United States: Federal Circuit Invalidates Three Software Patents; Judge Mayer Calls For Ban On All Software Patents

In the past few months, the Federal Circuit reversed a two-year trend of overturning software patents by publishing three decisions that outlined various parameters in which software can be eligible for patenting.  In those decisions (described in previous IP Spotlight posts published here and here) the court cautioned that not all improvements in computer-related technology are inherently abstract.  It also said that when assessing patent-eligibility, one must be careful to not use patent-eligibility to invalidate a claim when the real issue with the claim is obviousness.

A new opinion from the Federal Circuit sets some boundaries in the other direction, and limits how far software patent holders can push the boundaries of patent-eligibility. In Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Symantec Corp., the court found certain claims of three software patents to be invalid. The patents were US 5,987,610 (directed to computer virus screening methods), US 6,073,142 (directed to automated analysis of e-mail messages) and US 6,460,050 (directed to a system for identifying distributed content).

The court drew an analogy between the representative claim of the '142 patent and a corporate mailroom that receives correspondence and uses business rules to define actions to be taken based on the application of the rules to the correspondence. The court found this claimed use of a "rule engine" to be a "conventional business practice" and noted that "with the exception of generic computer-implemented steps, there is nothing in the claims themselves that foreclose them from being performed by a human."

In the case of the '050 patent, the court found that the representative claim was directed to nothing more than "[c]haracterizing e-mail based on a known list of identifiers."

The '610 patent was directed to a virus screening method.  The court noted that this patent "involves an idea that originated in the computer era – computer virus screening." Nonetheless, the court said that "[p]erforming virus screening was a long prevalent practice in the field of computers" and that the representative claim "does not claim a new method of virus screening or improvements thereto." The court also noted that "[j]ust as the performance of an abstract idea on the Internet is abstract,  so too the performance of an abstract concept in the environment of the telephone network is abstract."

To understand the boundaries of what the Federal Circuit considers to be patent-eligible, the court's analysis of the broad claims of the '142 and '050 patents can be compared to the court's recent decisions that found claims directed to discrete, technical solutions to be patent-eligible.  However, the court's analysis of the '610 patent arguably conflicts with its recent statements in  Bascom Global Internet Services, Inc. v. AT&T Mobility et al., where the court cautioned that one should not use patent-eligibility to reject a claim when the real issue is obviousness.  Although not expressly stated in the decision, the court may have actually considered the possible pre-emptive effect of the claims,  as it did in recent cases such as Bascom Global and McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games America, Inc.

Notably, in a concurring decision Judge Mayer expressed a hard line view against software patents:  "claims directed to software implemented on a generic computer are categorically not eligible for patent." Notwithstanding the Supreme Court's statement to the contrary in Alice v. CLS Bank, Judge Mayer further argued that "[s]oftware is a form of language," and that patents such as those at issue in the case "run afoul of the First Amendment" by "constricting the essential channels of online communication."

Judge Mayer was not part of any of the court's panels that upheld software patents earlier this year. Judge Mayer's comments, while certainly provocative, do not reflect the overall direction of either the Federal Circuit or the Supreme Court. Although the court is unlikely to follow his call for all-out ban on software patents, it may do well to consider his request to "provide much-needed clarity and consistency in our approach to patent eligibility.

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