Ancora v HTC America: restriction computer operations with license limitation eligible under Section 101
In this case the Federal Circuit found a method of restricting software operations within a license limitation to be patentable advance, and in particular, the invention was found to be “a concrete assignment of specified functions among a computer’s components to improve computer security, and that this claimed improvement in computer functionality is eligible for patenting. As a result, the claims were found statutory under § 101.
U.S. Patent 6,411,941 is entitled “Method of Restricting Software Operation With-in a License Limitation.” The ’941 patent describes an asserted improvement based on assigning certain functions to particular computer components and having them interact in specified ways. The proposed method “relies on the use of a key and of a record.” Id., col. 1, lines 40–41. A “key,” which is “a unique identification code” for the computer, is embedded in the read-only memory (ROM) of the computer’s Basic Input Output System (BIOS) module: the key “cannot be removed or modified.” Id., col. 1, lines 45–51. A “record” is a “license record” associated with a particular application: “each application program that is to be licensed to run on the specified computer is associated with a license record that consists of author name, program name, and number of licensed users (for net- work).” Id., col. 1, lines 52–57.
The asserted innovation of the patent relates to where the license record is stored in the computer and the inter- action of that memory with other memory to check for permission to run a program that is introduced into the computer. The inventive method uses a modifiable part of the BIOS memory—not other computer memory—to store the information that can be used, when a program is introduced into the computer, to determine whether the program is licensed to run on that computer. BIOS memory is typically used for storing programs that assist in the start-up of a computer, not verification structures comparable to the software-licensing structure embodied by the claimed invention. Using BIOS memory, rather than other memory in the computer, improves computer security, the patent indicates, because successfully hacking BIOS memory (i.e., altering it without rendering the computer inoperable) is much harder than hacking the memory used by the prior art to store license-verification information. Id., col. 3, lines 4–17; see Ancora, 744 F.3d at 733–34 (“Thus, the inventors stated that their method makes use of the existing computer hardware (eliminat- ing the expense and inconvenience of using additional hardware), while storing the verification information in a space that is harder and riskier for a hacker to tamper with than storage areas used by earlier methods.”).
Here is an example claim from the patent:
1. A method of restricting software operation within a license for use with a computer including an erasable, non-volatile memory area of a BIOS of the computer, and a volatile memory area; the method comprising the steps of:
- selecting a program residing in the volatile memory,
- using an agent to set up a verification structure in the erasable, non-volatile memory of the BIOS, the verification structure accommodating data that includes at least one license record,
- verifying the program using at least the verification structure from the erasable non-volatile memory of the BIOS, and
- acting on the program according to the verification.