Is Software Patentable? Fed Circuit Isn’t Sure—CLS Bank v. Alice Corp.

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. (Robert Wagner on G+)

Alice Tea PartyEarlier this month, the Federal Circuit issued its long-awaited en banc opinion on the patentability of software in CLS Bank International v. Alice Corporation Pty. Ltd., No. 2011-1301. In an ironic twist, the result is something more akin to Alice in Wonderland than the clear guidance patent practitioners were hoping for. The Federal Circuit issued a 135-page decision comprised of separate written opinions by Judges Lourie, Rader, Moore, Newman, and Linn, as well as an “Additional Reflection” by Chief Judge Rader, none of which commanded a majority. The end result was a one-paragraph per curiam opinion in which a majority of the Court determined that the particular method  and computer-readable media claims were not directed to patent eligible subject matter (for different reasons) and an equally-divided Court affirmed by default the District Court’s holding that the system claims were not patent eligible.

The Claims at Issue

Alice Corp. owned four patents relating to a computerized trading platform used for conducting financial transactions in which a third party acts as an intermediary to assure the first and second parties that they will both perform. If one of the parties cannot perform, the transaction is not completed and neither side risks non-performance of the other.

The patents contained method, computer-readable media, and system claims, all of which involved software aspects.

Judge Lourie’s Opinion

Judge Lourie, joined by Judges Dyk, Prost, Reyna, and Wallach, would have held that all of the claims were not directed to patent-eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101.

The statute contains four eligible classes of inventions:

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.

35 U.S.C. § 101. He noted that the statute is to be interpreted broadly, but is also limited by three judicially-created exceptions that are not patent eligible: laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas.

In determining whether something is patent eligible, Judge Lourie set forth a two-step process: (1) is the claimed invention a process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, and, if so, (2) does it fall within one of the three judicially-created exceptions? He acknowledged that this determination is easier said than done.

To determine whether it falls within any of the exceptions, courts are to answer two more questions: (1) does the claim pose any risk of preempting an abstract idea, and, if so, (2) are there substantive limitations that narrow, confine, or otherwise tie down the claim so that it does not preempt the full abstract idea?

Turning to the claims at issue, Judge Lourie broke them down into the “gist” of the invention and what, at heart, it was trying to claim. He concluded that all of the claims were attempting to claim the abstract idea of facilitating a trade through a third-party intermediary. In his opinion, none of the additional claim language provided any meaningful limitation on the claims.

Chief Judge Rader’s OPinion

Chief Judge Rader, joined in full by Judge Moore and in part by Judges Linn and O’Malley, would have held that the system claims are patent eligible, but the method and media claims are not (Judges Linn and O’Malley would have held that all the claims are patent eligible).

Chief Judge Rader focused on the judicially-created exceptions to § 101. Courts must determine whether a claim includes meaningful limitations that restrict the claim to an application, rather than claiming an abstract idea.  Claims are not meaningfully limited where it describes an abstract idea and simply adds “apply it” or if its purported limitations cover all possible ways to achieve the result.

A claim is meaningfully limited if it requires a particular machine to implement it or a particular transformation or where it adds limitations that are essential to the invention. “At bottom, where the claim is tied to a computer in such a way that the computer plays a meaningful role in the performance of the claimed invention, and the claim does not pre-empt virtually all uses of an underlying abstract idea, the claim is patent eligible.”

Chief Judge Rader cautioned that the patent-eligibility inquiry is different and distinct from other statutory requirements, such as non-obviousness, novelty, and enablement. Whether something is obvious is irrelevant to whether it is directed to patent-eligible subject matter. He also confirmed that the standard for proving a violation of § 101 is by clear and convincing evidence.

Taking this all together, he found that the system claims were directed to patent eligible subject matter—the claims recited a machine that performed specific transactions that was not a disembodied concept. However, the method and media claims he found to claim only an abstract concept.

Judge Moore’s Opinion

Judge Moore, joined by Judges Rader, Linn, and O’Malley, wrote to express her concern that Judge Lourie’s view would signal the end of all software patents as we know them. She believed that the five judges ignored precedent and have left the Court “irreconcilably fractured.”  She called for the Supreme Court to step in and resolve the issue.

She would have held that the system claims are directed to patent-eligible subject matter, as they include limitations relating to hardware and software, and were not limited to abstract ideas.

Judge Newman’s Opinion

Judge Newman, writing for herself, believed that the Court was overanalyzing the requirements of § 101. She stated that the inquiry should be simple and straightforward—does the invention fall within one of the four types of inventions allowed? If so, the patent-eligibility analysis ends and the other requirements for patentability kick in to determine whether a patent should be granted.

She also wrote to explicitly confirm that study and experimental use is not patent infringement. She was concerned that too many commentators were wrongly stating that patents would prevent individuals from conducting research or evaluating patented inventions.

Experimental use—such as experiments to (1) improve or build on patented subject matter, (2) compare patented subject matter with alternatives, (3) understand its mechanism, and (4) find new applications or modifications—is not infringement, regardless of whether it is for scientific knowledge or commercial potential.

Judge Linn’s Opinion

Judge Linn, joined by Judge O’Malley, would have found all of the claims to be directed to patent-eligible subject matter.

First Judge Linn was concerned that no claim construction was ever done in this case. The parties did agree that all of the claims required a computer to implement them. Having created this explicit tie to a machine, the claims were not directed to an abstract idea. He had grave concerns that the Court was rewriting the claims and ignoring limitations in order to distill down some essence of the claim, which he believed was improper.

Chief Judge Rader’s “Additional Reflections”

Chief Judge Rader also wrote some official “additional reflections,” which is highly unusual. He reflected on how the positions of the Judges have changed over the last 25 years, even though § 101 has not changed at all in that time period. He also reflected on the chaos of this opinion before concluding that “When all else fails, consult the statute!”

COnclusions—What to Make of All of This?

As a practical matter, this decision provides no precedential value. No rationale was able garner a majority of the Court. What it does signal is that the Federal Circuit cannot, at this, decide what to do with software patents. Five of the Judges (Lourie, Dyk, Prost, Reyna, and Wallach) appear hostile to software patents, while the other five (Rader, Moore, Linn, O’Malley, and Newman) are more receptive. Truly, one’s panel draw could be outcome determinative on appeals involving software patents.

Given the chaos, one could reasonably expect that the Supreme Court will have to step in and provide some clarity. Although, given its track record, even if it does grant cert on this case, it still might not provide clear guidance.

For some other, interesting views on this decision, see our friends at IPWatchdog (here, here, here, and here) and Patently-O (here).

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One response to “Is Software Patentable? Fed Circuit Isn’t Sure—CLS Bank v. Alice Corp.

  1. Pingback: Significant Interest in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l Case at Supreme Court | PIT IP Tech Blog

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