One of the things that makes protecting computer related inventions tricky is that first you have to define the invention, and defining the invention is not something that is altogether easy when the invention is a computer process or relates to software. Sure, it is easy enough to define a list of desired functionality, and if you have some computer programming skills it is easy enough (after investing the requisite time) to write the code that will enable the functionality, but that which can be protected via patent lies somewhere between the desired functionality and the code, making the defining of the invention rather elusive for some, particularly those who are new to the patent arena.
Further complicating the matter is the reality that over the last several years the law of patent eligibility in the United States has been in flux. It did become largely settled with respect to software and business methods thanks to Bilski v. Kappos, which was decided by the United States Supreme Court. This case left the industry with 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 determined in Bilski that the machine-or-transformation test is not the only test for patent eligibility, but rather that it was an important clue. But what exactly does that mean?
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.
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?
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.
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.
On Friday, December 17, 2010, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a decision in one of the patentable subject matter cases that was returned to the Court by the Supreme Court in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bilski v. Kappos. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc. v. Mayo Collaborative Services first reached the Federal Circuit on an appeal brought by Prometheus, challenging the final judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. The district court had granted summary judgment of invalidity of U.S. Patents 6,355,623 and 6,680,302 under 35 U.S.C. § 101. In the original case the Federal Circuit held that the district court erred as a matter of law in finding Prometheus’s asserted medical treatment claims to be drawn to non-statutory subject matter under the machine-or-transformation test, which at the time was the definitive test for determining the patent eligibility of a process under § 101. In Bilski, however, the Supreme Court held that the machine-or-transformation test, although “a useful and important clue,” was not the sole test for determining the patent eligibility of process claims. The Supreme Court vacated and remanded the Prometheus case for further consideration in light of Bilski v. Kappos. On remand, once again, the Federal Circuit held (per Judge Lourie with Chief Judge Rader and Judge Bryson) that Prometheus’s asserted method claims are drawn to statutory subject matter, reversing for the second time the district court’s grant of summary judgment of invalidity under § 101.
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).