer Patentable, Not Software and Did the CAFC Ignore the Supreme Court in CLS Bank?
Today, however, I want to write about one of the more bizarre passages I have ever seen in any decision, and then pose an almost unthinkable question: Is IBM’s Watson still patent eligible in the view of Judges Lourie, Dyk, Prost, Reyna and Wallach?
First, let’s start with the passage. Judge Lourie, who was joined by Judges Dyk, Prost, Reyna and Wallach, actually wrote: “At its most basic, a computer is just a calculator capable of performing mental steps faster than a human could. Unless the claims require a computer to perform operations that are not merely accelerated calculations, a computer does not itself confer patent eligibility.”
In what can only fairly be characterized as utterly ridiculous, 5 of the 10 judges on the Federal Circuit to hear CLS Bank v. Alice Corporationen banc would find that claims that satisfy the machine-or-transformation test are not patentable. While I think it is inappropriate to find the systems claims patent ineligible that isn’t what makes the decision utterly ridiculous. The decision is an embarrassment because 5 other judges would have found the systems claims patent eligible. Thus, we have an even split of opinion at the Federal Circuit.
The Federal Circuit decision in CLS Bank v. Alice Corp. is now being horribly mischaracterized in the media, which will now only further complicate the matter in the court of public opinion. This decision offers no precedent whatsoever regarding systems claims because it was a tie. Alice Corporation loses the systems claims not because that is the law of the land announced by the Federal Circuit, but rather because a single district court judge determined that the systems claims were patent ineligible. Had that same district court judge found the systems claims patent eligible then Alice would have prevailed.
In other words, the Federal Circuit is essentially abdicating its authority relative to whether systems claims are patentable to the district courts and presumably also to the Patent Trial and Appeals Board at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Whatever the district court or PTAB does is just fine. Well, not quite.
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