Supreme Court Decision Challenges Software Patents

 
 
By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2007-05-03 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The KSR decision may not put an end to bad patents and patent trolls, but legal experts agree that at least it's a step forward in the always contentious field of software patents.

When the Supreme Court of the United States ruled for KSR in the case of KSR Intl Co. v. Teleflex Inc., it also served notice to the software industry that major changes may be afoot in both the granting and protecting of existing software patents. For several years now, software patents have frequently been seen by many as stifling innovation, granting intellectual property claims for ideas that had been around for decades and awarding the companies that hold them hundreds of millions of dollars—such as in RIM vs. NTP—even when the patents themselves have been rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Now, as Pamela Jones, editor of the intellectual property law news site Groklaw, noted, "The standout paragraph" in the decision written by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy read:
    "We build and create by bringing to the tangible and palpable reality around us new works based on instinct, simple logic, ordinary inferences, extraordinary ideas, and sometimes even genius. These advances, once part of our shared knowledge, define a new threshold from which innovation starts once more. And as progress beginning from higher levels of achievement is expected in the normal course, the results of ordinary innovation are not the subject of exclusive rights under the patent laws. Were it otherwise patents might stifle, rather than promote, the progress of useful arts."
Jones, a paralegal, observed, "The court has raised the obviousness bar, or as they probably view it put it back where the founding fathers meant it to be." Lawrence Rosen, a partner in the law firm Rosenlaw & Einschlag and well-known open-source law expert, is inclined to agree. "As of April 30, many fewer patents will be valid under the Supreme Courts newly articulated obviousness standard for patentability. Software developers and distributors are at much less risk of being sued over obvious patents."
Jim Rapoza says the patent ruling makes obvious sense. Click here to read why. Another result, according to Rosen, should be that "[t]he quality of issued software patents will rise, but there will be far fewer of them." Daniel Ravicher, attorney and the head of the Public Patent Foundation, a nonprofit legal services organization that represents the publics interests against the harms caused by the patent system, isnt quite so optimistic: "Well, what the KSR case says is one thing, while what the Federal Circuit [the pro-patent appeals court] does in response to KSR may be quite another. We know the Supreme Court will not take every patent case, so well have to wait and see what the Federal Circuit does with this new instruction." Ravicher continued, "KSR will make it easier for challengers to prove software patents are invalid for being obvious. But just because the task is easier doesnt necessarily mean more people will take up the task. Its still expensive and timely to challenge a software patent, so people need to have the right incentives to do so." Richard Fontana, counsel for the Software Freedom Law Center, which provides legal representation and other law-related services to protect and advance free and open-source software, agrees with Ravicher on this point. "KSR will make it easier for deep-pockets defendants in patent infringement cases to successfully challenge the validity of software patents," he said. "Although the KSR case itself dealt with fairly simple mechanical technology, it is peculiarly relevant to software patents, since so many software patents involve combinations of elements that themselves are easily shown to be old technology," said Fontana. "The overall effect may be a diminution in the value of patents, particularly software patents, and therefore perhaps some reduction in the amount of litigation." However, Fontana said he is "not so optimistic that we will see a slowdown in software patent applications or any improvement in the quality of issued software patents." "The problem," he said, "is that (a) patent examiners are not finding the prior art that could be used to show that most software patent claims are unpatentable, because they dont have the resources and training to know how to find and apply this prior art, and (b) patent examiners continue to be given incentives that reward them for issuing patents. "Until those two problems are remedied, I think well continue to see overbroad software patents being issued by the USPTO." In fact, "since the average value of a patent has been reduced, companies applying for patents may just reduce their patent application budgets further," Fontana said. "Patent attorneys applying for software patents today typically lack any sophisticated education in computer science or software engineering, and they are often paid only enough to spend a handful of hours drafting and prosecuting each patent application," he said. "The companies applying for software patents, therefore—some of which have hailed KSR as a great decision—are already encouraging their lawyers to procure software patents in a reckless manner. "So," Fontana concluded, "while KSR is a good decision, I dont think it will improve the software patent problem in the U.S. without further reform." Thomas Duston, IP (intellectual property) attorney and partner with Marshall Gerstein & Borun LLP in Chicago, an IP specialty firm, observed that the decision "complains that the Federal Circuit in recent years has somewhat slavishly applied its teaching, suggestion, motivation [TSM] test without commonsense reference to the knowledge and understanding that would be possessed by those of ordinary skill in the art. Unfortunately, while critical of the most rigid application of the TSM test, the Supreme Court offers little in the way of actual guidance to courts, practitioners and patentees with regard to the proper analysis to be applied in determining whether an invention is obvious." Next Page: What will change.



 
 
 
 
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is editor at large for Ziff Davis Enterprise. Prior to becoming a technology journalist, Vaughan-Nichols worked at NASA and the Department of Defense on numerous major technological projects. Since then, he's focused on covering the technology and business issues that make a real difference to the people in the industry.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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