Obtaining a U.S. software patent is still harder than it was five years ago, but studying these “lighthouse” cases can improve one’s chances of success. While the Federal Circuit’s decision in Berkheimer v. HP Inc., 881 F.3d 1360 (Fed. Cir. 2018) and the USPTO’s guidance to patent examiners on the Berkheimer decision have recently improved the landscape for software patents, the following cases contain critical lessons for drafters that can further ensure claims are patent eligible.
In RecogniCorp, LLC v. Nintendo Co., the Federal Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision that RecogniCorp’s patent claims are directed to an abstract idea, and do not contain an inventive concept sufficient to make them patent-eligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101… Adding one abstract idea, such as math, to another abstract idea, such as encoding- decoding, does not make the claim non-abstract. A claim containing a mathematical formula can satisfy § 101 when it applies the formula in a structure or process which, as a whole, is performing a non-abstract function that the patent laws were designed to protect. Under Alice step two, a claim that is directed to a non-abstract idea is not rendered abstract simply because it uses a mathematical formula. However, the reverse is also true: A claim directed to an abstract idea does not automatically become patent eligible by adding a mathematical formula. The elements of the claim must be examined to determine whether there is an inventive concept beyond the addition of a mathematical formula, e.g. to be implemented on a computer. The claims must make it clear how the invention improves a specific technology, rather than simply stating to an abstract end-result.
The Alice/Mayo framework is the decisional approach adopted by the United States Supreme Court for determining whether a patent claim exhibits, such as software patent claims, embody patent eligible subject matter… Over the last six months the Federal Circuit has provided a great deal of clarity, with 9 judges (Judges Moore, Taranto, Hughes, Chen, Newman, O’Malley, Reyna, Stoll, and Plager) signing on to decisions that found software patent claims to be patent eligible. What follows is a a summary of the significant developments over the last six months.
In a nutshell, if you are going to write a patent application in such a way that at the end of the it the reader is left wondering what the innovation is, what the problem being solved is, or the technical particulars on how the innovation actually solves the problem, you should not expect a patent. In other words, if you write your patent applications without actually defining the technological solution and how it is implementing the desired functionality you describe, and how that is an improvement, you will not get a patent because the claims will be patent ineligible. On the other hand, if you write your patent applications to describe (and claim) an invention that is adequately described so that someone of skill in the art will understand what is innovative (i.e., how and why), thick with technical disclosure and explanation as to how computer functionality is being improved, or even generic components are working in unconventional ways, then you will get a patent because your claims will be patent eligible.
Unlike Judge Chen’s breadth-based approach, Judge Hughes appears to adopt the proposal of using the European technical effect ( or “technological arts”) analysis to determine whether a U.S. claim is patent-eligible… The CAFC decides that the above claim indeed is related to an improvement to computer functionality itself, not on economic or other tasks for which a computer is used in its ordinary capacity. This once again approaches the “technical problem” analysis of European law, which at least has the advantage of possessing something of a legal principle about it, as opposed to being a tautology.
The waters surrounding Section 101 of the Patent Act are as muddied as they come. The statute sets forth only in broad strokes what inventions are patentable, leaving it to the courts to create an implied exception to patentability for laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas. It has been difficult for lower courts to determine whether an invention falls within one of these excluded categories, and the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to provide a definition of what constitutes an “abstract idea.” Nonetheless, the Court in recent years has laid several foundation stones in Bilski, Mayo, Myriad and Alice for a bridge over these troubled waters. Trying to build upon these, the Federal Circuit issued two recent opinions dealing with Section 101: Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corporation and In re: TLI Communications LLC Patent Litigation. However, these decisions only create more confusion and cannot provide a safe means of passage over the turbulent waters of patent eligibility.
David Kappos, the director of the USPTO under President Obama from 2009 to 2013, recently called for congress to repeal section 101 of the patent act. According to Kappos, the current chaotic “I know it when I see it” 101 test that must be somehow consistently applied by thousands of USPTO examiners and hundreds of judges, means American inventors are better off seeking protection in China and Europe. While America “is providing less protection than other countries”, European countries are “putting their foot down in favor of innovation”.
What makes the Enfish case particularly interesting is that the court found that the software patent at issue was not even an abstract idea. As such, the inquiry as to patent eligibility did not proceed beyond the abstract idea analysis step. Basically the Enfish court used the wording in Alice to refute post-Alice perceptions that all improvements in computer related technology and/or software inventions are inherently abstract and therefore “are only properly analyzed at the second step of the Alice analysis.” Enfish at 11. This interpretation represents what could be a meaningful shift in the interpretation of software patent validity.
Enfish bothers me. The Federal Circuit decision puts forth some great phrases, but I am concerned that Enfish will not be as useful as hoped in overcoming §101 Alice rejections. The patents at stake in Enfish appear to have been written with a confident view of the prior art and of the invention. So, if a specification does not confidently emphasize the “invention,” its “benefits over” conventional prior art, and “disparage” the prior art, will examiners and judges continue Step 1 characterizations at “such a high level of abstraction”? Is Enfish merely much ado about nothing?