After the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice v. CLS Bank, many in the patent community have faced frustration in trying to understand when software-related inventions are patent eligible. A recent Federal Circuit decision provides some much-needed guidance on this question.
The court in Enfish LLC v. Microsoft (Fed. Cir. 2016) disagreed with a lower court ruling that claims covering a self-referential table were patent ineligible because they were directed to an abstract idea. The court found that the claims were instead “directed to a specific improvement to the way computers operate, embodied in a self-referential table.”
The court explained, “[w]e do not read Alice to broadly hold that all improvements in computer-related technology are inherently abstract…nor do we think that claims directed to software, as opposed to hardware, are inherently abstract…[s]oftware can make non-abstract improvements to computer technology just as hardware improvements can, and sometimes improvements can be accomplished through either route.”
Further, the court determined the claims at issue were patent eligible because, unlike claims in previously decided cases which recited use of an abstract mathematical formula on any general purpose computer, or covered tasks ordinarily performed by a computer, the indexing technique embodied by the claims in Enfish was directed to a specific improvement to computer functionality – specifically the ability of a computer to perform faster searches of data than it could using a relational model.
As such, the Federal Circuit’s decision in Enfish has provided a glimmer of hope to applicants and patent holders seeking to protect software-related inventions that in some way improve the functioning of a computer.