By now virtually everyone in the patent industry is aware of the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice v. CLS Bank. What is less universally understood is the full extent of the decision. My immediate reaction was that this would be extremely bad for software patents. Many others thought I was engaging in extreme exaggeration. Since then, however, the Patent Office has started issuing Alice rejections where no previous 101 patent eligibility rejection stood, they have been withdrawing notices of allowance after the issue fee has been paid in order to issue Alice rejections, and the Federal Circuit is strictly applying the nebulous “Alice standard” to find software patent claims patent ineligible.
It is now clear that the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice fundamentally changed the law and future of software patents, at least those already issued and applications already filed, which cannot be changed without adding new matter. Those applications were filed at a different time and under a substantially different regime.
Patent law has always swung like a pendulum. The law swings between extremes, spending very little time in the middle. It is easy to get caught up with the shifting laws and even easier to start looking at the trees instead of the forrest, worrying where there is really no need to become so distressed. Lately, however, there has been an ever increasing and significant assaults on patent rights. It is not much of an exaggeration to wonder whether any commercially relevant innovation can be and remain patented. We seem to be back to the days when valid patent claims were those that had not been litigated. Today it is more fair to say valid patent claims are those that haven’t reached the Supreme Court or the Federal Circuit. Ubiquity is now the touchstone of ineligibility, or obviousness, rather than being celebrated for such wide spread adoption.
I am more concerned now than ever that the pendulum has swung so far and has gained so much momentum that it will fly clear from its support base point. I raised this with Ray Niro, the famous patent litigator who was originally called the first patent troll, back in July 2013. Then he told me: “looking at the bright side of things, I believe that the pendulum will swing. I believe it will come back.” I again asked him his thoughts on the matter in another interview approximately 11 months later, Niro said that he thought the pendulum would swing back, but he was far less optimistic.
On August 12, 2014, I had the opportunity to speak with Zeidman on the record. As the dust begins to settle from the Supreme Court’s Alice v. CLS Bank decision I thought it might be interesting to talk about the issues with a computer expert who regularly works with patent attorneys and technology clients, and who has been advising both attorneys and clients how to handle the Alice decision from a technical standpoint. In our three part interview we discuss the decision and various ways attorneys might be able to move forward to provide disclosure sufficient to satisfy even the Alice standard.
Chief Judge Michel (ret.), Dec. 10, 2013, at IPO Inventor of the Year ceremony in DC.
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with private citizen Paul Michel, who we know in the patent community as the former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Judge Michel left the Federal Circuit several years ago now, choosing to retire rather than take senior status. Michel told me back then that he wanted to step down so he could say what needed to be said on behalf of the patent system, something he felt he couldn’t do while a member of the federal judiciary.
Judge Michel has been true to his promise. He keeps an active speaking schedule, he continues to appear on Capitol Hill to discuss matters of concern for the patent system, he continues to attend numerous industry events, and he has freely given of his time on the record for us at IPWatchdog.com.
In our latest conversation we talked about a great many things, including the seemingly inevitable nomination of Phil Johnson as Director of the USPTO, which now seems very unlikely. We also spent considerable time talking about the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice v. CLS Bank. As you will read in the interview below, Michel thinks the decision was terrible and will lead to nothing short of chaos because there is simply no workable, repeatable test that can evenly and predictably be applied by the numerous decision makers in the patent world.
Alice with Lion and Unicorn from “Through the Looking Glass,” published 1871.
Last month, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International, _ U.S. _ (2013). In its opinion, the Court holds that Alice Corp.’s patent claims are drawn to the abstract idea of intermediated settlement, and that merely requiring generic computer implementation fails to transform the abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention. Since the opinion issued, the PTO has starting pulling allowed applications and issuing § 101 rejections. And lower courts are already applyingAlice to hold claims ineligible. Taken together, all this signals that § 101 is going to remain at the forefront of patent law for the foreseeable future. In view of its importance, this article provides an overview of the opinion, attempts to glean lessons from Alice, and finally identifies some considerations for patent owners and challengers as they navigate the murky morass that is § 101 jurisprudence.
