Last week, we filed two amicus briefs with the Supreme Court in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank, one on behalf of Advanced Biological Laboratories (ABL), and one for Ronald M. Benrey (Benrey). It goes without saying that this is the bellwether case for the patent eligibility of software. The question presented by the Court and the parties was whether claims to computer-implemented inventions—including claims to systems and machines, processes and items of manufacture—are directed to patent-eligible subject matter within the meaning of 35 U.S.C. § 101 as interpreted by this Court.
Our two briefs focused on different aspects of the issue. The ABL brief set forth a new framework for patent eligibility called “objective preemption.” The core thesis is that patent eligibility is a question of law, but must be predicated on objective analysis based on POSITA, the person of ordinary skill in the art. This conforms the analysis to how obviousness is determined, a question of law based on the Graham factors, as well as claim construction, enablement, written description and doctrine of equivalents infringement. In all of these, POSITA is used to ground the analysis in objective factors, not the subjective beliefs of the Court based on what it had for breakfast. The brief explains how POSITA would be used to understand the scope of the claim, and whether the claim preempts all practical applications of some abstract idea. The brief concludes by showing that Alice’s claims, which were held invalid by the district court and the Federal Circuit, are valid under objective preemption.
The Benrey brief is more narrowly focused. Benrey is the author of Understanding Digital Computers (1964). This book was cited by the Solicitor General to the Supreme Court in Gottschalk v. Benson in support of the proposition that computers perform mental steps like humans. This became a core principle over the years and persists today; Judge Lourie of the Federal Circuit has repeatedly stated it as a fact and continues to use it to invalidate software patents. The problem is that Benrey never suggested that computers in fact operate like human minds. Benrey’s brief explains that he was quoted out of context, that computers do not perform mental steps, and that mathematical formulas are not scientific truths per se as apparently believed by the Court. Benrey's brief goes on to explain that the mental steps doctrine was extended to computers only on the basis of this misunderstanding of the nature of computers and mathematics. It further shows that the notion that general purpose computers cannot impart patent eligibility is scientifically unsound, based on the work of Alan Turing.
Copies of the briefs are available at the links below. We look forward to further discussion with those on all sides of the issue over the coming weeks, and ultimately, resolution regarding this question that remains critical to the future of innovation.
Oral argument is set for March 31, 2014. We'll be there.