For software patent defenders, Planet Blue's patent on lip synchronization in animated characters was their last, great hope. (credit: McRO, Inc.)

In 2014, the US Supreme Court dealt a major blow to software patents. In their 9-0 ruling in Alice Corp v. CLS Bank, the justices made it clear that just adding fancy-sounding computer language to otherwise ordinary aspects of business and technology isn't enough to deserve a patent.

Since then, district court judges have invalidated hundreds of patents under Section 101 of the US patent laws, finding they're nothing more than abstract ideas that didn't deserve a patent in the first place. The great majority of software patents were unable to pass the basic test outlined by the Supreme Court. At the beginning of 2016, the nation's top patent court had heard dozens of appeals on computer-related patents that were challenged under the Alice precedent. DDR Holdings v. Hotels.com was the only case in which a Federal Circuit panel ruled in favor of a software patent-holder. The Alice ruling certainly didn't mean all software patents were dead on arrival—but it was unclear what a software patent would need to survive. Even DDR Holdings left a teeny-tiny target for patent owners to shoot at.

That all changed in 2016. Judges on the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found three more cases in which they believe that software patents were wrongly invalidated. What once looked like a small exception to the rule now looks like three big ones. The results of those cases could portend a coming year that will be friendlier to patent owners than the past few have been. As 2016 winds down, let's take a closer look at the details of these three software patent battles and how patent-holders kept their patents alive through the appeals court.

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