A Patent on Seven Simple Lines of Code


You’ve probably seen a patent at some point in your life. The detailed figures, the long tracts of text, the obscure wording and technical jargon. Patents are meant for technological inventions, and by their text patents certainly look complex.

But what if I told you that the invention behind one patent—one of those long, complicated patents—amounted to nothing more than seven lines of computer code?

Today, Public Knowledge and the Application Developers Alliance filed a joint amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hold that abstract ideas cannot be patented even when they are implemented on a computer—and offering a simple, seven-line computer implementation of one of the claims at issue in the case.

Alice Corporation Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank International concerns a group of patents on third-party escrow, an age-old technique where two people exchange money through a third party. It’s what most people use to buy a house. It’s PayPal.

Obviously, no one can get a patent on escrow. Abstract ideas (like escrow) can’t be patented. Why not? Because ideas are the starting point for every new business, technology, and product. Patents on ideas would squash innovation. As the Supreme Court explained in another recent case, ideas are the “basic tools of scientific and technological work,” and a patent on an idea “might tend to impede innovation more than it would tend to promote it.”

But there’s a twist:  Alice didn’t just get patents on escrow; they got patents on escrow done by a computer.  For example, one patent claims ownership of an invention that looks, in part, like this (it’s Claim 26, if you’re interested):

a computer, coupled to said data storage unit and said communications controller, that is configured to…

 (b) electronically adjust said first account and said third account in order to effect an exchange obligation arising from said transaction between said first party and said second party after ensuring that said first party and/or said second party have adequate value in said first account and/or said third account, respectively.

This is some awesome, special computer, right? Think again.

Our amicus brief helps the Supreme Court step back and look at what these claims actually cover:  the idea of third-party escrow, as implemented on an ordinary computer.  To that end, we implemented the above patent claim, which clocks in at more than two hundred words—in just seven lines of computer code.

See that step (b) above? Here are three lines of BASIC code that do all of that:

40 IF account1 < exchange THEN PRINT “Inadequate value”: STOP
50 account1 = account1 – exchange
60 account3 = account3 + exchange

Basically, you look in one person’s account to see if there is enough money to make a transfer, and if there is, you transfer the money. I’ll bet you’ve done that before.

In fact, here’s the whole program:

10 LET account1 = 200.00
20 LET account3 = 300.00
30 INPUT “Value to exchange for transaction”; exchange
40 IF account1 < exchange THEN PRINT “Inadequate value”: STOP
50 account1 = account1 – exchange
60 account3 = account3 + exchange
70 PRINT “Instruction to 1st institution: adjust 2nd account by ”; -exchange

This implementation demonstrates that Alice’s patented invention requires only seven simple lines of code, not complex programming or specially designed hardware.  Alice’s patent uses over 216 words to explain this invention, but the above code is a scant 52 words.  Like we pointed out in another Supreme Court brief, the fact that the patent was cleverly drafted and uses technical language doesn’t change the fact that it actually covers a basic, abstract idea.

The Supreme Court has made clear that abstract ideas are unpatentable even if the patent limits the idea to a “particular technological environment” or adds “well-understood, routine, conventional activity.”  In other words, an idea shouldn’t become patentable when insignificant words are added to describe that idea. A patent on an idea glued to some insignificant matter—like just running the idea on an ordinary computer—will stifle innovation, competition, and technology just as much as a patent on the idea alone. We would be trading real progress for abstract patents. And that’s not a trade I’d like to make.

 We’d like to thank our colleagues at the USC Intellectual Property & Technology Law Clinic, who co-wrote the brief on behalf of the Application Developers Alliance.

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