A new Federal Circuit decision gives software patent applicants some insight into when software can be patent-eligible. In Enfish LLC v. Microsoft Corporation (Fed. Cir. May 12, 2016), the court reversed a district court’s ineligibility determination for two patents directed to database structures. In the decision, the Federal Circuit stated: “We do not read [the Supreme Court decision in] Alice [Corporation Pty Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l] to broadly hold that all improvements in computer-related technology are inherently abstract…. Nor do we think that claims directed to software, as opposed to hardware, are inherently abstract and therefore only properly analyzed at the second step of the Alice analysis.”
With this in mind, the Federal Circuit directed that “the first step in the Alice inquiry in this case asks whether the focus of the claims is on the specific asserted improvement in computer capabilities ([such as a] self-referential table for a computer database) or, instead, on a process that qualifies as an ‘abstract idea’ for which computers are invoked merely as a tool.”
The patents at issue were US patents 6,151,604 and 6,163,775. A representative claim (claim 17 of the ‘604 patent) contained the following limitations:
17. A data storage and retrieval system for a computer memory, comprising:
means for configuring said memory according to a logical table, said logical table including:
a plurality of logical rows, each said logical row including an object identification number (OID) to identify each said logical row, each said logical row corresponding to a record of information;
a plurality of logical columns intersecting said plurality of logical rows to define a plurality of logical cells, each said logical column including an OID to identify each said logical column; and
means for indexing data stored in said table.
Because the claim involved a specific structure of a logical table in a database, and were “not simply directed to any form of storing tabular data, but instead are directed to a self-referential table for a computer database,” the court found that the claims were directed to an improvement in the functioning of a computer.
[A summary of all of post-Alice Federal Circuit, U.S. District Court, and Patent Trial and Appeals Board decisions that found computer-related patent claims to be patent-eligible is available at this post on IP Spotlight.]