by Paul Craane of Marshall Gerstein & Borun
In the wake of Bilski, the United States Patent and Trademark Office has provided unclear, and potentially incorrect, guidance to the Examining Corps regarding the application of 35 U.S.C. 101. The guidance instructs examiners to reject claims if the claims fail to meet the machine-or-transformation (MoT) test, absent some "clear indication that the method is not directed to an abstract idea." This application of Bilski effectively ignores the guidance provided by the opinion to the effect that the MoT test is not the sole test for patent-eligible processes under Section 101.
According to existing precedent, the examiner has the burden to make out a prima facie case before the burden shifts to the applicant. Given that the examiner has the burden and given that the MoT test is not the sole test, a failure to meet the MoT test should not automatically result in rejection of a claim. In fact, if failure to meet the MoT test did necessarily result in the rejection of a claim, then the USPTO would be using the MoT test as the sole test for patent-eligibility, contrary to Bilski.
Of course, the guidance does not suggest a rejection based solely on the MoT test, in that the examiner must still look for a clear indication that the method is not directed to an abstract idea. Even though there is an additional step, this procedure would appear to shift the burden from the examiner to show patent-ineligibility to the applicant to affirmatively show patent-eligibility before the examiner has made out a prima facie case of patent-ineligibility. According to Bilski, there are only three exceptions to patent-eligibility: laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas. In accordance with Bilski, unless one of these exceptions is shown, the examiner can hardly be said to have made out a prima facie case of patent-ineligibility, such that the burden should shift to the applicant.
Consequently, the USPTO should amend its guidance to clarify that the examiner has an obligation to show that the claim recites an abstract idea (or law of nature or physical phenomena) to reject the claim, rather than simply indicating that if they should reject after applying the MoT test if they fail to find a clear indication that it does not recite an abstract idea.
Note: As per our usual rule, this post does not necessarily reflect opinions of Mr. Craane's firm or its clients.