Most People Are Fuzzy On IP: An Intellectual Property Primer
Written as a guest post for Lawyers and Liquor, hosted by the inimitable Boozy Barrister. If you have comments, please consider posting them on the original post, here: http://www.lawyersandliquor.com/2018/01/guest-post-most-people-are-fuzzy-on-ip-an-intellectual-property-primer/
I’m Marc Whipple, an intellectual property attorney. I blog at Legal Inspiration and you can find me on Twitter as LegalInspire. I’m licensed to practice law in the state of Illinois and I am a registered patent attorney, which means I can appear before the United States Patent and Trademark Office on behalf of inventors wishing to file patent applications. I’ve been practicing law for over twenty years and I like to think I’m starting to get the hang of it. That said, I am a lawyer, but I am not your lawyer. Nothing in this post constitutes legal advice. Questions in the comments (or by other means) are welcome but like any lawyer I will not give specific legal advice to people who are not my clients. Okay? Okay.
The gracious host of Lawyers and Liquor asked me if I could walk his readers through the basics of “intellectual property” law, which is, in general, the law of patents, copyrights, and trademarks. These matters are relevant to, well, pretty much everything you do, especially if you’re part of this Internet thing. And most people are a little fuzzy on them. But fear not! I am an expert on fuzzy subjects. In fact, my first patent was for a fuzzy subject. (I am completely serious: https://patents.google.com/patent/US5735521A/en.) So let’s see if we can keep this from turning into a complete furball, shall we?
First of all, if you want to see some fancy-schmancy PowerPoint presentations on the topic, you can look at this post on my blog. If you prefer your information imparted by helpful robots, you can look at this one. But for now let’s just hit the basics.
First: Intellectual property, unlike real property (i.e. land) or personal property (e.g. your computer) consists of a bundle of rights which are not tied to any physical object. They can control what you can and can’t do with physical objects, but they are independent of the objects. So if you have a drawing that you had somebody else make for you, what you have is a drawing. The copyright in that drawing does not necessarily belong to you, even if it’s the only copy, even if you paid the artist to draw it, even if you told them what to draw. The same is true of patentable inventions, etc. I know this is a strange idea, but please remember it. (If strange ideas bother you, I’m not sure how you ended up here in the first place, but that’s not important now.) Furthermore these rights are all negative. That is, all intellectual property rights do is give the holder the right to tell someone else they can’t do something. They do not give anybody the right, or the obligation, to do anything.
Second: For practical purposes, the three main types of intellectual property (patents, copyrights, trademarks) have nothing to do with each other. A trademark is not a copyright is not a patent. If a particular product is patented, contains copyrighted subject matter, and is sold in association with a trademark, the patent, the copyright, and the trademark could all be owned by different people or entities. Or there could be multiple patents, copyrights, and trademarks associated with any given product, all owned by different people. This gets complicated fast. So never assume that because you (think) you know something about a copyright associated with something, that you know anything about its trademark status, etc.
Third: For the most part, intellectual property does not cross national boundaries. A US patent cannot be enforced in China, a Canadian trademark cannot be enforced in Mexico. HOWEVER, he said in bold italic underlined all-caps, in many cases is not difficult to use intellectual property valid in one country to obtain similar rights in another country. And if you are infringing in such a way that people from a country where the the rights are valid are harmed, you may be reached by the holder of the rights even if you are not in such a country. Here there be monsters.
Okay, now that that’s clear (Ha!) let’s talk about three different kinds of intellectual property, or “IP” for short (insert Bart Simpson phone call joke here.)
A patent is the exclusive right to practice an invention. An invention is a novel and unobvious improvement upon the prior art in the field of the invention. In the US, any “process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof,” is patentable, and can be protected by what is called a “utility patent.” (Most other countries have similar legal provisions.) The other kinds of patents are “design patents,” about which more later, and “plant patents,” regarding which deponent sayeth not. Unless otherwise specified, “patent” usually means “utility patent.”
