In January, the USPTO announced it would seek comments on the new Guidance it had published on patent subject matter eligibility. We have previously discussed this Guidance and won’t repeat ourselves here. Instead, this post will highlight the wide range of views expressed by the thousands of comments that the USPTO received. Although the comment
If the focus on fact finding in Aatrix, Berkheimer, and Exergen from earlier this year helped provide additional clarity on the analysis of “something more,” the SAP America decision, at least to my mind, failed to clarify, and possibly further muddied, the analysis.
Reaching This Result Could Have Been Easy
First, a representative claim:
1. A method for calculating, analyzing and displaying investment data comprising the steps of:
(a) selecting a sample space, wherein the sample space includes at least one investment data sample;
(b) generating a distribution function using a re-sampled statistical method and a bias parameter, wherein the bias parameter determines a degree of randomness in a resampling process; and,
(c) generating a plot of the distribution function.
The other independent claims differ a bit from claim 1, but like claim 1 recite “resampling” of the data set and, in claim 11, doing so with a “bias parameter.” According to the patent, this resampling of investment data permits analysis that doesn’t assume a normal distribution of the data.
On a judgment on the pleadings, the district court found all claims ineligible and the Federal Circuit affirmed.
Do you remember obviousness before KSR v. Teleflex? To invalidate, the rule went, one must find an express rationale for combining references (a teaching, suggestion or motivation). The KSR ruling reminded us that the TSM test was too rigid—the proper analysis should more flexibly evaluate obviousness with the skilled artisan in mind, without rigid requirements for these rationales in the references themselves.
If we knew how to more flexibly identify rationales for obviousness post-KSR, it was not clear how to more flexibly apply patent eligibility without the machine or transformation test after Bilski and Alice. A machine, apparently, was now just a clue. But identifying how to apply the more general principles from Alice and Bilski was not as easy to apply as a flexible obviousness test. The recent Core Wireless decision may show us a more useful theme for applying a more general approach to obviousness.
This third article in the “Surviving Alice” series examines how the USPTO’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board has responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2014 Alice decision. It also shows how applicants can use the PTAB’s recent decisions to substantially increase their chances of success before the board. We look at appeals coming out of the USPTO’s business method work groups 3620, 3680 and 3690. Applicants have had a difficult time getting business method patents allowed since Alice. The Alice decision firmly established the two part “Alice/Mayo test” as the standard for determining whether a patent’s claims were statutory under 35 U.S.C. 101. The two steps in the Alice/Mayo test are:
- “Determine whether the claims at issue are directed to a patent-ineligible concept” (e.g. abstract idea or fundamental economic practice); and
- If the claims are directed to a patent–ineligible concept then “search for an ‘inventive concept’-i.e., an element or combination of elements that is ‘sufficient to ensure that the patent in practice amounts to significantly more than a patent upon the [ineligible concept] itself. “ (e.g. an improvement to another technology)
The business method work groups at the USPTO implemented the Alice/Mayo test right after the Alice decision. Allowances in some work groups (e.g. 3690 finance) plunged by a factor of 10 within a month of the decision. Even three years later, there is still over a 90% chance that an office action on a business method patent application will have a 101 rejection. In response to these repeated § 101 rejections by the examiners, many applicants have appealed their rejections to the PTAB. We are just now seeing these appeals being decided by the board, and overall the results have not been good for applicants. Only about 20% of the 101 rejections are being reversed. Nonetheless, we are gaining a significant and rapidly growing body of PTAB decisions which we can learn from. These decisions are discussed below. …
As has been well documented, the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank has had a dramatic impact on the allowability of computer implemented inventions. This second article in our series explores the dynamics of that impact on the e-commerce arts. Our first article showed that in the finance arts (e.g. banking and insurance) Alice had an immediate and substantial impact reducing allowances per month by a factor of 10. A similar but more complicated impact was felt in e-commerce. Allowances per month immediately dropped but then recovered only to drop again. We will present an analysis of what is being allowed today as a guide to practitioners filing applications in this field.
