Last fall, the Supreme Court heard arguments about Bilski v. Kappos, a case that revolved around the question of whether or not the patent system should extend to cover "business methods." As Larry Downes explained at the time, the specific dispute was over the patentability of "a paper-and-pencil system for hedging weather risks in consumer energy prices," but the specific process under dispute was of minimal importance. Interest in the final ruling was high because the case had the potential to be a game-changer for the patent system; many in the intellectual property arena believed it was likely that the Court would definitively end the practice of granting patents to business methods—which would have serious implications for software patents as well.
But yesterday, the court offered a ruling that was far more limited in scope. According to Downes, the decision "basically did nothing to change patent law or to settle enormous and mushrooming uncertainties, both for business methods and, more generally, for software applications." For court and IP nuts, Downes's entire analysis of the case and the decision, which offers some convincing speculation about why the ruling came down as narrowly as it did, is well worth reading. For a short take on the policy merits of similar types of patents, see Cato adjunct Tim Lee's case against literary and software patents here.