Patentability of computer software

On June 19, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court revisited the question of the patentability of computer software in Alice Corp. PTY. LTD. v. CLS Bank Int’l et al. The patent in suit covered a scheme of mitigating settlement risks in a financial transaction, as implemented on a computer. The Court analyzed whether the recitation of a computer to perform the scheme made the claims patent-eligible and concluded that the invention neither improved the functioning of the computer nor any other technology or technological field. The Court found that the scheme was a non-statutory abstract idea, a fundamental practice in commerce, and “a building block of modern economy.” Relying on earlier precedent, the Court held that the claims merely recited a generic computer implementation of an abstract idea, which failed to transform that abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention.

Although the Court did not establish a bright-line test for the patentability of computer software, the Court has signaled that computer software may now be required to improve the functioning of the computer involved in the execution of the software to qualify as patentable subject matter. The decision also appears to be a step towards European patent practice, where an advantageous technical effect may be necessary to support the showing of an inventive step.

In light of Alice Corp., claims should recite improvements to avoid being construed as “a generic computer to perform generic computer functions” that are “well-understood, routine, [and] conventional.” Improvements either to the computer proper or to “any other technology or technological field” ought to be clearly set forth in the specification to ensure ample support to the claims.