Is the Supreme Court About to Let Others Steal Your Code?

March 19th, 2014 | Articles, Hiring Resources, Industry News, Job Search | No Comments »

supreme court software patents

Software patents are about to become the talk of the IT community, again.  On Monday, March 31st, the US Supreme court will begin hearing the case Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank, which will essentially set the precedent for all patent infringement lawsuits to come, or completely do away with them once and for all.

What are Alice Corp. and CLS Bank and why should we care?

In 1992, US patent 5,970,479 was filed to secure the “methods and apparatus relating to the formulation and trading of risk management contracts”.  This patent would eventually be issued in 1999 to cover the financial trading systems of Alice Corporation (Alice).  They would go on to file for three similar patents over the next five years.

In 2002, Alice Corp. would claim that CLS Bank International and CLS Services LTD (CLS Bank) were implementing technology that was similar to theirs, thus infringing upon an already established patent.

CLS Bank responded by taking their case to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, claiming that Alice’s patents were invalid and thus never infringed upon.  The case eventually made its way to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  Now, it has finally progressed to the Supreme Court.

The ramifications of dissolving patent protections

Most users seamlessly surf the Internet and open applications with little thought as to what goes into creating them. When they need something, they open an app.  It’s as simple as that.  Programmers, on the other hand, know that it is their countless lines of code that comprise the fabric of every software application.  But what will happy when your code is no longer protected by patent claims?

Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank poses the question of “Whether claims to computer-implemented inventions – including claims to systems and machines, processes, and items of manufacture – are directed to patent-eligible subject matter.”

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of CLS Bank, they will effectively unravel numerous patents that have been filed over the last two decades, setting a precedent that lines of code cannot obtain copyright protection.  Some of the code used by app developers and companies across the US will then become fair game.

An innovation killer

Programmers and IT experts have been debating this topic for years.  As of today, no clear conclusion has been reached as to the ultimate effect that this decision will bring.  It all comes down to innovation.

Those in favor of eliminating software patents highlight the damage that patent trolls (those who hoard software patents and sue any company that comes close to scratching the surface of their copyrighted code) do to innovation.  They claim that companies spend millions every year fighting these lawsuits or settling outside of court – this is money that could be used to spur further innovation.

Proponents of software patents assert that they are necessary to protect the innovations of hardworking coders, thus encouraging them to invent new technologies without the fear of losing their ideas and code to their competitors.

The right decision

The case will be decided on the basis of the meaning of 35 U.S.C. § 101 as interpreted by this Court, which states, “Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.”

This case law has long been held as the definition of protecting physical inventions, not conceptual code. So, what do you think?  Should the US Supreme Court rule in favor for or against software patents?

By Kevin Withers

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