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USPTO Examples Show What Passes Under Alice

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office released a list of examples applying the U.S. Supreme Court’s Alice decision to hypothetical patents, which illustrates some of the computer-related inventions that can survive challenges under the ruling restricting the eligibility of patents involving abstract ideas.

The document includes eight examples: four inventions that are eligible for a patent under Alice and four that are not. Now, there some guidance of what the patent office is looking for.

Under Alice, abstract ideas implemented using a general-purpose computer are not eligible for a patent.

Many of the examples state that ways of performing long-standing business practices on a computer are not patent-eligible, while technological innovations dealing with the way a computer functions can pass.

For example, a method of providing a secure online sales transaction is not patent-eligible because it just a computerized way of creating a contractual relationship.

“This is simply a generic recitation of a computer and a computer network performing their basic functions,” the office wrote. “The claim amounts to no more than stating create a contract on a computer and send it over a network.”

However, a method of displaying multiple merchant websites within a single page, allowing Web users to visit several stores without leaving the page, was patent-eligible.

“The claim does not recite a mathematical algorithm; nor does it recite a fundamental economic or longstanding commercial practice,” the office said. “The claim addresses a business challenge (retaining website visitors) that is particular to the Internet.”

That theme runs through many of the examples, illustrating that in order to pass muster under Alice, inventions likely need to have a component that improves the functioning of a computer, rather than simply using a computer to make an existing process run more efficiently, said Donald Daybell of Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP.

The examples of things the USPTO found to be patent-ineligible tended to be much broader than those that were found eligible and involve things that had been done without a computer for a long time.

Nevertheless, the examination of any patent application is a fact-intensive inquiry, Daybell said, so the specific examples from the USPTO have a fairly limited practical value for determining whether any future application is patent-eligible or not. So even with this guidance, it’s tough for any practitioner to know where the line is drawn.

For more information, see Law360.

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