The important thing about patents is that to get one, your invention must be novel and not obvious. Novel just means that no substantially similar machine, etc, can already be known to the public. You can’t patent something we already know about. The reason for this is that a patent is essentially a reward from society: the fundamental principle is, “Teach us how to do something we didn’t know how to do before, and we will give you a monopoly on it for a limited time.” There’s no benefit to society from telling us how to do something if we already know how to do it, so no patent for you.
“Obvious” is a word that just doesn’t mean the same thing to a patent lawyer that it does to a normal person. It does NOT mean that your invention isn’t clever, or that it wasn’t hard to come up with, or that it’s not a a huge improvement on the way things are usually done. The best way I know of to explain when something is “obvious” for patent purposes is to put it like this: If a person of ordinary skill in the relevant art knew every relevant public reference in the history of the world, would it be trivial for them to combine some of those references and arrive at your invention? If so, it’s obvious. If it’s obvious, we already know how to do it. No patent for you.
Once you obtain a patent, which is an expensive, complex and perilous journey, as I said you have the exclusive right to practice it. Which means that anybody else who does practice it is infringing your patent and you can sue them for damages and get an order from a court to make them stop. It doesn’t mean you have to practice it: you can stash it under your bed for the patent’s twenty-year term if you want.
It also doesn’t mean you have to stop others from practicing it. If you want you can release it into the public domain. You can simply ignore infringers. Whatevs. Many companies and organizations stockpile what are called “defensive patents,” which are patents they don’t intend to enforce, but obtained simply to keep others from doing so and/or so that they would have ammunition for a counter-suit if they themselves were sued for infringing similar patents.
Similarly, there are no Patent Police. (Nor Copyright Police, nor Trademark Police.) The only person who can do anything about patent infringement is the patent holder. This is an important IP general principle: if the holder of the IP doesn’t know about an infringement, or doesn’t care to do anything about it, that’s that. That might not be smart (especially for trademarks, see below) but it is absolutely and always the case. (Except for consumer protection matters, which are outside the scope of this post.)
I should also say two words about design patents, which are weird hybrids of copyright and patent. If you want more details, you can read this post. But in general, a design patent is a patent on the ornamental design of a useful object. For instance, one could obtain a design patent on the unique design of a costume, even if one couldn’t patent the costume itself because we all know about costumes already, buster. Anybody who wants to make a costume can still make a costume, but that can’t make THAT costume during the design patent’s fifteen year term because of course they have different terms from regular patents. They still have to be novel and non-obvious, kinda sorta, but it’s much easier and cheaper to get them.
A copyright is the exclusive right to distribute and use original creative works. Again, these are essentially rewards from society: “Publish your art so that we can benefit from it, and in exchange we will give you a monopoly on it for a limited time.” The bar for getting a copyright is much lower than the one for patents: the work must simply be original. In the US and most other countries, copyright attaches to a work as soon as it is reduced to “tangible form.” This includes bits on a hard drive, by the way. The US is somewhat unusual in that to actually enforce a copyright, the copyright has to be registered with the US Copyright Office, which is part of the Library of Congress, because of course it is. But the copyright itself exists the moment the work is created.
Unlike patents, it is entirely possible for multiple people to have copyrights in substantially similar works so long as they didn’t copy them. (This is called “parallel development” or “independent re-creation.”) So if I draw a picture of a badger, and you draw a picture of a badger, even if they’re nearly identical we both have good copyrights as long as I can’t prove you copied my picture.
Once you have a copyright, you have the exclusive right to use, publish, copy, and distribute the copyrighted work. This includes making derivative works (works based on or incorporating the copyrighted work) which are not transformative enough to qualify as new and independent works. Once you sell an authorized copy, under most circumstances a legal principle called the First Sale Doctrine means that you can’t control what the rightful owner does with the physical copy they lawfully possess. However, it doesn’t mean they can create new derivative works with it, unless that was part of the license when you sold the copy. (Spoiler: It probably wasn’t.)
