U.S. top court wary of major change to software patent law

Mon Mar 31, 2014 1:56pm EDT
 
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By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices stepped gingerly into a raging debate over computer software on Monday, voicing concerns about vaguely defined patents but signaling they would avoid any radical change to existing law.

This may help tech companies fend off lawsuits filed by "patent trolls," defined as companies that hold patents only for the purpose of suing firms seeking to develop new products, but not as much as a broad ruling would.

For companies holding many patents, such as IBM Corp, a narrow ruling from the court would be better than a broader decision that tightened patent eligibility.

From their questions during an hour-long oral argument, the justices appeared likely to rule, as expected, that patents held by Australian company Alice Corp Pty Ltd for a computer system that facilitates financial transactions were not patent eligible. CLS Bank International, which uses similar technology, challenged the patents in 2007.

Although some of the nine justices signaled a willingness to go further and provide new guidance to lower courts that would describe exactly what types of computer-implemented inventions were patent eligible, others suggested there was no need for so broad a ruling. A ruling is expected by the end of June.

If the court were to avoid any major pronouncements, the outcome could mirror a 2010 case, Bilski v. Kappos, in which the court was expected to offer guidance on business method patents but eventually issued a relatively narrow 9-0 decision.

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Chief Justice John Roberts questioned whether a proposed test, suggested by Solicitor General Donald Verrilli on behalf of President Barack Obama's administration, would make the complex issue any clearer.   Continued...

 
People walk in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington, March 24, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst