At the time of my last update in February on the state of patent eligibility law, the Supreme Court had recently declined to grant cert on Athena, Vanda, Berkheimer, Cellspin, Power Analytics, ChargePoint and Trading Technologies. The Court has now additionally denied petitions to address patent eligibility questions in The Chamberlain Group
Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued its second and third decisions in American Axle & Manufacturing v. Neapco Holdings and Neapco Drivelines, the case we’ve previously discussed in which the following claim (claim 22) was held to be unpatentable because it “merely describes a desired result”:
22. A method for manufacturing a shaft assembly of a driveline system, the driveline system further including a first driveline component and a second driveline component, the shaft assembly being adapted to transmit torque between the first driveline component and the second driveline component, the method comprising:
Providing a hollow shaft member;
Tuning a mass and a stiffness of at least one liner, and
Inserting the at least one liner into the shaft member;
Wherein the at least one liner is a tuned resistive absorber for attenuating shell mode vibrations and wherein the at least one liner is a tuned reactive absorber for attenuating bending mode vibrations.
The original split panel produced a majority opinion from Judge Dyk supported by Judge Taranto, and a dissent by Judge Moore, affirming the district court’s ineligibility ruling. On July 31, 2020, the 12 judges of the court evenly split on whether a rehearing en banc was appropriate, resulting in the petition for rehearing en banc being denied. In addition to two concurrences, there were four separate dissents on the en banc petition decision.
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.
Continue Reading Rough Ride for Split Federal Circuit on Eligibility of Driveshaft Vibration Reduction Method
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.
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.
Continue Reading No Shortage of Viewpoints on New USPTO Patent Eligibility Guidelines
As my prior post on the 2019 Revised Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance indicated, I initially anticipated only a modest uptick in allowability rates as a result of the new guidance. After analyzing the accompanying examples, however, I concluded that the effect would likely be markedly more profound. Subsequent conversations with examiners—many of whom have now agreed to drop their long-standing eligibility rejections—have only confirmed that belief.
The examples provide analyses of 10 claims as part of six new hypothetical inventions. Significantly, of the 10 claims analyzed, only three are held to be ineligible, and those three are notable for their conspicuous brevity and breadth (44 words / two elements; 71 words / two elements; and 81 words / three elements, respectively). Each of the inventions for which a claim is held ineligible—namely, Examples 37, 40 and 42—also includes an example of an eligible claim, thereby perhaps implying that most inventions should be able to be made eligible as long as the applicant is willing to claim them with sufficient specificity. If so, this would be in marked contrast to earlier post-Alice PTO practice, in which examiners—perhaps due to uncomfortable uncertainty about what was eligible and what was not and fear of being reprimanded for granting a patent on something that might subsequently be found ineligible, perhaps due to the ease of making rejections by broadly applying the holdings of particular Federal Circuit cases—were frequently committed to their § 101 rejections, maintaining the rejections despite all applicant attempts at claim amendments.
[This post was updated on Jan. 17, 2019]
On Jan. 4, the Patent Office released the long-awaited 2019 Revised Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance, which governs the Office’s examination procedure for evaluation of patent subject matter eligibility under 35 U.S.C. § 101.
The new guidance distinctly changes the tone of § 101 discourse to one more in favor of eligibility than in years past. In the same way that the tone of prior Office guidance in the wake of Alice v. CLS Bank appeared to lean in favor of findings of ineligibility, despite a lack of concrete legal standards compelling this result, the more pro-patent feel of the new guidance will likely by itself lead to an uptick in allowance rates. Tone aside, however, beyond signaling an increase in the perceived permissibility of examiners finding patents eligible, there appears to be little additional substance in the new guidance that could be used to compel a skeptical examiner to find a given claimed invention to be patent-eligible.
My last post focused on definitions for the terms “well-understood,” “routine,” and “conventional”—or W-URC—from the subject matter eligibility test set forth in Mayo and further described in Alice. Those terms relate to one part of the current test only. It seems fair to consider another important term in the test, one that’s considered before even reaching the W-URC issue: Whether the claim is “directed to” patent-ineligible subject matter, e.g., a law of nature.
I was particularly reminded of the need to address this when reading last week’s Federal Circuit opinions in Vanda Pharmaceuticals v. West-Ward Pharmaceuticals. Not only did Judge Prost pen a stark dissent from Judge Lourie’s opinion for the court, but both the majority and dissenting opinions focused on this phrase over and over. The opinion of the court referenced “directed to” 17 times and the dissent used it 10 times. Further, the phrase was used either in italics or quotes five times, emphasizing the importance of the term. So it’s worthwhile to give a look to what “directed to” means.
The Federal Circuit has now had enough opportunity to address Mayo’s “well-understood, routine, conventional” test that we should have a good understanding of it. We don’t (or at least I don’t).
To begin with, the Federal Circuit cases don’t seem to differentiate among these terms. The cases also universally connect the three terms with “and” rather than “or,” but curiously most of the cases don’t seem to actually require all three to be explicitly met for a determination of ineligibility. See, e.g., Content Extraction, where the Federal Circuit noted only that the patent owner had conceded one function as being “routine.” Finally, there seems to be real disagreement about the extent to which these terms address facts as opposed to legal standards. In this post, I’m not going to comprehensively analyze all these issues, but instead will focus primarily on what these common terms mean.
After Alice, the USPTO’s various guidance memoranda included references to non-precedential Federal Circuit decisions, particularly Smartgene, Cyberfone, and Planet Bingo, as examples of patent-ineligible subject matter. Naturally, examiners cited these decisions in support of their Section 101 rejections. Smartgene was the most frequently cited because the USPTO glossed it simply as “comparing new and stored information and using rules to identify options,” a characterization that allowed examiners to apply the case to just about any computer-implemented method. I and others expressed our concerns to the USPTO about the examiners’ reliance on Smartgene and other non-precedential cases in comments on the Interim and subsequent guidance memos. Full disclosure: I was counsel to ABL, the patentee in Smartgene. On November 2, 2016, the Office issued the “McRO” memo, explaining how examiners should interpret the Federal Circuit’s decision in McRO v. Bandai. The memo ended with an instruction that examiners should limit their reliance on non-precedential cases:
The guidance seemed clear: unless the application before the examiner “uniquely matched” the facts of a non-precedential decision, the decision should not be relied upon–there was an “ever-increasing” number of precedential cases that could be used instead. …
Continue Reading Examiner Citations of Smartgene, Cyberfone Drop After McRo Memo