In Alice Corporation PTY. Ltd. v. CLS Bank International, et al, handed down on June 19, 2014,  the U.S. Supreme Court held the Alice claims invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 101, using the two-step test for determining patent statutory subject matter set forth in the Court’s 2012 decision,Mayo Collaborative Ser­vices v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., 566 U. S. ___, ___.  One first determines whether the claim recites non-statutory subject matter such as an abstract idea.  If it does, then one “determines whether it contains an ‘inventive concept’ sufficient to ‘transform’ the claimed abstract idea into a patent-eligible application.”

In applying the second step to the method claims in Alice, the Court stated:

Viewed as a whole, these method claims simply recite the concept of intermediated settlement as performed by a generic computer.  They do not, for example, purport to improve the function­ing of the computer itself or effect an improvement in any other tech­nology or technical field. An instruction to apply the abstract idea of intermediated settlement using some unspecified, generic computer is not “enough” to transform the abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention.

Many software patent applications include a flowchart of the inventive concept and a block diagram of a computer system.  Several pages of detail describing the computer system are often included in the written description.  Claims are then directed to the inventive concept outlined in the flowchart as an operation of the disclosed computer system.  Software applications so drafted and claimed appear to be considerably more than the “unspecified, generic computer” in the above quotation from Alice.  However, one cannot be certain of the validity of patents issuing on this type of patent application until one of the patents is ultimately litigated.  A large number of patents may depend on that ultimate litigation.

Additional disclosure to that outlined above may help insure that claims directed to software meet section 101 after Alice.  One view of computer software patents is that the above flowchart amounts to an improvement in the function of the disclosed general purpose computer.  Consequently the patent application drafter might consider also including in software patent applications an additional figure of hardware logic design that discloses a hardware implementation of the flowchart.

On June 25, 2014 the USPTO issued “Preliminary Examination Instructions in view of the Supreme Court Decision in Alice Corporation PTY. Ltd. v. CLS Bank International, et al (the “Instructions”).”  In addressing the above second step, the Instructions state:

If an abstract idea is present in the claim, determine whether any element, or combination of elements, in the claim is sufficient to ensure that the claim amounts to significantly more than the abstract idea itself.  In other words, are there other limitations in the claim that show a patent-eligible application of the abstract idea, e.g., more than a mere instruction to apply the abstract idea?  Consider the claim as a whole by considering all claim elements, both individually and in combination.

Limitations referenced in Alice Corp. that may be enough to qualify as “significantly more” when recited in a claim with an abstract idea include, as non-limiting or non-exclusive examples:

  • Improvements to another technology or technical fields;
  • Improvements to the functioning of the computer itself;
    • Meaningful limitations beyond generally linking the use of an abstract idea to a particular technological environment

The hardware logic design figure suggested above may be viewed as a limitation that qualifies as “significantly more” since it is an “improvement[s] to the functioning of the computer itself” as in the above quotation from the Instructions.

Moreover, the current law allows patent applicants to claim the operation of an apparatus as a method.  Method claims drawn to the suggested hardware figure should be given breadth to cover a general purpose computer programmed to operate as the hardware logic diagram.  The Beauregard and system claims should likewise be given similar breadth.

My thanks to Peter Leal of Schwegman, Lundberg & Woessner, P.A., for this guest post: