23 December 2009

All Hail the Mighty Algorithm

As long-suffering readers of this blog will know, one of the reasons I regard software patents as dangerous is because software consists of algorithms, and algorithms are simply maths. So allowing software patents is essentially allowing patents on pure knowledge.

Against that background, this looks pretty significant:

Industries, particularly high tech, may be waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court decision, expected this coming spring, in the Bilski case to decide some fundamental questions of when you can patent business methods. But in the meantime, there’s a newly published decision from the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences that establishes a new test to determine whether a machine or manufactured article that depends on a mathematical algorithm is patentable. The ruling is a big deal because it’s one of the few precedential decisions that the BPAI issues in a given year, and it will have a direct impact on patents involving computers and software.

For a claimed machine (or article of manufacture) involving a mathematical algorithm,

1. Is the claim limited to a tangible practical application, in which the mathematical algorithm is applied, that results in a real-world use (e.g., “not a mere field-of-use label having no significance”)?
2. Is the claim limited so as to not encompass substantially all practical applications of the mathematical algorithm either “in all fields” of use of the algorithm or even in “only one field?”

If the machine (or article of manufacture) claim fails either prong of the two-part inquiry, then the claim is not directed to patent eligible subject matter.

Now, the devil is in the details, and what impact this has will depend upon its interpretation. But what I find significant is that algorithms are foregrounded: the more people concentrate on this aspect, the harder it will be to justify software patents.

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