Nathan Peske, MJLST Staff
On March 31, 2014 the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case CLS Bank International v. Alice Corporation Pty. Ltd. This case examines patents held by the Alice Corporation for software that implements an abstract scheme for managing settlement risk in the series of transaction banks make back and forth over the course of the day. The question before the court is whether the software is patent-eligible subject matter under §101 of the Patent Act.
Section 101 sets out the initial statutory requirements for patent-eligible subject matter. An invention must be a “new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter” or an improvement to one of those categories. Supreme Court jurisprudence has repeatedly affirmed that there are three judicial exceptions to these categories. These exceptions are laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas. Einstein’s famous theory of relativity E = mc^2 is often cited in court opinions as an example of unpatentable subject matter. If patents this broad were granted they would foreclose any other innovation using the abstract idea. This would ultimately stifle innovation rather than encouraging it.
When an implementation of an abstract idea is patentable has proved a very difficult standard to establish, particularly when software is involved. In Gottschalk v. Benson a computer program implementing a mathematical formula was ruled unpatentable because simply incorporating an abstract idea into a software program is not sufficient to render it patent-eligible subject matter. In Diamond v. Diehr a software program that calculated the cook time for curing rubber was ruled patent-eligible subject matter because it also controlled the cook time and opened the mold when the rubber was done. Subsequent cases have generally been decided on narrow factual grounds and have failed to establish a general test.
The Federal Circuit en banc rehearing of Alice Corporation continued this trend. In a thoroughly fractured decision seven of the ten Federal Circuit judges held the Alice patents invalid and wrote five concurring and dissenting opinions to justify their reasoning. Chief Judge Rader also penned a series of Reflections discussing the current state of patent law. Since the Supreme Court granted Alice’s petition for certiorari it has the opportunity to establish a clear standard that will settle some of the continuing uncertainty over software and business method patents.
This decision has sweeping implication for the future of software patents. A broad interpretation of the patentability of software would open the door for endless patent litigation and reduced the patent system to dueling patent lawyers. A narrow interpretation would have the benefit of reducing the ability of “patent trolls” to harass other companies. Patent trolls acquire patents, often cheaply from struggling companies, and sue or threaten to sue other companies for infringing them. Rather than face years of expensive patent litigation many companies will settle even spurious claims. At the same time a narrow interpretation could drastically limit the abilities of software inventors to patent their inventions. Thus discouraging the innovation the patent system was designed to encourage.
Justice Breyer summarized the situation during oral arguments when he said “There is a risk that you will take business in the United States or large segments and instead of having competition on price, service and better production methods, we’ll have competition on who has the best patent lawyer. And if you go the other way and say never, then what you do is you rule out real inventions with computers.” The justices’ questions seemed to indicate they were unsure if and how to address this question.
There is ample precedent for the Supreme Court to issue a narrow ruling on the merits. Rather than attempting to issue a sweeping decision to establish a precedent for future cases. Indeed, they seem poised to do exactly this. Observers can only watch and wait to see how the Supreme Court will decide this time.