Supreme Court tosses some software patents

The Supreme Court on Thursday dealt a blow to some software patents, ruling that they cannot cover abstract ideas carried out on a computer.

“Merely requiring generic computer implementation fails to transform that abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a unanimous decision.

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The case revolved around a dispute between Alice Corp. and CLS Bank International. While Alice claimed CLS violated its patents, the bank argued that the patents should be invalidated because they merely apply to computers to an abstract idea.

The court agreed with CLS Bank.

“If a patent’s recitation of a computer amounts to a mere instruction to ‘implemen[t]’ an abstract idea ‘on ... a computer,’ " Thomas wrote, "that addition cannot impart patent eligibility.”

If Alice’s argument had been upheld, Thomas wrote, that would mean that “an applicant could claim any principle of the physical or social sciences by reciting a computer system configured to implement the relevant concept,” the opinion continued.

The Supreme Court avoided ruling too broadly on patents involving abstract ideas, noting that some patent applications that incorporate abstract ideas may be novel enough to warrant patentability.

“We tread carefully” in the ruling on Alice’s patents, “lest it swallow all of patent law,” Thomas wrote.

The ruling comes after patent reform has stalled in Congress.

Advocates for patent reform have argued that many software patents are too broad and vague, allowing “patent trolls” to profit by suing and threatening to sue over other companies’ uses of technologies that shouldn’t be patented.