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"Quintessential 'Do It On A Computer'" Method Found Ineligible for Patenting

In a decision that could help to define patent subject matter eligibility for those in the software space, the Federal Circuit this week shot down a University of Florida patent as drawn to an abstract idea with no additional inventive concept.

This case, University of Florida v. GE, had the Federal Circuit look at claims involving data from multiple hospital bedside machines. In the claims, the data transforms from a machine-specific format to a machine-independent format. Then, after some processing, the data appears on a graphical user interface (GUI).

The court found that this method just automates preexisting pen-and-paper methods, making it “a quintessential ‘do it on a computer’ patent." The court distinguished these facts over cases like Visual Memory LLC v. NVIDIA Corp., in which the patent gave a specific way of enhancing the functionality of a computer memory system. Such a specified way of enhancing computer function stood in contrast to a much more general claim of enhancement as in the University of Florida patent.

In addition, the patent’s own specification stated that the GUI can be any GUI, not limited to a particular arrangement or a particular data entry mechanism. Noting this, the court found that the GUI failed to carry this abstract idea into patentable territory. Interestingly, the University of Florida v. GE decision did not mention the court’s earlier Core Wireless decision. Those closely following along with software eligibility developments will recall that in that case, the court found eligibility there based on a particular arrangement of elements in a GUI.

While Alice has reshaped the landscape for software patents facing eligibility questions under section 101 of the U.S. patent statutes, University of Florida’s patent might have been ineligible even under earlier precedents. Indeed, to conclude its eligibility analysis, the court called this a case of “implementing the idea...on a generic computer,” quoting Alice but echoing earlier concepts from the much-earlier decision in Gottschalk v. Benson.

A good, specific tie-in to a particular GUI can make a software claim patent eligible, as can a specific, technical way to achieve improved computer function. But beware of oversimplification: GUIs and functional improvements aren’t magic, universal cures for any eligibility ailment.

Eric Myers