Alice in chains –
USAA claims it invented a key feature of mobile check cashing.
In 2014, theSupreme Court ruledthat you can’t get a patent for implementing an otherwise abstract idea on a computer. The decision, known asCLS Bank v. Alice, has had abig impactover the last five years, invalidating a lot of broad software patents.
But aruling this weekillustrates the limits of that landmark ruling. Theconfusingly namedUnited States Automobile Association, which provides insurance and other financial products, sued Wells Fargo for infringing two patents on the concept of cashing checks with a mobile device. Wells Fargo argued that the patents were abstract — and therefore invalid — under theAlicerule.
On Tuesday, aTexas federal judge disagreed, upholding the patents and allowing the case to move forward to trial.
Computers are more precise than humans
The patents cover check-cashing mobile apps that automatically snap a photo once a suitable image of the check is in the field of view .
A key claim ofone of the USAA patentscovers the concept of using a “processor” (aka a smartphone) to take a picture of a check and then send the check over a “communication pathway” (aka a network). USAA’s supposed invention is the idea of monitoring “an image of the check in a field of view of a camera of a mobile device with respect to a monitoring criterion using an image monitoring and capture module of the mobile device” —and waiting until the image has met the criteria (is the entire check in the frame? Is there adequate light?) before snapping the picture. In other words, they patented the idea that you should wait until you have a good shot before snapping a picture.
The patent is not limited to any particular “monitoring criteria.” Any app that automatically takes an image when a check is in the field of view would likely infringe USAA’s patent.
Wells Fargo argued that USAA had simply used a computer to perform the same steps any human being would take when snapping a photo of a check. Obviously if a human being was snapping a picture of a check, they would monitor the image in the viewfinder and only click the button once it showed an acceptable image.
But the court disagreed, noting that human eyes and human brains can’t measure objective criteria like brightness as precisely as a computer can . USAA has argued that its approach leads to fewer bad check images being submitted. So in the court’s view, the patent doesn’t just cover an old-fashioned process being done on a computer — the use of the computer improves the process, yielding a patentable invention.
The case is far from over
The court’s conclusion here is a bit of a head-scratcher. Obviously computers can perform many tasks faster and more precisely than a human being — that’s why people use them. But if this fact were all it took to make “do it on a computer” inventions patentable, the (Alice) precedent would be a dead letter.
After all, the patent in the originalAlicecase claimed the concept of using a computer to perform certain types of financial transactions. The court invalidated the patents because they were simply computerizing existing financial techniques. But it’s surely true that computers can perform these financial transactions faster and with fewer errors than human traders can. That fact didn’t save those patents, and it’s not clear why it should help USAA here.
One factor that may have influenced the judge’s thinking is the fact that framing a shot of a check is not an explicitly mathematical operation the way the financial transactions in Alice were. Under the hood, of course, everything a computer does is mathematical. But a human framing a photograph doesn’t take explicitly numerical measurements. Perhaps this makes the gap between the human and automated processes seem larger for picture-taking than for financial transactions.
The ruling in the USAA case came from thenotoriously patent-friendlyEastern District of Texas, so it’s not that surprising that the ruling favored the patent holder. But the case is far from over. The case will now move forward toward trial, where Wells Fargo can raise other objections — perhaps including an argument that the USAA patents are obvious.
If Wells Fargo loses at trial, it will have an opportunity to appeal the ruling to an appeals court. Then either party could ask the Supreme Court to hear the case — though the nation’s highest court agrees to hear only a tiny fraction of patent cases.