Why Does An Unpatentable 'Abstract Idea' Become Patentable If You Add 'On The Internet'?
from the good-question dept
Back in 2009, we wrote about a case involving a company called Ultramercial, which held a broad and ridiculous patent (7,346,545) that effectively covered the process of watching an ad before you could download content (seriously). Ultramercial sued Hulu, YouTube and WildTangent over this. The case went back and forth with an initial ruling that rejected the patent, by noting that it was just an “abstract idea” and abstract ideas are not patentable. As that court ruling noted:
At the core of the ‘545 patent is the basic idea that one can use advertisement as an exchange or currency. An Internet user can pay for copyrighted media by sitting through a sponsored message instead of paying money to download the media. This core principle, similar to the core of the Bilski patent, is an abstract idea. Indeed, public television channels have used the same basic idea for years to provide free (or offset the cost of) media to their viewers. At its heart, therefore, the patent does no more than disclose an abstract idea.
Tragically, CAFC, the appeals court that handles patent matters and has a long history of expanding patent law, reversed the lower court’s ruling and deemed the patent valid. While it didn’t put it in these words specifically, it certainly appeared that the court was saying that any abstract idea can still be patentable if you just make it happen “on the internet.”
In that ruling, the court discusses the fact that “abstract ideas” are not patentable, and notes that it used to use its machine-or-transformation test to determine if something was or was not an abstract idea. However, after the Supreme Court ruled in the Bilski case that this test might not always be appropriate, while failing to say what test would be appropriate, it’s left CAFC with the freedom to make up totally arbitrary rules. And in this case, the arbitrary rule was effectively “we don’t apply the machine-or-transformation test to ‘information age’ inventions.” Why? Because if the inventions aren’t physical, the machine or transformation test no longer applies:
While machine-or-transformation logic served well as a tool to evaluate the subject matter of Industrial Age processes, that test has far less application to the inventions of the Information Age…. Technology without anchors in physical structures and mechanical steps simply defy easy classification under the machine-or-transformation categories.
Shorter version: what would be considered unpatentable abstract ideas in the offline world suddenly become patentable if you add “on the internet” to them.
That doesn’t sound right to lots of people, and thankfully WildTangent is appealing the case and hoping the Supreme Court will hear it. As the petition to the Supreme Court notes, the question presented is:
Whether, or in what circumstances, a patent’s general and indeterminate references to “over the Internet” or at “an Internet website” are sufficient to transform an unpatentable abstract idea into a patentable process for purposes of 35 U.S.C.
Along with the petition, there were also two interesting filings in support, urging the Supreme Court to hear the case. One from Redhat, CCIA and EFF, which goes into great detail about how such broad patentability would seriously harm the open source world, and a strongly worded brief from Google and Verizon (yes, together) about how such a ruling would do serious harm to innovation by allowing all sorts of abstract ideas to be locked up via patent. Hopefully the Supreme Court is willing to listen — and will push back (yet again) on a bad CAFC ruling.