Unlike patents (mostly) there are circumstances where other people are allowed to use your copyrighted works even without your permission. The most common and most often misunderstood of these is the Fair Use Defense. Before I even get into what makes a Fair Use Defense, I want you to notice that last word, defense. When you allege a Fair Use, what you are doing is saying, “Yes, I did infringe your copyright, but it’s a Fair Use so I’m allowed.” In other words, you are admitting that you infringed. This is fraught with peril. If your Fair Use Defense fails, you are screwed. This is not a good position to be in. So please consider this before using something just because you think you have a Fair Use Defense.
If you want the details of Fair Use, you can read this post. In summary, there are four factors, plus the Zeroth Factor, which determine whether a use is a Fair Use. They have to do with the relative harm the use does to the copyright holder’s rights and how strong they were in the first place. If you don’t want to read the linked post, please at least remember this: “I didn’t charge,” and “I gave them credit” do not constitute a Fair Use. Period.
Trademarks are things which function to indicate the source of a good or service in the marketplace. In a sense, trademarks are more about consumer protection than they are about the rights of the individual mark holders. Unlike patents and copyrights, trademark rights are related to the way other people see the property: if the market associates your mark with your goods and services, you can exclude others from using confusingly similar marks in association with similar goods and services. If it doesn’t, you can’t. Even the term is different: patents and copyrights have limited terms (on the order of 20 years for patents, and on the order of 100 years for copyrights.) Trademarks remain effective as long as the holder uses them and they maintain their association in the mind of the marketplace: when either of those things stops, so does the term of the trademark. (Although not RIGHT THAT INSTANT.)
Trademarks are usually words, short phrases, or logos, but anything which can reasonably form an association with a good or service can be a trademark, including a color, a series of musical notes, or possibly even a scent. As long as the association can be shown, it can be argued that a trademark exists.
It should also be noted that consumers don’t have to know what the ultimate source of the goods and services are, only that the mark indicates a consistent source. “Budweiser” brand beer is brewed by Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV, a Belgian transnational beverage and brewing company. Anybody who drinks beer knows what Budweiser beer is like. Some of them may know it’s brewed by a company called something like “Anheuser-Busch.” Very few of them probably know it’s brewed by a giant Belgian conglomerate, especially since they try so hard to play up its American origins. Doesn’t matter. So long as people can reasonably rely on getting the same beer-sperience every time they drink a beer labeled “Budweiser,” “Budweiser” is the trademark for that beer.
As is probably obvious, trademarks are infringed when someone uses the trademark, or something confusingly similar to it, to market similar goods and services. There is a concept called “dilution,” “blurring,” or “tarnishment” that can make this a little muddy: the holders of famous marks can sometimes argue that use of the marks even for different goods and services would be unfair to consumers and/or diminish the value of the brand. Anheuser-Busch InBev doesn’t make cars (that I know of,) yet if you tried to sell Budweiser brand automobiles, they might have something to say about it. And even if they didn’t win, they could make you ring up enough legal fees to make you sorry you tried. So don’t do that.
Other than famous marks, the only time you have to worry about infringing trademarks is if you could cause confusion in the marketplace. So if you make it reasonably clear that your use is not associated with the brand, you’re fine. Of course that sounds simple in theory but in practice arguments about what constitutes a likelihood of confusion have put a whole lot of lawyer’s kids through college. If you have questions about what constitutes a non-confusing use, you should ask a trademark attorney.
Trademark holders are notoriously vicious about protecting the value of their marks: that’s because, as we learned earlier, they only have value if the association is maintained. So they will often react very aggressively to even the possibility that someone is infringing their marks in a way that might weaken them. Losing an association is called “genericization,” and it is the death of trademarks. When a term becomes generic for a type of good or service, it can’t be a trademark. For example, “xeroxing” becoming the generic term for photocopying. If the public associates “xerox” with all photocopiers, Xerox Corporation can’t claim a unique association with their photocopiers.