At the outset, the Supreme Court reiterates the principle that laws of nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas are not patentable—noting that it has interpreted § 101 and its predecessor statutes this way for over 150 years. It observes that the concern driving these exceptions to patentability is pre-emption. That said, the Court recognizes that this exclusionary principle must be carefully construed because at some level all inventions embody laws of nature, natural phenomena or abstract ideas. It states “[t]hus, an invention is not rendered ineligible for patent simply because it involves an abstract concept” and “applications of such concepts to a new and useful end . . . remain eligible . . . .” Slip op. at 6 (internal quotations and citations omitted).
It has been over a month since the Supreme Court published its opinion in Alice v. CLS Bank. While the question on which certiorari was granted broadly considered the patent eligibility of computer implemented inventions, the Court ultimately issued an opinion that was tightly focused on the invention underlying Alice Corp’s patent. While many hoped that the Court would address this broader issue, the narrow opinion leaves many key questions unanswered. More importantly, the Court’s explanation of why the Alice patent was an ineligible abstract idea demonstrates the limitations inherent in applying that doctrine to computer implemented inventions. Those limitations will come to define the struggles confronting innovators, courts and the patent office as they attempt to operate in accordance with this opinion.
A review of the opinion and oral argument reveals that no participant was able to articulate a meaningful, repeatable, and predictable approach for determining which computer implemented inventions are too abstract and which are eligible for patent protection. The Court intentionally declined to broadly address this key issue: “[i]n any event we need not labor to delimit the precise contours of the “abstract ideas” exception in this case.” And that is because it cannot be done. As the Court itself acknowledged in Mayo v. Prometheus, “all inventions at some level embody” an abstract idea. And unlike laws of nature and natural phenomena, abstract ideas are not readily susceptible to line-drawing – where does the abstract idea stop and the eligible “application” of that abstraction begin?
Learned Hand lamented the intractable nature of this problem in the context of the idea expression dichotomy in copyright law. Struggling to separate the underlying unprotected idea from the copyright protected expression, he noted “…there is a point in this series of abstractions where they are no longer protected, since otherwise the playwright could prevent the use of his ‘ideas’, to which, apart from their expression, his property is never extended. Nobody has ever been able to fix that boundary, and nobody ever can.” See Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corporation.
I feel like a very broken record. In an IPWatchdog article I wrote back in 2012, I commented on the currently fractured patent-eligibility landscape in the split Federal Circuit panel 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. See The Fractured Landscape of Patent Eligibility for Business Methods and Systems in CLS Bank International. That fracture got even worse in the subsequent en banc ruling which can only be described as lengthy, tumultuous, and confusing, with a brief per curiam opinion, as well as six full opinions.
With the Supreme Court’s most recent foray into the patent-eligibility world in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International, we now have a complete and utter disaster as to what data processing claims can (or more unfortunately cannot) survive scrutiny by Our Judicial Mount Olympus under 35 U.S.C. § 101. I once had respect for Justice Thomas’ view on patent law jurisprudence, having considered his substandard opinion in Myriad on the patent-eligibility of certain “isolated” DNA claims to be an “isolated” aberration. But having now read his mind-boggling Opinion for the Court in Alice Corp., I’ve now thrown my previously “cheery” view of Thomas’ understanding of patent law jurisprudence completely into the toilet. I have even less kind words to say about the three Justices that signed onto Justice Sotomayor’s disingenuous concurring opinion that accepts retired Justice Steven’s equally disingenuous suggestion in Bilski that 35 U.S.C. § 273 (in which Congress acknowledged implicitly, if not explicitly the patent-eligibility of “business methods” under 35 U.S.C. § 101) is a mere “red herring.” See Section 273 is NOT a Red Herring: Steven’s Disingenuous Concurrence in Bilski.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Alice Corp. operates from the view that “ignorance is bliss” when it come to the patent statutes, as well science and technology. I don’t share that view and never will. So in the format that I began with in shredding Justice Alito’s “comedic” opinion in Limelight Networks, here are my “ignorance is not bliss” candidates for Alice Corp., in all their ugliness.
