On Friday, April 12, 2013, I was at American University Washington College of Law for a program titled Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Today: Software, Genomics, and Business Methods. I participated on a panel titled CLS Bank en band: Are Software Methods Patentable? What I want to write about today, however, is not our panel presentation, but rather the Keynote presentation by Suzanne Michel (no relation to Chief Judge Michel), a former deputy director of the FTC who is Senior Patent Counsel at Google, Inc., working in Google’s policy office in Washington, DC.
It is no great surprise probably, but I disagreed with practically everything she said, although I did enjoy her presentation. I love to debate the issues, and she is extremely knowledgeable and well briefed on what is happening in the trenches. Those of us who disagree with the proffered narrative that the patent system is broken can’t ignore competent advocates like Michel. She is not a patent-hater and her message is sharp, crisp and clear, although I do think it is misleading. The patent system is not broken, and for reasons I can only guess the best and brightest leaders in much of the big-tech industry are pursuing paths not calculated to succeed; at least if the goal is to stem the rise of patent litigation and innovate for the future.
With this in mind, what follows is a summary of Michel’s presentation, which if not titled was certainly themed — Fixing Problems of the Patent System to Improve Innovation. I also provide my thoughts and comments in the format of comments from the peanut gallery, or perhaps as a patent law equivalent to Mystery Science Theater 3000. In order to differentiate my thoughts/comments from Michel’s presentation, my comments are italicized, colored, indented and tagged with the IPWatchdog logo.
Over the past year or so ever more patent data has been made publicly available thanks to Google. In collaboration with the USPTO Google is scraping information from the USPTO servers, transferring the many image files into searchable text documents. The availability of this information has allowed companies like Reed Technologies to offer interesting and useful patent analytics. For example, the Patent Advisor™ product, which is powered by PatentCore, allows users to find rejection, allowance, RCE and appeals information relating to individual Art Units and individual examiners. Armed with this information better prosecution strategies can be developed, saving time and money in the long run.
As I have dove into the Patent Advisor statistics I jumped to those Art Units charged with so-called business method patents in class 705. This has lead me to write several articles critical of one Art Unit in particular for having an extremely low allowance rate, with many of those allowances ordered by the Board. For example, see Allowance Rates for Art Units Examining Business Methods.
But what is a business method? That is the very question that dogged the United States Supreme Court in Bilski. In fact, a definition of “business method” has proven to be as illusive as a unicorn or Bigfoot. The goal of those who care to try and define “business methods” is almost universally so that they become non-allowable subject matter. But with every definition there comes the realization that some of what seems like it should be swept up in the definition remains on the outside and some things that really ought not to be considered “offensive” business methods are swept up in the definition. The trouble is that methods have been patentable since 1790 in the United States and on some level virtually every method could be characterized as a method of doing business, or more generally a method that facilitates one or another business goal.
Those who have been following comments on the split decision in CLS Bank v. Alice Corp. case will be unsurprised to learn that yesterday the Federal Circuit ordered a rehearing en banc in the matter, vacating the panel decision originally decided on July 9, 2012.
The questions to be addressed on appeal are:
1. What test should the court adopt to determine whether a computer-implemented invention is a patent ineligible “abstract idea”; and when, if ever, does the presence of a computer in a claim lend patent eligibility to an otherwise patent-ineligible idea?
2. In assessing patent eligibility under 35 U.S.C. § 101 of a computer-implemented invention, should it matter whether the invention is claimed as a method, system, or storage medium; and should such claims at times be considered equivalent for § 101 purposes?
The parties have been invited to file new briefs on these questions, and the case will be heard based on the original briefs and any new briefs filed.
For at least the past 15 years, the legal, technical and academic communities have been debating the patentability of business methods and software. Despite much negative press ink, talk, legislative activity and court opinions, the answer with respect to patent eligibility is still a resounding and categorical “yes.” That’s the easy part. What types of business methods and software exactly are patentable? That is the difficult question to answer.
What is Patentable?
U.S. Patent Law recognizes four broad categories of inventions eligible for patent protection: processes; machines; article of manufacture; and compositions of matter. 35 U.S.C. Section 101. Despite the oft-quoted recognition that the patent laws were made to cover “anything under the sun that is made by man,” Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 309 (1980) (quoting S. Rep. No. 1979, 82d Cong. 2d. Sess., 5 (1952)), the U.S. Supreme Court, has long recognized that there are three exceptions to these four broad patent-eligibility categories: laws of nature; physical phenomena; and abstract ideas. Id. These three exceptions are necessary because “[s]uch discoveries are manifestations of … nature, free to all men and reserved exclusively to none.” Id. (citations omitted). Yet, “a process is not unpatentable simply because it contains a law of nature or a mathematical algorithm,” and “an application of a law of nature or mathematical formula to a known structure or process may well be deserving of patent protection.” Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 187 (1981).
The inventions described in Bancorp’s US Patents 5,926,792 and 7,249,037 concerned methods, media and systems for administering and tracking the value of life insurance policies. A representative claim reads:
A life insurance policy management system comprising:
a policy generator for generating a life insurance policy including a stable value protected investment with an initial value based on a value of underlying securities of the stable value protected investment;
a fee calculator for calculating fees for members of a management group which manage the life insurance policy;
a credit calculator for calculating credits for the stable value protected investment of the life insurance policy;
an investment calculator for determining an investment value and a value of the underlying securities of the stable value protected investment for the current day;
a policy calculator for calculating a policy value and a policy unit value for the current day;
digital storage for storing the policy unit value for the current day; and
a debitor for removing a value of the fees for members of the management group which manages the life insurance policy.