For the same reason, you can’t register generic words as trademarks in the first place: allowing you the exclusive use of the word “egg” to sell eggs would unfairly disadvantage all other competitors, so you can’t claim a trademark for Egg brand eggs. There is a whole continuum of trademark strength from “generic,” which can’t be used, to “descriptive,” to “suggestive,” to “fanciful,” to “arbitrary.” The further down that list you are, the stronger your mark.
4) Trade Secrets, Et Cetera
Frankly, trade secrets are beyond the scope of this post, but they are often referred to as a fourth main type of IP, so I thought I’d mention them. Trade Secrets are just that – secrets that are valuable in trade. In other words, if information provides a competitive advantage if and only if it is kept secret, it could be a trade secret and therefore protectable by law. Disclosing trade secrets when you have an obligation not to do it can get you sued and, in extreme cases, arrested. The purpose of non-disclosure agreements, commercially, is to protect trade secrets. Once a trade secret is disclosed, it becomes worthless, at least legally.
This is why you can never, EVER have a trade secret that is protected by patent, copyright, or trademark: you have to disclose inventions and artistic works to get a patent or a copyright, and if the public doesn’t know about your mark, it can’t be a trademark because no association can possibly form. Trade secrets can be used to protect the way you make products associated with trademarks: the best example is the “Eleven Herbs and Spices” which go into Kentucky Fried Chicken’s original recipe. If nobody knows how it’s made, the making process is a trade secret even if everybody knows about the end result.
There are other legal concepts which might be bundled under “IP law,” for instance “trade dress,” which is related to, but not the same as, a trademark. Or “Moral Rights,” which are mainly important in Europe and other places full of Commies, but which have rough equivalents in US law. But these are the basics. I hope you found this post helpful (or at least interesting.) Questions are welcome either in the comments, on Twitter, or by email.
Thanks for reading!
So last Wednesday (March 22, 2017, if you’re joining us late) the Supreme Court of the United States issued its decision in Star Athletica, LLC v. Varsity Brands, Inc, et al.
And a very small, highly specialized subset of LawTwitter went nuts.
Ron Coleman collected some great examples on his post Rah Rah Raw. (Trademark attorneys: Clever names on demand.) On the one hand, we have experienced copyright/fashion lawyers saying things like this:
— Staci Riordan (@staciriordan) March 22, 2017
On the other hand, we have intellectual property law professors saying things like this:
Huh? The Court overturned decades of circuit court cases without comment and did away with a central & widely accepted feature of doctrine. https://t.co/Q9ypR3FSfz
— Chris Buccafusco (@cjbuccafusco) March 22, 2017
If it’s not clear, that was a response to the prior tweet. Or even things like this:
Everything is now copyrightable, even something patentable. Horrible day 4 copyright law w #SupremeCourt decision on cheerleading uniforms
— Jeanne Fromer (@JeanneFromer) March 22, 2017
…when they really ought to know better. 140 character limit or not, that seems a bit over the top. But is it? Let’s review the decision.
First, a very brief summary of patent law vs. copyright law. Patents protect useful inventions. Copyrights protect artistic creations. In a sense, patents “trump” copyrights, in that you cannot use a copyright to protect a useful invention. (For instance, you cannot copyright the shape of an improved airplane propeller and claim nobody else can make a similar propeller. That’s what patents are for.) Patents are harder to get than copyrights, have much shorter terms, and cost a lot more both to obtain and to enforce. On the other hand, you can usually make a lot more money in a patent infringement suit than in a copyright infringement suit, there are fewer defenses to patent infringement than copyright infringement, and defenses to patent infringement are harder to raise.
Just to make things conf… I mean, interesting there are also what are known as design patents. These protect the “ornamental design of useful articles.” They are sort of a bizarre hybrid of patents and copyrights that have some of the worst (and best) features of both. They are outside the scope of the decision, but keep in mind that they exist when discussing this area of the law, if for no other reason than that “design” does not mean quite the same thing to a (design) patent lawyer that it does to a copyright lawyer, and I think that causes some of the confusion we are seeing.
