By Dennis Crouch
The Supreme Court’s decisions in Alice Corp v. CLS Bank and Mayo v. Prometheus serve as dramatic turning points in the conventional wisdom of subject matter eligibility. Inventions that were previously thought to be patent eligible are no longer; and we continue to re-calibrate toward this new normal. The USPTO has found some amount of understandable difficulty in implementing the two step Alice/Mayo eligibility test. In a chicken-and-egg problem, the test has major gaps in its structure, but the USPTO lacks substantive rulemaking authority to fill those gaps.
The USPTO’s Office of Patent Examination Policy (under Mr. Drew Hirshfeld) has released a new set of Eligibility Examination Guidelines intended to supplement those released in 2014 with the intent of both educating examiners on best practices and also informing applicants of the agency’s approach. I spoke with Hirshfeld who reiterated that these guidelines are incremental and that the USPTO continues to welcome input from the patent law community.
The July 2015 update builds upon Federal Circuit eligibility decisions made during interim and also responds to user comments. The guidelines major thrust, however, appears to be its attempt to offer a counterweight against those announcing that “nothing is patentable.” In the words of the notice, the idea is to provide “pathways to eligibility.” To be clear, the update does not cancel the prior guidance but only serves as a supplement.
Identifying Abstract Ideas and Laws of Nature: “Don’t Get Creative.” Although we know that “abstract ideas” are not patent eligible, the courts have chosen not to provide any crisp definition or description of that set of concepts. As I mentioned earlier, the USPTO also lacks authority to further define that question of law. Rather than guessing at the vast gray areas, the agency is instructing examiners to only find an abstract idea when the concept in question parallels one found to be abstract in a court decision.
“These associations define the judicial descriptors in a manner that stays within the confines of the judicial precedent . . . a claimed concept [should] not [be] identified as an abstract idea unless it is similar to at least one concept that the courts have identified as an abstract idea.”
Here, it also appears that the “court decisions” to be followed are primarily those of the Federal Circuit or Supreme Court rather than district courts.
The examples provided in the most recent guidelines include a further focus on business methods and human-mind-activities. , graphical user interface (GUI), and software areas. (This update does not include the most recent decisions such as Versata, Intellectual Ventures, Webb, Internet Patents, Sequenom, and OIP Tech.) The on its guidelines page, the PTO continues to maintain a list of the court decisions.
One way to think about an abstract idea is a concept defined at a high level of abstraction and likely in functional form – here, the PTO does not take that approach but rather continues to define “abstract” as something akin to a category of subject matter that is excluded from eligibility.
The PTO’s Streamlined Analysis: The guidelines continue to promote its “streamlined analysis” for eligibility – essentially a shortcut for examiners when an abstract idea or law of nature is clearly only tangential to the thrust of the claim and therefore that eligibility is self-evident.
Requirement of “Evidence” for Eligibility Rejections: The most controversial aspect of the guidelines will likely turn out to be the PTO’s decision that evidence is not needed as a prerequisite to an eligibility rejection. “For subject matter eligibility, the examiner’s burden is met by clearly articulating the reason(s) why the claimed invention is not eligible.” The PTO’s reasoning makes sense – eligibility has been repeatedly seen as a pure question of law adjudged without reliance upon any ‘evidence’ beyond that intrinsic to the patent documents themselves. “[C]ourts do not rely on evidence that a claimed concept is a judicial exception, and in most cases resolve the ultimate legal conclusion on eligibility without making any factual findings.”
To be clear, the PTO is requiring a “clear articulation” of an examiner’s reasons for rejection, but nothing more is required. Here, of course, the devil will be in the details of what is sufficient to constitute such clarity. To help settle that debate, the PTO has provided a further set of examples and reasoning seen sufficient. Interestingly, however, a “clear articulation” does not necessarily include determining the type of exception (abstract idea, law of nature, product of nature) that is being highlighted – “examiners are not required to distinguish between exceptions which can prove to be difficult.” This approach makes some sense in that the “law of nature” vs “abstract idea” distinction is likely merely philosophical. The one major difference is that both the Supreme Court and the USPTO appear to treat “products of nature” somewhat different. For products of nature only, the PTO includes a “markedly different characteristics” (MDC) shortcut to eligibility.
For further consideration of sufficient evidence, the PTO has also provides a set of worksheets (esp. Worksheets 5-8) that give explanations that satisfy the clear articulation burden. Although not “law,” these worksheets and examples are designed to carry weight with examiners and I would expect applicants to cite them directly in office action responses.
Preemption: I have mentioned this oddity before – although the eligibility test is designed to prevent a single entity from privatizing/preempting an abstract idea or law of nature, the eligibility test does not actually ask whether the invention as claimed accomplishes the prohibited preemption. Here, the PTO repeats that approach – noting that “the absence of complete preemption does not guarantee that a claim is eligible.”
Training: Examiners have apparently not yet been trained on the new guidance, and so someone immediately relying upon the guidance may need to self-educate the examiner. If I had a pending eligibility rejection that does not fit within the guidelines, I would talk through the situation with the examiner in an interview with the hope of having the rejection withdrawn.