by Dennis Crouch
Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp (Fed. Cir. 2016)
In a rare win for a software patentee, the Federal Circuit has rejected a lower court ruling that Enfish’s “self-referential” database software and data-structure invention is ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101 as effectively an abstract idea. The apparent saving-grace of the claims here is that the improvement is directed to the database operation and is not tied to the business improvement or economic activity.
In this case . . . the plain focus of the claims is on an improvement to computer functionality itself, not on economic or other tasks for which a computer is used in its ordinary capacity.
Accordingly, we find that the claims at issue in this appeal are not directed to an abstract idea within the meaning of Alice. Rather, they are directed to a specific improvement to the way computers operate, embodied in the self-referential table.
. . . [W]e are not faced with a situation where general-purpose computer components are added post-hoc to a fundamental economic practice or mathematical equation. Rather, the claims are directed to a specific implementation of a solution to a problem in the software arts.
However, the court clear here that Software Claims are patent eligible (as long as they are not abstract):
[We do not] think that claims directed to software … are inherently abstract and therefore only properly analyzed at the second step of the Alice analysis. Software can make non-abstract improvements to computer technology just as hardware improvements can, and sometimes the improvements can be accomplished through either route. We thus see no reason to conclude that all claims directed to improvements in computer-related technology, including those directed to software, are abstract and necessarily analyzed at the second step of Alice, nor do we believe that Alice so directs. Therefore, we find it relevant to ask whether the claims are directed to an improvement to computer functionality versus being directed to an abstract idea, even at the first step of the Alice analysis.
I think it makes sense to begin with a look at the claims at issue for a moment.
In thinking through abstract idea step-one, the court considered Microsoft’s proposal that the claims are directed to “the concepts of organizing data into a logical table with identified columns and rows where one or more rows are used to store an index or information defining columns.” Microsoft’s statement here is absolutely true, but the court rejects it as too “high level of abstraction” that is “untethered from the language of the claims.” If the court followed that approach, it would render the step-one all but meaningless.
Now, all of this talk about the improved computer operation might make you think that the claims are rather complex. They are not. Claim 17 of the ‘604 Patent, for instance simply requires a means for creating and indexing a self-referential logical table.
17. A data storage and retrieval system for a computer memory, comprising:
means for configuring said memory according to a logical table, said logical table including: a plurality of logical rows, each said logical row including an object identification number (OID) to identify each said logical row, each said logical row corresponding to a record of information; a plurality of logical columns intersecting said plurality of logical rows to define a plurality of logical cells, each said logical column including an OID to identify each said logical column; and
means for indexing data stored in said table.
In considering the claim, the court found that “the self-referential table recited in the claims … is a specific type of data structure designed to improve the way a computer stores and retrieves data in memory.” As such, it is not an abstract idea.
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 At issue are U.S. Patent 6,151,604 (claims 17, 31, and 32) and U.S. Patent 6,163,775 (claims 31 and 32). Both patents claim priority to a 1995 back when Enfish was a vibrant dotcom.