Two years ago this Sunday, the Supreme Court in Alice Corp. Pty Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int'l1 addressed a relatively narrow issue: does a claim reciting a generic computer implementation transform an abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention?  The Court considered this a "minor case" in which it did not break new ground, but instead simply followed its decisions in Bilski2 and Mayo.3 The Court reiterated a two-step test set forth in Mayo determine whether the claim recites a judicial exception and if so, determine whether the claim recites an "inventive concept," something "significantly more" than the exception and "enough" to transform the claim into eligible subject matter.4  The Court applied this test to find that Alice’s claim simply recited a fundamental economic practice of risk intermediation through third party settlement, and then held that the presence of generic computing elements or steps was not sufficient to provide an inventive concept.5  To the Court, this was an easy case.

Three aspects of the decision are worth noting. First, the Court did not see the case as presenting a difficult question of defining what is an abstract idea. "In any event, we need not labor to delimit the precise contours of the "abstract ideas" category in this case….Both [Alice and Bilski’s claims] are squarely within the realm of "abstract ideas" as we have used that term.6  In other words, whatever an abstract idea was before Alice, it was the same afterward: there was no expansion of the scope of the term. 

Continue Reading Two Years After Alice: A Survey of the Impact of a “Minor Case” (Part 1)

On May 4, the USPTO issued a new memorandum for patent examiners, “Formulating a Subject Matter Eligibility Rejection and Evaluating the Applicant's Response to a Subject Matter Eligibility Rejection” (“Examiner Instructions”)  along with a new set of five example claims, this time in the life sciences and chemistry arts.   The Examiner Instructions are a positive step forward in refining the examination process, but leave open many questions.  

The Examiner Instructions are primarily procedural in nature—how the examiners are to draft § 101 rejections and respond to arguments—rather than addressing substantive issues such as the scope of abstract ideas, laws of nature or natural products  This comes, I believe, in response to many of the public comments to the Interim Guidance and the July Update that focused on having examiners provide more complete and thorough rejections.  There is a widespread perception, backed up by real evidence, that a large percentage of examiners issue boilerplate § 101 rejections that simply identify some alleged abstract idea, and then formulaically assert that there is no inventive concept because all of the claims limitations recite well-known, routine and conventional steps or the functions of a generic computer.  

Continue Reading USPTO Updates Alice Guidance with Examiner Instructions, More Work Needed

Go to: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

(This series of posts is based on an upcoming paper for the AIPLA Spring 2016 meeting.)


The fictional form of the mental steps doctrine is inapplicable to digital computers and computer-implemented inventions for several reasons.

First, prior to the widespread usage of the general purpose computer, many inventions were created, and many patents granted, for mechanical and electrical machines that performed mathematical calculations. For example, between 1900 and 1960, there were over 2,300 patents issued that related to mechanical computing devices. That such devices were patent-eligible subject matter seemed beyond dispute, and there are no federal cases in which claims to such devices or their methods of operation were held to be unpatentable subject matter. Calculating machines also perform simple arithmetic that a human could easily do by “head and hand”, but that does not disqualify them as patentable subject matter. This is because the mathematical operations had been mechanized into physical elements: the “locus of the operation” was in the mechanical or electrical elements of the machine.

Continue Reading The Mind as Computer Metaphor: Benson and the Mistaken Application of Mental Steps to Software (Part 5)

Go to: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

(This series of posts is based on an upcoming paper for the AIPLA Spring 2016 meeting.)


Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s misstatement of the relationship between computers and minds continues to this day to be cited as authority and a statement of fact about how computers operate. The Court’s conversion of the mental steps doctrine from its factual form to its fictional form in essence turned the performance of mental steps from being a necessary condition for ineligibility to a sufficient condition. And since the Alice decision refused to offer a definition or even a methodology for identifying abstract ideas, the fictional form of mental steps has been taken up as a model tool. As a result, it has substantively impacted both the case law and the outcome of many patent cases.

Continue Reading The Mind as Computer Metaphor: Benson and the Mistaken Application of Mental Steps to Software (Part 4)

Alice has been busy the last two months, continuing to haunt the federal courts and the Knox and Randolph buildings at the USPTO. Here are the latest #AliceStorm numbers through the end of October 2015: Table 1 Alice Summary There have been 34 district court decisions in the past two months, but the percentage of invalidity decision is holding constant at 70.5%.   The number of patent claims invalidated is now over 11,000, but also holding steady at around 71%. There have been no new Federal Circuit Section 101 decisions, but we’re going to see a flurry of activity in the next couple of months, as the court has recently heard oral argument in a number of patent eligibility cases, and more are on calendar for November. Motions on the pleadings have soared, with 23 in the past two months alone, and the success rate is up a tick from 70.1% to 71.4%. Continue Reading #AliceStorm for Halloween: Was it a Trick or a Treat?

