United States: Federal Circuit Creates New (Non-Alice) Hurdle For Software Patents

In the wake of last year's Supreme Court decision in Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int'l, 134 S. Ct. 2347 (2014), dozens of courts have declared scores of patents to be invalid as not satisfying the requirements of §101 of the patent statute. The Federal Circuit recently issued a decision that provides the same result but does not rely on the Alice standard and may have a significant and lasting impact on patents for software-related inventions. Allvoice Devs. US, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., No. 2014-1258, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 8476 (Fed. Cir. May 22, 2015). In Allvoice, the Federal Circuit declared a patent's claims to be invalid because it simply found them not to be directed to one of the four statutory categories of inventions identified in §101.

The Alice case and its progeny have all relied on certain judicially created exceptions to §101, stating that inventions are not of a patentable type if, for instance, they encompass an abstract idea. Various tests evolved over the past few years, culminating in Alice, to determine whether the claims of a patent fall into one of these judicially created exceptions. In Allvoice, the Federal Circuit took a very different approach.

Judge O'Malley, writing an opinion for a unanimous panel including Judges Prost and Dyk, took a strictly literal reading of §101 and said that if a patent claim does not recite an invention that matches one of the four categories recited therein (i.e., a "process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter"), it is invalid.

For context, the patent at issue is U.S. Patent No. 5,799,273, which carries the somewhat awkward title, "Automated proofreading using interface linking recognized words to their audio data while text is being changed." The patent has 78 claims. Independent claims 1, 52, 69, and 75 are directed to "data processing apparatus." Independent claims 15 and 54 are directed to "a data processing arrangement." Independent claims 28, 56, 71, and 77 are styled as "a data processing method," while independent claims 40 and 58 begin, "a method of processing data." Independent claims 51 and 73 are directed to "a computer usable medium having computer readable instructions." Independent claims 60 and 64 recite "a universal speech-recognition interface."

It is the last of these that the Federal Circuit considered to be outside the ambit of §101. The court began its analysis by stating that, "except for process claims, the eligible subject matter must exist in some physical or tangible form." (quoting Digitech Image Techs., LLC v. Elecs. for Imaging, Inc., 758 F.3d 1344, 1348 (Fed. Cir. 2014)). Diving deeper, the court quoted other passages from Digitech, with citations back to the mid-1800s, for the notion that manufactures and compositions of matter must be tangible.

In contrast, the Allvoice court held that claims 60 and 64 (and their dependents) "do not recite a process or tangible or physical object and, thus, do not fall within any of the categories of eligible subject matter." The court noted that Allvoice had, at the district court level, argued that the claims were limited to software, but before the Federal Circuit, argued that the claimed interfaces are software instructions. The Federal Circuit held that unless a process is claimed, "the subject matter must exist in tangible form. Here, the disputed claims merely claim software instructions without any hardware limitations."

Closer review of the claims calls this conclusion into question. The claims recite interfaces that comprise three elements: "input means for receiving speech-recognition data," "output means for outputting the recognized words," and "means... for determining positions of the recognised words." The Federal Circuit relegated to a footnote any recognition that this claim form might benefit from the functional claim provisions of §112(6) of the patent statute and essentially ignored that issue based on an assertion that, "the means-plus-function limitations, as construed by Allvoice, do not correspond to tangible structure."

Thus, the court appears to have simply looked to what it saw as a flawed argument by Allvoice, rather than independently reviewing the specification to determine proper means-plus-function determination of these claim elements. Such an approach seems particularly harsh, placing undue emphasis on lawyering skills as opposed to the court's independent review of the patent. In this instance, figure 2 of the patent "illustrates a schematic overview of the internal architecture of the computer" and shows the speech recognition interface as being part of a processor of that computer. See '273 patent at column 5, lines 37 – 44. More generally, the patent includes several system block diagrams and corresponding flow charts describing at several levels the tangible structures that correspond to the elements of the claimed interface. For reasons that are not explained in the opinion, though one might surmise conservation of judicial resources, the Federal Circuit chose not to independently undertake analysis of the patent but instead to allow these claims to fail due to the way that the patent owner's counsel characterized them in litigation.

Notably, the Allvoice opinion is marked "NOTE: This disposition is nonprecedential." Under old Federal Circuit rules, nonprecedential opinions could not be cited by parties to later cases in briefs and the like, but this has not been the case since 2007. Current Federal Circuit Rule 32.1 says that a panel of the court can designate an opinion as nonprecedential, but that no longer prevents parties from citing to it or prevents the court from looking to it "for guidance or persuasive reasoning." In addition, not just parties but "any person" is afforded 60 days after issuance of a nonprecedential opinion or order to request that it be reissued as precedential.

What is particularly concerning in this instance is that other courts may adopt the approach in Allvoice as a convenient proxy for invalidating patents—one that may be even easier to apply than the Alice test. It would be incorrect to look at a claim that begins "an interface comprising" and invalidate such a claim merely because an interface is not necessarily a process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter.

Practitioners would be wise to take note of this decision in framing claims as well. Constructs that have been commonplace for years may now be suspect if the Allvoice approach begins to be used by courts in other cases. Particularly in the case of software-implemented inventions, but also in other circumstances, patent lawyers may want to clarify both the nature of the interfaces, engines, systems and the like in their claims both to clearly show the tangible aspect of these and to tie them as directly as possible to the specific statutory categories.

One important aspect of §101 that the Allvoice court did not appear to consider is that §101 is not, by its own terms, limited to the four categories recited above. The actual text of the statute reads, "process, machine, manufacture or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof." It does not follow that an improvement to a machine must itself be a machine, for instance. For example, a machine can be improved by adjusting it in a particular way. More specifically, a computing machine may be improved by programming it in a particular way. That Congress intended §101 to be broadly rather than narrowly interpreted is settled law, so ignoring or strictly limiting the "improvement" language in §101 would be difficult to square with dozens of Federal Circuit and Supreme Court decisions.

It may be that courts and the Patent and Trademark Office itself are enjoying the convenience of invalidating patents and rejecting patent applications based on simplistic analysis of what qualifies as patentable subject matter. It may be that such approaches provide a quick and inexpensive way to dispose of poorly written claims and overly aggressive patent plaintiffs. However, there is great danger in such an approach as well, since such shortcuts can lead to invalidation of patent claims that do not deserve such a fate. Patent law is not easy, and we must be careful not to jump to anything that seems like too simple a solution. As always, we will see how the situation develops and report further.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Events from this Firm
22 Jan 2018, Conference, California, United States

During this three-day event, attendees learn from regulators who write the new regulations, judges who interpret the law to resolve complex disputes, and prominent practitioners who guide their clients through the maze of new legislation, regulations, and jurisprudence.​

25 Jan 2018, Seminar, California, United States

2017 brought several employment law developments that will undoubtedly affect your workplace. The Fenwick & West Employment Practices Group invites you to attend its annual complimentary briefing to learn more about the most important developments from 2017

In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:
  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.
  • Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.
    If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here
    If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here

    Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

    Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

    Use of www.mondaq.com

    You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


    Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

    The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


    Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

    • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
    • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
    • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

    Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

    Information Collection and Use

    We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

    We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

    Mondaq News Alerts

    In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


    A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

    Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

    Log Files

    We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


    This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

    Surveys & Contests

    From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


    If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


    From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

    *** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .


    This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

    Correcting/Updating Personal Information

    If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

    Notification of Changes

    If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

    How to contact Mondaq

    You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

    If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.

    By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions