Supreme Court set for landmark decision -- good or bad -- on software patents

Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank reaches the Supreme Court, with expectations of long-awaited clarity on the legality of software patents

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At this point it would be easy to believe the Justices were siding with CLS. But then came their intervention, presented by the same Mark Perry who has long been navigating their case. His appeal to the SCOTUS precedent was clear:

That path between Scylla and Charybdis [as Justice Breyer asked earlier] was charted in Bilski and Mayo. Bilski holds that a fundamental economic principle is an abstract idea, and Mayo holds that running such a principle on a computer is, quote, "not a patentable application of that principle." Those two propositions are sufficient to dispose of this case.

Perry's argument was incisive, but more important, he spent time trying to equip the Court with the outcome it and we truly need: a clear test for what does and does not represent patentable subject matter in the field of software. Many opponents of software patents will find his endorsement of the patentability of algorithms for data compression and encryption worrying, but he did provide the raw material for the SCOTUS to devise a bright-line test for what is patentable. At the heart of his argument:

It is only where the method will not work without a computer, which is not these claims, and where the computer itself is doing something that the patent law is willing to protect.

The pure test of "where the method will not work without a computer" faced challenge from Justices Roberts and Breyer, who both wondered whether the simple fact that a task was of sufficient complexity to require a computer to make it practical justified patentability. Perry clearly thinks it is; his test for patentability involves whether the tasks the computer performs are documented:

It is equally fallacious to suggest, on the one hand, as Alice and IBM does, that simply reciting "a computer" is a magic key that gets you through 101 and you never have any other inquiry, and what some of the amici on the other side say, which is that computers or software are never eligible.

Justice Ginsberg felt that was far too simple, asking, "What is the instruction that escaped a good number of judges on the Federal Circuit?" Perry's answer is stark; he feels that "there's a significant element to the Federal Circuit that disagrees with [the Court's finding in the case of] Mayo" and that "this Court's precedents are clear. They are unanimous. They just need to be applied."

The most surprising aspect of the whole case was the appearance of the U.S. Solicitor General in support of the case made by CLS Bank. Donald Verrilli and his staff filed an amicus brief late in the timeline of the case in which they asserted that "an abstract idea does not become patent-eligible merely by tacking on an instruction to use a computer to carry it out." Justice Ginsberg reacted to the immediate consequence of such a clear statement: "How do you answer the argument that your view would extinguish business ­method patents and make all software ineligible for patent protection?"

Verrilli's answer provides another useful component in building a patentability test: "Any software patent that improves the functioning of the computer technology is eligible." That's a very useful construct. It implies that the scope of software patents should be limited to algorithms that interact with a specific device, rather than just with the abstract concept of a Turing Machine -- "just conventional use of computing technology." Sadly, no one led the Court down that path.

The useful test for patentability in my view is not the complexity of the algorithm or the detail with which it is specified or even the specificity of the solution it addresses. The real question should be whether the software involved is intimately entwined with the hardware that executes it. If any of a class of devices could execute the code, it should not be patentable; if a specific device is required, then it seems less unreasonable to assert patents could be granted.

The Court is likely to return an opinion in the summer. There are some signs it is reluctant to provide the strong clarification the Solicitor General asked for and that the technology economy needs. Chief Justice Roberts expressed doubts whether such a ruling was "going to bring about greater clarity and certainty," and Justice Sotomayor asked outright, "Do you think we have to reach the patentability of software to answer this case?"

It's possible SCOTUS will once again give a narrow opinion and leave us all with the uncertainty on which patent trolls feed. Let's hope they don't.

This story, "Supreme Court set for landmark decision -- good or bad -- on software patents," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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