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19 February 2007

In re Beauregard, 1995

Beauregard was a very important case in the History of Software Patents.  In re Beauregard is the case that opened things up completely for software patents. It signaled the end of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's resistance to allow patent applications that contained algorithms.

Beauregard's invention, described in U.S. Patent Application Serial No. 07/521,858, now U.S. Patent No. 5,710,578 (to IBM), related to graphical raster displays, and to a system and method for filling in the area defined by the boundaries of a polygon that is being displayed on a graphical raster display system. The software patent relates to accurately filling a polygon by including the points in an algorithm, called the Bresenham algorithm, that define the boundaries of a polygon in the resulting filled polygon.

The claims of this software patent recited “a computer usable medium” on which was stored “computer readable program code means,” i.e., a particular piece of computer software for filling a polygon displayed on a graphics display device. Claim 22 was representative:

Claim 22. An article of manufacture comprising:
a computer usable medium having computer readable program code means embodied therein for causing a polygon having a boundary definable by a plurality of selectable pels on a graphics display to be filled, the computer readable program code means in said article of manufacture comprising:
computer readable program code means for causing a computer to effect, with respect to one boundary line at a time, a sequential traverse of said plurality of selectable pels of each respective said boundary line;
computer readable program code means for causing the computer to store in an array during said traverse a value of an outer pel of said boundary of said plurality of selectable pels for each one of a plurality of scan lines of said polygon; and
computer readable program code means for causing the computer to draw a fill line, after said traverse, between said outer pels having said stored values, for each said one of said scan lines.

The USPTO Board rejected the claims using a variant of the printed matter rejection similar to that used in Lowry.

The California Multimedia and Software Patent Alliance filed a Amicus brief that asserted the following points, which were representative of the points raised by those who believed software patents were necessary:

The issue of whether a computer usable medium on which a particular piece of computer software is stored is protectable under the patent system is a particularly important one to the California multimedia and software industry for three reasons.

First, the copyright laws, perceived by many to be the most appropriate means for achieving protection of computer software, are inadequate. Under the abstraction/filtration/comparison test, which has been adopted in various forms by both the Ninth and Second Circuits as the appropriate method of defining the protectable aspects of computer software under the copyright laws, the ideas behind (or functions performed by) software are not protectable under the copyright laws. Thus, the scope of protection available is narrow and undefined.

Many other groups also filed Amicus briefs supporting Beauregard.

The Patent and Trademark Office filed a Motion to Dismiss stating that it was in agreement with the applicant that its claims recited statutory subject matter. The Federal Circuit noted that the parties were in agreement and that no case or controversy existed. The Federal Circuit vacated the Board of Appeals’s decision and remanded.

This was good news indeed for applicants and an important turning point in the history of software patents.