Speaking of designs, in this context, designs are the key. Both parties in the Varsity Brands case make cheerleader uniforms, including non-team-specific uniforms with a variety of geometric designs on them. Here are examples:
Those are uniforms for which Varsity Brands, Inc. (the original plaintiff, which is why I call the case Varsity Brands, hereafter “Varsity”) had registered copyrights. Star Athletica, LLC (hereafter, “Star”) made some competing uniforms which allegedly infringed said copyrights, and Varsity sued Star for copyright infringement.
Please allow me first and foremost to direct your attention to Footnote 1 on Page 11 of the main opinion:
1We do not today hold that the surface decorations are copyrightable. We express no opinion on whether these works are sufficiently original to qualify for copyright protection, see Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U. S. 340, 358–359 (1991), or on whether any other prerequisite of a valid copyright has been satisfied.
Failure to read/understand/accept the text of that footnote is, in my opinion, behind most of the more sensational tweets/comments such as Professor Fromer’s supra. The assertion that you can now slap a copyrighted design on any old thing and claim the thing itself enjoys the protection of copyright meets its first and highest hurdle in the fact that the design must in and of itself be copyrightable. The opinion is not addressing the question of copyrightability of the underlying design. (I myself, though not familiar with the particulars of the registrations, find them somewhat dubious in that regard.) It is assuming arguendo that the design is copyrighted, and resolving an old and complex circuit split on the legal ramifications of attaching a copyrighted design to a useful article.
And yes, there was a complex split. I have seen people claiming as many as six different tests existed for determining when useful article limitation overcame copyright protection. Many of them considered, to some degree, how functional the article was as an independent factor. And this is not a new idea. It is an old principle, recently re-affirmed in TrafFix Devices, Inc. v. Marketing_Displays, Inc. that you cannot use trade dress to create “perpetual patents.” Similarly, in Kohler Co. v. Moen, Incorporated the same rule was applied to trademarks. All of the tests attempting to do the same with copyright were created by intelligent judges and it is not my intent to dismiss or belittle them.
But I think that Occam’s Razor (the original, not the newfangled version) is very relevant here: “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.” The intent of copyrights is to protect artistic works (henceforth I will not call them “designs.”) Using functionality as an independent test, in the case of artistic works applied to useful articles, is adding an unnecessary entity. And asking questions about intent versus perception or relative economic factors, as some of the tests did, is definitely adding unnecessary entities.
As a simple example, Justice Breyer’s dissent wants to apply a somewhat different approach:
Can we extract those features as copyrightable design works standing alone, without bringing along, via picture or design, the dresses of which they constitute a part? (Dissent, page 10.)
However, as the main opinion points out, not only does this lead to implausible results (You can’t copyright a square canvas: does this mean any painting made on one can’t be copyrighted?) but it imposes a requirement not found in the Copyright Act. As the first paragraph of the syllabus says:
The Copyright Act of 1976 makes “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural features” of the “design of a useful article” eligible for copyright protection as artistic works if those features “can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” 17 U. S. C. §101.
There are two “entities,” if you will:
- Can you identify the artistic work separately?
- Can it exist independently of the useful article?
In Varsity Brands, the answer to both questions is clearly yes. The artistic work is the pattern of lines and figures. We could, with a really sharp knife, take the top layer of fabric off and create an independent work without destroying or limiting the usefulness of the underlying article in any way. How artistic it would be is a separate question, but if this:
…is a prized exhibit of one of the world’s great art galleries, who are we to say that Varsity’s works are unworthy of a little protection?
In any event, Justice Breyer’s proposed test, just like all the other tests, includes new entities which are neither necessary nor present in the statute. The test set forth in the opinion puts the burden exactly where the statute set it all along, and just as importantly, where the underlying principle of copyright protection would reasonably set it: on the independent existence and originality of the artistic work. Once they are established the “canvas” upon which artistic work rests, be it an actual canvas, a t-shirt, or a cheerleading uniform, matters not.
