Having had some time, although admittedly not much time, to digest the Supreme Court’s decision in Bilski v. Kappos I am increasingly of the belief that the Supreme Court did an admirable job, at least insofar as they go. While I will reserve my right to change my mind, I am pleased by the Supreme Court decision, and bolstered in this belief by the fact that industry organizations such as BIO and LES are praising the decision, while at the same time anti-software patent advocates are apoplectic. So the Supreme Court must have done something right.
Yes, it certainly would have been nice for the Supreme Court to actually give us a test and not merely point out that the Federal Circuit got it wrong. We already knew the Supreme Court thought the Federal Circuit got it wrong when they granted cert. in the case. There is simply no other reason for the Supreme Court to choose to hear a case from the Federal Circuit given there could never be a split among the Circuits given that all patent cases go to the Federal Circuit. Having said that, I am glad the Supreme Court followed the physicians motto — do no harm — and if getting no test was required in order for there to be no harm then I suppose we ought to be well enough thankful. But what does the decision in Bilski v. Kappos actually mean?
I have just received a copy of the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s first Memorandum to the Patent Examining Corps regarding the United States Supreme Court’s decision earlier today in Bilski v. Kappos. The memo was authored by Robert W. Bahr, Acting Associate Commissioner for Patent Examination Policy. This is the first communication to Patent Examiners, telling them what they should know about the decision and how to handle the thorny issues that will no doubt be presenting themselves. The memo concludes by explaining the the “USPTO is reviewing the decision in Bilski and will be developing further guidance on patentable subject matter eligibility under 35 U.S.C. § 101.” Ultimately, the USPTO is going to need to issue Bilski Guidelines, but that cannot be expected on day one right after the Supreme Court essentially eviscerated the machine or transformation test as has been used by Patent Examiners since the Fall of 2008 when the Federal Circuit issued its own decision in Bilski.
The memo sent to Patent Examiners briefly goes through the Supreme Court’s decision and wastes no time in getting to what will be music to the ears of patent attorneys and agents:
Significantly, the Supreme Court also indicated that a business method is, at least in some circumstances, eligible for patenting under section 101.
Bilski v. Kappos has finally been handed down by the United States Supreme Court, in what has become the most highly anticipated patent decision of all time. The questions presented to the Court for consideration were: (1) 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; and (2) whether the machine or transformation test contradicts Congressional intent (pursuant to 35 U.S.C. 273) to allow for business methods to be patented.
The Supreme Court held that the machine-or-transformation test is not the sole test for patent eligibility under §101, and that the Federal Circuit erred when it ruled that it was the singular test to determine whether an invention is patentable subject matter. Delivering the opinion for the Court was Justice Kennedy. There were no dissents, only concurring opinions, which is in and of itself a little surprising, at least at first glance until you realize that the Justices all agreed Bilski’s invention ought not to be patentable, but some, such as Justices Stevens and Breyer would have found all business methods unpatentable. In any event, Kennedy explained that the Federal Circuit decision ignored well established rules of statutory interpretation, and further explained that there is no ordinary, contemporary common meaning of the word “process” that would require it to be tied to a machine or the transformation of an article. Nevertheless, the machine or transformation test may be useful as an investigative tool, but it cannot be the sole test.
Unlike many of the visitors and contributors on this site, I am not a lawyer. I am a programmer who found this blog while chasing links across the Internet looking for information on software patents and what has now become one of the most anticipated Supreme Court decisions ever; Bilski v. Kappos. That was almost eight months ago at a time when I held what is probably a common view of software patents among programmers. Specifically, that they are immoral, unfair, and restrictive to innovation and creativity. I have since found that things are not as black and white as they appear and I’d like to share with you the problems as I see them, from a programmer’s point of view.
The communication between lawyers and programmers is admittedly poor. I can’t imagine very many people jumping through all the hoops to become a patent lawyer if they didn’t believe in the power of the patent system to help grow the economy. On the other hand, programmers who are frustrated with declining job security, declining benefits, and declining pay, often turn to leaders in their field, who demonize software patents. Those industry leaders who support software patents are usually the ones doing the laying off, cutting salaries, and outsourcing jobs, so it is understandable that they have questionable credentials when it comes to the opinions of the common programmer. How can we start to heal the wound and repair the damage that has already been done? We need to encourage more communication between the two parties if we are ever to end the “cold war” over software patents.
When last we left off our History of Software Patents series we were talking about In re Alappat, which by implication did away with the Freeman-Walter-Abele test for patentable subject matter by not mentioning the test whatsoever. Shortly after Alappat, a three-judge panel once again resorted to and applied the Freeman-Walter-Abele test in In re Trovato, but that was quickly withdrawn by an en banc panel of the Federal Circuit. So it seemed relatively clear that the FWA test had been abandoned. This believe was bolstered by the famous, or infamous depending on your view, case of State Street Bank & Trust Co. v. Signature Financial Group, Inc. and ultimately in AT&T Corp. v. Excel Communications, Inc., where the Federal Circuit reaffirmed its decisions in State Street Bank and Alappat.
In State Street the patent in question was U.S. Patent No. 5,193,056, which issued to Signature Financial Group on March 9, 1993. The ’056 patent is generally directed to a data processing system for implementing an investment structure which was developed for use in Signature’s business as an administrator and accounting agent for mutual funds. In essence, the system, identified by the proprietary name Hub and Spoke®, facilitates a structure whereby mutual funds (Spokes) pool their assets in an investment portfolio (Hub) organized as a partnership. State Street was in talks with Signature Financial to acquire a license, and when talks broke down they brought a declaratory judgment action to have the ’056 patent claims declared invalid.
Yet another day has come and gone without the United States Supreme Court issuing a decision in Bilski v. Kappos. According to Cover It Live, via the SCOTUS Blog, Chief Justice Roberts announced that the Court will have its final opinions on Monday, June 28, 2010, and that the Court’s term will close with the exception of remaining Orders in pending cases. (see 10:39 am mark of discussion at SCOTUS Blog). This is widely being interpreted as confirmation that Bilski will be issued on Monday, June 28, 2010, which admittedly seems extraordinarily likely, but call me crazy, I have a strange feeling something odd may be boiling behind the scenes.
Allow me to point out that everyone I have spoken to believes that Bilski will be decided this term and with only one day remaining everyone to a person believes the decision will be announced next Monday shortly after 10:00 am Eastern Time. But why wouldn’t the Chief Justice just come out and say that all pending cases will be decided and no cases will be held over until the next term? Why must he say things in ways that leave open the possibility that one or more cases could be held over? For example, the Court could have its “final opinions” issue on Monday, June 28, 2010 and the Court’s October 2009 Term could come to an end, and Bilski still not issue. That would make what Roberts said today true, and we would still have a case held over.
The legal, business, and scientific communities eagerly await the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bilski v. Kappos and many scholars, business leaders, and legal professionals try their best to anticipate how the Court will rule. Many patent attorneys and patent agents are drafting two sets of claims for their clients and the one they file will depend on how the Supreme Court rules.
For all of the opinions, articles, and conjecture, all one need do is study the law and look at the precedents to know that anticipating how the Supreme Court will rule in a case is akin to trying to gaze into a crystal ball. So, what will be the future of business methods as patent-eligible subject matter? Will the machine-or-transformation test stand? What will be the fate of the Bilski patent? An educated guess is the best that one can hope for in this situation.
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