In June of 2014, the Supreme Court held, in Alice Corporation Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank International (“Alice Corp.”), that claims directed to a technique for mitigating settlement risk failed to comply with the patentable-subject-matter requirement of 35 U.S.C. 101 (“101”). Alice Corp. involved four patents that had been assigned to business-method art units (characterizing business-method art units as 3621-29, 3681-89, 3691-95 and those in former technology center 2700). The Court found that the claims at issue were directed to an abstract idea and did not sufficiently transform the idea to become a patentable invention.
One question is whether Alice Corp., in essence, strips patent prospects from business-method inventions. Another question is whether the analysis in Alice Corp. will invalidate patents in other areas under 101. The author thus examined all cases citing and/or including Alice Corp. and identified outcomes of analyses of compliance with 101. Further, the patents at issue were segregated based on the technology center to which the corresponding patent application had been assigned and/or whether it was assigned to a business-method art unit.
This summer, the United State Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) responded t0 Alice Corp. by issuing Preliminary Examination Instructions in view of the case, and impact on examination of business-method patent applications was essentially immediate. Using LexisNexis Patent Advisor, data was collected for a January time period (January 13-27, 2014) and July time period (July 13-27, 2014) that identified, for each Office Action issued during the time period, whether the Action included a 101 rejection and the corresponding art unit.
In State Street Bank & Trust v. Signature Financial Group,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 was 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.
There were several critical issues in play in State Street. First was the so-called mathematical algorithm exception to patentable subject matter, and the other was the business method exception to patentable subject matter.
Question: When does a oncuromputer-implemented or Internet-enabled “business method” constitute patent-eligible (aka statutory) subject matter under 35 USC 101?
Answer: Always, unless — (1) the prior art contains a manual (human-implemented, non- automated) counterpart or analog to the claimed method or system, and (2) the manual analog is merely implemented on a computer or via the Internet.
In Alice v. CLS Bank, the Supreme Court reiterated its Mayo two-step analytical framework for testing a patent claim for subject matter eligibility:
Step One: Does the claim involve an “abstract idea”?
Step Two: Is the abstract idea “merely” implemented on a generic computer, i.e., without any additional inventive contribution?
If the answer to both inquiries is Yes, then the claim covers ineligible (non-statutory) subject matter under 101. On the other hand, if the answer to the first inquiry is No, then there is no need to go to the second step and the claimed subject matter is patent-eligible.
The Australian Full Federal Court recently handed down its decision in Research Affiliates LLC v Commissioner of Patents. The decision is an important addition to Australian case law concerning the patentability of business methods and software.
Judges Kenny, Bennett, and Nicholas ruled that the Appellant’s claimed computer implemented method for generating an index for use in securities trading was unpatentable as an abstract idea. The Court held that “[t]he claimed method in this case clearly involves what may well be an inventive idea, but it is an abstract idea. The specification makes it apparent that any inventive step arises in the creation of the index as information and as a scheme. There is no suggestion in the specification or the claims that any part of the inventive step lies in the computer implementation. Rather, it is apparent that the scheme is merely implemented in a computer and a standard computer at that. It is no part of the claimed method that there is an improvement in what might broadly be called ‘computer technology’.”
In our opinion this case does not present a major change in the law in Australia regarding the patentability of business methods and software, but clarifies that mere reference to computer implementation in patent claims will not be enough to satisfy Australia’s requirements of patentable subject matter. Otherwise, the patentability of business methods and software, where a computer is “inextricably linked with the invention itself”, appear to remain patentable in Australia.
Well, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit sort of decided CLS Bank v. Alice Corporation earlier today. Truthfully, all the important questions that we thought might be answered remain completely and totally unanswered because there were only 10 judges who sat on the en banc tribunal and no more than 5 judges signed on to any one opinion.
The only thing we know is this — the Federal Circuit issued an extraordinarily brief per curiam decision, which stated:
Upon consideration en banc, a majority of the court affirms the district court’s holding that the asserted method and computer-readable media claims are not directed to eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101. An equally divided court affirms the district court’s holding that the asserted system claims are not directed to eligible subject matter under that statute.
Thus, all of the asserted claims are not patent eligible. At the moment I am completely flabbergasted and don’t know what to say.
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.
On Friday, April 12, 2013, i will be at American University Washington College of Law for a program titled Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Today: Software, Genomics, and Business Methods. I will be participating on a panel that begins at 10:15am, which is titled CLS Bank en band: Are Software Methods Patentable? The event is free to attend. To register to attend you can visit WCL Event Registration.
Topic for Discussion
The following is what our panel will discuss regarding application of Section 101 to software:
(1) For many years, a large segment of the software industry viewed patent protection as inappropriate for software, relying instead on a mixture of copyright and trade secret law. At a high level, should software be patentable?
(2) Two common criticisms of software patents, as compared to patents in the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors, are (a) the relatively low cost of invention; and (b) the relative ease of implementation. Are these the right factors for us to be considering for purposes of inventiveness?
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.
One of the criticisms of the PatentCore database in the past was that the database was not a complete representation of the case files at the USPTO and gave a false impression. I never personally found that persuasive given that even when the database first became public there were approximately 1.5 million application files within the database. Still, many patent examiners scoffed at the notion that this data was accurate.
If I were a patent examiner that hadn’t issued patents for years I wouldn’t want anyone to know that either. Similarly, if I were a Supervisory Patent Examiner (SPE) in an Art Unit that routinely only issued patents after a long drawn out appeal process that resulted in the Board overturning the rejections I wouldn’t want the public to know about that either. Sadly, this type of gaming exists at the Patent Office. There are examiners who only rarely issue patents and Art Units that openly tell patent attorneys that they don’t issue patents unless ordered to do so by the Board. Knowing that this happens, which is supported by hard data, makes it impossible to tolerate the anti-patent zealots who routinely opine about just how easy it is to get a software or business method patent issued. Really? You have to be kidding!
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.