US appeals court asks whether to limit software patents

The Federal Circuit hears a case Friday involving the patentability of abstract ideas when combined with a computer

By , IDG News Service |  Software

Should an abstract idea written into software and run on a computer be patentable? That's one question a U.S. appeals court will consider Friday when it hears arguments in a case with broad implications for software patents for companies as diverse as Google and Red Hat.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is unlikely to invalidate all software patents in the CLS Bank v. Alice Corp. case, but it could force tech companies to narrow their claims when applying for software patents, some patent experts said.

The case, which has generated briefs from Google, Facebook, Newegg and software trade group BSA, could "set the stage" for limiting what kinds of software patents can be issued, said Julie Samuels, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"There's a really big problem with software patents that doesn't tend to exist with most other patents," she said. "Patentees tend to claim a problem ... and then they get a patent on any way of fixing it, as opposed to claiming a specific method, a specific invention accomplishing their goal."

If software patent claims were limited to a specific invention, "we'd all be a lot better off," added Samuels, who wrote a brief in the case for the EFF and Public Knowledge. "If software patents were more narrow, then they wouldn't be such a powerful tool for the trolls."

In the case, defendant CLS Bank argued that Alice's four software patents covering a computerized trading platform for exchanging obligations was too abstract to be patentable. A district court agreed, but the appeals court reversed the decision.

Still, the appeals court scheduled Friday's hearing to examine whether an abstract idea combined with a computer is patentable, and whether some software patent claims involving methods, systems or storage should be grounds for granting a patent.

Google, Facebook, Red Hat and some other tech companies argued that the Alice patents should be invalid in a joint brief. BSA argued the Alice patents should be invalid, but more broadly defended software patents.

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