Patentable Subject Matter: Relying on Benson; Construing Claims for Eligibility

By Dennis Crouch

FuzzySharp Tech. Inc. v. 3DLabs Inc. (Fed. Cir. 2011)

In a per curiam opinion marked nonprecedential, the Federal Circuit has vacated and remanded the subject matter invalidity finding of a N.D. California District Court and instead ordered the court to rework its decision in light of Bilski v. Kappos, 130 S. Ct. 3218 (2010) and subsequent Federal Circuit decisions on point. As discussed below, FuzzySharp’s invention relates to compression software for computer graphics. U.S. Patent Nos. 6,172,679 and 6,618,047. The main idea of the invention is to avoid calculations associated with always hidden surfaces. Although the specification explains that its implementation uses “fuzzy” math to calculate always hidden surfaces. However, “fuzzy” limitations are not found in the asserted patent claims. The application was filed in 1997, but claims priority to a 1991 Australian patent application.

FuzzySharp’s appeal was filed after the district court determined that the claimed method failed to pass the machine-or-transformation and therefore, under the prevailing law at the time, the method did not constitute patentable subject matter. In re Bilski, 545 F.3d 943 (2008). In its 2010 Bislki decision, the Supreme Court rejected the notion that the machine-or-transformation test could serve as the exclusive test of the patentable subject matter of a newly invented process. In the new rubric, the machine-or-transformation test offers only an important clue.

In its opinion, the Federal Circuit largely agreed with the lower court’s conclusion that the FuzzySharp claims fail the machine-or-transformation test, but, following the new Bilski rubric, remanded for a determination on the ultimate question of patentable subject matter.

Meaningful Limitations: FuzzySharp’s asserted claims involve two elements that are potentially linked to a machine – computation and computer storage. However, the appellate panel found those elements lacked “meaningful limits” on claim scope in the same way that the recitation of a general-purpose-computer is not a meaningful limitation of a software process that will only be performed on a computer. (Citing Gottshalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 64 (1972)).

Claim Construction: An important and arising issue is the interplay between claim construction and patentable subject matter. Under Federal Circuit precedent, claim construction appears to be a necessary precursor. However, the Supreme Court has regularly ignored details of claim language in making its determinations – focusing instead on what it saw as the invention.

Here, the court held that some claim construction is necessary: “[W]e conclude that … the patent eligibility of at least one of the asserted claims turns on questions of claim construction that the district court did not have the opportunity to address.” It will be interesting to watch how the parties argue on remand for claim construction results that favor their hoped-for subject matter eligibility outcome.

Notes:

  • The per curiam panel included Judges Bryson, O’Malley, and Reyna.
  • The U.S. application was prosecuted by Carl Oppedahl’s Colorado-based firm.
  • The patentee is represented by Matthew McAndrews from the Niro firm on appeal; Jonathan Baker from Skadden Arps is handling the appellate defense.
  • Here is Claim 12 of the ’047 patent that the Federal Circuit analyzed:

    12. A method of reducing a step of visibility computations in 3-D computer graphics from a perspective of a viewpoint, the method comprising:

    computing, before said step and from said perspective, the visibility of at least one entity selected from 3-D surfaces and sub-elements of said 3-D surfaces, wherein said computing step comprises:

    employing at least one projection plane for generating projections with said selected set of 3-D surfaces and said sub-elements with respect to said perspective;

    identifying regions on said at least one projection plane, wherein said regions are related to the projections associated with said selected 3-D surfaces, said sub-elements, or bounding volumes of said 3-D surfaces or said sub-elements;

    updating data related to said regions in computer storage; and

    deriving the visibility of at least one of said 3-D surfaces or said sub-elements from the stored data in said computer storage; and

    skipping, at said step of visibility computations, at least an occlusion relationship calculation for at least one entity that has been determined to be invisible in said computing step.

 

 

Ongoing Battles over Patentable Subject Matter

By Dennis Crouch

In Ultramercial v. Hulu, the Federal Circuit held that Ultramercial's asserted Patent No. 7,346,545 fit within the subject matter eligibility guidelines of 35 U.S.C. § 101 and was not merely an unpatentable abstract idea. The patent claims a method of distributing copyrighted products (such as a movie) over the internet. The novel idea is that the copyrighted product be both (1) offered for sale and (2) delivered for free if the consumer agrees to view an advertisement. The district court held the patent invalid under section 101. On appeal, however, the Federal Circuit reversed – holding that the patent claims a "practical application" of the idea that "advertising can serve as a currency." An important element of the decision was the finding that "[v]iewing the subject matter as a whole, the invention involves an extensive computer interface."

Now, WildTangent (one of the accused infringers) has petitioned for a rehearing en banc. The public interest organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a brief in support of the rehearing – arguing that an en banc determination is necessary in light of (1) the court's failure to follow Bilski v. Kappos; (2) inconsistencies in application of the law apparent from the court's recent decisions in Ultramercial, Classen Immunotherapies v. Biogen IDEC, and CyberSource Corp. v. Retail Decisions, Inc.; and (3) a growing intra-circuit division regarding patentable subject matter jurisprudence. This filing ties-in closely with the pending Supreme Court case of Mayo v. Prometheus, which questions the patentability of a method of personalizing the dosage of a pharmaceutical and the pending case of AMP v. Myriad, which questions the patentability of isolated human DNA. Other pending Section 101 cases include DealerTrack, Inc. v. Huber (App. No. 2010-1544) (Claims 1, 3, and 4 of U.S. Patent No. 7,181,427); FuzzySharp Tech., Inc. v. 3DLabs Inc. (App. No. 2010-1160) (U.S. Patent Nos. 6,172,679 and 6,618,047); CLS Bank Int'l. v. Alice Corp (App. No. 2011-1301) (Patent No. 7,725,375); Cognex v. ITC (App. No. 2011-1098) (Patent Nos. 7,016,539 and 7,065,262); and Fort Properties, Inc. v. American Master Lease LLC (App. No. 2009-1242) (Patent No. 6,292,788).

Uniloc v. Microsoft: The CAFC Rejects the 25 Percent Rule

By Jason Rantanen

Uniloc USA, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp. (Fed. Cir. 2011)
Panel: Rader, Linn (author), Moore

Uniloc v. Microsoft involves a host of issues, although one stands out as particularly noteworthy.  While  "passively tolerat[ing]" the 25 percent 'rule of thumb' (a method for calculating a reasonable royalty for purposes of infringement damages) in past cases, the CAFC held today that the rule "is a fundamentally flawed tool for determining a baseline royalty rate in a hypothetical negotiation," thus precluding its use for damages calculations.

Uniloc is the owner of Patent No. 5,490,216, an early patent covering a mechanism for combating "casual copying" of software, where users install copies of a software program on multiple computers in violation of applicable software licenses.  In general terms, the patented invention involves the creation of a registration number generated by the software on the user's computer.  The number is sent to the vendor's system, which uses an identical algorithm to create a remote license ID.  If the numbers match when the application boots, the program enters a "use mode;" if they do not, it enters a "demo mode."

In the suit against Microsoft, Uniloc alleged that the Product Activation feature for Microsoft's Word XP, Word 2003, and Windows XP software programs infringed the '216 patent.  A jury agreed, finding that Microsoft not only infringed the patent, but did so willfully.  The jury also rejected Microsoft's invalidity defenses and awarded Uniloc $388 million in damages.  Following the trial, the district court granted Microsoft's motion for JMOL of noninfringement and lack of willfulness (and in the alternative, ordered a new trial on these issues), but denied its request for a JMOL on invalidity.  The court also ordered a new trial on the issue of damages.  On appeal, Uniloc challenged the district court's noninfringement, willfulness, and damages rulings, while Microsoft cross-appealed the denial of its JMOL on invalidity.  The Federal Circuit affirmed the district judge's rulings on willfulness, damages and invalidity, but reversed on the question of infringement, both with respect to JMOL and the grant of a new trial.

