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Preface

When talking about file formats (= data formats intended for files), it is easy to confuse the data format and the algorithm used to produce or decode this format. This is mostly due to the fact that for many data formats, there is only one (known) algorithm to produce this data format in a way that makes sense. For this reason, very often the algorithm and the data format are - informally - known under one and the same name. A very good example is MP3, which is both, a certain class of algorithms for encoding/decoding audio data and a file format for storing, besides other information, the data encoded using an MP3-encoding algorithm.

Certainly, it is not impossible to obtain a patent for an algorithm. However, my question concerns the file (data) formats.

Question

Is it possible to obtain a patent on a file format, or a data format in general?

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In the past, patents have issued that cover data compression and encryption mechanisms that are part of a file format (see MPEG-LA http://www.mpegla.com/main/pages/media.aspx and also reference the $100 million jpg patent http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JPEG#Patent_issues).

However, the Supreme Court has been very actively revisiting what satisfies the requirements for patentable subject matter (i.e. 101 eligibility) and nobody really knows how far they will eventually go with regard to things like software-implemented compression.

File formats are also very likely to be considered essential patents with regard to a standard set by a standards organization, and members of that organization may face additional issues when trying to enforce or license the patent. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essential_patent

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Recently, the Federal Circuit issued a decision related to this point. The case is related to the generation of an improved device profile. The court held that combining two data sets into a device profile was abstract.

http://www.cafc.uscourts.gov/images/stories/opinions-orders/13-1600.Opinion.7-9-2014.1.PDF

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