Patent attorneys are trained to draft claims using clear and precise language, and in particular to not rely upon relative terminology to define an invention–terms like “about,” “substantially,” “superior,” “better,” “good,” “sufficient” etc. See, Manual of Patent Examination Procedure (MPEP), § 2173. After all, claims are definitions and indefiniteness is fatal.
So when the Court articulates expresses what is ostensibly a rule of analysis—a definition of what is patentable—patent attorneys naturally look for precision and clarity. Alas, we find a jumble of relative terminology and conclusory statements masquerading as legal reasoning. Consider the following samples:
The question before us is whether the claims do significantly more than simply describe these natural relations. To put the matter more precisely, do the patent claims add enough to their statements of the correlations to allow the processes they describe to qualify as patent-eligible processes that apply natural laws? We believe that the answer to this question is no.
[T]hose steps, when viewed as a whole, add nothing significant beyond the sum of their parts taken separately. For these reasons we believe that the steps are not sufficient to transform unpatentable natural correlations into patentable applications of those regularities.
The Court has repeatedly emphasized this last mentioned concern, a concern that patent law not inhibit further discovery by improperly tying up the future use of laws of nature.
What is “significant” or “enough” or “sufficient?” What would be “properly tying” up future uses? It is “not enough” to say that what’s in Prometheus’s claim is “not enough,” especially when, at the same time, the Court makes sweeping statements that the presence of “entirely natural processes” indicate that the patent recites a “natural law.” These various statements or criteria are not functional tests—they are conclusions and nothing else. This leads us to the next problem.
So Long Technology, Hello Business Methods!
The Court pays lip service to the principle that “all inventions at some level embody, use, reflect, rest upon, or apply laws of nature, natural phenomena, or abstract ideas.” Indeed, any invention in the “hard sciences” of electronics, physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, etc. would perforce comply with the laws—or more properly—descriptive paradigms of the domain. An invention for a new electronic circuit clearly operates according to Maxwell’s equations. An invention for a new way of making a chemical compound necessarily recites steps that in essence are nothing more than chemical reactions—laws of nature in the Court’s book.
Let’s take a look the core of the Court’s analysis of the Prometheus claim and see what happens when we transport it to the domain of electronics, to a simple device such as loudspeaker:
While it takes a human action (the administration of a thiopurine drug) to trigger a manifestation of this relation in a particular person, the relation itself exists in principle apart from any human action. The relation is a consequence of the ways in which thiopurine compounds are metabolized by the body—entirely natural processes. And so a patent that simply describes that relation sets forth a natural law.
While it takes a human action (the activation of the amplifier) to trigger the output of the sound from the loudspeaker in response to an electrical signal, the relation itself exists in principle apart from any human action. The relation is a consequence of the ways in which electrical impulses are converted to mechanical movement—entirely natural processes. And so a patent that simply describes that relation sets forth a natural law.
There are—or should I say, were—by my estimate, approximately 10,000 patents on various types of loudspeakers. This is only one example, and a trivial one at that. A similar example could be constructed in any field of technology. And if that is the case, then no patent is immune from this line of attack. Well, no patent except one for a business method.
Business methods, being entirely the province of arbitrary human behavior such as advertising, finance and the like, are the one class of inventions clearly not based upon or using laws of nature and natural phenomenon. Yes, all inventions comply with the law of thermodynamics, etc., and perhaps all human behavior could be explained if we truly could model the regularities that govern the behavior of all fundamental particles, and as result we divorced ourselves from a persistent macro-phenomenon as free will and consciousness. If we get that far, then we will have a more difficult problem on our hands, whether we can patent non-obvious applications of those laws. Whether these methods are “abstract ideas” is another matter—but as should be clear from the above, it is my view that a method used in a business is not an abstract idea. If you can sell it, it’s patent-eligible.