Damages
The damages section of the opinion is by far the most significant portion.  At trial, the jury awarded Uniloc $388 million in damages, relying on the testimony of Uniloc's expert, who opined that damages should be $564,946,803 based on a hypothetical negotiation between Uniloc and Microsoft and the Georgia-Pacific factors.  Using an internal Microsoft document relating to the value of product keys, the expert applied the 25 percent "rule of thumb" to the minimum value reported ($10 each), obtaining a value of $2.50 per key.  After applying the Georgia-Pacific factors, which he concluded did not modify the base rate, he multiplied it by the number of new licenses to Office and Windows products, producing the $565 million value.  He confirmed his valuation by "checking" it against the total market value of sales of the Microsoft products (approximately $19 billion, noting that it represented only 2.9% of the gross revenue of the products.   

The 25 Percent Rule: On appeal, the CAFC first rejected the use of the 25 percent rule to calculate patent damages.  "The 25 percent rule of thumb is a tool that has been used to approximate the reasonable royalty rate that the manufacturer of a patented product would be willing to offer to pay to the patentee during a hypothetical negotiation." Slip Op. at 36, citing Robert Goldscheider, John Jarosz and Carla Mulhern, USE OF THE 25 PER CENT RULE IN VALUING IP, 37 les Nouvelles 123, 123 (Dec. 2002).  Under the rule, "licensees pay a royalty rate equivalent to 25 per cent of its expected profits for the product that incorporates the IP at issue." Id., quoting Goldscheider et al. Included in the court's discussion of the rule is an extensive survey of the relevant literature (covering no less than nine articles), as well as an acknowledgement that the "court has passively tolerated its use where its acceptability has not been the focus of the case." Slip Op. at 39.  However, the court recognized that it  never squarely addressed the use of the rule.

Treating the issue as one of first principles, and after considering the relevant Supreme Court caselaw, the CAFC concluded that, as an abstract theory untied to particular factual circumstances of a given case, the 25 percent rule simply cannot be used for damages calculations: 

This court now holds as a matter of Federal Circuit law that the 25 percent rule of thumb is a fundamentally flawed tool for determining a baseline royalty rate in a hypothetical negotiation. Evidence relying on the 25 percent rule of thumb is thus inadmissible under Daubert and the Federal Rules of Evidence, because it fails to tie a reasonable royalty base to the facts of the case at issue.

Slip Op. at 41.  The court based its reasoning on the Daubert standard for expert testimony, concluding that general theories are only permissible if the expert adequately ties the theory to the specific facts of the case.  Under Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137 (1999) and General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 US 136 (1997), "one major determinant of whether an expert should be excluded under Daubert is whether he has justified the application of a general theory to the facts of the case."  Slip Op. at 43.

Applying this principle, the CAFC criticized the application of the 25 percent rule because there was no link between the rule and the specific case:

The meaning of these cases is clear: there must be a basis in fact to associate the royalty rates used in prior licenses to the particular hypothetical negotiation at issue in the case. The 25 percent rule of thumb as an abstract and largely theoretical construct fails to satisfy this fundamental requirement. The rule does not say anything about a particular hypothetical negotiation or reasonable royalty involving any particular technology, industry, or party.

Slip Op. at 45. In addition, the court pointed to the lack of testimony by Uniloc's expert suggesting that the starting point of a 25 percent royalty had any relation to the facts of the case, and thus the use of the rule was "arbitrary, unreliable, and irrelevant," failing to pass muster under Daubert and tainting the jury's damages calculation.  Id. at 47.

Entire Market Value Rule: The CAFC also rejected the expert's application of the entire market value rule, which he used as a check on the total damages.  "The entire market value rule allows a patentee to assess damages based on the entire market value of the accused product only where the patented feature creates the 'basis for customer demand' or 'substantially create[s] the value of the component parts.'"  Slip Op. at 48.  Here, however, there was no evidence that the patented component created the basis for customer demand, as required by the rule: "This case provides a good example of the danger of admitting consideration of the entire market value of the accused where the patented component does not create the basis for customer demand."  Slip Op. at 51.

Infringement
In opposing Uniloc's challenge on the issue of infringement, Microsoft argued that several grounds supported affirmance of the district court's grant of JMOL of noninfringement.  The CAFC rejected each argument in turn, concluding that substantial evidence supported the jury's finding of infringement. 

Standard of Review: One issue that sophisticated parties often dispute is the relevant standard that applies when reviewing jury verdicts. This appeal was no different – Microsoft contended that the jury verdict should be reviewed de novo, while Uniloc argued that it should be reviewed for substantial evidence.  The CAFC responded by distinguishing situations where "the parties conceded that under one claim construction there was infringement and under the other there was none, and were arguing only over which claim construction was appropriate." Slip Op. at 15.  In these cases, de novo review applies.  On the other hand, where "the claim construction itself is not contested, but the application of that claim construction to the accused device is," the court applies the substantial evidence standard. Id.

Comment: This distinction reinforces a basic principle of Federal Circuit appellate practice: Parties challenging a jury verdict on the issue of infringement will likely want to frame the dispute on appeal as a question of claim construction; parties defending the verdict will likely want to frame it as a question of application of an accepted construction to the accused product or method.  Of course, whether a party will be able to frame the question in a particular way depends largely on how the issue was set up in the district court – which itself is ideally part of counsel's long term strategic thinking.

Applying this standard, the Federal Circuit concluded that the jury's verdict of infringement was supported by substantial evidence, rejecting Microsoft's arguments to the contrary.  The court also rejected Microsoft's argument that a critical "means-plus-function" limitation should be read narrowly.  To the contrary, the court held, it should be read broadly, applying language from IMS Tech., Inc. v. Haas Automation, Inc., 206 F.3d 1422, 1436 (Fed. Cir. 2000) stating that "when in a claimed 'means' limitation the disclosed physical structure is of little or no importance to the claimed invention, there may be a broader range of equivalent structures than if the physical characteristics of the structure are critical in performing the claimed function." 

Expert Testimony, redux: Also of note is the court's ruling with respect to expert testimony as it pertains to infringment.  Although the district court rejected the testimony of Uniloc's expert as "incomplete, oversimplified and frankly inappropriate," the CAFC concluded that this rejection was improper because the district court had already fulfilled its gatekeeping function under Daubert when it explicitly noted that the expert was "qualified."  Thus, it was up to the jury "to evaluate the weight to be given to the testimony of dueling qualified experts."  This application of Daubert seems to be somewhat in tension with the court's treatment of expert testimony in the damages context, which focused on the content of the testimony, not the qualifications of the person giving it.

Joint Infringement: The CAFC also rejected Microsoft's joint infringement argument.  Rather than implicating joint conduct, the court ruled, Uniloc's claim was structured so as to capture infringement by a single party by focusing on one entity.  "That other parties are necessary to complete the environment in which the claimed element functions does not necessarily divide the infringement between the necessary parties. For example, a claim that reads “An algorithm incorporating means for receiving e-mails” may require two parties to function, but could nevertheless be infringed by the single party who uses an algorithm that receives e-mails."  Slip Op. at 29.

Willful Infringement: On the issue of willfulness, the CAFC continued to apply its objective super-threshold for proving willfulness.  "If the accused infringer's position is susceptible to a reasonable conclusion of no infringement, the first prong of Seagate cannot be met." Slip Op. at 32.  Particularly obtuse is the court's triple-negative articulation of the factual holding: "Uniloc has not presented any evidence at trial or on appeal showing why Microsoft, at the time it began infringement, could not have reasonably determined that [Microsoft's algorithms] did not meet the “licensee unique ID generating means,” “licensee unique ID,” or “registration system”/“mode switching means” limitations."

Presumption of Validity: in addressing Microsoft's cross-appeal of the denial of its motion for JMOL and a new trial on invalidity, the court declined to back away from the "clear and convincing" standard for invalidity.  Rejecting Microsoft's argument that its burden was to show invalidity simply by a preponderance of the evidence – as opposed to clear and convincing evidence – because the prior art reference was not before the PTO, the court continued to apply the higher standard.  "Until changed by the Supreme Court or this court sitting en ban, this is still the law."  Slip Op. at 55.  Applying this standard, the court rejected Microsoft's argument that it was simply practicing the prior art, and thus a finding of infringement necessitated a finding of invalidity. 

IN DEFENSE OF SOFTWARE PATENTS – PART 2

Guest Post by Martin Goetz

 

Back on November 30, 2009, Patently-O published my article “In Defense of Software Patents” in response to the editorial “Abandoning Software Patents” by Ciaran O’Riordan, Director of End Software Patents (posted on Patently-O on November 6, 2009) which had as its premise that software companies are trying to protect “software ideas”.

