Sharply differing majority and dissenting opinions in the Federal Circuit’s recent American Axle & Manufacturing v. Neapco Holdings decision present yet another case where the Federal Circuit appears to be in need of further patent eligibility guidance from the Supreme Court. The American Axle case centers on the patent-eligibility of a method for dampening vibrations in vehicle driveshafts. In its recent decision, the Federal Circuit upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment in that dispute, holding that under controlling precedent the asserted claims are ineligible under § 101 as preempting a natural law.

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Back in March, I reported on the breadth of comments the USPTO received in response to its new Guidance on patent subject matter eligibility. Now, Congress has taken up the issue with a proposed draft of a new bipartisan, bicameral bill, and the Subcommittee on Intellectual Property (under the Senate’s Committee on the Judiciary) recently completed three days of hearings. Sen. Thom Tillis has already stated that based on the testimony, he realizes revisions will need to be crafted to address issues with the new definition of “utility,” to reconsider the proposed amendment to § 112(f), to consider an appropriate enhancement of exemptions for experimental use and research, and to clarify that the legislation is not intended to promote patenting of human genes.

The range of commentary from the hearing’s 45 witnesses largely matched that provided in response to the USPTO Guidance. In addition, however, the witnesses collectively provided a breadth and depth of thinking that should be extremely helpful as the subcommittee considers what to do next. Provided below is a summary of the written testimony that each witness brought to the hearings. Though the summary is somewhat lengthy, reviewing the various perspectives really helps one understand why the balancing of interests involved in this fundamental issue of patent law is so important. I also hope that the summary below may be a useful shortcut for stakeholders to find testimony relevant to issues they may want to focus on.


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In April, Senators Coons and Tillis proposed a draft framework for legislation reformulating the standards for determining patent eligibility under § 101 of the Patent Act. The framework largely codified the Patent Office’s latest internal eligibility standards that went into place in January 2019, formulating a closed list of categories excluded from patent eligibility and creating a “practical exception” test to ensure that such categories are construed narrowly.

On May 22, Senators Coons and Tillis were joined by Representatives Collins, Johnson and Stivers in proposing a bicameral draft bill containing—among other things—new text for § 101, as well as new supporting definitions in § 100.

It should be noted that the draft bill is still very much open to discussion, with hearings of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property to be held on June 4, 5 and 11. That said, I’ve summarized some of the draft language’s key points below:


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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 period ended on March 8, the USPTO cautioned that its web page posting the comments might not be complete for a couple of weeks thereafter. By now, all the submitted comments likely have been posted so it’s time to take a look at them.

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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.  


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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

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.
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It's been one year since the Supreme Court's decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank. On its face the opinion was relatively conservative, cautioning courts to "tread carefully" before invalidating patents, and emphasizing that the primary concern was to avoid preemption of "fundamental building blocks" of human ingenuity.  The Court specifically avoided any suggestion that software or business methods were presumptively invalid.  But those concerns seem to have gone unheeded.  The Court's attempt to sidestep the tricky problem of defining the boundary of an exception to patent eligibility—"we need not labor to delimit the precise contours of the "abstract ideas category in this case""—has turned into the very mechanism that is quickly "swallow[ing] all of patent law.” The federal courts, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board, and the USPTO are using the very lack of a definition to liberally expand the contours of abstract ideas to cover everything from computer animation to database architecture to digital photograph management and even to safety systems for automobiles.

Let's look at the numbers to present an accurate picture of the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision. My analysis is a data-driven attempt to assess the implications of Alice one year out. It is with an understanding of how the Supreme Court’s decision is actually playing out in the theater of innovation that we can better project and position ourselves for what the future holds.

Alice at Court

Table 0 Fed Courts

As of June 19, 2015 there have been 106 Federal Circuit and district court decisions on § 101 grounds, with 76 decisions invalidating the patents at issue in whole or in part.  In terms of patents and claims, 65% of challenged patents have been found invalid, along with 76.2% of the challenged claims. 


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It's been six weeks since my last AliceStorm update, and we've had plenty of action: twelve §101 decisions, and fourteen patents invalidated in just that period. That said, the success rate of motions on the pleadings is dropping, now down to a mere 69.6%. At PTAB, ten new institution decisions, all of which were granted on ineligibility grounds. And PTAB continues with its 100% kill rate, with seven (!) final decisions invalidating patents.

Here's the data.

Total

Total Invalid

% Invalid

+/-

Fed. Cir and 
Dist. Ct. Decisions

90

63

70.0%

-3.9%

Patents

215

131

60.9%

-10.4%

Claims

4,497

3,282

73.0%

-7.3%

Motions on Pleading

46

32

69.6%

-7.6%

PTAB CBM Institution Decisions on 101

51

44

88.5%

1.52%

PTAB CBM Final
Decisions on 101

27

27

100%

 0%


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