Software patents are a challenging field these days. The big news of late has been the effect of the Supreme Court’s June 2014 ruling in Alice v. CLS Bank, which has caused many patents — especially in the business method and software realms — to fall into the category of unpatentable abstract ideas. A decision this week by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit — the court tasked with all federal patent appeals — further illustrates the stringent requirements for software patents and the danger of claiming software inventions in the means-plus-function form permitted under the Patent Act.
In a decision yesterday, May 6th, 2015, the CAFC affirmed a lower court decision invalidating a patent asserted by plaintiff EON Corp. IP Holdings, LLC against AT&T Mobility, Sprint, HTC, Qualcomm and Wirefly.
The Patent Act permits patent claims to be written in so-called “means-plus-function” language.
Section 112, paragraph 6 states that:
An element in a claim for a combination may be expressed as a means or step for performing a specified function without the recital of structure, material, or acts in support thereof, and such claim shall be construed to cover the corresponding structure, material, or acts described in the specification and equivalents thereof.
35 U.S.C. § 112 ¶ 6.
That is, the claim may say “a means for <doing some function>” without specifying in the claim what the means is. In order to properly achieve patentability, however, the patent’s specification must detail a structure corresponding to the claimed function. Essentially, the specification has to disclose a means. If it fails to do so, the patent does not fully teach one of skill in the art how to implement the invention and is indefinite (therefore invalid).
In this case, the CAFC reminded us that while some inventions are amenable to the disclosure of a physical structure, “[i]t is well-established that the corresponding structure for a function performed by a software algorithm is the algorithm itself.” In this case it was also “uncontested that the only structure disclosed in the ’757 patent is a microprocessor,” not the algorithm.
EON, despite admitting the lack of structure, attempted to save its case and its patent. The court summarized: “EON relies on an exception to the algorithm rule created in In re Katz Interactive Call Processing Patent Litigation, 639 F.3d 1303 (Fed. Cir. 2011). Katz held that a standard microprocessor can serve as sufficient structure for ‘functions [that] can be achieved by any general purpose computer without special programming.’ Katz, 639 F.3d at 1316. In Katz, claim terms involving basic ‘processing,’ ‘receiving,’ and ‘storing’ functions were not necessarily indefinite because a general purpose computer need not ‘be specially programmed to perform the recited function.’ Id. However, other claim terms involving conditionally coupling calls were indefinite because those functions required special programming.”
The court called the Katz exception a “narrow” one and wrote, “it is only in the rare circumstances where any general-purpose computer without any special programming can perform the function that an algorithm need not be disclosed.” This case was not that rare circumstance.
The message to patent attorneys and those seeking software patents is clear. If claiming software in means-plus-function form, the actual algorithm must be disclosed in the specification. Patent attorneys should not rely on the general microprocessor exception as even the simplest control structures, such as an if-statement, may cause the algorithm to fall outside of the very narrow general purpose computer exception.Tweet