 

In this article I comment on the Bilski Opinion as well as give some concrete examples of software-only patents as well as hardware/software patents. Also, my previous article received hundreds of comments, many being negative, and part of this new post is in response to those negative comments.

 

Since the June 28th Supreme Court Bilski decision there have been many articles[1] on what the Opinion stated and inferred about the patentability of software.

 

The Opinion restated what previous Supreme Courts concluded: that laws of nature, physical phenomena, mathematics, mathematical formulas (by themselves), algorithms (by themselves), and abstract ideas (which would include software ideas) are not eligible for patent protection.

 

While the Bilski Opinion never directly questioned the patentability of software, the Justices wrote extensively about the meaning of Section 101, the meaning of the term “process” and why the test for patent eligibility should not exclusively be “the machine-or –transformation test”. Justice Kennedy, with the concurrence of all other Supreme Court members, wrote that the Information Age puts innovation in the hands of more people and raises new difficulties for the patent law (and the Patent Office) to determine who should or should not receive patent protection.[2]

 

My November 2009 Patently-O article “In Defense of Software Patents” produced hundreds of comments. Many wrote that they were against the patenting of software because software was an “algorithm” or “mathematics”. In that article my primary argument was that a computer software invention is as patentable as a computer hardware invention and the only difference is the mode of implementation. My thesis was that Software Product companies in the Software Industry are looking to patent a machine process and not a computer program, which is protected by the copyright law. I showed why software product companies can be viewed as high technology manufacturing entities and should be just as eligible for patent protection as computer hardware companies.   

 

In this article I give examples of patents where the preferred implementation of an inventive machine process is in software (via a computer program[3]), hardware (via circuitry), or a combination of both software and hardware.

 

There is little argument that “processes” and “machine processes” are patentable subject matter[4] The question has always been about the nature of software and what one is trying to patent. For over 40 years I have been involved in that argument since I received the first software patent in 1968 for an innovative way to sort large amounts data on a computer that had tape drives that could only read and write data in a forward direction (See Patent # 3,380,029, Sorting System, Issued April 23, 1968).

 

The Sorting System patent was dubbed a software patent but it could also have been a computer hardware patent. It was dubbed a software patent solely because the preferred implementation (the disclosure) was a logic chart (which is recognized by the patent office as a proper disclosure). My Sorting System patent would not have been controversial if the disclosure had been hardware circuitry since there were many hardware patents for sorting data on special-purpose computers and special apparatus. In my patent application I referenced six of those patents which all had unique hardware circuitry in their patent disclosure. Three of them are available online, courtesy of Google Patent Search[5].

 

From 1968 through 1980 my previous company, Applied Data Research filed Amicus briefs in the Prater & Wei, Benson, Johnson, Flook, and Diehr cases in which we argued that a machine process patentable in hardware is equally patentable in software. Here is exactly how we posed a “Question of Law” “in our 1980 Diehr brief:

Whether a computerized machine or industrial process that is patentable subject matter under 35 USC 101 when constructed with a hardware program (wired circuits) would also be patentable subject matter when constructed with a stored computer program (i.e., firmware or software)?

The USPTO is currently in agreement with that “Question of Law” when in 1996 it published its Examination Guidelines for Computer-Related Inventions (Final Version).  The Guidelines stated in its Introduction the following: “The Guidelines alter the procedure office personnel will follow when examining applications drawn to computer-related inventions and are equally applicable to claimed inventions implemented in hardware or software.”

 

In that 1980 Diehr brief we also posed the following argument to the Supreme Court:

An inventor demonstrates his new invention to his patent attorney with great pride; he has developed a cabinet for reading books out loud to the blind. The cabinet contains both a reading and talking computer. After the demonstration, the patent attorney responds:

 

What's inside the cabinet? Did you build it with software or hardware (a stored program or hardware circuitry)? If built with a hardware program, your machine would be patentable. But if you built it with a stored program, the Patent Office would say it was merely mathematics and, therefore, unpatentable.”

The example above of a hypothetical “cabinet for the blind” invention was back in 1980 in our Diehr Amicus brief.

 

Twenty years later, in 2000, a renowned inventor, Ray Kurzweil received a patent named Reading System which Reads Aloud From An Image Representation Of A Document. The patent disclosure shows a diagram of a monitor, scanner, speakers, and a PC computer composed of a processor, storage and a keyboard. The essence of the disclosure and the invention is a logic chart describing a machine system which interacts with a speech synchronizer and the various devices.  

 

The first sentence of the abstract in the patent stated “a reading system includes a computer and a mass storage device including software comprising instructions for causing a computer to accept an image file generated from optically scanning an image of a document.”

 

At that time, Ray Kurzweil’s company, Kurzweil Educational Systems marketed a special purpose hardware/software system called the Kurzweil 3000 Reading Machine which was marketed to the blind and poor readers. Their 2000 year patent protected this product from imitators. Today the company sells a software only system called Kurzweil 3000 and continues to have the protection of the patent system thru his original 2000 patent and with additional patents e.g., Reducing processing latency in optical character recognition for portable reading machine (which is a software-only patent).

 

Few would argue that the Kurzweil 3000 Reading Machine was not an invention and not deserving of a patent.

 

While I am a strong advocate for software-related patents I have always been opposed to the patenting of Business Method Patents (BMPs). In my 2006 article Patents: Where's the Invention? I stated that the Patent Office should do what the European Patent Convention did when it  ruled that anything that consists of "schemes, rules and methods for performing mental acts, playing games or doing business, and programs for computers" is not an invention and therefore not patentable.” Justice Stevens, in his Opinion[6] also wanted to ban BMP’s from being patentable subject matter when he concluded that a method of doing business is not a “process” under 101.

 

Although the Bilski Opinion disallowed the Bilski application they stated that under certain conditions business methods could still be patentable subject matter. On July 27th the USPTO set up more stringent rules for the issuance of BMPs in their Interim Guidance for Determining Subject Matter Eligibility for Process Claims in View of Bilski v. Kappos. In many ways those guidelines are similar to the way computer software and hardware patents are currently being treated under the 1996 Guidelines for Computer-Related Inventions.    

 

One of the greatest challenges facing the Patent office today for BMPs, software or hardware patent applications is in discovering prior art and determining if there is an invention. The USPTO “Peer to Patent” pilot project” which  allows the public (including professionals in their respective fields) to comment on patent applications is still in its infancy, but offers the potential to assist the Patent Office in rejecting the large number of applications that are filed each year. The stated goal of the pilot project was to “connect the USPTO to an open network of experts online.”   Also, private companies e.g., the Article One Partners, a patent research firm, have the potential to significantly reduce the large number of patent litigation cases.

 

In conclusion, while I am a strong proponent of software patents I am very aware, and agree with, many of the arguments against patents because of patent trolls, frivolous patents, e.g. Amazon’s one-click patent, and frivolous patent litigation that can put companies out of business. And I support changes in the Patent Law to reduce those problems. But if one believes in the how the Patent System has fostered innovation and helped the US grow and prosper, then there is no rational reason to eliminate technology inventions that use software as its implementation.

 

In my previous article there were many comments from die-hards that continued to believe that software companies are trying to patent a computer program,  Whether those die-hards still  believe that a computer program is mathematics, or a mathematical formula, or an algorithm, or an abstract idea, so be it. Computer software programs are not what software companies are trying to patent. A software patent invention is on a unique machine process —- nothing more and nothing less. And the criteria should be 1. Innovation 2. A proper disclosure and 3. Usefulness — the same requirement that is the criteria for all patentable subject matter.



[1] Click below for a sample of many of these articles. Reading the Bilski Tea Leaves For What The Supreme Court Thinks Of Software Patents Comments on Bilski and Software Patents; Here's Bilski: It's Affirmed, But . . .No Decision on Software Patentability; Supreme Court Decision Raises Software Patent Questions; Supreme Court 'Bilski' ruling doesn't rule out software, business-method patents; Software patent debate rages on; Software, pharmaceutical, and business method patents survive; Patent Office Says No to Supreme Court and Software PatentsDeath Knell For Software PatentsSoftware Is Not Necessarily Business MethodSoftware Patents and Business Method Patents Still Possible after Bilski Supreme Court Decision.

