By Dennis Crouch
CLS Bank v. Alice Corp (Fed. Cir. 2013)
On February 8, 2013, the Federal Circuit held oral arguments en banc in this important subject matter eligibility dispute that focuses on the extent that software can be patented. Under Federal Circuit rules, en banc rehearings include all of the regular circuit court judges as well as any other judge who sat on the original panel. For this case, the nine regular members of the court were joined by Senior Judge Richard Linn who sat on the original panel and penned the opinion of the court that has offended so many anti-software-patent advocates. In the opinion, Judge Linn cabined-in the definition of "abstract" with regard to computer implemented inventions and also indicated that §101 should only be used to invalidate a claim when that result is "manifestly evident." [UPDATED]
With a ten-member panel the accused infringer (CLS Bank) needs six votes to overturn the original panel decision. With a ten member panel, six votes are needed to win. Since the original appellate decision was vacated, this appeal comes directly from the district court. As such, a five-five tie will affirm the lower court holding of invalidity. While I suspect that Linn's language putting Section 101 on the back burner will not survive, I suspect that at least some claims will be seen to pass muster under Section 101.
The parties are in relative agreement on many points. None of the parties seriously argue that software per se is patentable – apparently assuming that software apart from its computer implementation always embodies an abstract idea. All of the parties also agreed that a computer specially designed to perform a particular function can also be patentable. The dispute centers on what test should be used to determine when you have such a "specialized computer" and on whether Alice Corp's claimed invention meets that standard.
Most notably absent from the oral arguments was any discussion of the meaning of an "abstract idea." Of course it is the ambiguity in the definition of abstract idea that is causing most of the confusion regarding subject matter eligibility.
For decades, patent attorneys have known that software can be patentable if properly claimed in a way that directs attention away from the software nature of the invention. I suspect that the rule-of-thumb for patent eligibility will focus on complexity of the relationship between software and hardware. And, if that is the case patent attorneys will renew their reputation for taking simple ideas and making them appear quite complex.
Mark Perry represented the accused infringer (CLS Bank) and argued that one starting point for subject matter eligibility is the notion that a process accomplished "entirely in the human mind or made with pen and paper" cannot be patent eligible. Further, merely speeding-up that process by using a computer does not somehow transform the process into a patentable invention – "it simply accelerates the process." The bulk of the questioning focused whether CLS had overgeneralized the claims. For instance, when Mr. Perry began reading from the patent's invention summary he was stopped by Judge Linn who responded that every claim can be distilled to an abstract summary but "that's not the way that we assess patent eligibility or patentability."
Judge Moore focused the questioning on the CLS Bank claim that included the most physical structure. Claim 26 of the '375 patent reads as follows:
26. A data processing system to enable the exchange of an obligation between parties, the system comprising:
a communications controller,
a first party device, coupled to said communications controller,
a data storage unit having stored therein
(a) information about a first account for a first party, independent from a second account maintained by a first exchange institution, and
(b) information about a third account for a second party, independent from a fourth account maintained by a second exchange institution; and
a computer, coupled to said data storage unit and said communications controller, that is configured to
(a) receive a transaction from said first party device via said communications controller;
(b) electronically adjust said first account and said third account in order to effect an exchange obligation arising from said transaction between said first party and said second party after ensuring that said first party and/or said second party have adequate value in said first account and/or said third account, respectively; and
(c) generate an instruction to said first exchange institution and/or said second exchange institution to adjust said second account and/or said fourth account in accordance with the adjustment of said first account and/or said third account, wherein said instruction being an irrevocable, time invariant obligation placed on said first exchange institution and/or said second exchange institution.
Judge Moore rightly suggested that a computer by itself is clearly a machine and subject-matter eligible. She queried then, how can a more particular invention – the computer with particular functionality – be ineligible? Perry offered two responses. First, he argued that the claim here is really method claim masquerading as a machine claim – that method itself is an abstract idea and the addition of the computer hardware does not make the claims eligible. Further, Perry argued that the claims here are not directed to any particular computer but instead a generic system. Judges Moore and Newman then queried whether the real focus should be on obviousness. Perry admitted that the claims may also be invalid under Section 103, but that the Supreme Court has indicated that Section 101 is a threshold inquiry. In addition, he argued, Section 101 inquiries are often easy because they do not require substantial discovery.
Perry also suggested that the requirement for extensive particular hardware rightly favors companies like CLS Bank and Google who spend millions of dollars to build systems that actually work rather than companies like Alice who merely develop a "McKinsey Report" and file for patent protection.
With Ray Chen on the sideline pending confirmation of his Federal Circuit judicial nomination, Deputy Solicitor Nathan Kelley stepped up and primarily sided with CLS Bank – arguing that software per se cannot be patent eligible because it is an abstract idea and that merely connecting software to a computer is likewise patent ineligible. The oddball test suggested by the PTO borrows the separability concept from copyright law. In copyright, a useful article is only copyrightable if the original expression is at least conceptually separable from the utility of the article. The PTO argues that an inseparability requirement should be put in place for computer implemented inventions. Under that construct, a computer implemented invention that applies an abstract idea would only be patent eligible if the computer is inseparably and inextricably linked to the invention. In oral arguments, Kelley suggested that the approach requires the "fact finder" to "go deeper" in considering whether an inextricable link exists. Mr. Kelly did agree (on questioning from Judge Moore) that the focus in this process should be on the language of the claims.
What the PTO wants out of this is a practical test that its examiners can follow rather than just the notion of an "abstract idea." I believe that the agency would have been better served if he had focused on that point rather introducing a new concept into the law that does little or nothing to resolve ambiguity.
Adam Perlman argued for the patentee (Alice Corp) and likewise did not defend software patents. Rather, Perlman argued that his client's patents were technology-focused inventions that wove together software and hardware in a way that "creates a new machine" that clearly satisfies the requirements of Section 101.
There was some back and forth about preemption. Neither party mentioned this, but a point relevant to preemption is likely CLS's allegations at the district court level that it did not infringe the patents.
The Federal Circuit will likely take a few months to decide this appeal. An important issue will be to see whether the court decides this case quickly or waits for the Supreme Court to release its decision in Myriad. Although not computer implemented, the outcome of Myriad case could impact the law here.