Category Archives: Software

One step forward, two steps back for software patents at the Federal Circuit

In the past year, several Federal Circuit decisions defined situations in which software inventions could be eligible for patenting in the United States. However, two recent Federal Circuit decisions show that the path for patent-eligibility is not yet clear, especially for patents that claim methods of processing or presenting data.

In Secured Mail Solutions LLC v. Universal Wilde, Inc. (Fed. Cir. Oct. 16, 2017), the court considered seven patents covering the use of intelligent mail barcodes, QR codes, and personalized URLs on a package to communicate information about the package. The court considered a representative claim of U.S. patent 8,429,093 that read:

1. A method for providing electronic data to a recipient of a mail object, comprising:

   Generating, by a processor, a barcode for a mail object, said barcode including at least a first set of mail data, said first set of mail data including data corresponding to said recipient of said mail object;
affixing said barcode to said mail object;
   submitting said mail object to a mail carrier for delivery to said recipient of said mail object;
receiving said first set of mail data, including data corresponding to said recipient of said mail object, from a reception device of said recipient via a network;
   providing said electronic data to said reception device via said network in response to receiving said first set of mail data, said electronic data including a content of said mail object;
   wherein said reception device displays said electronic data to a recipient of said mail object by displaying said electronic data on a screen of said reception device.

The district court found all of the patents’ claims to be directed to the abstract idea of “communicating information about [a mail object] by use of a marking.” The Federal Circuit agreed and explained that the claims “are not directed to specific details of the barcode or the equipment for generating and processing it.” The Federal Circuit also noted that in the claims there “is no description of how the unique identifier … is different from a personal name, or return address.”

After agreeing that the claims were directed to an abstract idea, the court noted that the claims did not include sufficiently more than the idea because they were “‘replete’ with routine steps, including ‘affixing mail identification data,’ such as a barcode, to a mail object.” The patent holder argued that the generation of the unique identifier is inventive, but the court noted that “the use of barcodes was commonplace and conventional” when the patent applications were first filed, and “sending a personalized URL to a recipient was not an unconventional use of the Internet” at that time.

In Smart Systems Innovations, LLC v. Chicago Transit Authority (Fed. Cir. Oct. 18, 2017), the court considered four patents relating to open-payment fare systems in mass transit networks. A representative claim from U.S. patent 7,568,617 read:

13. A method for validating entry into a first transit system using a bankcard terminal, the method comprising:
downloading, from a processing system associated with a set of transit systems including the first transit system, a list of bankcards comprising, for each bankcard in the list, a hash identifier of a bankcard previously presented, by a respective holder of the bankcard, to the processing system, wherein the bankcard comprises one of a credit card and a debit card;
receiving, from a bankcard reader, bankcard data comprising data from a bankcard currently presented by a holder of the bankcard;
generating a hash identifier based on the bankcard data from the currently presented bankcard, wherein the hash identifier comprises a hash of at least part of the bankcard data;
determining whether the currently presented bankcard is contained in the list of bankcards;
verifying the currently presented bankcard with a bankcard verification system, if the bankcard was not contained in the list of bankcards; and
denying access, if the act of verifying the currently presented bankcard with the bankcard verification system results in a determination of an invalid bankcard.

The court found the claims to be directed to the formation of financial transactions in the field of mass transit. The court stated: “[t]he Asserted Claims are not directed to a new type of bankcard, turnstile, or database, nor do the claims provide a method for processing data that improves existing technological processes. Rather, the claims are directed to the collection, storage, and recognition of data.” The court also stated that the claims’ improvement on the operation of existing fare collection systems, and their limitation to the field of mass transit, did not save them from being considered an abstract idea.

Notably, in Smart Systems Innovations the court stated: “[o]ur mandate from the Supreme Court under Alice step one is to ascertain what the claims are ‘directed to,’ not the ‘thrust,’ ‘heart,’ or ‘focus’ of the invention.” The court also appeared to limit the applicability of its previous decisions in Enfish Corporation v. Microsoft LLC and DDR Holdings, LLC v. Hotels.com, L.P. to the specific “claims [that the patentee shows] are directed to an improvement in computer technology.” The court also suggested that its McRO v. Bandai NAMCO Games America, Inc. decision was limited to a particular “claimed process us[ing] a combined order of specific rules [that] improved upon existing technological processes.” Continue reading

Will the Federal Circuit or Congress boost the ITC’s ability to block the importation of infringing digital files?