 

[2](Underlining and bold added) (pages 9 & 10) “The machine-or-transformation test may well provide a sufficient basis for evaluating processes similar to those in the Industrial Age—for example, inventions grounded in a physical or other tangible form. But there are reasons to doubt whether the test should be the sole criterion for determining the patentability of inventions in the Information Age. As numerous amicus briefs argue, the machine-or-transformation test would create uncertainty as to the patentability of software, advanced diagnostic medicine techniques, and inventions based on linear programming, data compression, and the manipulation of digital signals. See, e.g., Brief for Business Software Alliance 24– 25; Brief for Biotechnology Industry Organization et al. 14–27; Brief for Boston Patent Law Association 8–15; Brief for Houston Intellectual Property Law Association 17–22; Brief for Dolby Labs., Inc., et al.”

 

The Opinion went on to state:

It is important to emphasize that the Court today is not commenting on the patentability of any particular invention, let alone holding that any of the above-mentioned technologies from the Information Age should or should not receive patent protection. This Age puts the possibility of innovation in the hands of more people and raises new difficulties for the patent law. With ever more people trying to innovate and thus seeking patent protections for their inventions, the patent law faces a great challenge in striking the balance between protecting inventors and not granting monopolies over procedures that others would discover by independent, creative application of general principles. Nothing in this opinion should be read to take a position on where that balance ought to be struck.

[3] While the implementation is in a computer program, the disclosure for one skilled in the art, are thru flow charts (also called logic charts) and thru block diagrams.

[4]. The Bilski Opinion closely examined the meaning and the words of 35 U.S.C 101. From 35 U.S.C. 101: Inventions patentable: 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 there for, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.

[5] The Sorting Patents below were described thru and/or gates, and as methods and apparatus for sorting data. Sorting Device, Fillebrown, 5/1961 #2,985,864; Sorting Apparatus, Guerber, 5/1960 #2,935,732; Apparatus for sorting of Recorded Digital data, Dirks 3/1966 #3,242,466.

 

[6] (page 15) Because the text of §101 does not on its face convey the scope of patentable processes, it is necessary, in my view, to review the history of our patent law in some detail. This approach yields a much more straightforward answer to this case than the Court’s. As I read the history, it strongly supports the conclusion that a method of doing business is not a “process” under §101.

 

Ring Plus v. Cingular Wireless

By Jason Rantanen

Although the court ultimately reversed the determination of inequitable conduct based on a lack of intent, its discussion of materiality is significant because the misrepresentation at issue occurred in the patent itself, in the form of statements about a prior art reference.  Prosecutors may want to take special note of this opinion in crafting their Background of the Invention sections. 

Ring Plus, Inc. v. Cingular Wireless Corp. (Fed. Cir., August 6, 2010)
Panel: Lourie, Gajarsa and Moore (author)

Ring Plus is the assignee of Patent No. 7,006,608 (the '608 patent), which relates to a software based algorithm and method for generating and delivering messages over a phone line that replace or overlay a ring-back signal.

After granting summary judgment of noninfringement, the district court held a bench trial on the unenforceability of the '608 patent.  Following the bench trial, the district court concluded that the '608 patent was unenforceable due to inequitable conduct.  Ring Plus appealed both determinations, along with the denial of its motion to disqualify Cingular's counsel. 

Inequitable conduct: Materiality but no Intent
The district court's inequitable conduct determination was based on two alleged misrepresentations concerning the substance of two prior art references, Strietzel and Sleevi.  The district court found that the first misrepresentation was in the Background of the Invention section of the '608 patent, which asserted that both references proposed hardware based systems but no software to operate those systems.  Contrary to this assertion, the district court found, one of skill in the art would have understood the references to disclose software-based algorithms.1 

The panel agreed that this was a material misrepresentation.  Although neither reference explicitly disclosed software, the panel could not say that the district court clearly erred in finding that a person of ordinary skill in the art would have understood the references to disclose software-based algorithms. 

In arriving at the conclusion that the statement about the contents of the prior art constituted a misrepresentation, the panel rejected the contention that it was merely attorney argument.  The court did not address this issue in any depth, merely stating that because the statement was a misrepresentation, it "was outside the boundas of permissible attorney argument."  Slip Op. at 9.

Comment: I am a troubled by the court's cursory statement on this point because of the ambiguity it creates.  These types of sweeping assertions, made without addressing the substance of the argument or citing relevant authorities, are the kinds of things that are likely to tie attorneys and judges in knots.  Indeed, the court's quotation from Rothman is particularly perplexing, as Rothman reached the opposite conclusion on similar facts.  At a minimum, one would expect the court to explain why Rothman does not apply.

Ultimately, however, the panel concluded that Cingular had failed to present clear and convincing evidence of intent to deceive.  In arriving at this conclusion the court noted that the references were ambiguous as to operating software, and the prosecuting attorney's testimony gave rise to the inference that the applicants believed that the two references did not disclose software for operating a telephone system.  Because this inference was as reasonable as the district court's inference of deceptive intent, the district erred in its finding of deceptive intent.

Other holdings
The panel also addressed Ring Plus's challenge to the district court's construction of two claim terms, which formed the basis of the noninfringement ruling.  The court affirmed the district court's construction, relating to the sequence of steps in the '608 patent.  In addition, the court rejected Ring Plus's argument that Cingular's counsel should have been disqualified for ex parte contact with a Ring Plus director and officer.  The court concluded that there was no evidence of impropriety under Fifth Circuit law.

1The district court also found that the applicants made a misrepresentation about these references during prosecution; the panel concluded that this statement was not a misrepresentation.

The Business Method Patent Art Units

By Dennis Crouch

In prior posts, I noted that the USPTO is issuing patents at an all-time-high-rate.  This increase is perhaps most dramatic in the art units that examine applications classified by the USPTO as "business methods."  This post explores the history and the numbers.

* * * * * 

The USPTO patent examiner corps is organized into small technology-specific groups known as art units.  Each art unit has a manager that reports to a technology center director.  About twenty art units have been classified as generally dealing with “business method” patents. (See list of art units).  I’ll call these art units “business method art units” for lack of a better term.  All of the patents issued from these art units are classified in class 705. And, these are the patents and applications that are most likely to be affected by the decision in Bilski v. Kappos (2010).

Under former PTO Director Jon Dudas, the business method art units received special attention.  Individual examiners were given free power to reject pending applications as unpatentable, but claims could not be allowed as patentable until being reviewed by at least a “second pair of eyes.”  Under Director Kappos and Commissioner Stoll, the second pair of eyes regime has been eliminated and, as might be expected, the number of patents being allowed in these art units has risen dramatically. Perhaps coincidentally, this rise also correlates with the Federal Circuit’s October 2008 decision in Bilski.

The following two charts respectively show the number and percentage of patents that issue from the business method art units for each quarter (three-month period) going back to January 2005.  (2010 Q3 only includes two-weeks worth of data). As a bit of perspective, since January 2005, more than 900,000 utility patents have issued. Fewer than 9,000 are associated with these business method art units.

PatentLawPic1033

PatentLawPic1034

As the charts show, the number of patents issued by the business method art units is on the rise — both in terms of absolute numbers and as a percentage of patents being issued. 

Most of the patents issuing from the business method art units are directed toward some type of computer software that helps solve a business problem. Newly issued U.S. Patent No. 7,747,465 is a typical example. The ‘465 patent claims a method and apparatus for determining the effectiveness of internet advertising. The claimed method does not explicitly recite any hardware except for a “manager console”, “dynamic sampling engine”, and “logic module.”  In response to a Section 101 rejection, the applicant amended its claims and then — without explanation — provided the conclusory argument that the application was “directed to statutory subject matter because the claims are either directed to statutory processes tied to a particular machine or directed to statutory apparatuses.”

One problem with studies of business method patents is that there is no accepted definition the term.  The 1998 State Street decision that jump-started business method patenting did not actually involve any method claims.  On the technology front, inventions that look like business methods are often examined in other art units. Rand Warsaw (Bernard Bilski's co-inventor) was issued a patent in 2004 on a method for providing energy efficiency changes based upon historic consumption and weather data.  That patent looks was examined by a non business method art unit in an entirely different technology center. (Patent No. 6,785,620).

