It is possible to patent a process, which the USPTO defines as “inventions that consist of a series of steps or acts to be performed.” This definition encompasses business methods and computer programs, as well as “a new use of a known process.” Automations are, arguably, processes. So, can you patent an automation?
The short answer is, it depends. Numerous cases have helped define which automations can be patented—and which cannot.
1998: State Street Bank v. Signature Financial
A number of factors drove massive growth in the software industry throughout the 1990s. Innovative companies scrambled to protect their IP, leading to a surge of software-related patent applications, as well as a growing number of questions surrounding the patentability of software.
In State Street Bank v. Signature Financial, the Federal Circuit determined processes must offer a tangible result to be patented, in addition to being novel, non-obvious, and useful. Mathematical formulas alone are not eligible for patent protection, so the court’s ruling makes sense. In order to be patented, an automation (which is more or less a complex math equation) must be applied to a specific situation and have a concrete outcome.
2014: Alice Corp. v. Cls Bank
In a now-infamous ruling, the US Supreme Court outlined a two-part test for determining patentability for software, much of which automates processes, based on whether or not it is an abstract idea. Abstract ideas can not be patent protected.
2016: McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games America, Inc.
McRO, Inc.’s patented technology automated the previously manual process of animating speech-related movements. The Federal Circuit determined that this automation not only resulted in a tangible result but was a clear improvement over existing manual animating processes.
2017: Credit Acceptance Corp. v. Westlake Services
The Federal Circuit again decided on the patentability of automated processes during Credit Acceptance Corp. v. Westlake Services. This time, the outcome was an invalidated patent. Just as an automation can be patented if it is a marked improvement over the corresponding manual process, an automation is not patentable if it simply replicates the manual process using a computer or other technology. In this case, “the claims failed to recite any non-conventional software for enhancing the process.”