Focusing Questions of Software Patent Eligibility on the Specific Technological Solution and Specific Technological Problem Being SolvedThe U.S. Supreme Court presented a two-step framework for determining whether a claim contains patentable subject matter under the abstract idea exception to 35 U.S.C. § 101 in Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l. According to the framework erected in Alice, one must first “determine whether the claims at issue are directed to one of those patent-ineligible concepts,” such as an abstract idea. Then, if so, one must determine whether “additional elements transform the nature of the claim into a patent-eligible application.” Despite the Supreme Court’s Alice decision, Alice and its progeny have yet to provide a consistent and specific definition and/or test for what exactly is an abstraction under 35 U.S.C. § 101. As a result, the Federal Circuit has struggled to consistently apply Alice to computer software, and the law continues to be in flux.

Ancora Technologies, Inc. vs. HTC America, Inc. appears to be an attempt by the Federal Circuit to provide a test to determine whether the claimed computer-related subject matter is an abstraction. As noted by the Federal Circuit at page 11 of Ancora, the test provided in Ancora relates to step one of the Alice analysis. In short, Ancora requires that software claims identify the specific technological technique being used to solve a specific technological problem. Under this analysis, the Federal Circuit in Ancora held that the claims in the Ancora Technologies’ U.S. Patent 6,411,941 (the “‘941 patent”) were specific enough to pass step one of the Alice test. The Federal Circuit thus reversed the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington’s ruling that the claims of the ‘941 patent were directed to patent ineligible subject matter under Alice.

Claims of 941 and Technological Background

Ancora Technologies, Inc.’s ‘941 patent describes and claims methods of preventing a computer from running unauthorized software. Specifically, claim 1 of the ‘941 patent recites:

  1. A method of restricting software operation within a license for use with a computer including an erasable, non-volatile memory area of a BIOS of the computer, and a volatile memory area; the method comprising the steps of:

selecting a program residing in the volatile memory,

using an agent to set up a verification structure in the erasable, non-volatile memory of the BIOS, the verification structure accommodating data that includes at least one license record,

verifying the program using at least the verification structure from the erasable non-volatile memory of the BIOS, and

acting on the program according to the verification.

Of particular importance to the Federal Circuit’s analysis in Ancora is the verification structure stored in the erasable, non-volatile memory of the BIOS. BIOS memory is typically utilized to store start-up programs in a computer. However, this is not how the BIOS memory is being used in the ‘941 patent. Instead, the ‘941 patent teaches using the BIOS memory to store a verification structure that can be used to determine whether the program stored in volatile memory is licensed to run on that computer. The innovation taught by the ‘941 patent thus lies in the interaction between the verification structure stored in BIOS memory and the program that is stored in another memory structure to check for permission to run the program. This was a new and specific use of the BIOS memory. According to the ‘941 patent, using the BIOS memory instead of other computer memory makes it much harder to hack the verification structure because successfully hacking the BIOS memory would render the computer inoperable. The teachings of the ‘941 patent therefore solved a particular technological problem.

Federal Circuit’s Analysis

The Federal Circuit’s analysis is interesting in that it attempts to synthesize many of the Federal Circuit’s post-Alice computer-related decisions. The Federal Circuit focuses the question of abstraction in computer-related technologies by stating:

In cases involving software innovations, this inquiry often turns on whether the claims focus on ‘the specific asserted improvement in computer capabilities . . . or, instead, on a process that qualifies as an ‘abstract idea’ for which computers are invoked merely as a tool.’ Ancora at pg. 8 (citing Finjan, Inc. v. Blue Coat System, Inc., 879 F.3d 1299, 1303 (Fed. Cir. 2018) (external citations omitted)).

The Federal Circuit begins its analysis by characterizing its holding in Enfish. The Federal Circuit in Ancora describes Enfish as holding that the patent claims at issue were not directed to an abstract idea. According to Ancora, the claimed self-referential tables in Enfish improved the way that computers operated and handled data, which enabled programmers to construct databases in new ways and with less configuration prior to launch.

The Federal Circuit then moves onto its holding in Visual Memory LLC v. NVIDIA Corp. According to the Federal Circuit in Ancora, the claims in Visual Memory were directed to an improved memory system that configured operational characteristics of a computer’s cache memory to accommodate different types of processors without compromising performance. Thus, the patent in Visual Memory was characterized by the Federal Circuit as being specifically directed to an improved computer memory system, not to the abstract idea of categorical data storage.

Next, the Federal Circuit characterizes its holding in Core Wireless Licensing S.A.R.L. v. LG Electronics, Inc. The claims in Core Wireless were directed to a method for making websites easier to navigate on a small-screen device. According to the Federal Circuit in Ancora, the claims were not directed to the abstract idea of indexing information but rather directed to a specific type of index for a specific type of user and thus were not abstract.

Finally, the Federal Circuit discusses its holding in Data Engine Technologies LLC v. Google LLC. According to the Federal Circuit in Ancora, the claims in Data Engine were a specific technological solution in the art of electronic spreadsheets. The claimed method in Data Engine solved the navigation difficulties of prior art spreadsheets by providing a highly intuitive, user-friendly interface with familiar notebook tabs for navigating the three-dimensional worksheet environment. In Data Engine, the court distinguished other cases in which the claims were held to be directed to abstract subject matter, such as displaying a graphical user interface, or collecting, manipulating and organizing information. According to the court in Ancora, the claims in Data Engine recited a specific structure of notebook tabs within a spreadsheet display that performs the specific function of navigating within a three-dimensional spreadsheet. This provided the specificity required to find that the claims were patent eligible.

The Federal Circuit in Ancora then asserts that claim 1 of the ‘941 patent is not directed to an abstract idea based on the precedents of the aforementioned cases. According to the Federal Circuit, preventing a computer from using a program without authorization is not abstract “if done by a specific technique that departs from earlier approaches to solve a specific computer problem” (Ancora at pg. 10). Claim 1 of the ‘941 patent specifically identifies how a functionality improvement is effectuated. More specifically, claim 1 recites a structure containing a license record (i.e., verification structure) stored in a particular modifiable portion of the computer’s BIOS memory and that structure is used for verification by interacting with the distinct computer memory that contains the computer program to be verified. The technological problem solved is the vulnerability of license-authorization software to hacking. The Federal Circuit in Ancora thus concludes that claim 1 of the ‘941 patent is not abstract under step 1 of Alice because “[i]n short, claim 1 of the ‘941 patent is directed to a solution to a computer-functionality problem: an improvement in computer functionality that has ‘the specificity required to transform a claim from one claiming only a result to one claiming a way of achieving it’” (Ancora at pg. 11, quoting SAP America, Inc. vs. InvestPic, LLC).

Key Takeaway

The court’s holding in Ancora is a reminder to patent prosecutors that vague and generic software claims are unlikely to pass the Alice test. Whenever writing a software patent, patent counsel should be able to identify the specific technological technique being used and the particular technological problem being solved by the technique. The specific technological technique should be worked into the claims, and the particular technological problem being solved should be discussed in the specification in detail. Certainly, identifying the electronic components and working these electronic components into the claims will go a long way to ensure patent eligibility. If not, the claims should at least identify the virtual “structures” produced by the software in order to solve the particular technological problem, like in Data Engine. Software claims that merely recite actions (e.g., the processing of information) performed by a computer are not likely to pass step one of the Alice test under Ancora.