Software Claims Directed to Specific Improvements in Computer Operations May be "Non-Abstract"


Federal Circuit reverses determination of subject-matter ineligibility as to patent claims directed to software, vacates summary judgment of anticipation for four claims based on patentee's purposeful use of a singular indefinite article, affirms summary judgment of noninfringement for one means-plus-function claim, and remands.

Enfish's 6,151,604 and 6,163,775 patents are directed to a logical model for a "self-referential" computer database, that is, the logical model includes all data entities in a single table, with column definitions provided by rows in that same table. In contrast to the conventional "relational" model, the patented self-referential model can store all entity types in a single table, and can define the table's columns by rows in that same table.

PATENT-ELIGIBILITY: The opinion discusses the two-step Mayo/Alice inquiry, noting that in the absence of a definitive rule to determine whether a patent is directed to an abstract idea, it is sufficient to compare the claims at issue to those already found to be directed to an abstract idea. As to step one, the "directed-to" inquiry considers whether the character of the claims as a whole are directed to excluded subject matter. The opinion rejects the idea that all computer-related technology inventions—€”and specifically all software claims—are necessarily "abstract ideas" under step one. Software claims directed to "the specific asserted improvement in computer capabilities" may survive the first step of Mayo/Alice. Slip op. at 12. The district court erred in finding that Enfish's "self-referential database" claims were abstract under Mayo/Alice step 1 because the focus of the claims was to improving the way computers operate and "not on economic or other tasks for which a computer is used in its ordinary capacity." Id. Further, the district court's overall conception of Enfish's claims as being directed to "the concept of organizing information using tabular formats" was too simplistic: "[D]escribing the claims at such a high level of abstraction and untethered from the language of the claims all but ensures that the exceptions to § 101 swallow the rule." Id. at 14.

INDEFINITENESS: The opinion also rejects Microsoft's alternate ground for affirmance based on indefiniteness (as to one claim of the '604 patent), concluding that the specification taught sufficient structure (a four-step algorithm for implementing a logical table in memory) to support a means-plus-function limitation. The fact that the four-step algorithm relied in part on techniques well known in the art did not make the whole algorithm indefinite, where Microsoft did not allege that one of ordinary skill would not have understood the algorithm.

ANTICIPATION: The district court also erred in finding four claims anticipated based on a feature of Microsoft Excel 5.0. To support its anticipation finding, the district court had implicitly held that the term "a logical table" could cover an arrangement of two distinct tables on a single spreadsheet. The specification made clear, however, that the invention was limited to certain arrangements of a single table. Even though two tables appeared on one spreadsheet in the prior art, there were still two, separate tables, which did not anticipate the claim.

INFRINGEMENT: Finally, the district court did not err in granting summary judgment of noninfringement for one claim of the '604 patent. The district court assigned the correct corresponding structure (a three-step algorithm) to Enfish's means-plus-function claim. Enfish's argument that some of the steps or part of the steps construed by the district court may be optional was unsupported by the specification. Microsoft's accused product, ADO.NET, did not practice two of the three algorithm steps and the accused structure was substantially different from the disclosed structure.