Bilski v. Kappos

Although Bilski's claims were held unpatentably abstract, the Supreme Court has re-affirmed that the door to patent eligibility should remain broad and open.

Bilski v. Kappos (Supreme Court 2010)(08-964)

The Supreme Court has issued its opinion in Bilski v. Kappos. In the decision, the Supreme Court affirmed that Bilski’s risk-management method was not the type of innovation that may be patented. However, rather than using the Federal Circuit's "machine-or-transformation test", the court simply relied on prior precedent to find the claimed method unpatentably abstract. Justice Kennedy authored the majority opinion. Justices Breyer and Stevens both wrote concurring opinions.

Business as Usual: In general, the opinion offers no clarity or aid for those tasked with determining whether a particular innovation falls within Section 101. The opinion provides no new lines to be avoided. Rather, the outcome from the decision might be best stated as "business as usual."

Today, the Court once again declines to impose limitations on the Patent Act that are inconsistent with the Act’s text. The patent application here can be rejected under our precedents on the unpatentability of abstract ideas. The Court, therefore, need not define further what constitutes a patentable “process,” beyond pointing to the definition of that term provided in §100(b) and looking to the guideposts in Benson, Flook, and Diehr.

By refusing to state any particular rule or categorical exclusion, the Court has almost certainly pushed Section 101 patent eligibility to the background in most patent prosecution and litigation.

Business Methods: Section 101 does not categorically exclude business methods from patentability. Rather, the court noted that the prior-use defense found in Section 273(b)(1) of the Patent Act "explicitly contemplates the existence of at least some business method patents. . . . [B]y allowing this defense the statute itself acknowledges that there may be business method patents."
Software: Although the court expressly refused to rule on the patentability of software, it appears that software will largely remain patentable. At minimum, the decision would bar any categorical exclusion of software patents. The court neither endorsed nor rejected the Federal Circuit's past interpretations of Section 101 — Noting that "nothing in today’s opinion should be read as endorsing interpretations of §101 that the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has used in the past. See, e.g., State Street, 149 F. 3d, at 1373; AT&T Corp., 172 F. 3d, at 1357."

Abstract Idea: The one thing that all nine justices agreed upon is that Bilski's method of hedging risk was not patentable because it is an abstract idea "just like the algorithms at issue in Benson and Flook."

 

The concept of hedging, described in claim 1 and reduced to a mathematical formula in claim 4, is an unpatentable abstract idea, just like the algorithms at issue in Benson and Flook. Allowing petitioners to patent risk hedging would preempt use of this approach in all fields, and would effectively grant a monopoly over an abstract idea.

Petitioners’ remaining claims are broad examples of how hedging can be used in commodities and energy markets. Flook established that limiting an abstract idea to one field of use or adding token postsolution components did not make the concept patentable. That is exactly what the remaining claims in petitioners’ application do. These claims attempt to patent the use of the abstract idea of hedging risk in the energy market and then instruct the use of well-known random analysis techniques to help establish some of the inputs into the equation. Indeed, these claims add even less to the underlying abstract principle than the invention in Flook did, for the Flook invention was at least directed to the narrower domain of signaling dangers in operating a catalytic converter.

It is unclear to me how patent office examiners will be able to apply the test for abstract ideas in any meaningful way. I suspect that they will not. Rather, the best advice for the USPTO is to focus on Section II-A of Justice Kennedy's opinion. There, the opinion recognizes that Section 101 patent eligibility is "only a threshold test." To be patentable, the invention must also "be novel, see §102, nonobvious, see §103, and fully and particularly described, see §112."

What is the test?: 35 USC 101 offers patent protection for "any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter." Here, the focus was on the definition of a "process" because Bilski's patent application was written to claim a method of hedging risk. Although the majority opinion refused to define the term process, it did write that the machine-or-transformation test developed by the Federal Circuit does not define what is (and is not) a patentable process. Rather, the Court held that the machine-or-transformation offers "a useful and important clue, an investigative tool, for determining whether some claimed inventions are processes under §101. The machine-or-transformation test is not the sole test for deciding whether an invention is a patent-eligible process." As a "clue," the machine-or-transformation test likely correlates with the existence of patentable subject matter. However, some patent claims that fail the test will still be patentable and other patent claims that pass the test will still be ineligible.   

Read the Opinion

t minus 50: Microsoft Requests Emergency Stay of Injunctive Relief

i4i Ltd. v. Microsoft Corp. (Fed. Cir. 2009)

On August 11, 2009, Judge Davis (E.D.Tex.) issued his final order in the i4i v. Microsoft patent litigation. That final order gives Microsoft 60 days to stop selling, using, or supporting infringing versions of MS Word. By my calendar, the injunction becomes effective October 10, 2009. I4i’s patent covers xml capabilities of the MS Word that were implemented in Office ’03 and ’07. At this point, it is unclear how difficult it would be for Microsoft to eliminate the adjudged infringing capability from its products.

Microsoft has already filed a motion with the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit demanding an emergency stay pending appeal. The Federal Circuit clerk immediately denied Microsoft’s motion for an “administrative stay.” Instead, a merits panel will consider the emergency motion at oral arguments calendared for a special session September 23, 2009. Microsoft’s brief-on-point is due August 25; i4i’s opposition is due September 8; and any reply is due September 14. If the Federal Circuit makes a decision quickly, Microsoft may have time to appeal directly to the Supreme Court for a midnight stay of execution.

The jurisprudence on stays pending appeal is somewhat lacking – largely because these cases are – by definition – decided in a rush and courts often do not have time to fully explain their decisions. Based on the lower court decision, Microsoft’s best arguments for a stay will be based on a combination of (1) its argument on claim construction; (2) the irreparable harm to Microsoft and its customers that would flow from the injunction; and (3) the relatively small amount of irreparable harm that i4i will feel during the few months while the appeal is pending.

Stay of Injunctive Relief Pending Appeal: Unless otherwise ordered by the court, a permanent injunction is not stayed during an appeal. In Hilton v. Braunskill, 481 U.S. 770 (1987), the Supreme Court outlined a four factor test used when determining whether to stay enforcement. The factors are essentially the converse of those used in determining whether to grant a preliminary injunction. These factors include: “(1) whether the stay applicant has made a strong showing that he is likely to succeed on the merits [of the appeal]; (2) whether the applicant will be irreparably injured absent a stay; (3) whether issuance of the stay will substantially injure the other parties interested in the proceeding; and (4) where the public interest lies.”

Patent Reform on this Issue: In 2006, patent reform legislation introduced in Congress would have added an automatic stay of permanent injunctions after a showing that “the stay would not result in irreparable harm to the owner of the patent and that the balance of hardships from the stay does not favor the owner of the patent.” Patents Depend on Quality Act of 2006, H.R. 5096, 109th Cong. §8 (2006) (proposing to amend 35 U.S.C. 283).

Notes:

  • Don Dunner (Finnegan) is representing i4i on appeal; Matthew Powers (Weil) appears to continue to lead the team for Microsoft.
  • The ABA Journal has an interesting discussion of the trial that focuses primarily on Microsoft’s attempts to paint i4i as a troll seeking a ‘bailout.’ [Link] [Seattle PI]
  • Prior Patently-O post on District Court Order.

Federal Circuit Awards Sanctions for Frivolous Appeal

E-Pass v. 3Com, Palm, Visa, et al. (Fed. Cir. 2009)

This litigation began in 2000 when E-Pass sued for infringement of its electronic credit card patent. Patent No. 5,276,311. The district court granted summary judgment of non-infringement, which was affirmed on appeal. The district court then found the case exceptional under 35 U.S.C. § 285 and awarded attorneys’ fees to the defendants. E-Pass appealed that judgment. In a counter-motion, PalmSource also asked for attorneys fees for the appeal – arguing that the appeal was frivolous as well. The Federal Circuit affirmed the trial court without opinion, but wrote an extensive opinion finding a frivolous appeal.

Frivolous Appeal: An appeal is frivolous if the appellant fails “to present cogent or clear arguments for reversal.” In addition, the court may award sanctions based on misconduct or misrepresentations to the appellate court.

