Software Patentability Revisited

On May 12, 2016, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“CAFC”) issued an opinion Enfish LLC. v. Microsoft Corporation upholding validity of software patent claims on  35 U.S.C. § 101 grounds.  The patents at issue, U.S. Patents Nos. 6,151,604 and 6,163,775, cover a self-referential table for a computer database.  Compared to traditional relational tables, where each entity modeled is provided in a separate table, in the self-referential model, all data entities are in a single table, with column definitions provided by rows in that same table.  The specification of the patents at issue recited advantages of the self-referential model compared to the relational model, including faster searching of data, more effective storage of data, and more flexibility in configuring the database.

While the District Court of Central District of California ruled the claims of these patents too abstract to be valid, CAFC reached a different conclusion.  CAFC held that the claims are not directed to an abstract idea within the meaning of Alice Corp., but are rather directed to a specific improvement to the way computers operate.  CAFC further clarified how the analysis of software claim validity under the two-step Alice Corp. test should take place.  In particular, the court ruled that not all claims directed to improvements in software are directed to an abstract idea, and thus may not need to be analyzed under the step of Alice Corp. test covering whether the claims amount to significantly more than the abstract ideaFurther, the court ruled that an invention’s ability to run on a general-purpose computer does not preclude patentability of the claims covering the invention and neither does the improvement not being defined by reference to physical components.

The Enfish decision is the second CAFC decision since Alice Corp. that upheld patentability of software patent claims under the 35 U.S.C. § 101.  While the decision may still be overturned either by an en banc CAFC decision or a Supreme Court decision, for now, the decision provides a ray of hope for software patent and patent application owners.