In this final segment of my conversation with Ray Niro we discuss the politics of patents, starting with the reality that the Obama Administration has for some time adopted the view of Google and other similarly situated tech companies that seem comfortable with an ever weakening patent system. We also discuss the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Alice v. CLS Bank, as well as the continuing and alarming trend toward expanding the definition of patent ineligible subject matter.
QUINN: Given that the Obama Administration is already out in front anti-NPE, anti-patent troll, and seems to be taking the Google philosophy which is who their advisors are, it seems to me foolish to think the Patent Office is going to moderate that decision and limit it narrowly.
NIRO: Right. The Administration has become a shill for Google — you even have a Google person running the Patent Office. So you have a situation where any number of patents, tens of thousands of patents, are going to be affected by Alice and also by the Limelight decision on split infringement.
A friend who handles large numbers of software patent applications for some of the most elite technology companies sent me an e-mail late last week about what he has already started seeing coming from patent examiners. He says he has seen the below form paragraph twice within a week. Most alarming, in one case the form paragraph came in the form of a supplemental office action, but the outstanding original office action didn’t have any patent eligibility rejections under 35 U.S.C. 101.
Claims… are rejected under 35 U.S.C. 101 because the claimed invention is directed to non statutory subject matter. In the instant invention, the claims are directed towards the concept of… [This] is considered a method of organizing human activities, therefore the claims are drawn to an abstract idea. The claims do not recite limitations that are “significantly more” than the abstract idea because the claims do not recite an improvement to another technology or technical field, an improvement to the functioning of the computer itself, or meaningful limitations beyond generally linking the use of an abstract idea to a particular technological environment. It should be noted the limitations of the current claims are performed by the generically recited processor. The limitations are merely instructions to implement the abstract idea on a computer and require no more than a generic computer to perform generic computer functions that are well-understood, routine and conventional activities previously known to the industry. Therefore, claims… are directed to non-statutory subject matter.
Did you notice the circular logic? The claims are abstract because the claims do not recite limitations significantly more than an abstract idea. Truthfully, this rather ridiculous logical construct can’t be blamed on patent examiners when the Supreme Court refuses to provide a definition for what is an abstract idea.
We can return to the beginning of the analysis and revisit preemption. As stated, the Court sees § 101 as protecting the big ideas that are fundamental to commerce, science, and technology, patents that would preempt and “block” innovation. The Court realizes that every patent preempts and blocks in some degree, because that’s what patent claims do. Rather, the risk of preemption must be “disproportionate.” Alice,slip op. at 5. This is a definitely a much higher bar than the standard set forth in the CLS plurality opinion, “Does the claim pose any risk of preempting an abstract idea?” CLS, 717 F.3d at 1282 (Lourie, J., concurring),cited approvingly in Accenture Global Services, GmbH v. Guidewire Software, Inc., 728 F.3d 1336 (Fed. Cir. 2013).This requirement for a high level of preemption risk is necessary because we can never know a priori (e.g., when a patent application is filed, when it is reviewed by a patent examiner) exactly what will happen in the future, and how important and preemptive the patent will be in regards to other developments in the same field or in other fields. Most truly fundamental “building block” inventions are not recognized as such for many years after the fact. Thus, we must tolerate preemption in two ways:
The kind of preemption that is inherent or recognizable based on the claim language. To borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsefld, this is the “known known” risk of preemption.
The “known unknown” preemption that we cannot determine because we cannot know what will happen in the future: whether the technology will be successful in the marketplace, whether others will adopt it, or design around it, or any other myriad factors that influence how “fundamental” an invention will be.
If a patent claim is ineligible if there is “any risk” of preemption, then the “exclusionary principle . . . will swallow all of the patent law.” Alice,slip op. at 5. A court or a patent examiner certainly cannot evaluate the level of “known unknown” preemption, and hence should not use speculations (or hand-waving) about this kind of preemption risk to invalidate a patent. The disproportionate risk of preemption only comes from patents that claim Abstract Ideas in the sense of fundamental building blocks, not just run-of-the-mill abstract ideas. It’s only when the known known type of preemption covers an Abstract Idea that the claim is ineligible. The ordinary type of preemption that comes from patent claims is an accepted part of the patent system—that’s the whole point of claims, to define the metes and bounds of the invention so that others are preempted from making, using, and selling what’s inside the bounds.