In Tuesday’s McRO v. Bandai decision, the Federal Circuit has once again reversed a district court’s determination that a computer-implemented invention (aka “software patent”) was not patent eligible under Section 101 of the Patent Act. This continues the Federal Circuit’s recent trend of clarifying the Supreme Court’s two-step patent-eligibility test under Mayo and Alice. The first step asks whether the invention is “directed to” a patent-ineligible concept, such as an abstract idea. If so, the second step then asks whether there is an “inventive concept” that transforms the concept into a patent-eligible invention. While the Supreme Court gave little guidance on what “directed to” and “inventive concept” mean in practice, the Federal Circuit’s recent decisions have made the Mayo-Alice test far less abstract—rather ironic, given that the test itself assesses abstractness.
This past May, the Federal Circuit held in Enfish that, in the software context, the “directed to” inquiry looks at whether “the plain focus of the claims is on an improvement to computer functionality itself.” Since the database claims at issue focused on specific improvements to computer capabilities, they were not “directed to” a patent-ineligible concept under Section 101. Two months later in Bascom, the Federal Circuit stated that an “inventive concept can be found in the non-conventional and non-generic arrangement of known, conventional pieces.” And even though each software claim, related to filtering content on the internet, was “known in the art” when taken individually, the Federal Circuit held that the claims, in combination, were patent eligible because they transformed “the abstract idea of filtering content into a particular, practical application of that abstract idea.”
Adding to this recent line of cases upholding the patent-eligibility of computer-implemented inventions, the Federal Circuit’s new opinion in McRO v. Bandai sheds even more light on the Section 101 analysis under the Mayo-Alice test. The invention at issue involved automated lip-syncing for computer-generated animation, which the district court held was drafted too broadly to be patent eligible. The Federal Circuit reversed, noting that courts “must look to the claims as an ordered combination,” even under the first step of the Mayo-Alice test. The Court of Appeals thus found that the proper analytical centerpiece was “whether the claims in these patents focus on a specific means or method that improves the relevant technology.” Since the invention constituted a “combined order of specific rules that renders information into a specific format that is then used and applied to create desired results,” the Federal Circuit held it patent eligible under Section 101.
Several commentators have praised the Federal Circuit’s decision. Bob Sachs, who specializes in patentable subject matter as a partner at Fenwick & West, points out that the Federal Circuit, for the first time, has used preemption to find that the invention was not “directed to” patent-ineligible subject matter. The Federal Circuit here looked at preemption as part of the first step of the Mayo-Alice test, finding it relevant to whether the invention was “directed to” a patent-ineligible concept in the first place. As Sachs explains, the Federal Circuit “confirms Enfish’s holding that the improvement provided by the specific claim limitations can be considered” under the first step of the Mayo-Alice test. Moreover, Sachs notes that the “panel here makes clear that a demonstration of meaningful non-preemption is sufficient to establish that a claim is not ‘directed to’ an abstract idea, and thus eligible at step 1.”
Other observers, including Erich Andersen, VP and Deputy General Counsel at Microsoft, and Gene Quinn of IPWatchdog, have applauded the Federal Circuit for making the patent-eligibility analysis even more concrete in light of the Supreme Court’s rather abstract abstractness test in Mayo and Alice. If anything, the Federal Circuit here has not only built upon its prior precedents in Enfish and Bascom, it has tied them together by explaining that ordered combinations are relevant to both the first and second steps of the Mayo-Alice test. In the end, the patent eligibility of a computer-implemented invention appears far more settled than ever before–a great result for inventors of so-called “software patents.” The Federal Circuit’s decision is certainly a far cry from the supposed death-knell for “software patents” predicted by several commentators after the Supreme Court’s opinion in Alice.