By Dennis Crouch
SmartGene v. ABL (Fed. Cir. 2014) (nonprecedential)
35 U.S.C. 101 is a foundational patent law statute that defines the scope of patent eligibility. The statute states that:
Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.
Section 101 is written in broad and open terms and has been seen as providing notice that patent law is not intended to be limited to any particular forms of technology.
In interpreting the statute, the Supreme Court has added an additional set of subject matter eligibility restrictions only nominally grounded in the statute. Most notable, these include proscriptions against the patenting of abstract ideas, natural phenomenon, and products of nature. Also excluded from eligibility are “mental processes.” It is somewhat unclear from precedent whether these mental processes are whole included within the abstract idea construct or whether instead there are some mental processes that would be excluded even though not considered abstract ideas.
Here, ABL’s patents cover a diagnostic method that basically pulls information from three separate knowledge bases, ranks the results and provides advisory information related to those results. As claimed these steps use a “computing device” to generate and provide the results. The patents also include computerized “system” claims; computer program claims; and sorage-medium claims that are all designed to facilitate the practice of the method. See U.S. Patent Nos. 6,081,786 and 6,188,988.
In 2008, SmartGene filed for declaratory judgment of invalidity and also filed a reexamination request with the USPTO. The PTO considered the prior art and confirmed patentability. However, the District Court ruled that all of the patented claims were invalid as ineligible under Section 101. Rather than walking through each claim of each patent, the District Court (1) first held that, for eligibility purposes, Claim 1 of the ’786 patent (the method claim) was representative of all claims in the patents and (2) then found that claim ineligible under § 101. The district court wrote that the claim does “no more than describe . . . an abstract mental process engaged in routinely, either entirely within a physician’s mind, or potentially aided by other resources in the treatment of patients.”
On appeal, the Federal Circuit has affirmed in a non-precedential decision written by Judge Taranto and joined by Judges Lourie and Dyk. Famed eligibility defender Robert Sachs of Fenwick represented the Patentee whkle Fred Samuels (Cahn & Samuels) represented the DJ Plaintiff.
The Federal Circuit first considered the district court’s process in holding all claims from both patents ineligible based only upon consideration of one claim from one patent. The court affirmed the district court finding based upon a waiver principle.
On to the meat of the 101 analysis, the Federal Circuit began with a citation to CyberSource:
This conclusion [of ineligibility] follows from CyberSource Corp. v. Retail Decisions, Inc., where, based on earlier precedents, this court held that section 101 did not embrace a process defined simply as using a computer to perform a series of mental steps that people, aware of each step, can and regularly do perform in their heads.
The court went on to write that mental processes are not eligible nor are processes that use basic computer functionality to implement mental processes unless the invention specifies “new physical components” or other steps “defined other than by the mentally performable steps.”
For these princples, the court relied heavily on Supreme Court precedent of Benson, Flook, and Mayo as well as the appellate decisions of CyberSource as well as In re Grams, 888 F.2d 835, 840-41 (Fed. Cir. 1989) and In re Meyer, 688 F.2d 789, 794-95 (C.C.P.A. 1982).
The discussion of Mayo in the decision is interesting in the way that the court draws close parallels between the way laws of nature and abstract ideas should be interpreted:
Mayo demanded that, when a claim involves an abstract idea (or, in Mayo itself, a law of nature), eligibility under section 101 requires that the claim involve “enough” else—applying the idea in the realm of tangible physical objects (for product claims) or physical actions (for process claims)—that is beyond “well-understood, routine, conventional activity.” 132 S. Ct. at 1294, 1298, 1299. The claim here does not do so. It calls on a computer to do nothing that is even arguably an advance in physical implementations of routine mental information-comparison and rule-application processes. In this context, the concern about preempting public use of certain kinds of knowledge, emphasized in Mayo, is a grave one.
It appears from Myriad, that the process for determining the product-of-nature exclusion is somewhat different since there, the court allowed the patentee to obtain protection for a DNA sequence whose physical differences from the naturally occurring sequence were due to well-understood, routine, and then conventional laboratory processes.
Is a mental step an abstract idea?: The court punts on this question and instead writing that:
[M]ental processes and abstract ideas (whatever may be the precise definition and relation of those concepts) are excluded from section 101. Whatever the boundaries of the abstract ideas category, the claim at issue here involves a mental process excluded from section 101: the mental steps of comparing new and stored information and using rules to identify medical options.
The analysis here pessimistically fits the approach leading abstract idea jurisprudence that traditionally fails to explain the scope and bounds of the abstract idea category but finds that the particular invention in question fits within the category.
Judge Taranto: This decision is important because it was written by Judge Taranto. Although there was not tremendous doubt in his position, Judge Taranto did not participate in the CLS Bank en banc fiasco that resulted in no majority opinion. Judge Taranto’s participation would have likely shifted the balance in favor of a majority opinion ruling strongly against subject matter eligibility of software claims that do not add new “technology.”
Judge Taranto is also important because, of all the Federal Circuit judges, he likely best understands the pulse of the Supreme Court and I will not be surprised when the Supreme Court decision in CLS Bank parallels this one.