Justice Antonin Scalia, who seemed most favorable to Alice.
Once Chief Justice John Roberts said “[t]he case is submitted,” which occurred this morning at 11:05 a.m., the reading of the tea leaves began.
The Supreme Court was very hot Court, with a lot of questions on the mind of the Justices. After reviewing the transcript I am left believing the Court is likely wondering whether it is possible to find the Alice patent claims to be patent ineligible while also ruling that software patent claims are not all patent ineligible. Surprisingly, it seemed as if Justice Scalia was most persuaded by the patent eligibility of the claims, directly saying at one point that the issues circling the case seem to really be about 102, not 101.
While I support the patent eligibility of the patent claims, particularly the patent claims drawn to a system, it seems undeniable that Alice missed many opportunities to score easy points. Indirect arguments were made by Alice that didn’t seem very persuasive. Indeed, if one is to predict the outcome of the case based on oral arguments alone it did not go well for Alice today. Only three things give Alice supporters hope after this oral argument as far as I can tell. First, the government seems to be asking the Supreme Court to overrule precedent in Bilski that is not even four years old, which simply isn’t going to happen. Second, the egregious overreach and outright misleading nature of the CLS Bank argument should raise a legitimate question or two in the mind of the Justices. Third, the reality simply is that at least the systems claims recite numerous specific, tangible elements such that it should be impossible to in any intellectually honest way find those claims to cover an abstract idea.
The law as it relates to software has been in flux over the last 10 years. Many older patent applications simply do not have enough detail to satisfy the current requirements to obtain a patent, although when drafted they would have been sufficient to satisfy the requirements then in place. Describing software as a pure method claim has not worked for a long time despite the fact that in reality software is really a method. Much more than a cursory description of software as a series of steps is required in order to have hope of obtaining patent protection for software.
Indeed, ever since the Federal Circuit en banc decision in Bilski, claims have been required to be tethered to tangible components, such as data storage devices, processors, databases, controllers, servers and the like. Unfortunately, however, the Patent Trial and Appeals Board at the United States Patent and Trademark Office now has taken the position that they will ignore the tangible components within a computer implemented method claim and then look to see what remains before determining whether the claim is patent eligible. See PTAB Kills Software.
Of course, after you remove or ignore the tangible components what remains is a naked process, which is patent ineligible. Thus, deciding to ignore tangible components leads to the inescapable conclusion that no software is patent eligible. Such disingenuous reasoning has the effect of punishing applicants for writing claims as the Patent Office has mandated ever since the machine-or-transformation test was first announced by the Federal Circuit in Bilski. The test announced in SAP/Versata, which was the first covered business method review decision announced by the PTAB, cannot be the correct test, and ultimately the decision (or at least the rationale) will be reversed. Any test that has the net effect of rendering all software patent ineligible, like the SAP/Versata test, is simply not correct as I will explain more clearly below.
After the Supreme Court ruled in Bilski v. Kappos that a claimed method for managing (hedging) the risks associated with trading commodities at a fixed price was patent-ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101, the Federal Circuit has gone “hither and yonder” in trying to determine when other business methods and systems reach (or don’t reach) the patent-eligibility zone. At the patent-ineligible end is CyberSource Corporations v. Retail Decisions, Inc. where Judge Dyk (joined by Judges Bryson and Prost) ruled that a method and system for detecting credit card fraud in Internet transactions was patent-ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101. At the patent-eligible end is Ultramercial, LLC v. Hulu, LLC (recently vacated and remanded by the Supreme Court for reconsideration by the Federal Circuit) where Chief Judge Rader (joined by Judges Lourie and O’Malley) ruled that a claimed method for monetizing and distributing copyrighted products over the Internet was patent-eligible. See Throwing Down the Gauntlet: Rader Rules in Utramercial that Breadth and Lack Specificity Does Not Make Claimed Method Impermissibly Abstract.
