Another Piece in the Software Patent Puzzle – The Federal Circuit’s First Take on Alice

The Federal Circuit recently released its first interpretation of the Supreme Court’s late June decision in Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, et al. (Alice)  In Digitech Image Tech., LLC v. Electronics for Imaging, Inc., et al. (Digitech) the Federal Circuit added a few more wrinkles to the emerging law of software patent eligibility.

In Digitech, the Federal Circuit held that all of the asserted claims of U.S. Patent No. 6,128,415 were ineligible for patenting.  The patent was directed to device profiles, which are data structures used to correct for hardware-specific distortions in digital image processing systems.  The court first considered claims that recited device profiles as pure data structures. These claims were held invalid under the settled principle that intangible things, such as data structures, are ineligible for patenting. A second group of claims, including independent claim 10, recited methods for generating device profiles. The court held that these claims were directed to the abstract idea of organizing existing information into a new form.  Because the claims did not include significantly more than the abstract idea, they were ineligible. 

Digitech is interesting for at least two reasons. First, the court held that methods of manipulating pre-existing data are abstract ideas.  Claims including methods of this type may need to recite significantly more to be patent eligible.  Second, the court found it significant that the method claims were not tied to a digital image processor or other hardware. It declined to comment on whether a hardware tie would have saved the method claims. There are good arguments, however, that claims reciting a device profile tied to hardware would have been a patent-eligible improvement to computer technology, as suggested by Alice. Software patent eligibility remains a fast-developing field. Stake-holders should continue to monitor future developments on these and other points of law. 

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