Section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930 authorizes the International Trade Commission (ITC) to halt the importation of articles that infringe patents and other intellectual property rights. Until late last year, the ITC used this authority to block imports of digital files in response to allegations of patent infringement. However, the Federal Circuit upended that tactic in November when it ruled that “articles” do not include digital data files.

The Federal Circuit’s ruling in ClearCorrect Operating LLC v. International Trade Comm’n (Fed. Cir. Nov. 10, 2015) related to a situation in which the ITC acted on a complaint filed by Align Technology, Inc., which asserted that a Pakistan-based company and its U.S. subsidiary infringed Align’s patents for methods of creating and using orthodontic aligners. The court noted that “the only purported ‘article’ found to have been imported was digital data that was transferred electronically, i.e., not digital data on a physical medium such as a compact disk or thumb drive.”

The Tariff Act does not define the term “article,” so the court looked at various dictionary definitions, as well as other sections of the Tariff Act, and concluded that intangibles such as digital data are not “articles” that are within the ITC’s authority to block. The court also noted that Congress has debated various updates to the relevant sections of the Tariff Act in recent years, but it has not implemented any changes that would update the Act to expressly include digital data within the ITC’s authority.

The ITC has requested an extension of time (through January 27) to request an en banc rehearing of the decision. It is widely expected that the ITC will file the rehearing petition.

The ClearCorrect decision followed another Federal decision (Suprema v. International Trade Comm’n) that expanded the ITC’s authority to block importation of devices (e.g., fingerprint scanners) that are not infringing upon entry into the U.S., but which do infringe after certain software is loaded on the devices. Some may view the Suprema and ClearCorrect decisions to be at odds with each other. If the Federal Circuit revises the ClearCorrect decision in a rehearing, the result could create a significant roadblock for importers of products, software and data sets that infringe U.S. intellectual property rights.

Software patent-eligibility after Alice: where are we now?

Since the June 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Alice Corporation Pty Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, the vast majority of district court decisions, Federal Circuit decisions, and Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB) decisions that considered the issue have overturned software and business method patents under the new patent-eligibility standard of Alice.  In the first quarter of 2015 alone, when considering a motion to dismiss or a motion for judgment on the pleadings on the basis of patent-eligibility under §101, U.S. district courts have granted the motions and ruled the patents to be invalid over 66% of the time.

In November 2014, I published a post that summarized court and PTAB decisions that bucked this trend and found software to be patent-eligible. Since then, a small but growing number of cases refused to overturn patents that involved software, and the USPTO issued an Interim Guidance document describing actual and hypothetical claims that could survive post-Alice scrutiny.

To track the activity since then, I have updated my original post. It’s still available via this link. I intend to keep it updated on a periodic basis, so feel free to bookmark it or simply check back for future updates.

IP Protection for Websites

33004976_sFor many businesses, a website is among the company’s most valuable intangible assets. A company’s website (or mobile site) serves as its front door, calling card, storefront, and corporate bio for actual and potential customers.

However, many businesses fail to protect this asset until it is exposed to risk. For example, small businesses who rely on a single employee or contractor to develop and maintain the site can face problems maintaining and updating the site if that employee or contractor relationship ends. Or, they may find a competitor copying the features that provide the most business value.  

What can companies do to avoid these issues?  Useful practices include:

  • Own the code.  Many companies hire outside contractors to design and maintain the company website. When doing this, it’s critical that the development agreement provide the company with rights to control, modify, copy and use the code — whether through ownership or license. A company who pays for software development typically does not have the right to copy, modify or distribute it unless the development agreement specifically says so.
  • Control the code.   It’s also important that the company receive copies of all developed code, even if the contractor is hosting the website. If the contractor fails to perform, loses a key employee, or simply starts to charge more than the company wants to pay, the company will find it impossible to go in another direction unless and until it has the  code. Too often, companies fail to include this requirement in their development agreements. Or if they do, they don’t enforce it until a problem occurs — at which point it may be too late.
  • Identify your trademarks.  A website is the first place that many customers will go to discover information about the company’s products or services. The names of many products and services may be trademarks, even if the company hasn’t registered the marks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Although not legally binding, the use of a “TM” symbol with unregistered marks can help put others on notice of the words or phrases that a company considers to be its valuable trademarks.
  • Consider trade dress protection.  Trade dress protection, which is available under U.S. trademark law as well as state laws of unfair competition, covers the distinctive features of product’s physical appearance.  Several federal district courts, including those in Pennsylvania, CaliforniaLouisiana, Washington and Texas, have held that the overall “look and feel” of a website can be trade dress that is entitled to protection under the federal trademark statute.  To receive trade dress protection, the look and feel must (1) be distinctive, (2) have secondary meaning, and (3) be non-functional.
  • (Maybe) patent the unique features. Many websites contain unique functionality that can be considered to be a patentable invention under U.S. patent law.  While patenting software has become much more difficult in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Alice v. CLS Bank, patent applications that claim  significantly more than just an abstract idea can still find success at the USPTO.