So what does all this mean to practitioners on the ground?
Going forward, this test will put a lot more emphasis back on the fundamentals of copyrightability and the doctrines governing it. Copyrightability is a mixed question of fact and law, heavily fact-dependent. Principles of copyrightability determination such as scènes à faire, the merger doctrine, and even the basic requirement of minimal artistic creativity set forth in Feist are untouched by the decision. These principles will form the basis for defense of copyright infringement allegations involving useful articles, rather than elaborate and circuit-dependent tests regarding how the functionality affects the copyright protection afforded the copyright owner.
Likewise, when the useful article itself is ornamental, preemption by the principles of design patent law will still come into play. If the ornamental design and the useful object are irretrievably combined, only design patent protection will be available. And that distinction will still be available as a defense to any claim of copyright infringement in the article as a whole.
For an example of how that could apply to fashion, consider the work of Tomoko Nakamichi:
In the case of clothing such as that made by Ms. Nakamichi, the artistic work is usually not going to be any individual decoration, but rather the article of clothing as a whole. If you remove the “artistic” parts, there is almost nothing useful left. Part of that is the non-two-dimensional nature of the artistic work. You will note that the Varsity Brands opinion talks a lot about applying two and three-dimensional artworks to useful articles. But here the subcomponents are mechanically integrated into the article itself, and removing them would cause the article to be less useful. Distinctions like this will become more important with the alternative tests that existed before Varsity Brands no longer available.
Relatedly, copyright law has an extensive body of doctrine as to how much of a copyrighted artwork must be copied to create an infringement and how much modification an alleged infringer must perform before the alleged infringing work is no longer a copy or an infringing derivative work. Those principles still apply, full force, to any allegation of copyright infringement related to a useful article under Varsity Brands. Along with standard copyrightability defenses and patent/design patent preemption, these provide accused infringers substantial protection from the tsunami of liability some commenters are predicting in the wake of Varsity Brands.
I hope you found this post educational. Even more importantly, to the extent you may have been worried about a sudden surge in potential liability on behalf of creators I hope it has reassured you somewhat. If readers have any questions or comments, I would be delighted to hear them. Thanks for reading!
Software patents are a pretty confusing topic, and that’s if you’re a patent attorney who understands software. If you’re not, it goes way beyond confusing. The situation has been confused since the Supreme Court ruled in a case called Bilski v. Kappos, in which it basically said software patents were okay, unless they weren’t. That caused some problems. So, ever helpful, more recently the Supreme Court ruled on a case called Alice Corp v. CLS Bank International, which could be read as saying that software patents aren’t okay, except when they are. So. That clears that up, right?
Okay. More details are in order.
The problem, fundamentally, is that you can only get a patent for what patent lawyers call patentable subject matter. Ideas, by definition, are not patentable subject matter. (Nor are they artistic creations, which is why, to oversimplify somewhat, you can neither patent nor copyright an “idea.”) The laws of nature, logic, and mathematics are, likewise, not patentable subject matter. To be patentable subject matter something must be a “process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter.” We usually refer to patents for a process as “method” patents, in that one patents a method which comprises (“comprises” is how patent lawyers say “is made of, consists of, or otherwise is composed of”) a series of specific steps which arrive at a specific result. Software patents are by definition method or process patents: a patent on a machine which is incidentally run by software is not a software patent: it’s a machine (or device) patent.
Many patent lawyers, including the author, will usually include claims on a machine which runs software which embodies the method in a patent application as well as the method itself, to try to obtain the broadest possible protection (and in case later the Supreme Court just says, “You know what? Software patents. Just not okay, period.”) But in the end it’s about the method.
