Gottschalk v. Benson

Gottschalk v. Benson

Litigants=Gottschalk v. Benson
ArgueDate=October 16
DecideDate=November 20
FullName=Gottschalk, Acting Commissioner of Patents v. Benson, et al.
Citation=93 S. Ct. 253; 34 L. Ed. 2d 273; 1972 U.S. LEXIS 129; 175 U.S.P.Q. (BNA) 673
Prior=Certiorari to the United States Court of Customs and Patent Appeals
Subsequent=Diamond v. Diehr, Diamond v. Chakrabarty
Holding=Respondents' method for converting numerical information from binary-coded decimal numbers into pure binary numbers, for use in programming conventional general-purpose digital computers is merely a series of mathematical calculations or mental steps and does not constitute a patentable "process" within the meaning of the Patent Act, 35 U.S.C. 100 (b). Pp. 64-73.
JoinMajority=Burger, Brennan, White, Marshall, Rehnquist
NotParticipating=Stewart, Blackmun, and Powell
LawsApplied=101 of the Patent Act of 1952

" Gottschalk v Benson ", ussc|409|63|1972 was a United States Supreme Court case that ruled that a process involving a numerical algorithm was not patentable if "the patent would wholly pre-empt the mathematical formula and in practical effect would be a patent on the algorithm itself". The court added "it is said that the decision precludes a patent for any program servicing a computer. We do not so hold." The case was argued on October 16, 1972 and was decided November 20, 1972.

Prior history

The case revolves around an application for a patent for method for converting a binary-coded decimal (BCD) numerals into pure binary numerals on a general purpose digital computer. The patent examiner at the United States Patent and Trademark Office rejected the patent application as being directed to a mathematical expression. Pure mathematical expressions had been held to be unpatentable under earlier patent laws in Mackay Co. v. Radio Corp. ussc|306|86|1939. The applicant appealed to the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences. The Board affirmed the examiner’s rejection. The applicant further appealed to the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals. The Court reversed the Board. Finally, the Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks filed a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court.

The case

The law which is applicable to this case is section 101 of the Patent Act of 1952ref|1. The question was whether or not the claimed invention was a “process” under the law. The court held that because the claim was not limited to any particular type of programmable digital computer and because the method could be carried out mentally, that the claim would effectively preclude use of the method for any currently known or future invention in any field. Thus the claim was directed to an algorithm alone and therefore was not patentable.


This decision was widely seen as confirming that software by itself was not directly patentable. What patent attorneys/agents had been doing in the meantime, however, was to get patent protection on software inventions by claiming both the algorithm in combination with the computer carrying out the algorithm. Thus they were technically claiming a new machine and this was held to be patentable. [ [ "To Promote the Progress of . . . Useful Arts," Report of the President's Commission on the Patent System (1966).] as cited in Gottschalk v Benson]

The boundary between when a computer implemented process is purely an abstract idea (and thus not patentable) and when it is a practical process (and thus is patentable) is still a matter of debate within the US patent office. (“The Supreme Court has not been clear . . . . . . as to whether such subject matter is excluded from the scope of 101 because it represents laws of nature, natural phenomena, or abstract ideas. “) [ [ 2106.02 Mathematical Algorithms - 2100 Patentability] Manual of Patent Examining Procedure 8th ed.]


*Section 101 says, "Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title." Section 100(b) gives the definition for process, "The term ‘process’ means process, art or method, and includes a new use of a known process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or material." []

ee also

*List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 409


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