The Supreme Court heard Alice v. CLS Bank – in 1976

As patent system followers eagerly await the outcome of Alice v. CLS Bank, it occurred to me that the Court has already heard this exact case – back in the 1970s. My prior discussion of Alice is here as background.

In Dann v. Johnston, the applicant sought a patent on software that allowed banks to report account spending by category (e.g. rent, utilities) rather than having customers calculate this themselves. This patent is little different than the patent in Alice in concept. The Alice patent covers software that allows banks to reconcile transactions through the use of “shadow” accounts kept in data records.

The Court took the case up on two questions: subject matter and obviousness. In the end, the Court dodged the subject matter question, but instead ruled that the patent was obvious, in large part because it simply implemented something that already existed in paper:

Under respondent’s system, what might previously have been separate accounts are treated as a single account, and the customer can see on a single statement the status and progress of each of his “sub-accounts.” Respondent’s “category code” scheme, see supra, at 221, is, we think, closely analogous to a bank’s offering its customers multiple accounts from which to choose for making a deposit or writing a check. Indeed, as noted by the Board, the addition of a category number, varying with the nature of the transaction, to the end of a bank customer’s regular account number, creates “in effect, a series of different and distinct account numbers. . . .” Pet. for Cert. 34A. Moreover, we note that banks have long segregated debits attributable to service charges within any given separate account and have rendered their customers subtotals for those charges.

The utilization of automatic data processing equipment in the traditional separate account system is, of course, somewhat different from the system encompassed by respondent’s invention. As the CCPA noted, respondent’s invention does something other than “provide a customer with . . . a summary sheet consisting of net totals of plural separate accounts which a customer may have at a bank.” 502 F. 2d, at 771. However, it must be remembered that the “obviousness” test of § 103 is not one which turns on whether an invention is equivalent to some element in the prior art but rather whether the difference between the prior art and the subject matter in question “is a difference sufficient to render the claimed subject matter unobvious to one skilled in the applicable art. . . .” Id., at 772 (Markey, C. J., dissenting).

You could cut something like this out and plop it right into the Alice opinion. Except now, obviousness is not on the table. The question is whether the Court got it wrong by not ruling on subject matter in 1976. I don’t think so, but I do think that Dann v. Johnston is the most underused Supreme Court opinion in the software area.