From Red Hat’s press release:
Red Hat, Inc. (NYSE: RHT) and Rackspace Hosting, Inc. (NYSE: RAX) announced today that they have won a federal court decision granting early dismissal of all claims in a lawsuit brought by the patent assertion entity Uniloc USA, Inc.
Before going into the details of the case there are three extremely relevant court decisions to be aware of: Gottschalk v. Benson (1972), Diamond v. Diehr (1981) and In re Alappat (1994).
The initial precedent set by Gottschalk v. Benson in 1972 denied the patentability of a method/process for converting binary number to non binary. This has been widely summarised as a pen and paper standard – mathematical algorithms capable of being worked out mentally or by written mathematical notation were deemed unpatentable. It was a particularly important due to the rapidly developing computing industry and served as precedent in numerous decisions of rejected software patents for the next nine years.
1981’s Diamond v. Diehr gave the first exception to 1972’s decision. The Diehr patent concerned using a digital thermometer probe and computer to regulate the temperature of a rubber curing press increasing effectiveness of the machine. Initially rejected on the basis that it was a ordinary rubber press accompanied by an unpatentable mathematical algorithm, it was overturned on appeal when council for the inventor successfully argued that the extra steps in physical application of said algorithm warranted patent protection. It’s important to not that this decision did not invalidate the earlier decision preventing mathematical patents, it was the practical application that gave eligibility.
After this software patents applications started to increase until the floodgates were truly opened after In re Alappat (1994). This decision found that by anti-aliasing the signal of a digital oscilloscope with a rasterising engine, the general purpose computer performing the task can be considered a new specialised purpose computer and thus patentable. Similar to the Diehr case this did not categorically invalidate the Benson case’s decision although expanding patentability to include practical algorithm applications of a solely digital implementation gave the software industry ample precedent to push for patents for any conceivable ‘specialised purpose’ program.
How do these cases relate to the Rackspace/Redhat v. Uniloc decision? Unlioc’s patent in question (US Patent Number 5892697) can basically be summarised as a process for rounding up floating point numbers before resource-intensive computational tasks are undertaken, reducing the required computing resources. Uniloc challenged Rackspace on the basis of their use of the Linux operating system which was alleged to contain infringing code which executed the patented floating point number algorithm. The patent text is quite detailed and includes text such as the following:
2) For Addition or Subtraction–
a) If subtracting, reverse the sign of the second operand
b) If 0+n or n+0, the result is n
3) For Multiplication–
a) If 0*n or n*0, the result is 0
4) For Division–
a)If 0/n, the result is 0
40 years after Gottschalk v. Benson the parallels are clear to see and the court’s decision understandable as it is purely mathematical algorithm. Of the exceptions Diamond v. Diehr can be seen as definitely not applying as the ‘697 patent lacks a physical component controlled by the computer’s output and as the patent is overly broad the concessions/provisions for specialist computing machines made In re Alappat seems like a bit of a stretch as well. As Rackspace says, score one for the good guys
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