by Dennis Crouch
A pair of recent Federal Circuit decisions continue to highlight ongoing ambiguities and difficulties regarding the scope of patent subject matter eligibility for software related patents.
Bancorp Services, L.L.C. v. Sun Life Assur. Co. of Canada (U.S.), --- F.3d ----, 2012 WL 3037176 (Fed. Cir. 2012) (computer related financial claims are not patent eligible).
CLS Bank Intern. v. Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd., 103 U.S.P.Q.2d 1297 (Fed. Cir. 2012) (computerized stock trading platform claims are patent eligible).
Both decisions agree on several main points: that the mere inclusion of a computer limitation does not make a claim patent eligible and that the claim form (method, system, etc.) does not change the subject matter eligibility analysis. Although perhaps a revisionist history, Bancorp explains that the differing outcomes are based upon factual distinctions in the two cases:
In CLS, we reversed the district court and held that method, system, and medium claims directed to a specific application of exchanging obligations between parties using a computer were patent eligible under § 101. In faulting the district court for “ignoring claim limitations in order to abstract a process down to a fundamental truth,” we explained that the asserted claims in CLS were patent eligible because “it [wa]s difficult to conclude that the computer limitations ... d[id] not play a significant part in the performance of the invention or that the claims [we]re not limited to a very specific application of the [inventive] concept.” Here, in contrast, the district court evaluated the limitations of the claims as a whole before concluding that they were invalid under § 101. As we explained above, the computer limitations do not play a “significant part” in the performance of the claimed invention. And unlike in CLS, the claims here are not directed to a “very specific application” of the inventive concept; as noted, Bancorp seeks to broadly claim the unpatentable abstract concept of managing a stable value protected life insurance policy.
Despite this attempted reconciliation, it is clear that the CLS majority has a different approach to subject matter eligibility questions. Perhaps the key difference is the question of how we think of “the invention.” In CLS, the invention is defined by the claim. In Bancorp and the CLS dissent, the court looks for the core inventive concept as the starting-point for its subject matter eligibility analysis.
It is simply ridiculous that after 40 years of debate, we still do not have an answer to the simple question of whether (or when) software is patentable.