These polar opposite decisions in CyberSource and Ultramercial illustrate how fractured the Federal Circuit’s patent-eligibility landscape has now become for business methods and systems. The most recent split decision in CLS Bank International v. Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. where a claimed trading platform for exchanging business obligations survived a validity challenge under 35 U.S.C. § 101 epitomizes this problem. As CLS Bank International unfortunately shows, an objective standard for judging the patent-eligibility of business methods and systems remains elusive, subject to an ever growing “tug-of-war” between the “inclusive” and “restrictive” patent-eligibility factions of the Federal Circuit. In particular, after CLS Bank International, we are no closer to having a judicially accepted definition of what is (or is not) an “abstract idea” when it comes to claiming business methods and systems.
A little over a year ago the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Bilski v. Kappos. The critical question presented to the Court for consideration was whether the Federal Circuit erred by creating the so-called “machine or transformation” test, which requires a process to be tied to a particular machine or apparatus, or transform an article into a different state or thing, in order to be patentable subject matter. The Supreme Court held that the machine-or-transformation test is not the sole test for patent eligibility under §101, but rather that it was an important clue, thereby overruling the Federal Circuit who had earlier ruled that the machine or transformation test was the singular test to determine whether an invention is patentable subject matter.
But what practical effect did the Supreme Court ruling in Bilski v. Kappos have? Truthfully, not much at least in terms of the day to day approach of patent attorneys and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Certainly, the decision was important in that it preserved the patentability of at least some business methods and preserved the patentability of software, both of which continue to remain patentable in the United States. What has transpired since the Supreme Court’s decision, however, is not much different, if at all different, than what happened day-to-day prior to the decision.
Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court in Bilski v. Kappos.
This week marks the first anniversary of the Supreme Court issuing its decision in Bilski v. Kappos. The decision held that the machine-or-transformation test is not the exclusive test for patent eligibility, and that the three traditional exclusions of natural phenomena, abstract ideas, and laws of nature still apply.
Since that time, 182 decisions involving statutory subject matter eligibility have been issued by the USPTO’s Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (“the Board”). District Courts issued 6 decisions in the past year that substantively addressed statutory subject matter under § 101, while the Federal Circuit issued 3 decisions on the subject. The day after Bilski issued, the Supreme Court denied cert in In re Ferguson, and just recently picked up Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs for review. See Supreme Court Accepts Appeal on Patented Medical Diagnostics.
Earlier today the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., which sets up another foray into the patent eligible subject matter waters for the Supreme Court in the October 2011 term. This appeal by Mayo will challenge the December 17, 2010 decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, one of the first patentable subject matter cases for the Federal Circuit in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bilski v. Kappos. In fact, this case was returned from the Supreme Court to the Federal Circuit for further consideration in light of the Supreme Court ruling in Bilski v. Kappos.
Although much remains unclear after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bilski v. Kappos, one thing is certain: software remains patent-eligible in the U.S. This result may not be entirely clear from a quick read of the opinions in the case. Therefore, I present the following pieces of evidence that the Supreme Court in Bilski effectively re-affirmed the patent-eligibility of software (listed, for the sake of simplicity, in the order in which they appear in the decision).
As Alice once said things are growing “curioser and curioser.” I just opined about the “fuzzy” looking glass called Bilski v. Kappos for determining what is (or remains) patent-eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. See Through the Fuzzy Bilski Looking Glass: The Meaning of Patent-Eligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101 . After reading King Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Eon Labs, Inc., I’m now ready to throw my Ouija board though that Bilski looking glass. With an opportunity to render some order out of the Bilski chaos, the Federal Circuit instead completely ducked the patent-eligibility issue clearly presented in King Pharmaceuticals. The Federal Circuit then created (and I do mean “created”) the new “an anticipated method claim doesn’t become patentable if it simply includes an informing step about an inherent property of that method” doctrine. With this new “doctrine,” we have now “jumped down the rabbit hole” into a surreal “Bilski in Patentland” world.