by Dennis Crouch
In an earlier post, I mentioned recently issued U.S. Patent No. 8,196,213. During prosecution, the examiner rejected the pending claims as improperly claiming unpatentable subject matter under 35 U.S.C. 101. In particular, the PTO submitted that the claimed “computer readable storage medium” could encompass transitory signals, which are themselves unpatentable. In response, the applicant (Microsoft) amended the claims by adding an express limitation excluding “signals” from the claim scope. The amended claim begins: “1. A computer readable storage medium excluding signals . . . ” This change satisfied the PTO and the patent quickly issued. The original patent application document did not discuss signals or directly define computer readable media other than having the functional qualities of being able to “store data that is accessible by a computer.” However, the application did list several examples of computer readable media, including “magnetic cassettes, flash memory cards, digital video disks, Bernoulli cartridges, random access memories (RAMs), read only memories (ROMs) and the like.”
In a one-question survey, I asked Patently-O readers “does this patent claim violate the written description requirement?” As discussed below, most readers (~75%) agreed that amendment did not invalidate the claim.
Of the 850 responses, almost half (46%) suggested that the claim is valid because the amendment does not go beyond what was originally described in the specification. In its 2012 memo to examiners, the USPTO argued as much:
A claim drawn to such a computer readable medium that covers both transitory and non-transitory embodiments may be amended to narrow the claim to cover only statutory embodiments to avoid a rejection under 35 U.S.C. 101 by adding the limitation “non-transitory” to the claim. . . . Such an amendment would typically not raise the issue of new matter, even when the specification is silent because the broadest reasonable interpretation relies on the ordinary and customary meaning that includes signals per se. The limited situations in which such an amendment could raise issues of new matter occur, for example, when the specification does not support a non-transitory embodiment because a signal per se is the only viable embodiment such that the amended claim is impermissibly broadened beyond the supporting disclosure.
See 1351 Off. Gaz. Pat. Office 212 (Feb 23, 2012). I have some amount of difficulty understanding the explanation given by the PTO — that no new matter problem is created by the amendment “because the broadest reasonable interpretation relies on the ordinary and customary meaning that includes signals per se.” While the USPTO’s interpretation of the law is important during the prosecution process, no deference is given to this type of analysis when a court later considers a patent’s validity.
Another 22% also suggested that the claim is valid because “negative limitations such as this need not be disclosed in the original application.” And 4% argued that the limitation should be ignored because it is found in the claim preamble.
Only one option in the survey led directly to an invalidity conclusion. 26% of responses suggested that the claim limitation excluding signals from the scope was improper because that limitation was not disclosed in the original application and that the claim is therefore invalid under the written description requirement.
In my mind, this entire discussion is ridiculous. The invention in this case (as in several hundred thousand other cases) is a bit of software. Yet, because of these odd rules setup by the U.S. Supreme Court (and their interpretation by the PTO) applicants feel they cannot be straightforward enough to simply obtain a patent on the software.
In the above discussion, I jump quickly between “new matter” and “written description” doctrines. During patent prosecution, the two doctrines are relatively inseparable. The PTO tends to issue new matter rejections under 35 U.S.C. 132. Once a patent issues, the facts that would have created a new matter rejection at the PTO lead courts to invalidate claims for failing the written description requirement of 35 U.S.C. 112.