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.
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.
When attempting to determine whether an invention can be patented it is necessary to go through the patentability requirements in an effort to see whether patent claims can likely be obtained. Ideally you want patent claims that are meaningfully broad and commercially relevant, but at a minimum you must have claims that embody patent eligible subject matter, demonstrate a useful invention, cover a novel invention and which are non-obvious in light of the prior art. Obviousness is typically the real hurdle to patentability, and unfortunately the law of obviousness can be quite subjective and difficult to understand. At times obviousness determinations almost seems arbitrary.
The basic obviousness inquiry was set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Graham v. John Deere nearly 50 years ago, and remains good law even today. In order to determine whether an invention is obvious one must work through this analytical framework: (1) Determine the scope and content of the prior art; (2) Ascertain the differences between the claimed invention and the prior art; (3) Resolve the level of ordinary skill in the pertinent art; and (4) Consider objective indicia of non-obviousness (i.e., are there secondary considerations of non-obviousness that suggest a patent should issue despite an invention seeming to be obvious). See Understanding Obviousness: John Deer and the Basics. While this seems easy enough, the application of these factors or considerations is exceptionally difficult.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in KSR v. Teleflex obviousness was rather mechanical. With obviousness we are asking whether there is any combination of prior art references that when put together would be the invention in question. In other words, could an ordinary mechanic create your invention or was there some kind of non-obvious innovation. Defining the concept with using the concept is hardly illuminating, but that is the way the law of obviousness works. This is true because what is obvious to some large degree is in the eye of the beholder.
On January 6, 2014, I had an on the record conversation with Donald Chisum and Janice Mueller, both exceptional and well known patent scholars in their own right. Together Chisum and Mueller form the faculty of the Chisum Academy, which offers a three-day intense seminar that is limited to ten (10) participants.
In part 1 of the interview we discussed patent reform and started to discuss patent eligibility, particularly as it relates to software. We pick up the discussion there.
QUINN:In looking back, Justice Stevens’ decision in Bilski had pieces that would have made for a much easier régime to live under because he did say in one in particular area that the innovation in question in State Street was patentable because it was a device. I’m optimistic that we’re going to get something good out of the Supreme Court in CLS Bank. But having said that, I’m still worried, because it seems to me that they totally missed the boat in Mayo where they said we’re not going to follow the solicitor’s invitation to let sections 102, 103, or 112 invalidate that claim. That wasn’t really an invitation, that’s what the statute mandates and up until then Mayo that was always what the Supreme Court had mandated. So you just never know what you’re going to get from the Supreme Court, but I can’t imagine we’re going to get anything less intelligible than the Federal Circuit en banc decision in CLS Bank. Now Janice, you have spent a lot of time teaching patent law to students. How would you describe that decision to people who are new to this field?
Don Chisum (left) and Janice Mueller (right) at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
I’ve known Janice Mueller for a number of years dating back to when she was a full time Professor of Law. Mueller wrote, in my opinion, one of the best summaries of patent law and I recommended it to my patent law students, as well as new practitioners, inventors and entrepreneurs. She has now left full time teaching, but she has not left patent scholarship behind. She is now the author of a patent treatise and she co-teaches in the Chisum Academy with Donald Chisum, who everyone in the patent world knows from his definitive encyclopedia of patent law titled simple Chisum on Patents.
Recently Mueller wrote to me to let me know about the upcoming Advanced Patent Law Seminar that the Chisum Academy will host in Cincinnati from March 5, 2013 through March 7, 2013. I floated the idea of doing an on the record conversation with her and Don Chisum, which they both accepted.
In this two-part conversation we discuss everything patents, from patent reform legislation, to patent litigation abuse, to how the Supreme Court and Federal Circuit are handling patent matters and much more.
Without further ado, here is my conversation with these two preeminent patent scholars.
Greetings patent world. A very, very, important case relating to software has again made its way to the Supreme Court for decision. The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) badly muffed their chance to clearly set forth what thresholds should be implemented for software patentability and the Supreme Court now must step into the breach. Good thing too; but, not without lots of anxious handwringing on the part of true believers in the patent system who favor its worthwhile and broad applicability. Hence; this series of open letters/articles written for consumption by the Justices and their clerks as a primer for this case.
I know— it is presumptuous on my part that this would have any influence, but these pages are an important forum to air out these issues. If we can do this in a non-hysterical erudite fashion, these pages will be read and help inform on this issue. No doubt, every person with a dog/pup/minnow/free electron in this fight will file amici. Too bad they cannot all receive the same level of attention as the effort they take to write, but such are the practicable limits of time and comprehension of those who will make and write the decisions. My hope here is to write about this topic in a way that is both engaging and elucidating.
In the beginning… seriously we need to go back that far to bring perspective to the issues. Business methods were always thought to be outside what was patent eligible in the U.S. The historic practice of crony capitalism based on “patents” granted by the Crown made these business practice monopolies not something that would be useful or even acceptable to the then new U.S. The Constitution simply confined the patent system to the ”useful arts”. On occasion, various Supreme Court decisions have referenced the antipathy to monopolies that undergirds their thinking as to patents and what ought to be in or out on the patent eligibility front. This sidelining of business methods was fairly easily implemented right up until the digital revolution.
The original January 2013 opinion was authored by Judge Neman with Judges Prost and Reyna in agreement. In that opinion the Court identified claim 34 as representative of the “shopping cart” claims, and held claim 34 invalid on the ground of obviousness. The parties stated, on petition for rehearing, that the Federal Circuit ruling should have been for claim 35, which would conform to the judgment entered on the jury verdict. Ultimately, the rehearing was not successful and claim 35, like claim 34, was ruled invalid because it was obvious. See Soverain Software LLC v. Newegg, Inc. (Fed. Cir., September 4, 2013).
The Newegg brief in opposition to Soverain’s Petition for Certiorari was due on November 18, 2o13, but Newegg’s attorney requested an extension until Thursday, December 12, 2013, so we await the filing of Newegg’s opposition brief. I have been told that Soverain plans to file a reply to whatever Newegg files, so it will be some time before we know whether the Supreme Court will take this important case.
The Pioneering Technology
Before diving into why this case matters and everyone should pay close attention, allow me to point out that the technology involved in this case is THE original shopping cart technology. In fact, the ’314 patent matured from a patent application that was filed on October 24, 1994. Despite what you may have heard, this is not an example of a bad patent, nor is it something that wasn’t new or was legitimately obvious at the time it was invented, which would have been some meaningful time before October 24, 1994. This is an example of a pioneering invention that came about at the dawn of Internet as we know it today. The fact that it is ancient in Internet terms does not mean that the claims are bad, it merely means that the innovation embodied in the patent is fundamentally important. Indeed, the Soverain’s enterprise software product has been in use for nearly 18 years, and has been used by over 1,000 customers in over 25 countries, including companies such as Time-Warner, AT&T, Sony, Disney, BusinessWeek and Reuters.
How to Write a Patent Application is a must own for patent attorneys, patent agents and law students alike. A crucial hands-on resource that walks you through every aspect of preparing and filing a patent application, from working with an inventor to patent searches, preparing the patent application, drafting claims and more.
Without hesitation I recommend One Simple Idea and think it should be required reading for any motivated inventor. There is so much to like about the book and so much that I think author Stephen Key nails dead on accurate. The book is educational, information and inspirational. For the $14 cover price it is essential reading.
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