From the category archives:

Software Patents

Computer Software Patents in the US

by admin on 2 March 2011

“To patent or not to patent” was the question that the US Supreme Court faced back last year when reviewing the so-called Bilski case. The Court has started to hear a number of patent cases in the past few years. Some, such as the Bilski case, are probably taken to see if the Court can find some sense in the diametrical positions held by advocates and opponents of software and business method patents.

Back in November when the Bilski decision was issued – and which has been extensively commented here and here – the Supreme Court clearly said as long as the patent fulfils one of the categories set out in Section 101 of the 1952 Patent Act (i.e. process, machine, manufacture or composition of matter), then the patent  was fundamentally acceptable. It was only if the patent application related to a “law of nature”, a physical phenomenon, or an “abstract idea” would a patent be refused.

The Court in Bilski refused to define a “bright line” test for an unpatentable abstract idea. Instead the Supreme Court said that the lower courts should develop “other limiting criteria”.

So it was with some interest that lower court – in this case the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit – took on a case relating to patents on the processing of digital images (more accurately digital image halftoning). In RCT v Microsoft, the lower Arizonan Court had held that some of the claims in the patents were invalid as being too abstract. The CAFC said that was incorrect. The CAFC refused to define abstract but said that  “this disqualifying characteristic should exhibit itslf so manifestly as to override the broad statutory categories of eleigble subject matter. In other words the patent had to be so obviously “abstract” that it should never be granted. A somewhat rudimentary, but probably practical, test.

What was more interesting was the CAFC’s observation that the claimed methods in these patents (held by RCT) incorporated algorithms and forumulas. These algorithms and formulas, even though admittedly a signficiant part of the claimed combination, did not bring this invention even close to abstractness. Since, as the CAFC noted, the Supreme Court had already made it abundantly clear that inventions incorporating and relying upon even a well known mathematical equation do not lose eligibility because serveral steps of the rpcoess use that mathermatical equation.

This is clearly good news for many innovators seeking patent protection. Once again the US has emphasised: you cannot get patent protection for an abstract idea. But once you use the abstract idea (algorithm) for a practical purpose, then patent protection opens up.




Amazon and Social Networking

by admin on 18 June 2010

#alttext#Some of you may know the slashdot website, which is always good for a provocative discussion about patents and their value. Their latest entry identifies a newly granted US Patent 7,739,139 assigned to Amazon and which claims a social networking system. The entry is slightly wrong since it suggests that the application which was filed in 2008 originates from that date, but the continuation data shows that its original pedigree goes back to a 1997 filing issued as US Patent 6,269,369.

The slashdot entry concludes that the well-known Facebook CEO will have to “open a can of patent whup-ass” (whatever that is).

The claims of the patent certainly seem on face value highly relevant to all social networking websites:

1. A computer-implemented method, comprising: receiving and storing personal data of a first user of a computer-based service, said computer-based service accessible to users over a network, said personal data specified by the first user; providing a user interface for users to establish contact relationships with other users of the service such that each user can have one or more contacts, said user interface enabling a user to identify other users of the service, and to selectively initiate the generation of requests to establish contact relationships with the identified users; receiving a request from a second user of the service to establish a contact relationship with the first user, said request submitted to the service over a network via said user interface; sending a notification of the request to the first user over a network; providing an option, in connection with said request, for the first user to grant permission for the second user to view at least some of the personal data of the first user; and in response to the first user granting said permission, providing the second user access to at least some of the personal data of the first user via a contact information user interface of the service, such that the second user is provided access to data that would not otherwise be accessible to the second user via the service; wherein the method, including receiving and storing the personal data, providing the user interface, receiving the request, sending the notification, providing said option, and providing the second user access, is performed by a server computer system.

I haven’t yet had the chance to read the patent in its entirety, but the examination record is frustratingly short. There’s a note of an interview that took place with the Examiner, after which the patent was granted. No major correspondence at all (but you would not want to put too many comments on record, in case they came back to haunt you later).

So what’s Amazon going to do with this patent? Who knows? I think it’s unlikely that they are going to try and shut down Facebook (after all they have a fan page. More likely it’s going to an interesting tool to defend itself against alleged patent infringements and maybe even providing some good old licensing revenue.

And what happens if Bilski comes out? Well, my guess is that the Examiner has already had in mind some idea of what the Supreme Court will say in Bilski. The claim is full of structural features and it’s going to be difficult to dismiss the claim as “a business method as such”. Indeed it certainly passes the US PTO’s “machine or transformation” test. So my guess is that the patent would at least be held valid under whatever test is conducted in the future. The interesting thing is whether anyone can find prior art out there which predates the 1997 filing of the patent application. That will be more difficult.

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Flooding Germany with Software Patents?

May 23, 2010

There’s a blog entry over on the FOSS patents blog from software patent campaigner Florian Müller in which he comments on the German Federal Court of Justice’s (Bundesgerichtshof) “Dynamische Dokumentengenerierung” (=dynamic document generation) decision in a Siemens application on a method for producing a document display. Florian compares the German decision with the pending US […]

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Paris Court revokes granted European Software Patent

March 21, 2010

One of our interests on Tangible IP is the never ending story of software patents. Just to recap: the European Patent Office is currently considering the degree to which computer-implemented inventions are patentable. On the other side of the Atlantic the US Supreme Court has head arguments in the re Bilski case and we’re waiting […]

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