Justices of the United States Supreme Court. No friends to innovators who require strong patent rights.
As I was putting together the slides for this Powerpoint presentation I thought to myself, “how do I title this page.” I’ll tell you the thought that first jumped into my head, although I ruled it out: “Public Enemy Number One.” Or I suppose “Public Enemy Number One through Nine.” There is little doubt that the Justices of the Supreme Court are indeed public enemies, at least insofar as patent owners are concerned. Unless you are represented by Seth Waxman at the Supreme Court your patent claims are invalid! And even Seth doesn’t always win, although he sure wins a lot for Monsanto.
Let’s start our discussion of SCOTUS decisions with Mayo v. Prometheus. In Mayo the Supreme Court proudly proclaims that they’re not going to take the government’s invitation to apply 102, 103, and 112. Instead the Court decided to limit its handling of the issues to patent eligibility under 101. And as they go through their analysis they admit that the claim in question includes things that are not in nature, but yet they reach the conclusion that the claim is still a law of nature anyway because you’re just adding some extra stuff that already exists. It’s breathtaking. One, that’s not what the law is. Two, that’s not what the statute says. And three, every other Supreme Court throughout history specifically said never do that, and they did it anyway.
No question exists that patent eligibility under Section 101 has been, and remains, the most active question in patent law. Watching the rapid flow of cases back and forth between the Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court exceeds the excitement generated by most TV shows in sheer entertainment value. The only question open for discussion is whether we are watching “Game of Thrones,” “Survivor”, or “Modern Family.” Actually, the best choice may be “Lost”.
To understand the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l, a page of history provides more illumination than a book of Lewis Carroll references. Here we need to pick up at the point when everyone thought the computer patentability wars were over.
By the late 1990’s, the last frontier was business methods. We had absorbed Diamond v. Diehr and moved on to Beauregard claims and propagated signals. Everyone was making, or wanted to be making, tons of money in the Dot.Con era, and little patience remained for outdated rules.
One of the frequent claims made by those in the anti-software patent community relates to Twitter and the clearly erroneous belief that patents are not important to the company. Indeed, recently when I wrote Fairy Tales and Other Irrational Beliefs About Patents the claim arose in the comments suggesting that Twitter is proof that patents are unnecessary to succeed. Quite to the contrary. If you actually concern yourself with facts, Twitter is a perfect case study to demonstrate just how important patents, particularly software patents, are to a start-up company that has aspirations of going public.
Doubt me? Perhaps you will believe Twitter themselves. In repeated filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission since October 2013, Twitter has explained over and over again just how important their patented technology is to the company. They have also repeatedly explained that unlike other companies and competitors, even with nearly 1,000 patents, their own patent portfolio is extremely small by comparison. This poses real concerns for Twitter, which is why they warn the SEC and investors of the ramifications of such a small patent portfolio with every new filing.
Let’s begin our tale about Twitter at the start. Twitter, founded on March 21, 2006, was initially believed to be of the opinion that patents didn’t matter. Behind the scenes and unknown to many, Twitter was actively filing patents very early on in the development of the company. This is hardly shocking news given that Twitter’s initial round of funding dated back to 2007 and the near universal reality that high-tech investors not only love patents, but they demand patents. Investors love patents because if the company does not succeed at least some valuable patent assets will remain, which can be sold to recoup losses.
Bob Zeidman is the president and founder of Zeidman Consulting, and he is also the president and founder of Software Analysis and Forensic Engineering Corporation. Zeidman is a software expert that I have known for several years and in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice v. CLS Bank we talked on the record about the decision, software in general and writing patent applications. What follows is part 3 of our 3 part conversation.
In this final installment we spend time talking about the problems associated with creating software that actually works. For something that Judges and mathematicians seem to say is so trivial software sure doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. Copied code cobbled together leads to broken systems, and programmers simply throw code up without proper vetting and let consumers find the bugs. Sure doesn’t sound like it is all that trivial to me, but then again, I’m not an ivy league educated Supreme Court Justice who is so computer illiterate that I don’t use e-mail.
Recently I had the opportunity to interview Bob Zeidman, the president and founder of Zeidman Consulting, who is also the president and founder of Software Analysis and Forensic Engineering Corporation, Zeidman is an software expert. In fact, in addition to consulting with lawyers and technology companies, he is an testifying and consulting expert witness. The premise of our conversation was the upheaval in the patent industry thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice v. CLS Bank. In part 1 of our conversation we discussed the decision and ways that attorneys can build a specification to satisfy the Alice standard. In part 2 of our 3 part discussion, which appears below, we wrap up our discussion of the Alice decision and dive into a discussion about the fact that many in the computer science world don’t believe what they do to be particularly innovative or even special.
QUINN: And then there’s always the fear that if you put in code then you’re gonna be limiting yourself. I don’t think that’s really a justifiable fear as long as it’s put in properly as illustrative instead of limiting. You know, I mean the folks in the chemical world, they do this all the time. They have example after example after example after example, which is a great way to disclose what it is that you have, what it is that you’ve tried, what it is that you know that works.
ZEIDMAN: Exactly. It seems like if there is some ambiguity in the claims then you would go back to the specification to see if the code there could clarify the claims.
On August 12, 2014, I had the opportunity to speak with Zeidman on the record. As the dust begins to settle from the Supreme Court’s Alice v. CLS Bank decision I thought it might be interesting to talk about the issues with a computer expert who regularly works with patent attorneys and technology clients, and who has been advising both attorneys and clients how to handle the Alice decision from a technical standpoint. In our three part interview we discuss the decision and various ways attorneys might be able to move forward to provide disclosure sufficient to satisfy even the Alice standard.
