The Australian Full Federal Court recently handed down its decision in Research Affiliates LLC v Commissioner of Patents. The decision is an important addition to Australian case law concerning the patentability of business methods and software.
Judges Kenny, Bennett, and Nicholas ruled that the Appellant’s claimed computer implemented method for generating an index for use in securities trading was unpatentable as an abstract idea. The Court held that “[t]he claimed method in this case clearly involves what may well be an inventive idea, but it is an abstract idea. The specification makes it apparent that any inventive step arises in the creation of the index as information and as a scheme. There is no suggestion in the specification or the claims that any part of the inventive step lies in the computer implementation. Rather, it is apparent that the scheme is merely implemented in a computer and a standard computer at that. It is no part of the claimed method that there is an improvement in what might broadly be called ‘computer technology’.”
In our opinion this case does not present a major change in the law in Australia regarding the patentability of business methods and software, but clarifies that mere reference to computer implementation in patent claims will not be enough to satisfy Australia’s requirements of patentable subject matter. Otherwise, the patentability of business methods and software, where a computer is “inextricably linked with the invention itself”, appear to remain patentable in Australia.
On Thursday, November 14, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued its latest decision in Ultramercial v. Hulu, which deals with the patent eligibility of software related patent claims. The district court originally held that U.S. Patent 7,346,545 (the “’545 patent”), the basis for the complaint filed by Ultramercial, does not claim patent-eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. This decision was appealed to the Federal Circuit, which reversed, concluding that the district court erred in granting WildTangent’s motion to dismiss for failing to claim statutory subject matter. WildTangent filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court, which was granted. The Supreme Court vacated the Federal Circuit decision, and remanded the case for further consideration in light of its decision in Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc.
On remand the Federal Circuit once again found that the claims asserted by Ultramercial defined patent eligible subject matter. WildTangent again filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court. While WildTangent’s petition was pending, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International. Ultimately, the Supreme Court once again granted WildTangent’s petition for a writ of certiorari, vacated the Federal Circuit decision, and remanded the case for further consideration, this time in light of Alice.
Ultramercial’s Federal Circuit luck has now run out. Gone from the original panel was Chief Judge Rader who retired and was replaced by Judge Mayer, which does not bode well for any patent owner. This time in an opinion written by Judge Lourie the Ultramercial claims were found to be patent ineligible because they constitute nothing more than an abstract idea. If Judge Lourie were trying to predict what the Supreme Court would do when faces with patent claims that are clearly NOT abstract, his decision makes sense. Still, it is extraordinarily troubling that patent claims are being invalidated left and right based upon the so-called “abstract idea doctrine,” where the critical term “abstract idea” has never been defined by the Supreme Court or the Federal Circuit.
In this edition of the Companies We Follow series, we’ve surveyed the recently published patent applications which have been filed by IBM with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All in all, we found a wide assortment of data analysis technologies for business, medical and consumer fields which may likely their way into the corporation’s intellectual property portfolio in the months to come.
We start off with a look at a few inventions for software development projects, specifically for the management of artifacts connected to software development files by applications within development platforms. We discuss a trio of patent applications related to helping businesses make sense of immense data sets, including visualization methods and techniques for answering natural language questions. IBM’s patent applications involve more medical technologies, including a system for determining fraud within health care claims. We also profile one patent application describing a unique method for swaying the voting tendencies of a group of participants within an electronically hosted conference.
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.