Here, the court found that E-Pass did not present any specific argument relating to the attorney fees for one of the defendants – PalmSource. Instead, the plaintiff-appellant focused on its case against the other defendants. E-Pass did not “challenge any finding of the district court relating to litigation misconduct in the case against PalmSource.” Furthermore, E-Pass did not change its strategy even after being notified of PalmSource’s frivolous appeal argument. Adding to E-Pass’s problems are “multiple misrepresentations” to the Federal Circuit – primarily in referring to the defendants collectively when each stood in different situations. Perhaps the straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back was E-Pass’s use of the quote that “a trial court may only sanction the patentee if both the litigation is brought in subjective bad faith and the litigation is objectively baseless.” With the help of PalmSource and the CAFC clerks, the court easily found that a critical exception to the sanctions rule had been left off. Notably, the full quote reads: “Absent misconduct in the litigation or in securing the patent, a trial court may only sanction the patentee if both the litigation is brought in subjective bad faith and the litigation is objectively baseless.”

Sanctions and attorney fees granted against E-Past and its counsel, jointly and severally.

In dissent, Judge Bryson saw serious misconduct, but would not have imposed sanctions.

Accepting that in those regards E-Pass’s briefs on appeal fell short of the standards we expect of counsel in this court, I nonetheless conclude that the shortfall is not so egregious as to call for the imposition of sanctions.

In re Ferguson: Patentable Subject Matter

In re Ferguson (Fed. Cir. 2009)

Scott Harris has been discussed several times on Patently-O. Harris is a former Fish & Richardson partner. Fish handles the most patent litigation of any firm in the country. In addition to being a patent attorney, Harris is an inventor. He has contracted with the plaintiffs firm Niro Scavone in several actions to enforce patents against Google and other companies. Harris is one of the named inventors of the Ferguson application and he handled the [futile] appeal.

The claimed invention focuses on a “method of marketing a product” and a “paradigm for marketing software.” These claims focus on methods and structures for operating a business.

Methods Under Bilski: Claim 1 reads as follows:

A method of marketing a product, comprising:

developing a shared marketing force, said shared marketing force including at least marketing channels, which enable marketing a number of related products;

using said shared marketing force to market a plurality of different products that are made by a plurality of different autonomous producing company, so that different autonomous companies, having different ownerships, respectively produce said related products;

obtaining a share of total profits from each of said plurality of different autonomous producing companies in return for said using; and

obtaining an exclusive right to market each of said plurality of products in return for said using.

Under Bilski, this case is open and shut. The claim is not even arguably tied to a machine — especially under the Nuijten construction of machine to be a “concrete thing, consisting of parts, or of certain devices and combination of devices [including] every mechanical device or combination of mechanical powers and devices to perform some function and produce a certain effect or result.” (Quoting Burr v. Duryee, 68 U.S. (1 Wall.) 531, 570 (1863)). Thus, the 1863 touchability definition of machine appears to hold weight. On the second Bilski prong, the claim does not require transformation of any article into a different state or thing. The only transformation is that of legal rights and organizational relationships that were explicitly excluded in the Bilski decision: “transformations or manipulations simply of public or private legal obligations or relationships, business risks, or other such abstractions cannot meet the test because they are not physical objects or substances, and they are not representative of physical objects or substances.”

Harris asked the court to consider a different test of patentable subject matter: “Does the claimed subject matter require that the product or process has more than a scintilla of interaction with the real world in a specific way?” The CAFC panel rejected that proposal primarily based on the precedential value of Bilski: “In light of this court’s clear statements that the “sole,” “definitive,” “applicable,” “governing,” and “proper” test for a process claim under § 101 is the Supreme Court’s machine-or-transformation test, see Bilski, passim, we are reluctant to consider Applicants’ proposed test.” The court went on to determine that the “scintilla” test would create too much ambiguity as well.

Non Method Claims: The application also included claims directed to a “paradigm for marketing software” made up of a marketing company that markets software in return for a contingent share of income. Although “instructive,” the Federal Circuit did not directly follow Bilski. Rather, the court looked to determine whether the claimed paradigm fit within one of the four statutory classes listed in Section 101:

Inventions Patentable: “… any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof…”

In a gentle Koan, the Court stated that it “need not resolve the particular class of statutory subject matter into which Applicants’ paradigm claims fall, [however], the claims must satisfy at least one category.” In fact, the court did attempt to resolve the particular class, but was unable to fit the paradigm claim into any of the four.

Applicants’ paradigm claims are not directed to processes, as “no act or series of acts” is required. Nuijten, 500 F.3d at 1355. Applicants do not argue otherwise. Applicants’ marketing company paradigm is also not a manufacture, because although a marketing company may own or produce tangible articles or commodities, it clearly cannot itself be an “‘article[]’ resulting from the process of manufacture.” Nuijten, 500 F.3d at 1356. Again, Applicants do not argue otherwise. And Applicants’ marketing company paradigm is certainly not a composition of matter. Applicants do not argue otherwise.  

Again applying the touchability notion of machine, the Court also rejected the notion that the company paradigm could be a machine:

Applicants do assert, however, that “[a] company is a physical thing, and as such analogous to a machine.” But the paradigm claims do not recite “a concrete thing, consisting of parts, or of certain devices and combination of devices,” Nuijtent, and as Applicants conceded during oral argument, “you cannot touch the company.”

Ending in a flourish, the court found that in fact, the Ferguson paradigm claims are “drawn quite literally to the paradigmatic abstract idea.” (quoting Warmerdam).

Judge Newman offers a poignant concurring opinion.  

Percent of Patents Discussing “Microsoft,” part II

In an earlier post, I introduced some data relating to patents that discuss Microsoft somewhere in the patent document. That post showed that almost 5% of newly issued patents refer to the software giant in some way. That data also showed a strong upward trend over time. The post received a few interesting comments as well as a few suggestions. [LINK] In response, I have added some additional data to the graphs. The first graph below shows the percent of patents that discuss Microsoft (in blue) and now also includes the percent of patents that are assigned to Microsoft (in red). Several years ago, Microsoft publicized their intention to obtain a large number of patents. That intention is becoming a reality, and Microsoft recently obtained its 10,000th patent. However, only about 20% of patents that discuss Microsoft are actually assigned to the company.

The next graph compares the patents discussing “Microsoft” with other products/companies. Here, I include patents that discuss “Microsoft” (blue), “UNIX” (green), “LINUX” (red), and “Apple” (tan). UNIX has seen some growth, but not much since the mid 1990′s. In the past couple of years, the number of LINUX patents have grown dramatically, but still pale in comparison to Microsoft patents. Although the absolute numbers for LINUX related patents are still small, they are surprisingly high based on the anti-patent lore of LINUX developers. Apple has remained steady over the years. Of course, my results for Apple should be tempered by the false positive results that actually refer to the fruit rather than the computer company or its products.

An issue in all these graphs is time lag. The time lag of issued patents may be easily seen by searching for patents that discuss “Google.” – The result is only 1342 patents but 4682 published applications.

Percent of Patents Discussing “Microsoft”

I looked at all patents that include the word “Microsoft” somewhere within the patent document. These include patents assigned to the company as well as well as patents that simply refer to Microsoft in the specification or list of cited references. That almost 5% of new all patents refer to the software giant is a sign that the company’s technology serves as a creative platform for ongoing developments.

Paul Cole, Patentability of Computer Software As Such

In Symbian Limited v. Comptroller General of Patents [2008] EWCA Civ 1066, the UK Court of Appeal recently took a broader approach to patentability of software. UK patent attorney and author Paul Cole has written a short article for the Patently-O Patent Law Journal discussing the case and its impact. [Paul Cole Article]. The opinion cites John Duffy’s recent “Death of Google’s Patents” article also published on Patently-O.

The Death of Google’s Patents?

By John F. Duffy* [File Attachment (42 KB)]

            The Patent and Trademark Office has now made clear that its newly developed position on patentable subject matter will invalidate many and perhaps most software patents, including pioneering patent claims to such innovators as Google, Inc.

