Patent Court Stands By Its Claim That Adding 'On The Internet' Can Make An Abstract Idea Patentable

from the oh-come-on dept

We've been following the Ultramercial case quite closely over the past few years. If you're not aware, this involved a company that more or less patented the idea of "you must watch this ad to get this content" (US Patent 7,346,545) and then sued pretty much everyone. Most of the companies it sued settled rather than fight (which happens all the time), including YouTube and Hulu, but one company, WildTangent, has continued the fight. Eventually, though, the case reached the Supreme Court with the key question being does taking an abstract idea like "watch this before getting that" and adding "on the internet" to it make it patentable? It's well established that you can't patent an abstract idea, but for some reason many seem to think that if you say "on the internet" it's no longer abstract. The Supreme Court did not do a full hearing on the case, but asked the appeals court of the federal circuit (CAFC -- known as the patent appeals court) to reconsider its original ruling in light of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Prometheus case, where it said that you can't patent broad medical diagnostics. The rule there was that you "could not simply recite a law of nature and then add the instruction 'apply the law.'" So, is the same true for "abstract idea" plus "on the internet"?

Apparently, for CAFC, the answer is that there is a difference, and that merely adding "on the internet" to an abstract idea makes it patentable. The ruling is quite incredible, not just for the fact that it sets up a ridiculous standard, but also for its technical naivete. CAFC basically says, gee, there are a lot of steps and graphs and charts in the patent, so, it's probably not abstract.
Viewing the subject matter as a whole, the invention involves an extensive computer interface. Unlike Morse, the claims are not made without regard to a particular process. Likewise, it does not say “sell advertising using a computer,” and so there is no risk of preempting all forms of advertising, let alone advertising on the Internet. Further, the record at this stage shows no evidence that the recited steps are all token pre- or post-solution steps. Finally, the claim appears far from over generalized, with eleven separate and specific steps with many limitations and sub-steps in each category. The district court improperly made a subjective evaluation that these limitations did not meaningfully limit the “abstract idea at the core” of the claims.
Part of the issue is that it needs to show something new here, and the court seems to argue that any software effectively creates a "new machine" based on some really wacky logic. It states "as computer scientists understand":
a programmed computer contains circuitry unique to that computer. That “new machine” could be claimed in terms of a complex array of hardware circuits, or more efficiently, in terms of the programming that facilitates a unique function.
Read that again. They're saying every software program creates "unique circuitry." That's how they claim this is a "new machine" making the idea patent eligible. However, as computer scientist, Tim Lee points out, this claim is "nonsense."

It seems that, once again, CAFC is not getting the Supreme Court's message clearly. We've already gone through this with Myriad and Mayo cases. In Mayo, CAFC twice ruled that diagnostic tests were patentable, even after the Supreme Court gave it an extra chance to correct that. That resulted in the Supreme Court slapping down CAFC and rejecting medical diagnostic patents. Then, CAFC, similarly did the same thing with gene patents, only to be smacked down just last week.

This is a nearly identical situation. CAFC rules one way ("yes, of course this abstract idea/thing of nature is patentable"), the Supreme Court says "are you sure?!? please look at this other ruling," and CAFC comes back with "yes, we're sure! patent patent patent!" The last few times that's happened the Supreme Court has had to smack CAFC down, and it looks like it may need to do so again.

Filed Under: abstract ideas, advertising, cafc, content, drm, on the internet, patent eligibility, patents, software patents, supreme court
Companies: hulu, ultramercial, wildtangent, youtube


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  1. icon
    Paul E. Merrell, J.D. (profile), 22 Jun 2013 @ 10:22am

    New machine

    The Court quoted its own 1994 Alappat decision:

    ". . . programming creates a new machine, because a general purpose computer *in effect* becomes a special purpose computer once it is programmed to perform particular functions pursuant to instructions from program software.

    Sure, just like playing a different roll on a player piano creates a new player piano, playing a different music CD on a CD player creates a new CD player, and a radio station broadcasting music becomes a new radio station every time a different song is played.

    The claimed *fact* --- not law --- that all software could be implemented as hardware in a special purpose computer is not only false but is also irrelevant as a matter of formal logic. General purpose computers are designed to process different software programs that produce differing results. Special purpose computers hard-wired to use no software are not designed to process software. That is the essence of their difference, not their similarity as the Federal Circuit panel would have you believe.

    For that reason, it would be a logical fallacy to claim that a general purpose computer "becomes a special purpose computer once it is programmed to perform particular functions pursuant to instructions from program software. The general purpose computer and the special purpose computer are quite different inventions and neither defines the other. The Alappat decision's author knew that when s/he wrote, which is why the author inserted the red flag qualifier phrase "in effect" and hoped no one would notice.

    S/he might as logically have written, "a house can be destroyed by fire whether the fire is started by accident or by an arsonist. Because these two possibilities have the same *effect* and arson is a crime -- therefore starting a fire accidentally that destroys a house is also a crime."

    That is fallacious reasoning. But an extra point to the Alappat author for combining two fallacies in one sentence, the red herring and the weak analogy.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.