It has been over a month since the Supreme Court published its opinion in Alice v. CLS Bank. While the question on which certiorari was granted broadly considered the patent eligibility of computer implemented inventions, the Court ultimately issued an opinion that was tightly focused on the invention underlying Alice Corp’s patent. While many hoped that the Court would address this broader issue, the narrow opinion leaves many key questions unanswered. More importantly, the Court’s explanation of why the Alice patent was an ineligible abstract idea demonstrates the limitations inherent in applying that doctrine to computer implemented inventions. Those limitations will come to define the struggles confronting innovators, courts and the patent office as they attempt to operate in accordance with this opinion.
A review of the opinion and oral argument reveals that no participant was able to articulate a meaningful, repeatable, and predictable approach for determining which computer implemented inventions are too abstract and which are eligible for patent protection. The Court intentionally declined to broadly address this key issue: “[i]n any event we need not labor to delimit the precise contours of the “abstract ideas” exception in this case.” And that is because it cannot be done. As the Court itself acknowledged in Mayo v. Prometheus, “all inventions at some level embody” an abstract idea. And unlike laws of nature and natural phenomena, abstract ideas are not readily susceptible to line-drawing – where does the abstract idea stop and the eligible “application” of that abstraction begin?
Learned Hand lamented the intractable nature of this problem in the context of the idea expression dichotomy in copyright law. Struggling to separate the underlying unprotected idea from the copyright protected expression, he noted “…there is a point in this series of abstractions where they are no longer protected, since otherwise the playwright could prevent the use of his ‘ideas’, to which, apart from their expression, his property is never extended. Nobody has ever been able to fix that boundary, and nobody ever can.” See Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corporation.
Over the last several days I have heard of an alarming trend from the United States Patent and Trademark Office — Patent Examiners are canceling Notices of Allowance and yanking previously granted claims back into prosecution while citing the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Alice v. CLS Bank. In some instances granted claims are being pulled back into prosecution only to be rejected as lacking patent eligible subject matter even after the issue fee has been paid. I have also been told that an Examiner in one case has issued a new Examiner’s Answer to include a new Alice 101 rejection.
Rejecting claims after the issue fee has been paid represents an extraordinary disconnect from the initial USPTO guidance that essentially said that Alice changed nothing from a substantive point of view. I was shocked that the USPTO issued such guidance because if you actually read the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice you could hardly walk away with the belief that nothing had changed.
In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice the USPTO told examiners 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, by and through the Deputy Commissioner for Patent Examination Policy, Andrew Hirshfeld, 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. 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.”
I feel like a very broken record. In an IPWatchdog article I wrote back in 2012, I commented on the currently fractured patent-eligibility landscape in the split Federal Circuit panel decision in CLS Bank International v. Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. where a claimed trading platform for exchanging business obligations survived a validity challenge under 35 U.S.C. § 101. See The Fractured Landscape of Patent Eligibility for Business Methods and Systems in CLS Bank International. That fracture got even worse in the subsequent en banc ruling which can only be described as lengthy, tumultuous, and confusing, with a brief per curiam opinion, as well as six full opinions.
With the Supreme Court’s most recent foray into the patent-eligibility world in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International, we now have a complete and utter disaster as to what data processing claims can (or more unfortunately cannot) survive scrutiny by Our Judicial Mount Olympus under 35 U.S.C. § 101. I once had respect for Justice Thomas’ view on patent law jurisprudence, having considered his substandard opinion in Myriad on the patent-eligibility of certain “isolated” DNA claims to be an “isolated” aberration. But having now read his mind-boggling Opinion for the Court in Alice Corp., I’ve now thrown my previously “cheery” view of Thomas’ understanding of patent law jurisprudence completely into the toilet. I have even less kind words to say about the three Justices that signed onto Justice Sotomayor’s disingenuous concurring opinion that accepts retired Justice Steven’s equally disingenuous suggestion in Bilski that 35 U.S.C. § 273 (in which Congress acknowledged implicitly, if not explicitly the patent-eligibility of “business methods” under 35 U.S.C. § 101) is a mere “red herring.” See Section 273 is NOT a Red Herring: Steven’s Disingenuous Concurrence in Bilski.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Alice Corp. operates from the view that “ignorance is bliss” when it come to the patent statutes, as well science and technology. I don’t share that view and never will. So in the format that I began with in shredding Justice Alito’s “comedic” opinion in Limelight Networks, here are my “ignorance is not bliss” candidates for Alice Corp., in all their ugliness.
A friend who handles large numbers of software patent applications for some of the most elite technology companies sent me an e-mail late last week about what he has already started seeing coming from patent examiners. He says he has seen the below form paragraph twice within a week. Most alarming, in one case the form paragraph came in the form of a supplemental office action, but the outstanding original office action didn’t have any patent eligibility rejections under 35 U.S.C. 101.
Claims… are rejected under 35 U.S.C. 101 because the claimed invention is directed to non statutory subject matter. In the instant invention, the claims are directed towards the concept of… [This] is considered a method of organizing human activities, therefore the claims are drawn to an abstract idea. The claims do not recite limitations that are “significantly more” than the abstract idea because the claims do not recite an improvement to another technology or technical field, an improvement to the functioning of the computer itself, or meaningful limitations beyond generally linking the use of an abstract idea to a particular technological environment. It should be noted the limitations of the current claims are performed by the generically recited processor. The limitations are merely instructions to implement the abstract idea on a computer and require no more than a generic computer to perform generic computer functions that are well-understood, routine and conventional activities previously known to the industry. Therefore, claims… are directed to non-statutory subject matter.
Did you notice the circular logic? The claims are abstract because the claims do not recite limitations significantly more than an abstract idea. Truthfully, this rather ridiculous logical construct can’t be blamed on patent examiners when the Supreme Court refuses to provide a definition for what is an abstract idea.