So Alice (You thought I forgot, didn’t you?) set forth a new test which we are supposed to use to evaluate whether a particular method, or software incorporating it, is patentable subject matter. Or rather, it stated that a test it had previously established to determine whether a “law of nature” was patentable subject matter applied to method patents generally. (This case was Mayo Medical Laboratories, et al. v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc.) Here are the elements:
First, does the patent claim an abstract idea, like an algorithm, that is entirely separable from any physical embodiment? For software patents, the answer to this is almost always going to be “yes.” Which means the second part of the test applies.
In the second step we try to find out whether the patent adds to the abstract idea”something extra” that embodies an “inventive concept.” If there is not, then the claim does not address patentable subject matter, and the patent fails. If it does, then we go into the normal patent tests of novelty (Is this already known to the world?) and unobviousnes (Would a person of ordinary skill in the relevant art consider this an obvious solution to the problem being addressed?)
Here are a few comments the Supreme Court made to try to make this clearer:
- A mere instruction to implement an abstract idea on a computer “cannot impart patent eligibility.”
- “Stating an abstract idea ‘while adding the words “apply it”‘ is not enough for patent eligibility.”
- “Nor is limiting the use of an abstract idea to a particular technological environment.”
So the question of the hour is, is whatever you, the intrepid software developer, wants to patent an abstract idea, and if so, have you come up with an “inventive concept” which makes it patentable?
Spoiler: It very likely is, and you very likely have not. I hate to be a downer, but them’s the odds. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask a patent attorney to review your invention, nor does it mean that they will automatically tell you it’s not patentable. But prepare yourself for a negative response, and then anything else will be a pleasant surprise.
How do you know whether you have added an “inventive concept?” In the context of software patents, this seems to be evolving in the direction of a “technological improvement,” which of course seems to be somewhat redundant with the “novelty” requirement, but nobody said this has to make sense. Here’s a very, very rough rule of thumb: if your invention performs some task in a way which is different from the way in which that task has historically been done, you may have added an inventive concept. If it performs some task in a way which a person of ordinary skill would see as actively less advantageous than the historical approach, but in fact improves the solution to the task, you have a very good chance of having added an inventive concept. Contrarily, if you are simply doing something which has not been done historically, but which simply implements a straightforward solution to a novel problem, you very likely have not added an inventive concept.
Suppose, for instance, that nobody had ever made a “po-kee-no” computer game. (That is, a computer game which implemented a known game which is a combination of poker and keno.) To make such a game, you would need an algorithm which implemented the rules of po-kee-no in such a way that a computer could evaluate any given po-kee-no “hand” and determine the payout. No matter how clever your algorithm, it in the end would be an abstract idea (“the rules of po-kee-no, evaluated by a computer”) and would not include any inventive concept since you did not invent the rules of po-kee-no nor the traditional approach to converting game rules to compute algorithms. So no patent for you!
However, further suppose you had discovered that while it is not part of the rules of po-kee-no, it is much faster and more efficient to evaluate a po-kee-no hand by first looking to see if there are any jacks in it. Mathematically, this makes no sense (and, I hasten to add, it’s not actually true.) So while it is still an abstract idea (“look for jacks first,”) it contains an inventive concept which is not suggested by either the algorithm (“follow the rules of po-kee-no”) or the traditional approach to implementing game rules on a computer (“turn the rules into mathematical/logical statements and evaluate the statements.”) So there is a good chance that a method of playing po-kee-no on a computer which looked for jacks first would be patentable under Alice.
For those of you who are game developers, here’s a link to another little article on some game-specific Alice-type decisions.
Note that more than eighty percent of the patents adjudicated after Alice have been found invalid!
At the end of the day, there is a whole host of other questions which come into the analysis of whether to patent a software method. (Including whether you have the funds to support both the application process and any necessary enforcement proceedings.) But at the heart of it, be honest with yourself about whether you have really created a technological improvement, which is a very high bar to clear, or whether you have just come up with a kick-ass implementation, which is nothing to sneeze at even if you can’t patent it. I hope that gives you a sense of the current thinking of patent attorneys regarding software patents. As always, questions and comments are welcome.