The Bancorp Services case involved two patents, U.S. Pat No. 5,926,792 (the ‘792 patent) and U.S. Pat No. 7,249,037 (the ‘037 patent), relating to methods, systems, and computer-readable media for administering and tracking the value of life insurance policies in separate accounts. Both the ‘792 patent and ‘037 patent share a common patent specification having a priority date going back almost 16 years (September , 1996). Also, this is not the first time the Federal Circuit has grappled with ‘792 patent. There was an earlier 2004 Federal Circuit decision which reversed a grant of summary judgment of invalidity of the ‘792 patent based on “indefiniteness,” as well as a 2008 Federal Circuit decision which vacated a judgment of noninfringement of the ‘792 patent.
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.
Yesterday The Hartford announced via press release that it had invented a faster way to deliver life insurance, which is now patent pending. Can you that be true? As with many things associated with the law, particularly patent law, a simple, straightforward answer is not possible. In a nutshell, it is possible that one could patent a method of more quickly delivering life insurance if the process is new and non-obvious. However, given the law that the United States Patent and Trademark Office is required to apply there will need to be much more than a real world business method, or “pure business method” as they are sometimes referred to.
“Today’s consumers are used to buying products online and receiving them at home within 48 hours,” said Brian Murphy, who heads The Hartford’s life insurance business. “We see no reason why they should have to wait more than a month to receive a new life insurance policy. By creating a new way of assessing a person’s risk factors and reordering the underwriting process, we can now provide consumers with life insurance coverage in a fraction of the time it used to take.” But surely a reordering of the underwriting process isn’t enough for a patent, is it?
In CyberSource Corporations v. Retail Decisions, Inc., 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. But in Ultramercial, LLC v. Hulu, LLC, Chief Judge Rader (joined by Judges Lourie and O’Malley) just ruled that a claimed method for monetizing and distributing copyrighted products over the Internet was patent-eligible. In fact, our good Chief Judge has “thrown down the gauntlet” at his Federal Circuit colleagues by stating “breadth and lack of specificity does not render the claimed subject matter impermissibly abstract.” Wow! That “judicial donnybrook” I mentioned in my recent article on the remand decision in Classen Immunotherapies, Inc. v. Biogen IDEC (see CAFC on Patent-Eligibility: A Firestorm of Opinions in Classen ) on what the standard is (or should be) for patent-eligibility under 35 U.S.C. §101 has now broken out.
In Ultramercial, the patentee (Ultramercial) asserted that U.S. Pat. No. 7,346,545 (the ‘545 patent) was infringed by Hulu, LLC (“Hulu”), YouTube, LLC (“YouTube”), and WildTangent, Inc. (“WildTangent”). The ‘545 patent,relates to a method for distributing copyrighted products (e.g., songs, movies, books, etc.) over the Internet for free in exchange for viewing an advertisement with the advertiser paying for the copyrighted content. What is interesting in this case is that Claim 1 of the ‘545 patent that is allegedly infringed by Hulu, YouTube, and WildTangent recites a method having not one, not two, but eleven total steps. (Side note: One might wonder how anyone can infringe an eleven step method.) WildTangent’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim was granted by the district court based on the claimed method being patent-ineligible under 35 U.S.C. § 101. (Hulu and YouTube were dismissed from the case apparently for other reasons.)
Just as all of us have slowly started to absorb the implications of the remand in Prometheus Laboratories, Inc. v. Mayo Collaborative Services, as well as the triumvirate of opinions in Association for Molecular Pathology (AMP) v. USPTO, on the standard for patent-eligibility under 35 U.S.C. §101, the Federal Circuit (finally) issued its long awaited (by some of us) remand decision in Classen Immunotherapies, Inc. v. Biogen IDEC. That there was a majority (and a dissenting) opinion in the remand of Classen wasn’t surprising. But that there was yet a third “additional views” opinion would likely not have been predicted by anyone. And it is that “additional views” opinion, along with the majority and dissenting opinions, that will certainly generate a “firestorm” through the Federal Circuit, and which may eventually reach the Supreme Court. The judicial donnybrook on the question of what the standard is (or should be) for patent-eligibility under 35 U.S.C. §101 is about to begin in earnest.
As my fellow patent attorney, Kevin Noonan, poignantly says on Patent Docs, the Classen remand decision “[couldn’t] be more different from the Federal Circuit’s earlier decision.” That earlier decision (with Judges Moore and Newman on the panel), which came out not long after the Federal Circuit’s famous (and some would say “infamous”) en banc Bilski decision, is astounding for its brevity (one paragraph of 69 words), or as Kevin also poignantly observed, the claimed method was longer than the opinion by 20 words. As I also commented when that earlier opinion came out, it was ghastly for completely failing to explain how the “new” Bilski “machine or transformation” test was applied to the claimed method. See CAFC: Method for Calibrating Drug Dosage is Transformative.
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.
The conundrum created by the Federal Circuit’s joint infringement doctrine and its impact on protecting interactive computer-based technologies got worse last week with McKesson Technologies, Inc. v. Epic Systems Corp.McKesson Technologies involved a patented interactive electronic method for communicating between healthcare providers and patients about personalized web pages for doctors. Judge Linn’s majority opinion (and a “thin” at majority at that) ruled that, because the initial step of the patented method was performed by the patient while the remaining steps were performed by the software provided by the healthcare provider, there was no infringement, direct, indirect, joint or otherwise of the patented method.
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