Alex Courtade: CS + Patent Law

Senior legal counsel and CS alumnus Alex Courtade Rice University alumnus Alex Courtade (B.S. in CS ’02) successfully blends computer science training and legal experience in his role as PayPal’s Senior Legal Counsel in Austin, Texas. But if he could change one thing about his college years, he might have accepted Rice’s first offer.

He said, “In high school, I was technically inclined and planned to pursue electrical engineering or computer science. I’d always wanted to go to Rice and was admitted. But as generous as their offer was, I didn’t think I could make it work financially so I went to UT in their Honors Program for EE. My whole freshman year at UT, I wanted to be at Rice. Luckily, they offered me a place a second time and I transferred in to the CS department.”

“While at UT, I had time to reassess what I wanted to study and I found the higher focus on logic-based thinking in CS more and more appealing. There is some bleed-over between programming software and designing hardware, but I was more interested in what you can do with a computer than the finer mechanics of how a transistor works at the physical level. I still frequently took CS courses at Rice that were cross-listed with EE, like computer networking.”

Courtade planned to use his CS degree to pursue a career in the technology industry and he spent two years as software developer in Houston before he began wondering if there might be something more.

“At the time, perhaps because of my limited role as an entry level software developer, I felt I had talents like writing, communication, and people skills that were not being utilized.”

His father, an attorney, had given him one piece of early career advice: don’t become a lawyer. But at age 25, Courtade announced to his family he was headed back to UT for law school.

He said, “I did not go to law school solely to become a patent lawyer, I was open to other types of practice. But the United States Patent and Trade Office will not authorize anyone to work as a patent lawyer unless they have a fundamentally good understanding of technology as well as law. Only a small group will qualify because you generally cannot become a patent lawyer if you don’t have an engineering degree. A history degree won’t be enough.”

For eight years, Courtade worked on a variety of patents and IP matters for clients ranging from the world’s largest corporations to individual inventors while in private practice in Austin. Then he joined PayPal. He said his experience covers a broad swath including telecommunications, electronics, hardware, and consumer products, but his biggest strength is in software patents.

“Protecting software has become a little more challenging with some recent changes in patent law,” he said. “The Supreme Court’s ruling in Alice v. CLS Bank (2014) changed the law on what types of software you could patent and what types you couldn’t. That was a sea change for people who work on software patents like me.

“There is now a higher bar on what a new technology needs to do in order for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to grant a patent. The courts don’t want you to be able to patent a business method, so if an innovation is just a better way of doing business–a new methodology that provides a cost savings at the end of the day–that may not be patentable any more. When PayPal –or one of my clients when I was in private practice—shows me a new invention, I have to determine what aspects we will focus on, to prove it is innovative and a true technological advancement that is worthy of being patented.”

Courtade said his computer science training allows him to look into the implementation of new technology. He explores how it is being accomplished through product architecture, and asks not only what is new, but also whether a conventional process is being used in a different way that changes and improves a process. Determining where—and how–a technological change occurs is critical to developing a successful software patent application.

“Digging into the invention as a whole helps you figure out the things that are patentable and those that are not. Sometimes at the end of the day, you have to say, ‘a software patent isn’t the best way to protect this intellectual property,’ and you try to create value for your client using copyright, or trade secret (or even trademark) instead.

“Working closely with developers can also help me identify things they may think are not relevant. With talented engineers who have years of experience, sometimes a solution will occur to them that seems easy, but is actually an interesting and innovative new use of technology that we want to talk about in a patent application.”

In addition to comprehensive computer science training, Rice also offered Courtade a breadth of liberal arts courses. “Holistic education is one of the great things about Rice,” he said. “Each semester, I took at least one liberal arts class, particularly if it required critical writing and thinking.

“Those were skills I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to hone by taking five programming classes in one semester. You can take 17 hours of pure technical classes if you want to, but I chose opportunities that helped me learn to look at things in a different way, and build my toolkit as a person.”

Courtade said learning to talk about a variety of topics beyond engineering becomes very useful later, particularly if the student has learned to communicate their thoughts and ideas in writing.

“As you progress in your career, you may want to move beyond your entry-level software developer or engineering role. If you hope to become more integral to a business, to rise into management, the ability to clearly communicate your thoughts and articulate your ideas becomes more important. Don’t overlook the other opportunities at Rice outside your main discipline as an engineer.”