Guest post by Bart Eppenauer. Mr. Eppenauer is the Managing Partner of the Seattle office of Shook Hardy & Bacon and former Chief Patent Counsel at Microsoft. In the interests of disclosure, Shook represents three of the many defendants/appellees in the McRo (Planet Blue) case discussed below. Mr. Eppenauer is not involved in that case.
We have reached a pivotal moment for the courts to provide more meaningful guidance on the contours of what actually is patent eligible subject matter (rather than what is not) and a workable framework for applying such guidance. A number of important cases are before the U.S. Supreme Court and the Federal Circuit involving patent subject matter eligibility in the wake of Alice v. CLS Bank Int’l and Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Labs. Given the high invalidation rate of patents on Section 101 grounds at the Supreme Court, Federal Circuit, U.S. District Courts, and the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB), interested stakeholders have justifiable concerns on the future value of patents involving software and life sciences, and the fallout this could have on American investment in these crucial industries.
On March 21, 2016, Sequenom, Inc. filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari seeking to overturn the Federal Circuit’s decision invalidating its pre-natal genetic testing patent as a patent ineligible natural law or phenomenon, in Sequenom, Inc. v. Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. Ten days earlier, Versata Development Group also filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari challenging multiple findings by the Federal Circuit involving a Covered Business Method (CBM) Patent Review by the USPTO invalidating its software based hierarchical pricing engine patent. See Versata Development Group, Inc. v. SAP America, Inc. Petitions for Writ of Certiorari on subject matter eligibility were also filed in March in Cloud Satchel v. Barnes & Noble and Vehicle Intelligence Safety v. Mercedes-Benz USA. At the Federal Circuit, several important “abstract idea” cases are soon to be decided, including McRO (Planet Blue) v. Bandai Namco Games America on patents for automated lip synchronization of 3D animated characters, Intellectual Ventures v. Symantec involving malware and spam detection and email filtering patents, and Thales Visionix v. USA relating to a helmet mounted display system patent. Several of these cases could provide an excellent opportunity for the courts to provide more clarity on application of the Mayo/Alice test under Section 101.
The Sequenom case in particular may be the right case for the Supreme Court to reexamine the boundaries of Section 101, especially given the dramatic, if not unintended, impact that Mayo and Alice have had on subject matter eligibility decisions. At the heart of Sequenom, the Court has another opportunity to determine whether a novel method is patent eligible when it involves the research and discovery of naturally occurring phenomenon. Petitioner Sequenom asserts that the Court’s Mayo decision set out uncertain and indiscernible limits on Section 101 doctrine that has eroded trust in the patent system, such that the issue is “particularly life-threatening to life-science innovators.” (Petition p. 12). Several Federal Circuit judges seem to agree with this proposition. In his concurrence in affirming the district court’s decision under Section 101, Judge Linn remarked:
I join the court’s opinion invalidating the claims of the ’540 patent only because I am bound by the sweeping language of the test set out in Mayo…. In my view, the breadth of the second part of the test was unnecessary to the decision reached in Mayo. This case represents the consequence—perhaps unintended—of that broad language in excluding a meritorious invention from the patent protection it deserves and should have been entitled to retain.
In their concurrence on denial of rehearing en banc, Judges Lourie and Moore also strongly asserted that the Sequenom claims at issue were neither solely directed to a natural phenomenon, nor abstract, and “it is unsound to have a rule that takes inventions of this nature out of the realm of patent-eligibility on grounds that they only claim a natural phenomenon plus conventional steps, or that they claim abstract concepts.” But these judges agreed that the Federal Circuit panel “did not err in its conclusion that under Supreme Court precedent it had no option other than to affirm the district court.” And in his separate concurrence of denial of rehearing en banc, Judge Dyk noted:
Yet I share the concerns of some of my colleagues that a too restrictive test for patent eligibility under 35 U.S.C. § 101 with respect to laws of nature (reflected in some of the language in Mayo) may discourage development and disclosure of new diagnostic and therapeutic methods in the life sciences, which are often driven by discovery of new natural laws and phenomena. This leads me to think that some further illumination as to the scope of Mayo would be beneficial in one limited aspect. At the same time I think that we are bound by the language of Mayo, and any further guidance must come from the Supreme Court, not this court.
