Guest Post by Donald S Chisum, Director of the Chisum Patent Academy and author of Chisum on Patents.
In Alice (June 19, 2014), the Supreme Court held that the two step framework for determining the Section 101 patent-eligibility of a patent claim, which the Court previously articulated in the 2012 Mayo decision on the patentability of a diagnostic method, applied to computer-implemented inventions. Thus, one determines: (1) does the claim recite an ineligible concept (natural phenomena, natural law or abstract idea), and (2) if so, does the claim recite sufficient additional elements to make the claim one to an application of the concept, rather than to the concept itself?
On Mayo step one, Alice held that the claims at issue were to an abstract idea, an “intermediated settlement.” On step two, it held that “merely requiring generic computer implementation” did not “transform that abstract idea into a patent-eligible invention.” Thus, claims to a method, a computer system configured to carry out the method, and a computer-readable medium containing program code for performing the method all fell invalid under Section 101.
I considered but then reconsidered entitling this comment “Alice in Wonderland.” For, indeed, the Supreme Court’s chain of decisions creating a judicial exception to the statute defining patent eligible subject matter (35 U.S.C. § 101) and holding unpatentable claims to algorithms and abstract ideas, stretching from Benson in 1972 to Alice in 2014, is wondrous. But I will not here review the “big picture,” including the fundamental flaws in the chain; I and others have already done that.
Instead, my focus is on the “small picture,” the every day problem: does the Alice opinion provide some meaningful guidance to fill the near void left by the Court in its prior Mayo and Bilski decisions? Those decisions provided no definition of an “abstract idea” (or “law of nature”) and little direction on, precisely, how much “more” was required for the transformation.
The Court’s fuzz left stranded in a desert of uncertainty an array of feet-on-the-ground decision makers, from inventors to rights owners to patent professionals drafting and amending claims to examiners to PTO officials to licensing negotiators to litigators to district court judges to federal circuit judges to treatise authors.
Positive news. At least on first analysis of Alice, I find some additional guidance, perhaps enough to lead us toward an oasis in the desert.
In particular, the Alice opinion supports the following proposition: a novel and unobvious solution to a technical problem is not an “abstract idea,” and a claim drawn to such a solution, even if broad, is not subject to the Mayo framework (though, of course, it is subject to scrutiny for disclosure support).
The Alice opinion does not state the proposition directly. The Court expressly indicated that it did not need to “delimit the precise contours of the `abstract ideas’ category” because the concept at issue was so similar to that in Bilski. But the proposition is fairly inferred from the Court’s rejection of the patent owner’s argument that the intermediated settlement concept in its claims was not an “abstract idea” within the implicit exception to Section 101 and from its novel description of the prior Diehr decision.
Based on prior Supreme Court cases and language in Mayo, the patent owner argued that the definition of “abstract ideas” for Section 101 was: “preexisting, fundamental truths that exist in principle apart from any human action.” The Court disagreed because that definition did not fit Bilski, which held that risk hedging was an abstract idea. Hedging was a “longstanding commercial practice” and a “method of organizing human activity,” but not a “truth” about the natural world that “always existed.” Hedging and the similar concept of intermediated settlement were abstract ideas because they were “fundamental economic practices.”
Thus, concepts that constitute abstracts ideas fall into two categories. First are mathematical equations, mathematical formulae and algorithms (at least ones of a mathematical nature, and, I would emphasize, not all algorithms are mathematical or numerical). Second are methods of “organizing human activity,” at least if they constitute a fundamental economic practice “long prevalent in commerce.”
What’s left out of the “abstract idea” category? The Court in Alice declined to say explicitly, but there are hints in its discussion of the 1981 Diehr decision in connection with the second Mayo step. The Court noted that Diehr had held a computer-implemented process for curing rubber was patent eligible, not because it involved a computer but rather because “it used that equation in a process designed to solve a technological problem in `conventional industry practice.” It reiterated: “the claims in Diehr were patent eligible because they improved an existing technological process, not because they were implemented on a computer.” In contrast, the claims in Alice did not “improve the functioning of the computer itself” or “effect an improvement in any other technology or technical field.”
The Court had discussed and distinguished the Diehr case before, in both Bilski and Mayo, but never on the basis that Diehr entailed a technological improvement. Thus, the Alice discussion of Diehr in terms of a solution to a technical problem is important new ground.
Hence there are strong grounds for the proposition that a patent claim reaches a safe harbor from Section 101 abstract idea scrutiny, including the Mayo second question for an “inventive concept,” if the claimant establishes that the claim is directed to a solution of a technological problem. This definition of abstract idea as excluding applied technology accommodates the case law treating pure mathematical statements, economics and finance, and schemes of a non-technical character (“methods of organizing human activity”) as “abstract ideas” that must be include additional elements to achieve patent eligibility (Mayo step two).
Is this shift in focus to “technological” an oasis of greater clarity? No doubt there will be arguments about what is technological and what is not. But there are at least three advantages to the verbal change. First, technology is the historic core of the patent system, especially given the Constitutional phrase “useful Arts,” which is 18th century terminology for “technology” in 21st century terminology. Thus, an inquiry about the technological is much less of an alien intruder than prior Supreme Court language about the abstract idea exception to Section 101. Second, evaluating the Section 101 abstract idea prohibition in terms of technological versus non-technological conforms to the language Congress used in Section 18 of the America Invents Act in setting up special PTO review of business method patents. Finally, a technology test aligns the United States standard with the language used in Europe and elsewhere to address exceptions to patent eligible subject matter.