Google, Facebook ask court to reject patents on abstract ideas

A group of tech companies argues that combining abstract ideas with "on a computer" does not deserve a patent and stymies innovation.

As patent spats continue to command much of the tech world's attention and corporate resources, a group of prominent companies is taking a stand against a practice it sees as hobbling innovation.

Google, Facebook, Zynga and five other tech giants filed an amicus brief with the U.S. State Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on Friday, asking the court to reject the patents central to a lawsuit between two financial institutions. CLS Bank has sued Alice Corp. for allegedly infringing on four patents covering a computerized method of having a third-party hold funds in escrow on behalf of two other contracting parties.

The 37-page brief (see below), also signed by Dell, Intuit, Homeaway, Rackspace, and Red Hat, argues that combining phrases such as "on a computer" or "over the Internet" with an abstract idea doesn't deserve a patent. The brief said the issue was "critically important in the high-tech context" and that granting such patents stymie innovation:

Many computer-related patent claims just describe an abstract idea at a high level of generality and say to perform it on a computer or over the Internet. Such barebones claims grant exclusive rights over the abstract idea itself, with no limit on how the idea is implemented. Granting patent protection for such claims would impair, not promote, innovation by conferring exclusive rights on those who have not meaningfully innovated, and thereby penalizing those that do later innovate by blocking or taxing their applications of the abstract idea.

Calling abstract patents a "plague in the high-tech sector," the brief concludes that: "It is easy to think of abstract ideas about what a computer or website should do, but the difficult, valuable, and often groundbreaking part of online innovation comes next: designing, analyzing, building, and deploying the interface, software, and hardware to implement that idea in a way that is useful in daily life. Simply put, ideas are much easier to come by than working implementations."

The brief comes as companies grapple with a rash of lawsuits based on patents that are secured for the purpose of extracting licensing fees from other companies rather than making products based on the patents. A study released earlier this year found that patent infringement lawsuits are on the rise, costing U.S. companies $29 billion in 2011.

The explosion in patent lawsuits, especially in the software and pharmaceutical industries, led one judge presiding over high-profile cases to declare that "patent protection is on the whole excessive and that major reforms are necessary ."

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