The Supreme Court has been criticized in recent weeks for not really understanding today’s technology. Twitter, Facebook and personal cell phones have posed conceptual problems around privacy for some of the justices. They have struggled to understand what constitutes an antenna as seen in the case of Aero’s internet-based television. And they’ve debated back and forth over who ought to be held liable for statements and content posted on websites (as brought on by several suits surrounding First Amendment rights). Most recently, the justices have issued another ruling that may make technology lawyers and patent attorneys either throw their hands up in victory or cringe, depending on their own understanding of how someone’s intellectual property is uniquely manifested in software, as this engadget article explains.
At least this time, the justices stood together and unanimously ruled that companies filing software patents must be more specific when trying to claim a patentable idea. Technology lawyers following the case in which Alice Corporation accused CLS Bank of violating patents related to computer-based trading systems, watched the U.S. Supreme Court stand by the decisions made in two lower courts that rejected the validity of Alice’s patents. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, specifically, that “merely requiring generic computer implementation fails to transform that abstract idea into a patent-eligible inventions.”
Patent attorneys are all too aware of the fine line that the computer software industry walks between an “abstract idea” and a true “invention,” but this ruling should give them and technology lawyers handling similar cases better guidelines for the future—without affecting the past. Their ruling certainly “doesn’t magically invalidate all software patents,” as the justices “were careful to avoid ruling too broadly.” Patent attorneys following the Apple-Samsung case, for instance, would tell you that one may still take some time to be settled—at least since each company keeps throwing millions into their technology lawyers funds and giving the courts the run-around.
Plus, patent attorneys note that the Supreme Court left some wiggle room for patents to be pushed through – especially for patent applications involving abstract ideas that are unique enough. As a general rule however, “inventors will have to do better than simply recreating basic and abstract ideas with the aide of a computer,” as in the case of CLS Bank and Alice Corporation’s software that supports the exchange of financial obligations.
The ruling may be important in setting precedent for vague software patents coming to court in the future, though, and could impact which cases companies plagued by patent trolls choose to fight. Despite the recent failure of Congress to pass a patent reform bill, it would seem that the Supreme Court is holding its own in working the system from its angle. So despite what may have been said about their ability to understand the actual goings on behind the computer screen or within the virtual realm, the Supreme Court justices could be doing just fine without the technology tutors they occasionally seem to need.