Guest Post by Polk Wagner (Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law)
Mark Lemley, Michael Risch, Ted Sichelman, and I have authored an amicus brief in the Bilski v. Doll case currently pending before the US Supreme Court. (Get the full brief here [pdf].) In that brief, we argue that the Court's precedents establish that the key to eligible subject matter is ascertaining whether an idea is claimed as applied–in which case it is eligible for patentability (assuming it is not a natural phenomenon or law of nature)–or merely in the abstract–in which case it is not.
We start with the proposition that while the range of subject matter available for patenting is very broad, it is not unlimited. But the restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court, we think, have not focused on the technology, form, or physicality of the claimed invention–the critical mistake made by the Federal Circuit in Bilski. Rather, the Court has uniformly recognized that the key to eligible subject matter is ascertaining whether an idea is claimed as applied, or claimed in the abstract.
This applied/abstract distinction has a long history in Supreme Court caselaw. It can be most clearly seen in the O'Reilly v. Morse case from 1854, where the Court invalidated a claim to all communication by electrical signal as abstract, but allowed a claim to the application of the communications method to stand. 56 U.S. 62, 112-21 (1854). That is, where Morse claimed the idea of communication by electrical signal, the claim was disallowed. But the Court did uphold Morse's claim to a system (e.g., "Morse Code") that applied the communication-by-electricity idea in a practical, concrete way.
One can discern the applied/abstract thread throughout twentieth-century Supreme Court decisions involving §101 subject matter. In Mackay Radio, the Court upheld a claim to a mathematical principle (related to the reception of radio waves) as applied to an antenna, noting that "[w]hile a scientific truth, or the mathematical expression of it, is not patentable invention, a novel and useful structure created with the aid of knowledge of scientific truth may be." 306 U.S. 86, 94 (1939). In Gottschalk v. Benson, the Court denied patentability to an "abstract and sweeping" claim: the mathematical conversion of binary coded decimals into pure binary format. 409 U.S. 63, 66-67 (1972). And finally, in Diamond v. Diehr, the applied/abstract approach drove the analysis–in upholding the claims, the Court noted that the subject matter was not "directed to a mathematical algorithm or an improved method of calculation but rather recited an improved process for molding rubber articles by solving a practical problem which had arisen in the molding of rubber products." 450 U.S. 175, 181 (1981) (emphasis added). Indeed, in Diehr, the Court makes our argument for us:
It is now commonplace that an application of a law of nature or mathematical formula to a known structure or process may well be deserving of patent protection. . . . Arrhenius' equation is not patentable in isolation, but when a process for curing rubber is devised which incorporates in it a more efficient solution of the equation, that process is at the least not barred at the threshold by §101.
Id. at 187-88 (emphasis in original).
We also argue that echoes of this applied/abstract distinction can be seen in the related-but-distinct caselaw considering the patentability of products of nature. Here, the Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized in this context that the patent law is designed to protect applications of human ingenuity, not simply "natures' handiwork." Thus, while a man-made organism is eligible for patentability, see Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 310 (1980), a natural bacterium is not, see Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., 333 U.S. 127, 131 (1948). The boundary here is neither the form of the invention nor its ability to transform nature; instead the analysis turns on whether the patent claims describe the application of human knowledge to a practical end. In this way, a claim to an abstract idea is like a claim to a product of nature: unmoored to real-world applications of human inventiveness, and thus ineligible for patenting.
Finally, we note that the applied/abstract analytic framework nicely harmonizes Section 101 with Section 112's enablement requirement. Much like Section 101, Section 112 safeguards the essential function of the patent system: the dissemination of real-world, practical human knowledge. Claims to abstract mathematical concepts (like claims to natural products or physical phenomena) violate this tenet, by failing to demonstrate that the inventor is adding to the storehouse of useful, practical human accomplishment. (Indeed, the subject matter and enablement requirements were formerly part of the same statutory section. Patent Act of 1836, Ch. 357, 5 Stat. 117, § 6 (July 4, 1836).)
In sum, we argue that the patent statutes were wisely drafted with an expansive vision of patentable subject matter. Efforts to graft judicially created limitations onto that expansive scope in the past have proven fruitless and indeed counterproductive. This Court should not impose a requirement that patentable inventions require a machine or the physical transformation of some material. It should instead maintain the rule that patents are available for anything under the sun made by man, including discoveries of ideas, laws of nature, or natural phenomena so long as they are implemented in a practical application. In short, the test should be as it has been: where an idea is claimed as applied, it is eligible for patentability, but if it is claimed merely in the abstract it is not.