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.

Continue Reading Seeing a Forest, Not Just Trees: Core Wireless v. LG

I was reminded of this question, often posed by my dad to remind me not to become a slave to statistics, by two dramatic things that happened last week. On the one hand, at the IAM 2017 Patent Law and Policy conference in Washington DC, investors spoke about waning interest in the U.S. market given the increasing frequency of patent invalidations. On the other hand, the Nasdaq composite index (consisting of 86% U.S. companies) hit record closing and intraday highs. Whom are we to believe: those who say weak patent coverage is threatening our economy or those who say that patents are not, in fact, necessary for economic strength?

Or is there a third possibility—that other factors overwhelm the economic importance of patents so we can’t really give too much weight to the statistics?

The speakers at the IAM conference cited PTAB invalidation rates and post-Alice hostility to 21st century technologies as reasons that they are looking more kindly on, for example, European, Chinese, and Canadian portfolio elements. Uncertainty regarding PTO examination norms and PTAB decisions, as well as apparently inconsistent panels of the Federal Circuit, have reportedly made it more difficult to value U.S. patent assets than those of other jurisdictions. The fact that the Supreme Court in the Oil States case is considering whether PTAB review of issued patents is even constitutional gives yet more pause.

Continue Reading Did You Hear About the Statistician Who Drowned in a Lake With an Average Depth of Two Feet?

This third article in the “Surviving Alice” series[1] examines how the USPTO’s Patent Trial and Appeal Board has responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2014 Alice decision[2].  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:

  1. “Determine whether the claims at issue are directed to a patent-ineligible concept” [3](e.g. abstract idea or fundamental economic practice); and
  2. 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. “[4] (e.g. an improvement to another technology)

The business method work groups[5] 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[6].  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[7] are discussed below. Continue Reading Surviving Alice with an Appeal

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:

Non-precedential decisions:  Finally, given the large and ever-increasing number of  precedential decisions, examiners should avoid relying upon or citing non-precedential  decisions (e.g., SmartGene, Cyberfone) unless the facts of the application under examination uniquely match the facts at issue in the non-precedential decision.  The updated chart of court decisions available on the USPTO’ s SME Webpage indicates whether a decision is precedential or non­ precedential.

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

The Supreme Court’s recent decision on patent venue, TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands, may actually turn out to be a good thing for patentees when it comes to Section 101.  But before we get to that, let’s do the AliceStorm numbers: The overall Alicestorm index of percentage of Section 101 ineligibility outcomes in the federal courts is up 0.6% from March, at 67.6%.   The Federal Circuit contributed the most to the increase, issuing eight separate decisions finding patent eligible subject matter, with six of these decisions being Rule 36 affirmances.  The number of motions on the pleadings index are up as well, by 1.2% from March, at 63.3%. Turning to the monthly numbers, after the record number (35) of Section 101 decisions in March 2017 things returned to “normal” with just 15 decisions: The bump in March contributed to a marked increase in the three-month average of ineligible decisions, jacking it up from 62% to 73%.  But beneath that, we can also see that the raw number of ineligible decisions in April (13) is about the same as the high marks since August 2016, and that the raw number of eligible outcomes (2) is at its lowest level since October 2015.  This puts the ratio of ineligible to eligible decisions in April 2017 at 6.5, the highest it’s been since June 2015.  Whether this signals a real uptick in favor of patent defendants or just a temporary blip in the overall downward trend in ineligible outcomes remains to be seen. Continue Reading #AliceStorm: April Update and the Impact of TC Heartland on Patent Eligibility

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[1] 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[2] and the examining art units[3].  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.

Continue Reading Surviving Alice in the e-Commerce Arts

On April 17, Mozilla and Stanford Law held a panel to discuss the role of the First Amendment in the patent law, and specifically the impact on the patent eligibility of software and genes sequences.

Joining me on the panel were Dan Burk, a professor at the UC Irvine School of Law; Sandra Park, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project; and Wendy Seltzer, strategy lead and policy counsel at the World Wide Web Consortium, as well as moderator Elvin Lee, Mozilla’s Product and Commercial Counsel.

We discussed how IP law and the First Amendment intersect in IP disputes, eligibility tests, and the balance of interests between patent holders and users.

The debate over the First Amendment and boundaries of patent protection became a hot topic for discussion after Circuit Judge Haldane Mayer issued his 2016 opinion in Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Symantec Corporation.

We discussed and debated both sides, and also talked about topics such as whether patent law creates conflicts with the First Amendment and whether subject-matter eligibility tests created by the Supreme Court (e.g., Alice) mitigate or impact any potential First Amendment issues. We also explored how the First Amendment’s intersection with patent law compares to other IP and regulatory contexts and the different competing interests for IP owners and creators.

On April 12th, the Federal Circuit, in a per curiam order, denied SHzoom’s motion to make the Trading Technologies opinion precedential.   The order of course gave no reasons for the decision.   Even so, the underlying decision is still a good one for patentees and applicants. While not binding on the USPTO, it can nonetheless be argued as persuasive authority to examiners where the facts in the application “uniquely match” those in the case. Prosecutors should consider arguing this case to examiners where they have specifically claimed graphical elements that provide specific functionality. The case is noteworthy because it is the first true “business method” patent that the Federal Circuit has upheld.  The claims of the patents specifically recited steps for placing trade orders in electronic exchanges. Claim 1 of Trading Technologies’ US 6,766,304 is shown here as example: Continue Reading Federal Circuit Denies SHzoom’s Bid to Make Trading Technologies Decision Precedential, But the Case is Still Good Law

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:

  1. 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:

We hold that the ’159 patent claims at issue in this appeal are not directed to an abstract idea. The claims specify a particular configuration of inertial sensors and a particular method of using the raw data from the sensors in order to more accurately calculate the position and orientation of an object on a moving platform.

Continue Reading Heads Up: The Federal Circuit Sees Patent Eligibility in Knowing Which Way to Look

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 to leverage that motion as a further reason for the case to be reheard, arguing in their respose that “SHzoom’s Motion requesting that the panel’s decision in this case be made precedential should be denied. Its arguments further illustrate why CQG’s Petition for rehearing en banc should be granted.”

The Federal Circuit did not bite and today denied CQG’s petitions for rehearing.  We’ll likely see their decision on SHzoom’s motion shortly.