The Federal Circuit Confirms That Software Is Not Inherently Abstract and Still Patentable

Takeaway: The Federal Circuit finally confirms that there are types of software that are not inherently abstract, especially if the claims at issue were directed to specific features that improves the way a computer operates.

In Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp (Fed. Cir. 2016), the Federal Circuit reversed, for the first time, a district court’s summary judgment that the patents-at-suit were invalid as ineligible under 35 U.S.C § 101 since the Supreme Court’s 2014 Alice decision.

The patents-at-suit were U.S. Patents No. 6,151,604 and No. 6,163,775, both of which related to a logical model for a computer database.  More specifically, the patents describe a table wherein the rows correspond to records and columns correspond to attributes of the record, such that this table-based model is “self-referential” because all data entries are maintained in a single table.

The California district court found that the patents-at-suit were directed to an abstract idea of “organizing information using tabular formats” or more specifically, “storing, organizing, and retrieving memory in a logical table.”  The Federal Circuit held that the district court improperly “oversimplified the self-referential component of the claims,” and that “the claims are not directed to just any form of storing tabular data, but to the specific ‘self-referential’ features of the database model claimed in the patents” that were “a specific improvement to the way computers operate, embodied in the self-referential table.”

The Federal Circuit further found that the claims at issue were directed to “a specific implementation of a solution to a problem in the software arts.” Thus, the court ended the analysis at the first part of the two-part Alice test, because it concluded that the patents were not directed to an abstract idea without providing an inventive concept sufficient to transform the claims into a patent-eligible invention.

The court further commented that the second step is for less clear cases wherein “an analysis of whether there are arguably concrete improvements in the recited computer technology could take place” to show that the patents are more than an abstract idea.