COMPUTERS: Hard Ruling for Software Victory for Hardware

Even though the Supreme Court had agreed to rule on The Commissioner of Patents v. Gary R. Benson and Arthur C. Tabbott, the case hardly seemed likely to attract more than passing attention. But Plaintiffs Benson and Tabbott, the Government claimed, were not seeking protection for a mere material invention or even for a unique process; what they wanted was to have the U.S. Patent Office register an idea.

Benson and Tabbott, employees of AT&T's Bell Telephone Laboratories, had devised a set of mathematical instructions, or a "program," for a computer as part of a telephone switching system. For years AT&T,...

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