 (Image credit:  sssrrussia / 123RF Stock Photo)

If a patent can’t cover an “abstract idea,” can it be a trade secret?

Should I patent my invention or keep it a trade secret?  QuestionInventors often ask me this question.  And after a recent court decision and USPTO actions that raise the bar for patenting software inventions, the question is becoming even more important for software developers who want to protect their IP.

In Alice Corporation Pty Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, the Supreme Court made it clear that “abstract ideas” are not eligible subject matter for patent protection. The decision, as well USPTO Preliminary Examination Instructions that followed the decision, suggest that inventive concepts such as algorithms, financial business methods and methods of organizing human activity are not, in themselves, patentable unless claimed with additional elements that make the claim cover significantly more than just the abstract idea.

So, does this mean that it’s better to keep certain inventions as a trade secret? Will trade secret law protect abstract ideas in a way that patent law can’t?

In most cases, probably not. Several state court decisions suggest that a trade secret needs to be described in an enabling manner in order for the owner to enforce trade secret rights against others.

For example,the Court of Appeal for the State of California recently held that in California, a “trade secrets plaintiff must, prior to commencing discovery, ‘identify the trade secret with reasonable particularity.’” New Castle Beverage, Inc. v. Spicy Beer Mix, Inc., (Cal. App. 6/17/2014).  In that case, the complaint described the trade secret as a “process of applying a secret solution to the inner and outer surfaces adjacent the lip of a beverage cup to permit a first mixture of spices to adhere to those surfaces.” The court found this description to be too vague.  Also, the lower (trial) court expressed a concern that if it were to grant a preliminary injunction, the court would have difficulty determining whether the defendant was violating the injunction.

This means that when deciding whether to patent a process or keep it trade secret, the inventor should work with his or her attorney to assess which area of law provides the best protection, not which regime is easier to use. In both situations, the inventor should identify and document a complete description of the process.  This description needs to include more than just the general idea itself, it needs to explain how the idea is implemented as technology.

So, if the question is “can I protect it,” patent law and trade secret law will often lead to similar answers.  Neither area of law is likely to help an inventor who either can’t or won’t fully describe the process in a way that enables a reader to make and use the process, and that allows a court to determine when an infringer is using the process.

[Image credit:  Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_anatolymas’>anatolymas / 123RF Stock Photo</a>]

Do contractors help develop your software? Read this if you plan to sell or license it to others.

A recent decision from the United States District Court for the District of California could, if upheld, significantly limit companies’ ability to transfer its proprietary software unless the company has obtained an assignment from each and every developer.

In a decision published November 5, 2012 in Amaretto Ranch Breedables LLC v. Ozimals Inc., Ozimals argued that Amaretto Ranch infringed its copyright in software used in connection with the online virtual reality site Second Life. Amaretto Ranch filed a declaratory judgment action and argued that it could not infringe because Ozimals did not own the software. Three developers created the software, but only two of them had executed assignments in favor of Ozimals.

The court agreed with Amaretto Ranch’s argument and held that in order to transfer a copyright, all authors must agree to the assignment.  Otherwise, the attempted assignment is merely a non-exclusive license. Continue reading

Looks Like Tetris? Video Game Clones and Copyright Law

According to a recent study by Flurry Analytics, in the first two months of 2012 over 50% of all user app sessions on Android and iOS mobile devices involved video games.   GamesIndustry International recently reported that by 2017 global revenue from video game software is expected to grow to $70 billion by 2017.   With significant money and consumer interest in play, it’s not surprising that software developers are rushing to feed the gaming frenzy.  In some cases, game developers may be inspired by the world’s most successful mobile gaming apps like Tetris, Angry Birds, Bejeweled and many others.

However, a recent court decision warns that game developers must recognize that the difference between “inspiration” and “copying” may be subtle.  Falling into the wrong category can result in significant consequences.   Continue reading