On September 4, a Massachusetts district court issued an interesting ruling that calls into question many of the recent preliminary stage Alice-based invalidations we’ve seen over the past year.  The decision, the latest round in ongoing litigation between DataTern and numerous defendants, is notable for the following reasons:

  • It expressly recognizes that the presumption of validity applies to subject matter eligibility, saying that notwithstanding some suggestions in the Federal Circuit to the contrary (see Judge Mayer in Ultramercial III, 772 F.3d at 720-721), the Supreme Court’s unanimous statement in Microsoft Corp. v. i4i Ltd. Partnership, 131 S. Ct. 2238 (2011) was, without qualification, that 35 U.S.C. § 282 requires an invalidity defense to be proved by clear and convincing evidence.  The DataTern court refused to read the Supreme Court’s silence on the issue in its more recent § 101 decisions as creating any sort of exception to that rule.
  • The patent at issue (6,101,502) is remarkable in how little hardware it describes in the specification, and the claims are directed, for example, to, “A method of interfacing an object oriented software application with a relational database, comprising the steps of selecting an object model; generating a map …; employing the map …; and utilizing a runtime engine … to access data from the relational database.”  Thus, these are pretty software-centric claims, which have had a dismal track record in recent § 101 challenges.
  • After summarizing the post-Alice case law, the court found that “the ‘502 patent is directed at solving a problem that specifically arises in the realm of computing” so computer limitations in the claims are neither just post-solution limitations nor mere specific applications of an abstract idea.

Based on such reasoning, the court denied the motion for summary judgment of invalidity.  If this decision is appealed, it will be interesting to see the Federal Circuit’s reactions to the presumption of validity issue, the minimal recitation of hardware, and the “realm of computing” analysis.  Given the paucity of other cases upholding such software-related claims, we should expect to see this decision cited in numerous other pending cases in the coming months.

In my July post, I noted that Section 101 court decisions were issuing fast and furious, with twelve decisions in just the first ten days.  I predicted that “At this pace, we could see some twenty to thirty decisions this month.” Sadly, I was spot on: there were 21 decisions, with 17 of those (81%) invalidating 36 patents.  With those cases, and the cases through August 26, these are the current #AliceStorm numbers:


Compared to the last numbers from July, the invalidity decision rate is up a tick, patent invalidity percentage is essentially unchanged, and claims are down a bit.  No surprise, PTAB continues its 100% kill rate on final CBM decisions. Continue Reading #AliceStorm: The Summertime Blues Continue

Part II:  See Part I #AliceStorm: July is Hot, Hot, Hot…and Versata is Not, Not, Not

What Is a “technological invention”?

The other part of the CBM definition at issue in Versata is the exclusion of a technological invention from the scope of CBM review. Correctly, the Court noted that the USPTO’s circular definition of technological invention as “essentially one having a “technological” feature that solves a “technical” problem using a “technical” solution,” “does not offer much help.”  But instead of defining what was technological, the Court looked to what PTAB said was not technological, that is “certain characteristics which, if present, did not help support a finding” that an invention was technological.  Here are PTAB’s exclusionary factors:

1) mere “recitation of known technologies”; 2) “reciting the use of known prior art technology”; and 3) “combining prior art structures to achieve the normal, expected, or predictable result of that combination.”

As a general rule you do not define a word by what it is not: the definition of mammal is not creatures that do not have scales, cold blood, and lay eggs.  Similarly, the use of exclusions does not effectively differentiate between technological inventions and non-technological inventions. Continue Reading Versata: What’s “Technological” and the Federal Circuit’s New Rule Against Improvements

NOTE (July 14, 2015): When I wrote this piece on Sunday, there were only 7 decisions announced through July 10. When I came to work on Monday, there were three more, so I revised and published yesterday with the count at ten.  Now today, two more decision from July 10!

All of the tables have been updated accordingly.

Perhaps I should just wait until tomorrow?

Part I: #AliceStorm and Versata

July invokes images of hot days, cool nights, and fireworks.  When it comes to #Alicestorm, the fireworks are happening in the courts, with the Federal Circuit lighting up the sky.


In just the first ten days of July, there have been ten twelve decisions on patent eligibility—more decisions in first ten days of any month since Alice was decided last year the dawn of time.  At this pace, we could see some twenty to thirty decisions this month.   #AliceStorm is accelerating. 

Continue Reading #AliceStorm: July is Smoking Hot, Hot, Hot…and Versata is Not, Not, Not

The most important thing that happened in June was not the invalidation of yet another pile of patents, but the rather more consequential decision of the Supreme Court to recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry.  Unlike patent law issues, when it comes to constitutional law, the Court can recognize the complexity and depth of the issue and, not surprisingly, the Court is deeply divided.  That the Court is unanimous on equally complex and divisive issues in patent law—such as eligibility—speaks to me that they do not have the same deep understanding of the domain.

Now, let’s do the #AliceStorm numbers.  First, the federal courts:


Since my May 28 update, there have been 19 § 101 decisions including two Federal Circuit decisions, Internet Patents Corp. v. Active Network, Inc. and Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, Inc., both holding the challenged patents ineligible.  Overall, the Federal Court index is up 3.1% in decisions and an (un?)healthy 6.2% in patents.  The Motions on Pleading index is holding steady; the last five decisions on § 101 motions to dismiss have found the patents in suit invalid.

Continue Reading #AliceStorm In June: A Deeper Dive into Court Trends, and New Data On Alice inside the USPTO