Without question, Section 101 is no longer a “coarse filter” for subject matter eligibility, as many jurists and practitioners believe it should be. That is evident from the recent landscape of Section 101 decisions since Alice. Of the more than 250 federal court decisions invoking Section 101 since Alice, 70% of those cases have found the patent invalid. And at the Federal Circuit, DDR Holdings v. Hotels.com stands alone as the sole decision upholding the patent under Section 101 among 31 decisions since Alice. My optimistic view that DDR Holdings would forge a sensible path on software patents and that more decisions would follow this path has simply not proven true to date. Nonetheless, given that so many of the patents before the Federal Circuit involved simple financial or business practices or other non-technical practices implemented on generic computers, there still may be hope that DDR Holdings will provide the underpinnings for further decisions clarifying the eligibility of software technology inventions.
Perhaps the nearest opportunity for such a clarification lies in the McRO/Planet Blue case, where we can expect a decision at any time. The case has been noted as a case to watch on software patentability in that the patents at issue arguably utilize complex and specific computer-implemented techniques for automated lip synchronization of 3D animated characters. Based on questions and comments from the judges during oral argument, the Federal Circuit may view this case as involving a technology-based patent that will dictate a different outcome under the Mayo/Alice test than so many of the negative decisions on business method or ecommerce patents with token computer implementation.
It will most likely be several months for a decision in Intellectual Ventures v. Symantec as the Federal Circuit heard oral argument on April 6, 2016. Intellectual Ventures (IV) argues that its patents are designed to improve computer network security through novel approaches to malware and spam detection and email screening. As such, IV believes that their patents solve problems “specifically arising in the realm of computer technology” and DDR Holdings demonstrates that the patents are patent eligible. Symantec counters that the IV patents use generic computing technology to apply basic concepts such as using the Dewey decimal system on digital files or applying standard mail routing practices to email instead of postal mail. IV likely has a better argument that DDR Holdings should apply than many of the recent Federal Circuit decisions where that argument has failed, but I could see this case going either way.
The Thales Visionix case involves a patent for helmet-mounted display systems (HMDS) for use in defense and aerospace applications such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Unlike traditional heads-up display systems which require a pilot to look straight ahead at a display to read tactical information, a HMDS projects tactical information onto the interior visor of a pilot’s helmet. This frees the pilot from looking straight ahead at a fixed point to receive the displayed information. The claims at issue are not as specific as their intended application, yet recite a motion tracking system that includes inertial sensors and an element for receiving signals from the inertial sensors to determine orientation of a tracked object. The Court of Federal Claims judge applied Alice in a sweeping fashion and found claim 1 amounted to nothing more than a system of generic inertial sensors and a receiving element, and claim 22 as nothing more than an instruction to solve a navigation equation. In concluding that the ultimate concern under Section 101 is one of “preemption,” the judge found that the scope of the patent’s claims is insufficiently limited under Mayo and Diamond v. Diehr, and granted the motion for judgment on the pleadings. Frankly, I was quite surprised to see this decision, and believe that it is an unfortunate example of the Mayo/Alice framework taken to its extreme. Briefing is ongoing in the case, so a decision is months away.
We are at a critical juncture on defining the proper scope and application of Section 101. Unless the judiciary delineates a clearer framework for enabling meaningful patent protection in areas like biotech and software where America has been a technology leader, the U.S. could rapidly lose its competitive edge in these vital industries. Without this guidance, the U.S. will cement its recent reputation as even more restrictive and less open to patenting important new and potentially life-saving technologies than other jurisdictions such as China and Europe, which was unthinkable just a few years ago. It is critical that the Federal Circuit take the opportunity in one of these pending cases to provide meaningful guidance on the proper scope and contours of patent subject matter eligibility applied to software related technology. Even more importantly, the Supreme Court should agree to hear the Sequenom case and clarify (or revise) its Mayo/Alice test to ensure that meritorious inventions in life sciences and software remain patentable. While I don’t believe it is yet time to take legislative action, recent calls for the abolition of Section 101 entirely and dissatisfaction with application of the Mayo/Alice test is reaching a critical level. These key cases offer a significant opportunity to establish much-needed clarifications. Should this opportunity be missed, it is hard to see how Congressional action can be avoided.