Alice Gets the Most Important Question Right

By far the most important takeaway from today’s Supreme Court decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank  is the Court’s acknowledgment that “many computer-implemented claims are formally addressed to patent-eligible subject matter.”  Despite failing to alleviate the profound confusion caused by its recent §101 analysis in cases like Bilski, Myriad, Mayo, and plenty of earlier cases going all the way back to Benson, the Court once and for all put to rest the absurd notion that computer-implemented inventions are not patentable under §101.

To its credit, the Alice Court issued its opinion without once using the term “software patent,” or even the term “software.”  Many people don’t realize that this is not a term of art in patent law.  There is no category of “software patents” at the PTO, although they do have classifications for every type of invention.  The term is also not an official category in any statutes or court decisions.  Instead, “software patent” is merely a pejorative, rhetorical term used by patent-skeptics in the patent policy debate.  One hears endless arguments about “all those crappy software patents,” or how we need to “fix the software patent problem,” as if there is something deeply wrong with providing patent protection for inventions implemented through software.  But from an inventive or technological standpoint, the notion of creating a separate category of “software patents” doesn’t even make sense. Any process that is implemented through software could also be implemented through hardware (as pointed out succinctly in the IEEE’s amicus brief in Alice), and the efficiencies and design decisions that guide the choice between hardware and software are essentially irrelevant to the core patentability requirements under the Patent Act.

Of course, the Alice Court’s decision still leaves inventors (not to mention patent examiners, lawyers, and judges) with shockingly little guidance for determining whether a claim is “directed to a patent-ineligible concept,” such as an “abstract idea,” and if so, whether it “contains an ‘inventive’ concept sufficient to ‘transform’ the claimed abstract idea into  a patent-eligible application.”  Citing Mayo, the Court again acknowledges that, when broken down into their basic elements, all inventions rely upon abstract ideas, natural phenomena, or laws of nature.  If that’s the case, we might ask why the Court added any of these exceptions into its §101 analysis in the first place.  After all, the Court’s “inventive concept” test for saving claims that are directed at abstract ideas really just looks like a hybrid novelty/non-obviousness determination.

Despite the remaining doctrinal confusion about how to apply the Court’s various pronouncements about which inventions are “abstract ideas” or “laws of nature” and which are not, the Court deserves credit for getting the most important question right.  At long last, it laid to rest the ridiculous argument that software isn’t patentable.  Are claims to computer-implemented inventions patent-eligible subject matter?  Of course they are.  Inventors in the high-tech industry can at least breathe a sigh of relief.  The Court has expressly recognized that the countless incredible technological inventions that form the bedrock of our innovation economy deserve patent protection.