CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF CUSTOMS AND PATENT APPEALS.
Douglas, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all Members joined except Stewart, Blackmun, and Powell, JJ., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.
Respondents filed in the Patent Office an application for an invention which was described as being related "to the processing of data by program and more particularly to the programmed conversion of numerical information" in general-purpose digital computers. They claimed a method for converting binary-coded decimal (BCD) numerals into pure binary numerals. The claims were not limited to any particular art or technology, to any particular apparatus or machinery, or to any particular end use. They purported to cover any use of the claimed method in a general-purpose digital computer of any type. Claims 8 and 13*fn1 were rejected by the Patent Office but sustained by the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals, C. C. P. A. (Pat.) , 441 F.2d 682. The case is here on a petition for a writ of certiorari. 405 U.S. 915.
The question is whether the method described and claimed is a "process" within the meaning of the Patent Act.*fn2
A digital computer, as distinguished from an analog computer, operates on data expressed in digits, solving a problem by doing arithmetic as a person would do it by head and hand.*fn3 Some of the digits are stored as components of the computer. Others are introduced into the computer in a form which it is designed to recognize. The computer operates then upon both new and previously stored data. The general-purpose computer is designed to perform operations under many different programs.
The representation of numbers may be in the form of a time series of electrical impulses, magnetized spots on the surface of tapes, drums, or discs, charged spots on cathode-ray tube screens, the presence or absence of punched holes on paper cards, or other devices. The method or program is a sequence of coded instructions for a digital computer.
The patent sought is on a method of programming a general-purpose digital computer to convert signals from binary-coded decimal form into pure binary form. A procedure for solving a given type of mathematical problem is known as an "algorithm." The procedures set forth in the present claims are of that kind; that is to say, they are a generalized formulation for programs to solve mathematical problems of converting one form of numerical representation to another. From the generic formulation, programs may be developed as specific applications.
The decimal system uses as digits the 10 symbols 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. The value represented by any digit depends, as it does in any positional system of notation, both on its individual value and on its relative position in the numeral. Decimal numerals are written by placing digits in the appropriate positions or columns of the numerical sequence, i. e., "unit" (10), "tens" (10), "hundreds" (10), "thousands" (10), etc. Accordingly, the numeral 1492 signifies (1x10) (4x10) (9x10) (2x10).
The pure binary system of positional notation uses two symbols as digits -- 0 and 1, placed in a numerical sequence with values based on consecutively ascending powers of 2. In pure binary notation, what would be the tens position is the twos position; what would be hundreds position is the fours position; what would be the thousands position is the eights. Any decimal number from 0 to 10 can be represented in the binary system with four digits or positions as indicated in the following table.
Shown as the sum of powers of 2
Decimal (8) (4) (2) (1) Pure