The 1998 Federal Circuit decision in State Street Bank opened the door to patent protection on a wider variety of innovations — especially in the fields of business methods and software. State Street held that an invention should be patent eligible under 35 U.S.C. §101 if it involves some practical application and “it produces a useful, concrete and tangible result.”
Although not rejected by the majority opinion, it is clear that the broad “useful, concrete, and tangible result” test is dead. That test is conclusively rejected by what I term the Anti-State-Street Majority — a majority created by the combining the two concurring opinions in Bilski and their five-justice majority. The result is that the scope of patentable subject matter is certainly narrowed from its 1998 high-water-mark.
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In Bilski v. Kappos (2010), the majority opinion neither endorses nor rejects State Street — writing instead that “nothing in today’s opinion should be read as endorsing interpretations of §101 that the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has used in the past. See, e.g., State Street, 149 F. 3d, at 1373; AT&T Corp., 172 F. 3d, at 1357.”
The two concurring opinions in Bilski (2010) both explicitly reject the Useful-Concrete-And-Tangible-Result test of State Street. Justice Stevens writes that “it would be a grave mistake to assume that anything with a ‘useful, concrete and tangible result,’ may be patented. (Justice Stevens concurrence at FN 1). Justice Breyer reiterated his prior statement that “if taken literally, the statement [that anything which produces a useful, concrete, and tangible result, is patentable] would cover instances where this court has held the contrary.” (Justice Breyer concurrence). The two concurrences are in agreement on this point and are signed by five Supreme Court Justices — leading to a second majority on that particular point.
Of course, in its In re Bilksi decision, the Federal Circuit already repudiated State Street as inadequate and "insufficient to determine whether a claim is patent-eligible under § 101."
Cumulatively, this means that the broadest notion of patentable subject matter as represented by State Street is not the law. Although not "the test" it appears that the USPTO will continue to use the machine-or-transformation test as a "tool" for determining whether particular process claims fit within Section 101. A recent Post-Bilski notice to examiners indicated as much:
Examiners should continue to examine patent applications for compliance with section 101 using the existing guidance concerning the machine-or-transformation test as a tool for determining whether the claimed invention is a process under section 101. If a claimed method meets the machine-or-transformation test, the method is likely patent eligible under section 101 unless there is a clear indication that the method is directed to an abstract idea. If a claimed method does not meet the machine-or-transformation test, the examiner should reject the claim under section 101 unless there is a clear indication that the method is not directed to an abstract idea. If a claim is rejected under section 101 on the basis that it is drawn to an abstract idea, the applicant then has the opportunity to explain why the claimed method is not drawn to an abstract idea.
I'm sure that our notion of the law will continue to develop as the Bilski decision makes its way into daily practice.