Alice in Blunderland: The Supreme Court’s Alice Decision Fails to Grasp the Physical Reality of Information

The recent Alice decision from the Supreme Court threatens patents for many innovators working with computers, software, information, and knowledge–in short, the heart of the modern Knowledge Economy. By waving around the undefined word “abstract”–a word that the Court expressly refused to define–they have ruled that a major part of the economy is simply not eligible for patent protection. An article at the popular IP blog, PatentlyO, seeks to explain if not justify the Court’s ruling. In “Alice, Artifice, and Action,” Jason Rantanen elucidates the thinking of the Court as he explains that the problem with the invention in Alice is that ultimately, what it involved “is just information” and thus intangible or abstract, unworthy of patent protection. I recognize this is a widely held belief, but it is not based on modern science. Maybe superstition, but not science.

It’s time for those in the IP profession to recognize what many scientists and engineers have long understood: that information is physical. Just as e=mc^2 helps us understand the relationship between matter and energy, the laws of thermodynamics plus a good deal of modern quantum mechanics and other fields helps us understand the physical relationships between information, matter, and energy. Entropy is one of the key physical concepts that helps us appreciate that linkage. See Wikipedia’s article on this topic at

Information cannot be processed without physical, material change often affecting more than just physical entropy alone. That information processing may be in the form of electronic signals, computer chips, magnetic media, graphical interfaces, or chemical reactions with DNA (DNA, of course, is “just information” encoded with a brilliantly simple and tangible system).

In the Industrial Age, we focused on inventions made with cogs and pistons, steel and glass–crude, weighty, and easy to touch or see. Their making and their use involved smoke and flame, clangs and whirrings that nobody could miss. But we have moved into the the Information Age, where the greatest innovations that will drive our economy, the Knowledge Economy, are much finer, often microscopic, involving silent, invisible (to the naked eye) change that is still every bit as physical and real as anything a blacksmith hammered out. To dismiss the workings of the new electronic machines of our day and their many fruits as mere abstractions, intangible, immaterial, the whisps of ethereal spirit devoid of substance, is to miss the reality of the greatest era of innovation and invention ever. To exclude inventions in handling information as inherently unpatentable is a tragic error, one that contributes concretely to the growing innovation fatigue in the U.S.

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