By Dennis Crouch
In buySAFE v. Google (Fed. Cir. 2014), the Federal Circuit has found the patentee’s computer-based-transaction patent to be invalid as an abstract idea lacking subject matter eligibility. The decision by Judge Taranto and Joined by Judge Hughes is somewhat unremarkable and the holding falls easily within the framework created by Alice Corp and Mayo. At the same time, the Federal Circuit offers several nuggets that may provide broader fodder for future eligibility challenges.
In its recent software patent decision of Alice Corp., the Supreme Court identified its underlying policy motivation for denying patent rights to abstract ideas, laws of nature, and natural phenomenon. The high court’s concern is “that patent law not inhibit further discovery by improperly tying up the future use of these building blocks of human ingenuity.” Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S.Ct. 2347 (2014), quoting Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 132 S.Ct. 1289 (2012).
Bright Line Test as a Proxy for the Policy Goals: In Mayo, the Supreme Court explained that the exceptions to patentability (law of nature, abstract idea, product of nature) serve as proxies “for the underlying building-block concern.” Although admittedly an inexact substitute for the particular policy concern, the named exceptions are “somewhat more easily administered” and also have the benefit of substantial tradition. By using a proxy for its underlying concern, the Supreme Court seems ready to admit that some excluded inventions will not have raised substantial building-block concerns, however, the court concludes that judges simply “are not institutionally well suited to making the kinds of judgments needed to distinguish between” them. Mayo. Thus, the result is a “bright line” exclusion against abstract ideas, laws of nature, mathematical formulae, and natural phenomenon.
Narrowness of Idea Cannot be Judged: Of particular importance here, although the breadth of an abstract idea is relevant to its impact on future innovation, the court here is clear that the breadth or narrowness is not relevant to the application of the exclusionary rule itself. Rather, the exclusionary rule applies “even if the particular . . . abstract idea at issue is narrow.”
The Process of Determining Eligibility: The process then for determining subject matter eligibility is: (1) determine whether the patent claim is “directed to subject matter in one of the three excluded categories;” and (2) if so, determine whether “the additional elements” of the claim supply an “inventive concept” that is “significantly more than” the ineligible matter itself. In explaining this second step, the Federal Circuit expounded that the inventive concept must be “in the physical realm of things and acts – a ‘new and useful application’ of the ineligible matter in the physical realm.” Further, merely requiring a generic computer implementation of an ineligible idea does not move the invention “into section 101 eligibility territory.”
Physicality requirement?: You might query how the Federal Circuit’s physicality requirement comports with Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593 (2010) (rejecting the machine-or-transformation test as determinative). The Federal Circuit actually takes an odd interpretation of Bilski. The court here suggests that the Supreme Court rule on business method patents is that they are certainly directed to abstract ideas (step 1 above), and that they are only patentable with additional inventive concepts tied to the physical realm.
What is an Abstract Idea?: Up to now, the courts have avoided providing any solid definition for the abstract idea test. And here, the Federal Circuit was also able to duck that issue because the particular claims at issue are somewhat parallel to those seen in Bilski and Alice. Namely, the claims focus on arrangement involving contractual relations between parties and involving “a fundamental economic practice long prevalent in our system of commerce.”
In the present case, the patented “transaction performance guarantee” is, according to the court here “beyond question of ancient lineage.” And, the patentee’s addition of the computer and computer program in generic terms were insufficient to meet the eligibility test outlined above.
I should note that the court did not discuss the presumption of validity or the standard of evidence applied to the underlying elements of the Alice Corp eligibility test.
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Claim 1 of US Patent No. 7,644,019:
A method, comprising:
receiving, by at least one computer application program running on a computer of a safe transaction service provider, a request from a first party for obtaining a transaction performance guaranty service with respect to an online commercial transaction following closing of the online commercial transaction;
processing, by at least one computer application program running on the safe transaction service provider computer, the request by underwriting the first party in order to provide the transaction performance guaranty service to the first party,
wherein the computer of the safe transaction service provider offers, via a computer network, the transaction performance guaranty service that binds a transaction performance guaranty to the online commercial transaction involving the first party to guarantee the performance of the first party following closing of the online commercial transaction.
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An interesting element of this particular decision is that Judge Rader was originally a member of the panel but lost his vote when he retired in June 2014. Most certainly Judge Rader’s presence on the panel would have impacted the language used to reach these results.