I am sure Dennis will do his usual full and grand treatment, but this one is sort of the counter-punch to Ultramercial. In I/P Engine, Inc. v. AOL Inc. (Fed. Cir. Aug. 15, 2014) (per curiam), the court split on whether the claims were properly found by the jury to have been not obvious, with Judge Chen dissenting on that point and the per curiam opinion reversing the finding of no invalidity. (The other panel members were Judge Wallach and Judge Mayer).
Recall that in Ultramercial the court emphasized that 101 was seemingly a defense, and so evidence was needed and the usual presumption of validity applied, and so on. Here, Judge Mayer seemed to take precisely the opposite tact, though it’s not quite clear. In addition to writing at length about what he perceives the “technological arts” test to mean and require, he wrote:
The Supreme Court has dictated that the subject mat- ter eligibility analysis must precede the obviousness inquiry. Flook, 437 U.S. at 593 (“The obligation to determine what type of discovery is sought to be patented” so as to determine whether it falls within the ambit of sec- tion 101 “must precede the determination of whether that discovery is, in fact, new or obvious.”); Bilski, 130 S. Ct. at 3225 (explaining that the issue of whether claims are directed to statutory subject matter is “a threshold test”); see also In re Comiskey, 554 F.3d 967, 973 (Fed. Cir. 2009) (“Only if the requirements of § 101 are satisfied is the inventor allowed to pass through to the other requirements for patentability, such as novelty under § 102 and . . . non-obviousness under § 103.” (citations and internal quotation marks omitted)). To fail to address at the very outset whether claims meet the strictures of section 101 is to put the cart before the horse. Until it is determined that claimed subject matter is even eligible for patent protection, a court has no warrant to consider subordinate validity issues such as non-obviousness under 35 U.S.C. § 103 or adequate written description under 35 U.S.C. § 112.
From a practical perspective, there are clear advantages to addressing section 101’s requirements at the outset of litigation. Patent eligibility issues can often be resolved without lengthy claim construction, and an early determination that the subject matter of asserted claims is patent ineligible can spare both litigants and courts years of needless litigation. To the extent that certain classes of claims—such as claims on methods of doing business—are deemed presumptively patent ineligible, moreover, the United States Patent and Trademark Office will have more resources to devote to expeditiously processing applications which disclose truly important advances in science and technology.
Even more fundamentally, the power to issue patents is not unbounded. To the contrary, the constitutional grant of authority “[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries,” U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 8, “is both a grant of power and a limitation,” Graham v. John Deere Co., 383 U.S. 1, 5 (1966); see Bonito Boats, Inc. v. Thunder Craft Boats, Inc., 489 U.S. 141, 146 (1989). Section 101’s vital role—a role that sections 103 and 112 “are not equipped” to take on, Mayo, 132 S. Ct. at 1304— is to insure that patent protection promotes, rather than impedes, scientific progress and technological innovation. A robust application of section 101 ensures that the nation’s patent laws remain tethered to their constitutional moorings.
I am guessing we’ll see another en banc case soon…