Alice Corp. v CLS Bank International, U.S. Supreme Court 2014

This is the most recent Supreme Court decision on software patents. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it harder to obtain software patents by siding with CLS Bank.

The software patents concern “the management of risk relating to specified, yet unknown, future events.” In particular, the patents relate to a computerized trading platform used for conducting financial transactions in which a third party settles obligations between a first and a second party so as to eliminate “counter party” or “settlement” risk. Settlement risk refers to the risk to each party in an exchange that only one of the two parties will actually pay its obligation, leaving the paying party without its principal or the benefit of the counter-party’s performance. Alice’s patents address that risk by relying on a trusted third party to ensure the exchange of either both parties’ obligations or neither obligation. For example, when two parties agree to perform a trade, in certain contexts there may be a delay between the time that the parties enter a contractual agreement obligating themselves to the trade and the time of settlement when the agreed trade is actually executed. Ordinarily, the parties would consummate the trade by paying or exchanging their mutual obligations after the intervening period, but in some cases one party might become unable to pay during that time and fail to notify the other before settlement. As disclosed in Alice’s patents, a trusted third party can be used to verify each party’s ability to perform before actually exchanging either of the parties’ agreed-upon obligations.

The software patent claims recited methods of exchanging obligations between parties, data processing systems, and computer- readable media containing a program code for directing an exchange of obligations.

A representative method claim of this software patent is as follows:
33. A method of exchanging obligations as between parties, each party holding a credit record and a debit record with an exchange institution, the credit records and debit records for exchange of predetermined obligations, the method comprising the steps of:
(a) creating a shadow credit record and a shadow debit record for each stakeholder party to be held independently by a supervisory institution from the exchange institutions;
(b) obtaining from each exchange institution a start-of-day balance for each shadow credit record and shadow debit record;
(c) for every transaction resulting in an exchange obligation, the supervisory institution adjusting each respective party’s shadow credit record or shadow debit record, allowing only these transactions that do not result in the value of the shadow debit record being less than the value of the shadow credit record at any time, each said adjustment taking place in chronological order; and
(d) at the end-of-day, the supervisory institution instructing ones of the exchange institutions to exchange credits or debits to the credit record and debit record of the respective parties in accordance with the adjustments of the said permitted transactions, the credits and debits being irrevocable, time invariant obligations placed on the exchange institutions.

A representative apparatus claim of this software patent is as follows:
1. A data processing system to enable the exchange of an obligation between parties, the system comprising:
a data storage unit having stored therein information about a shadow credit record and shadow debit record for a party, independent from a credit record and debit record maintained by an exchange institution; and
a computer, coupled to said data storage unit, that is configured to (a) receive a transaction; (b) electronically adjust said shadow credit record and/or said shadow debit record in order to effect an exchange obligation arising from said trans action, allowing only those transactions that do not result in a value of said shadow debit record being less than a value of said shadow credit record; and (c) generate an instruction to said exchange institution at the end of a period of time to adjust said credit record and/or said debit record in accordance with the adjustment of said shadow credit record and/or said shadow debit record, wherein said instruction being an irrevocable, time invariant obligation placed on said exchange institution.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of CLS, holding each of the asserted claims of Alice’s software patents invalid under §101.

In the Federal Circuit decision, a ten-member en banc panel released seven different decisions. None of the opinions garnered majority support. Seven of the ten judges agreed that the method and computer-readable medium claims lack subject matter eligibility. Eight of the ten concluded that the software patent claims should rise and fall together regardless of their claim type.

The Supreme Court used its earlier decision in Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc. as a framework. Using this framework, the Court must first determine whether the claims at issue are directed to a patent-ineligible concept. If so, the Court then asks whether the claim’s elements, considered both individually and “as an ordered combination,” “transform the nature of the claim” into a patent-eligible application.

The court stated that the software patent claims at issue are directed to a patent-ineligible concept: the abstract idea of intermediated settlement. Turning to the second step of Mayo’s framework, the court stated that the method claims, which merely require generic computer implementation, fail to transform that abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention. The court stated that simply appending conventional steps, specified at a high level of generality,” to a method already “well known in the art” is not enough to supply the “inventive concept” needed to make this transformation.

Referring to Mayo, the Court than stated that wholly generic computer implementation is not generally the sort of additional feature that provides any practical assurance that the process is more than a drafting effort designed to monopolize the abstract idea itself.

Still applying a Mayo analysis to this software patent, the court noted that, taking the claim elements separately, the function performed by the computer at each step—creating and maintaining “shadow” accounts, obtaining data,adjusting account balances, and issuing automated instructions—is purely conventional. Considered “as an ordered combination,” these computer components add nothing that is not already present when the steps are considered separately.

In summary, a software patent in which conventional steps are computerized is not statutory. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court conflated 35 U.S.C 101 and 35 U.S.C. 103 analyses. They should have addressed these two issues separately.

The court also mentioned its previous software patent decision, Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U. S. 593 (2010). The claims at issue in Bilski described a method for hedging against the financial risk of price fluctuations.
All members of the Court agreed that the patent in Bilski claimed an “abstract idea.” Specifically, the claims described “the basic concept of hedging, or protecting against risk.” The Court explained that “‘hedging is a fundamental economic practice long prevalent in our system of commerce and taught in any introductory finance class.’” “The concept of hedging” as recited by the claims in suit was in therefore a patent-ineligible “abstract idea, just like the algorithms at issue in Benson and Flook.” The court stated that it follows from prior cases, and Bilski in particular, that the claims at issue here are directed to an abstract idea.

The court has walked away from sensible software patent precedent in Diamond v. Diehr. In that case, the court said that the novelty of any element or steps is not relevant to a 101 analysis. If you have a computer in the claim, that removes it from the possibility of reading on mental steps, so the claim should be statutory. This court is quite unclear about what makes a claim too abstract.

My belief is that we are moving to a European style patentability analysis for software inventions. This is unfortunate because software per se (without a hardware invention) is valuable and one of the primary fields in which the U.S. dominates and excels. Expect to see more 101 rejections from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It will be easier for an examiner to automatically issue a form rejection under 35 USC 101 whenever a patent application mentions the word “software” than to search for relevant prior art.

The decision can be found here: