In an interesting – though non-precedential – opinion, the Federal Circuit has ruled that a “speech-recognition interface” software lacks subject matter eligibility “because [the claims] are not directed to one of the four statutory categories of inventions identified in 35 U.S.C. § 101. The court writes: “[s]oftware may be patent eligible, but when a claim is not directed towards a process, the subject matter must exist in tangible form. Here, the disputed claims merely claim software instructions without any hardware limitations.”
AllVoice Developments v. Microsoft (Fed. Cir. 2015)
Recent action in patent eligibility doctrine has primarily focused on the judicial prohibitions against patenting abstract ideas, laws of nature, and natural phenomena. However the statute does have some meat of its own. In particular, Section 101 particularly creates eligibility for four categories of inventions: processes, machines, manufactures, and compositions of matter. Inventions that cannot fit within the four statutory categories are not patent eligible.
Machine, Manufacture, Composition of Matter: These terms go back to the 1793 patent act and have been interpreted in dozens of cases. Here, the court summarizes:
Except for process claims, “the eligible subject matter must exist in some physical or tangible form.” Digitech, 758 F.3d 1344 (Fed. Cir. 2014). To be considered a machine under section 101, “the claimed invention must be a ‘concrete thing, consisting of parts, or of certain devices and combination of devices.’” Id. (quoting Burr v. Duryee, 68 U.S. 531 (1863)). Similarly, “[t]o qualify as a manufacture, the invention must be a tangible article that is given a new form, quality, property, or combination through man-made or artificial means. Likewise, a composition of matter requires the combination of two or more substances and includes all composite articles.” Id.
The question in this case is whether Claim 60 of AllVoice’s U.S. Patent No. 5,799,273 fits within any of the four categories. The claim reads as follows:
60. A universal speech-recognition interface that enables operative coupling of a speech-recognition engine to at least any one of a plurality of different computer-related applications, the universal speech-recognition interface comprising:
input means for receiving speech-recognition data including recognised words;
output means for outputting the recognised words into at least any one of the plurality of different computer-related applications to allow processing of the recognised words as input text; and
audio playback means for playing audio data associated with the recognised words.
In considering the claim, the court found that no tangible or physical object claimed. Rather, the patentee admitted that the claim elements are all software elements that do not expressly require hardware elements. Without any actual “machine” or “composition of matter”, the claim failed for lack of subject matter eligibility.