Feeds

US Supremes prod software patent law

Speed dating and horse whispering

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

The long-running battle to redefine what is patentable reached the US Supreme Court on Monday, and the back-and-forth between the Justices and competing counsel hinted that their decision will result in relatively minor changes to existing law - not the sweeping overhaul feared by the software and medical technology industries.

That said, attempting to predict a decision by the Supremes based on their comments during in-court arguments is a risky business.

The core of the case in question, Bilski v. Kappos, is tightly defined. But depending upon how the Court rules, it could have far-reaching consequences. At issue is a "business practices" patent put forth by a firm that had devised a mathematical algorithm to analyze weather data with the goal of hedging energy-consumption risk. The US Patent and Trademark Office rejected the patent application, claiming that it merely defined an abstract idea - solving a math problem - and that being non-physical, it was outside the scope of patent protection.

Seems simple enough. But when the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit heard Bilski's appeal, their October 30, 2008 decision (PDF) redefined the previous rule for patentability of such a claims from whether it "produces a useful, concrete and tangible result" and instead cited and affirmed a previous Supreme Court ruling that used what has become known as the "machine-or-transformation test."

Which means, as explained in the Court of Appeals ruling: "A claimed process is surely patent-eligible under [patent law] if: (1) it is tied to a particular machine or apparatus, or (2) it transforms a particular article into a different state or thing."

The machine-or-transformation test has been derided by some as being a cold and unappetizing leftover from the Industrial Revolution no long applicable to the digital complexities of the Information Age, but praised by others as being a practical guide to whether an idea is more than a mere abstract concept and instead an actual, verifiable, and practical process.

In support of the first group, for example, came an amicus brief (PDF) from a group of self-described "Entreprenurial Software Companies" which cited a study that argues: "Patents in this context afford a unique opportunity to the small startup. The patent system grants the small firm an automatic stay of competitive activity that remains in force long enough for the firm to attempt to develop its technology."

In other words, it keep competitors at bay until the company can develop a patentable concept that could survive the more-stringent machine-or-transformation test.

From the second group, however, came an amicus brief (PDF) in support of the Court of Appeals ruling. This brief, from the Bank of America, Google, and others, claimed that to not use a strict definition of patentability leads to a condition in which companies can file patents "not to make productive use of them, but to extract licensing fees from businesses that apply and improve those ideas and methods in real-world products and services."

The number of amicus briefs was striking in itself - 68 in total - but even more interesting was the fact that 26 of them were not in support of either party in the dispute, but which instead simply argued that the patent system is broken and needs the Supreme Court to help fix it.

And so on Monday the case had its day in court - the Supreme Court, to be exact. The arguments and the Justices' questioning make for interesting reading (PDF), not only for the matters discussed but also for a peek into the personalities of the Justices themselves.

Build a business case: developing custom apps

More from The Register

next story
Munich considers dumping Linux for ... GULP ... Windows!
Give a penguinista a hug, the Outlook's not good for open source's poster child
UK fuzz want PINCODES on ALL mobile phones
Met Police calls for mandatory passwords on all new mobes
e-Borders fiasco: Brits stung for £224m after US IT giant sues UK govt
Defeat to Raytheon branded 'catastrophic result'
Yes, but what are your plans if a DRAGON attacks?
Local UK gov outs most ridiculous FoI requests...
Govt control? Hah! It's IMPOSSIBLE to have a successful command economy
Even Moore's Law can't help the architects of statism now
Detroit losing MILLIONS because it buys CHEAP BATTERIES – report
Man at hardware store was right: name brands DO last longer
Snowden on NSA's MonsterMind TERROR: It may trigger cyberwar
Plus: Syria's internet going down? That was a US cock-up
UK government accused of hiding TRUTH about Universal Credit fiasco
'Reset rating keeps secrets on one-dole-to-rule-them-all plan', say MPs
Caught red-handed: UK cops, PCSOs, specials behaving badly… on social media
No Mr Fuzz, don't ask a crime victim to be your pal on Facebook
EU justice chief blasts Google on 'right to be forgotten'
Don't pretend it's a freedom of speech issue – interim commish
prev story

Whitepapers

Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Top 8 considerations to enable and simplify mobility
In this whitepaper learn how to successfully add mobile capabilities simply and cost effectively.
Solving today's distributed Big Data backup challenges
Enable IT efficiency and allow a firm to access and reuse corporate information for competitive advantage, ultimately changing business outcomes.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.