Some more good news on the patent front. Following the Supreme Court's ruling last month
in the Alice v. CLS Bank case, there has been some question about how the lower courts would now look at software patents. As we noted, the Supreme Court's ruling would seem to technically invalidate nearly all software patents by basically saying that if a patent "does no more than require a generic computer to perform generic computer functions" then it's no longer patentable. But that, of course, is basically all that software does. Still, the Supreme Court's ruling also insisted that plenty of software was still patentable, but it didn't give any actual examples.
Now in the first post-Alice ruling on a software patent at CAFC (the appeals court that handles all patent cases, and which is infamous for massively expanding the patentability of software over the years), the court has smacked down a patent
held by one of the many (many, many) shell companies of patent trolling giant Acacia. The shell, Digitech Image Technologies, got control of US Patent 6,128,415
, which had originally held by Polaroid. The patent supposedly describes a setup for making sure images are consistent on a variety of different devices. Acacia/Digitech did what patent trolls do and basically sued a ton of companies, including NewEgg, Overstock, Xerox, Toshiba, Fujifilm and more.
A lower court kicked out the patent, and now CAFC has upheld that ruling, making use of the Alice ruling to make it doubly clear this isn't patentable. The court doesn't waste too much time, as the ruling is quite short. The key bits:
There is no dispute that the asserted method claims describe a process. Claims that fall within one of the four subject matter categories may nevertheless be ineligible if they encompass laws of nature, physical phenomena, or abstract ideas..... The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed that fundamental concepts, by themselves, are ineligible abstract ideas. Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank... In determining whether a process claim recites an abstract idea, we must examine the claim as a whole, keeping in mind that an invention is not ineligible just because it relies upon a law of nature or mathematical algorithm. As noted by the Supreme Court, “an application of a law of nature or mathematical formula to a known structure or process may well be deserving of patent protection.” ... A claim may be eligible if it includes additional inventive features such that the claim scope does not solely capture the abstract idea.... But a claim reciting an abstract idea does not become eligible “merely by adding the words ‘apply it.’”
The method in the ’415 patent claims an abstract idea because it describes a process of organizing information through mathematical correlations and is not tied to a specific structure or machine.
[... Discussion of specific claim in the patent ...]
The above claim recites a process of taking two data sets and combining them into a single data set, the device profile. The two data sets are generated by taking existing information—i.e., measured chromatic stimuli, spatial stimuli, and device response characteristic functions—and organizing this information into a new form. The above claim thus recites an ineligible abstract process of gathering and combining data that does not require input from a physical device. As discussed above, the two data sets and the resulting device profile are ineligible subject matter. Without additional limitations, a process that employs mathematical algorithms to manipulate existing information to generate additional information is not patent eligible. “If a claim is directed essentially to a method of calculating, using a mathematical formula, even if the solution is for a specific purpose, the claimed method is nonstatutory.”
As Tim Lee notes, this ruling is great for folks opposed to software patents, and should send chills down the spines of those who support them. Because that basic reasoning can invalidate a hell of a lot of software patents.
Consider Google's famous PageRank patent, which covers the algorithm at the heart of Google's search engine. In the language of the Federal Circuit, it claims the use of "mathematical algorithms" (involving eigenvectors) to "manipulate existing information" (a list of links between web pages) to "generate additional information" (a ranking of the pages).
The number of software patents out there that use algorithms to manipulate existing information to generate additional information is... rather large. And they may all be invalid.
13 1600 Opinion 7 9 2014 1 (PDF)
13 1600 Opinion 7 9 2014 1 (Text)