            In a series of cases including In re Nuijten, In re Comiskey and In re Bilski, the Patent and Trademark Office has argued in favor of imposing new restrictions on the scope of patentable subject matter set forth by Congress in § 101 of the Patent Act.  In the most recent of these three—the currently pending en banc Bilski appeal—the Office takes the position that process inventions generally are unpatentable unless they “result in a physical transformation of an article” or are “tied to a particular machine.”[1] Perhaps, the agency has conceded, some “new, unforeseen technology” might warrant an “exception” to this formalistic test, but in the agency’s view, no such technology has yet emerged so there is no reason currently to use a more inclusive standard.[2]  

            The Bilski en banc hearing attracted enormous attention, and yet there has remained a sense among many patent practitioners that the PTO’s attempts to curtail section 101 would affect only a few atypical patent claims.  The vast bulk of patents on software, business and information technology are thought by some not to be threatened because those innovations are typically implemented on a machine—namely, a computer—and the tie to a machine would provide security against the agency’s contractions of § 101.  Even if that view were right, the contraction of patent eligibility would be very troubling because the patent system is supposed to be designed to encourage the atypical, the unusual and the innovative.  But that view is wrong.

            The logic of the PTO’s positions in Nuijten, Comiskey and Bilski has always threatened to destabilize whole fields of patenting, most especially in the field of software patents.  If the PTO’s test is followed, the crucial question for the vitality of patents on computer implemented inventions is whether a general purpose computer qualifies as a “particular” machine within the meaning of the agency’s test.  In two recent decisions announced after the oral arguments in the Bilski case, Ex parte Langemyr (May 28, 2008) and Ex parte Wasynczuk (June 2, 2008),[3] the PTO Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences has now supplied an answer to that question: A general purpose computer is not a particular machine, and thus innovative software processes are unpatentable if they are tied only to a general purpose computer.  

(more…)

Ex Parte Bilski: On the Briefs:

In Ex Parte Bilski, an en banc Federal Circuit plans to reconsider the scope of patentable subject matter as it relates to business methods and so called mental methods. Perhaps more importantly to the patent system as a whole, the court is considering the proper procedures going forward for determining whether a particular invention falls within the scope of 35 USC 101.

In its en banc decision, the CAFC invited non-party amici briefs, which were due April 7. (Scroll down to find the briefs).  In reading through the briefs, the first aspect that caught my attention was a common theme that institutional strengths and weaknesses of the PTO and Courts should help dictate the ultimate subject matter rule.  

  • Prof Morris: Through its examiners, the PTO has expertise in determining the technical questions of novelty, nonobviousness, and indefiniteness. On the other hand, examiners do not have the expertise to decide “philosophical and abstract” issues of statutory subject matter.
  • Prof Lemley*: Arbitrary subject matter boundaries have generally been difficult to enforce and usually result in patent attorneys using “magic words” to avoid the limits. (*NOTE: I signed Prof Lemley’s brief along with 21 other law professors.)
  • Prof Collins: A test that excludes “human cognition” elements is administrable.
  • EFF: Proposed three-step process provides a more “efficient and meaningful” way to administer the Section 101 threshold.
  • AIPLA: Section 112 should guard claim scope rather than Section 101.

Narrow or Expansive: The main thrust of the Bilski arguments, however, focus on whether patentable subject matter should be narrow or expansive. I have categorized the briefs on this axis:

Expansive Subject Matter:

  • Prof Lemley: We cannot predict the next area of innovation, and arbitrary limits on patent scope reduces incentives in those potential areas. “Bad patents” should be dealt with using the true tools of the Patent Act: Sections 102, 103, and 112. “Mental methods” should be allowed if they fall within the other requirements of patentability.
  • Regulatory Data Corp (Prof Duffy): Even under a narrow definition, applied economics is now part of the “useful arts.”  Statutory subject matter should only limit claims directed to abstract ideas, physical phenomena, or principles of nature.
  • AIPLA: We should continue to follow Diehr, State Street, & AT&T.
  • RMC: Business methods should be patentable.
  • American Express: Patenting of business and information management processes encourages the development of those useful societal tools.
  • Accenture: Business methods should be patentable regardless of any physicality limitations. Congress has deemed that business methods should be patentable via 35 USC 273.
  • Greg Aharonian: The Supreme Court’s 1876 Cochraine test does not exclusively define “process.” Rather, a patent eligible process should be broadly defined to include any process or method that yields a “useful concrete and tangible result.”
  • Koninklijke Philips: The court should be wary of relying upon precedent that focused on traditional manufacturing methods. Rather, the court should look at the broad definition of process required by Congress in 35 U.S.C. 100(b).

Narrow Subject Matter:

  • Prof Sarnoff: The court should return to the precedent of Flook. The inventive concept of a patent cannot be an abstract idea (such as hedging risk). Likewise, an information processing method must include significant post-solution activity. State Street is unconstitutionally over-broad.
  • End Software patents: Software should not be patentable even when loaded on a computer. Rather, to be patentable, there must be significant additional (non-information processing) physical activity.
  • American Civil Liberties Union: Patents mental processes would violate the first amendment.
  • EFF: There must be a technological component of a patentable invention.
  • Computer & Communications Industry Association: The CAFC should shed its “patentee-centric approach” and insted try to meet the needs of the modern world. In particular, the court should consider the systemic policy implications of its decisions. The policy implications of broader patent coverage is more litigation & rent seeking.
  • IBM: There is no sound policy for allowing business method patents.
  • American Institute of CPAs: Tax methods should not be patentable because they preempt free use of the tax laws. (Of course, the same could be said of CPAs charging corporations for their service).
  • SAP: A process should both (1) have a concrete, useful, and tangible result and (2) be “sufficiently machine-like” in order to avoid preempting work-arounds. However, software processes should be patentable.
  • Prof Collins: The court should add a “human cognition” exception to Section 101. Steps involving human cognition should receive no consideration in judging patentability.
  • Red Hat: Software patents put a huge kink in the open source software movement.
  • Financial Services Industry: State Street and its progeny are unduly broad. A token inclusion of a ‘machine’ in a claim would not render that claim patentable subject matter.
  • Dell & Microsoft: A patentable invention must operate on “something physical.” To be patentable, software should be tied to a computer and cause some physical transformation (such as movement of electrons). And, following Comiskey, a patent should not be granted under 103 if the inventor merely combined well known computer hardware with inventive but otherwise unpatentable software.

Other?

  • Yahoo! and Prof Merges: A strict “technology” requirement is too inflexible. State Street taught us that such a strict requirement does not fit well with “onrushing technology.” The Yahoo!/Merges test: a patent eligible process must itself be “stable, predictable, and reproducible” and its result must be “useful, concrete, and tangible.”  Bilski’s claims would not be eligible because they do not define a “stable” process.
  • Intellectual Property Owners Association: A process that is either implemented by a machine or that transforms matter into another state is patentable subject matter.  IPO favorably cites the Flook limitations on on information processing.
  • Business Software Alliance: Courts should err on the side of patentable subject matter because Sections 102, 103, and 112 make-up any slack. Software should be patentable. However, Bilski’s invention is not patentable because it is an abstract idea.
  • Washington State IP Law Assn: The CAFC should re-write State Street to be consistent with Supreme Court precedent.
  • Prof Morris: Subject matter questions should be avoided. Rather the PTO and courts should look to the substantive rules of 102, 103, and 112 to decide the issue. Section 101 jurisprudence has been both haphazard and unfair.

The elephant in the room is the recent Comiskey decision. There, it appeared that the court refused to give any patentable weight to the portion of the invention directed to non-statutory subject matter. In its brief, the Boston Patent Law Assn asks the court to clarify the following statement from Comiskey:

“The routine addition of modern electronics to an otherwise unpatentable invention typically creates a prima facie case of obviousness. Moreover, there is no pertinent evidence of secondary considerations because the only evidence offered is of long-felt need for the unpatentable mental process itself, not long-felt need for the combination of the mental process and a modern communication device or computer.”

Notes:

  • I signed Professor Lemley’s brief along with twenty-one other law professors. The theory behind the brief follows the IPO brief that I helped draft in the Metabolite case.