Art Unit Organization by Subclasses
E-Commerce patents fall under the general category of business methods and are examined in work groups 3620 and 3680. Table 1 below shows the technologies they encompass as well as the associated “old” US patent classifications and the examining art units. The old US patent classifications are referenced because they are still used to assign applications to art units. The primary class of e-commerce and business method patents is class 705. The “e-Commerce subclasses” in the table below is based on the majority subclasses being examined in each art unit. The subclass designations generally account for at least 80% of the applications being examined in a given art unit. Interestingly, a significant minority of applications in these art units are not classified as 705 applications. According to conversations I’ve had with examiners, these are cases that were originally assigned to other work groups but were later referred into these work groups because the classifications done by the contractor were not correct. Apparently even after reassignment into these work groups, the original class/subclass designations stayed in the PAIR records for the applications.
The most significant Federal Circuit decision in March was Thales Visionix, Inc. v. United States, another case finding eligible subject matter. What distinguishes this case—and demonstrates the inherently subjective I-know-it-when-I-see-it nature of the Alice test—is the extraordinary breadth of the claims. Consider claim 22, a single-step method claim:
A method comprising determining an orientation of an object relative to a moving reference frame based on signals from two inertial sensors mounted respectively on the object and on the moving reference frame.
The court held that this claim was patent eligible, because it was not directed to an abstract idea in Step 1 of the Alice test:
As many of you know, the Federal Circuit’s decision in Trading Technologies was the first time a graphical user interface had been found patent eligible by the Federal Circuit. The defendant CQG moved for both panel rehearing and enbanc rehearing.
My client SHzoom filed a request to make the Trading Technologies decision precedential. CQG attempted…
The Federal Circuit’s recent decision in McRO has been interpreted by many in the patent community as a further signal that the so-called “pendulum” is swinging back to a more favorable position for patentees. There is some superficial evidence of this possibility. Let’s look at the numbers. September 2016 was the first time since Alice that the number of federal court decisions finding eligible subject matter (16) exceeded those finding ineligible subject matter (13). Those sixteen decisions also mark the highest number of eligibility decisions in a single month. The most significant contribution to the switchover is that only two motions to dismiss under § 101 were granted in September, compared to nine that were denied, the largest gap since March 2016 (6 granted, 10 denied). …
The press is all abuzz with reactions to Judge Mayer’s concurring opinion bluntly stating that “claims directed to software implemented on a generic computer are categorically not eligible for patent.” Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Symantec Corp. et al., 2015-1769, -1770, -1771 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 30, 2016).
Here, I’ll just explore one aspect of this remarkable opinion—the reasons that judicially created exceptions are dangerous. As we have previously detailed on this blog, the precipitous drop-off in PTO allowances and Article III court confirmations of validity are not driven by the literal text of Section 101 or other portions of the patent statute, but instead by judicial interpretations of exceptions that the courts deem must be read into the Patent Act. Many commentators have observed that such judicially created exceptions may be an extremely convenient way to sidestep “bad” patents but are not needed, given that the provisions of sections 102, 103 and 112 would be just as effective in addressing vague or overbroad patent claims. Single-paragraph district court explanations of why particular patents claim nothing more than an abstract idea now regularly invalidate patents at the pleadings stage. Judge Mayer’s concurrence adds fuel to this fire. A few examples from his concurrence are illustrative.
Given the volume of district court decisions regarding Section 101, I typically don’t find ones that stand out enough to warrant discussion. But last week’s decision by Judge Stark in MAZ Encryption Technologies LLC v. Blackberry Corporation is an exception. The opinion demonstrates a rigorous application of the requirements of a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings, as well as an integrated approach to the Mayo test. The opinion is noteworthy as well because Judge Stark is no pushover on Section 101: Before MAZ he granted six of nine Section 101 motions (including two 12(b) motions) invalidating over a dozen patents. Judge Stark also wrote the opinion invalidating the patents in the Federal Circuit’s Mortgage Grader case. …