Amici Briefs:

 

 

 

 

Microsoft v. AT&T: Transnational Patent Law At The Supreme Court

Microsoft v. AT&T (Supreme Court 2006)

Transnational patent law is a hot topic, and one the Supreme Court cannot ignore. The issue de jour involves the question of unauthorized export of patented software.  AT&T holds the speech compression patent that is infringed by Microsoft Windows. (RE 32,580). Microsoft exports the software code from Redmond to various international locations.  Once abroad, the code is then copied and installed in computers that are then sold abroad.  As the invention is claimed, the code alone does not infringe. Rather, infringement would only occur once the code is combined with the computer hardware. 

Under traditional notions of patent law, Microsoft’s actions are not infringement because the code alone does not infringe the patent, and (for the purposes of this case) the code is not combined with the hardware within the U.S. 

Here, however, traditional notions of territoriality have been supplanted by statute.  Under 35 U.S.C. 271(f), supply of only a portion of a component of a patented invention from the U.S. can be infringement.

35 U.S.C. 271(f) prohibits the “suppl[y] . . . from the United States . . . [of] all or a substantial portion of the components of a patented invention . . . in such manner as to actively induce the combination of such components outside of the United States,” as well as the “suppl[y] . . . from the United States [of] any component of a patented invention that is especially made or especially adapted for use in the invention.” 

Microsoft, of course, wants to avoid infringing the U.S. patent for its activity abroad and gives two separate reasons why its activity of exporting software do not fall within the parameters of 271(f). (I) Software code is an intangible string of information not a “component” as required by the statute. (II) Because copies of the code were used to create the infringing software/hardware combination, no physical particle that Microsoft exported actually became part of the finished product.  According to Microsoft, this means that nothing in the infringing combination was actually supplied from the U.S. as required by the statute. I term these two arguments the tangibility requirement and the molecular conservation requirement.

Microsoft and its supporters have now filed their merits briefs to the Supreme Court, and my reading of their arguments is that there is strong support for molecular conservation, but only weak support for tangibility. The Bush Administration supports this distinction in its brief filed jointly by the DOJ and PTO. 

On tangibility, the Government argues that software can certainly be a component, and that the statute is not limited to “only tangible components” as Microsoft suggests. Although not cited by the Government, Section 271(c) provides a statutorily distinct way of limiting components.  In referring to infringement through importation, that clause identifies only components of certain types of inventions such as machines and compositions.

On molecular conservation, the Government correctly notes that the statute requires that the exported components be the same components that are combined in the infringing manner. “Conduct that merely induces the combination of foreign-made components does not violate Section 271(f).” The statute, according to the Gov’t, leaves foreign manufacturers “free to manufacture and assemble copies of the identical components overseas” so long as none of the components actually assembled were made within the US.  Applying their argument to this case, we know that the software was copied and only those copies were combined with hardware in a would-be infringing manner.

A group of electronics companies led by Amazon filed a colorful brief that also supports the requirement of molecular conservation.

No matter where their unique arrangement was invented or dictated, if each molecule in the machine was supplied from outside the U.S., then no component was supplied from the U.S. In the present case, Microsoft did not supply even a single molecule of the foreign machines at issue.

Amazon also raises the slippery slope issue.  According to the brief, if Microsoft is liable here, then the Court would open the door to infringement for export of blueprints or a CAD/CAM design scheme.  That result, the brief argues, goes against congressional intent. As an aside, Amazon cited Wikipedia but did not include it in its list of “authorities.”  Although they do not cite it, the Pellegrini case holds that plans or instructions for a patented item cannot serve as components under 271(f).

In support of the molecular argument, a group of professors led by professors Lemley (Stanford) and Duffy (GWU), looked appropriately at the language of 271(f):

[A]s a matter of grammar that the phrase “such components” refers back to the components that have been “supplied” from United States. Thus, the plain language of the statute requires that inducing an extraterritorial combination constitutes an act of infringement if and only if the combined components are in fact the same components that were “supplied in or from” the United States.

For the professors, supplying exact copies does not meet the requirement. Most of the briefs come-up with some hypothetical metaphor to explain their situation — a guy memorizing some code and flying on an airplane, a hard-copy print out of some code that runs a fuel-injection system, CAD/CAM instructions, blueprints, etc.  The idea apparently is that if we allow copies of software to be considered components, then these situations necessarily also provide for infringement actions.  More accurately, however, they are just poor hypotheticals.

Software as Patentable Subject Matter: The anti-patent activist group SFLC led by Dan Ravicher and Eben Moglen also filed a brief that may be the dark-horse of this debate.  Their brief asks the Court to take a fresh look at the patentability of software.

Software can not be a “component[] of a patented invention” under 35 U.S.C. § 271(f) because software is not patentable subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. As such, the Federal Circuit’s holding to the contrary in this case is erroneous and should be reversed.

It would be odd for the Court to decide the 101 issue in this case after dismissing LabCorp earlier this year.  However, I expect at least one concurring opinion supporting the ideas in this brief.

Impact on Software Industry: If Microsoft loses here, it will at least have a clear avenue to avoid future infringement. Unfortunately for US business, that avenue is to move all software development activities abroad so that components are never exported. This harmful effect was recognized and discussed in SIIA’s brief. SIIA is an industry group of software & technology companies who want to continue to design products in the US, but manufacture those products abroad. This argument is punctuated by BSA’s questionable hyperbole: “The purpose of patent protection is to encourage domestic innovation, not to drive it overseas.”

Impact in Biotech: Although not yet a viable industry, this could have a potentially large impact on biotechnology patent issues.  Like software, DNA code (or other biologics) could be shipped from the U.S. to be copied abroad and incorporated into an organism in an infringing manner.  Even more abstract, the export may merely involve transmitting a sequence listing that would be used to reproduce the sequence abroad.  Any decision on software should consider the potential impact on these areas as well.

Methods: What Professor Wegner has called the “Bizarre Twist” of this case involves the CAFC’s notion of export of components of method claims. In Union Carbide v. Shell, the court found that methods could indeed have components, and those included items used in the method (such as a catalyst).  Thus, in that case, the defendant could be held liable for exporting a stock catalyst if it intended to use the ingredient in a would-be infringing manner. Shell settled its case with Union Carbide, but has filed an amicus brief in this case, arguing that the Federal Circuit “seriously erred” by declaring that “every form of invention eligible for patenting falls within the protection of section 271(f).” 

Statutory Construction Excludes Methods?: Shell compares the use of the term “component” in 271(f) its use in 271(c) — the section addressing importation.  In 271(c), Congress explicitly limited components to “component[s] of a patented machine, manufacture, combination, or composition,” but also included a provision excluding importation of materials used in a patented process.  Shell’s argument: because 271(f) does not include the provision discussing materials used in a patented process, it cannot cover processes.  Of course, the unstated counter-argument to shell is that components discussed in 271(c) are specifically limited to components of machines, while 271(f) components are not so limited — indicating that “component” in 271(f) should receive a broader interpretation.

International Law: All of the transnational patent issues have an impact on international law issues. FICPI, a Swiss-based organization of patent folks filed its brief asking the the U.S. to keep its patents territorial and avoid stomping on the toes of others (as “young nations” are bound to do). FICPI’s implication that the Supreme Court is bound by the Paris Convention is plainly wrong.  The Paris Convention is not U.S. law. However, their point is well-taken, if 271(f) covers software, it thwarts the efforts of other countries to eliminate software patents.

Documents:

Important recent 271(f) cases:

  • NTP v. Research in Motion, (271(f) “component” would rarely if ever apply to method claims).
  • AT&T v. Microsoft, 414 F.3d 1366 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (271(f) “component” applies to method claims and software being sold abroad);
  • Union Carbide v. Shell Oil (Fed. Cir. 2005) (271(f) “component” applies to method claims).
  • Eolas v. Microsoft, 399 F.3d 1325 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (271(f) “component” applies to method claims and software);
  • Pellegrini v. Analog Devices, 375 F.3d 1113 (Fed. Cir. 2004) (271(f) “component” does not cover export of plans/instructions of patented item to be manufactured abroad);
  • Bayer v. Housey Pharms, 340 F.3d 1367 (Fed. Cir. 2003) (271(g) “component” does not apply to importation of ‘intangible information’).

Notes:

  • I will be updating this page as more briefs are filed.
  • I will be talking about cross-border liability at Santa Clara University’s 25th Annual Computer & High Technology Law Journal Symposium on January 26 in San Jose. Information here.