by Dennis Crouch
In a new Supreme Court petition, Trading Technologies (TT) has again challenged USPTO and Federal Circuit eligibility determinations.
TT v. Lee asks the following question:
Given that 35 U.S.C. § 100(b) sets forth that a patent eligible “process” includes a “new use of a known process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or material,” did the Federal Circuit err by holding that an indisputably new and non-obvious use (i.e., game steps) of an existing manufacture (i.e., playing cards) was patent ineligible under Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S.Ct. 2347 (2014)?
The underlying appellate decision In re Smith involves a patent application claiming a new method of playing Blackjack. The new approach offered by offers ability to bet on the occurrence of “natural 0” hands as well as other potential side bets. Claim 1 in particular requires a deck of ‘physical playing cards” that are shuffled and then dealt according to a defined pattern. Bets are then taken with the potential of more dealing and eventually all wagers are resolved. The Federal Circuit affirmed the PTAB/Examiner determinations that the claimed method of playing cards constitutes an unpatentable abstract idea. As I previously wrote:
The court held that a wagering game is roughly identical to fundamental economic practices that the Supreme Court held to be abstract ideas in Alice and Bilski. . . . Following the Board’s lead, the appellate court then found that the “purely conventional steps” associated with the physical act of playing cards do not “supply a sufficiently inventive concept.”
Important for this case, the court noted that some card games are patent eligible, but that universe appears to be limited only to patents claiming “a new or original deck of cards.” Of course, the patent statute expressly states that processes are patent eligible – and that set of eligible processes “includes a new use of a known process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or material.” 35 U.S.C. 100(b).
Above the Statute?: An important fundamental question is whether the eligibility exceptions of Alice and Mayo supersede the statute. Some argue that their origins are Constitutional – embedded in the “discoveries” limitation and thus control the law regardless of the statutory text. But the Supreme Court has repeatedly indicated that the abstract idea and law of nature exceptions are grounded in the 35 U. S. C. §101 (despite the absence of express language). Under a plain language interpretation, these atextual exceptions should not be extended so far as to conflict with the statute — especially the express definitions of §100(b). Thus, TT writes:
Under the statute, new processes that use conventional equipment or materials are clearly patent eligible subject matter. 35 U.S.C. § 100(b) (patent eligible processes include “a new use of a known process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or material.”). This Court has never abrogated § 100(b). And Alice did nothing to change this. Indeed, to fail the first step of the Alice test, a claim needs to tie up an “abstract idea,” which for purposes of this test was defined to be a preexisting practice that serves as a fundamental “building block of human ingenuity,” such as a “longstanding” and “prevalent” economic practice. . . . The Federal Circuit has improperly extended Alice step one to claims that indisputably recite a new set of game steps that was not preexisting, let alone “fundamental.”
My own take is that the Constitutional intellectual property clause probably does have some teeth and – as an extreme example – would not empower Congress to authorize patents covering abstract ideas as such. That said, Congressional power certainly extends to authorizing the grant of patents covering the types of inventions being identified as abstract ideas under Alice Corp such as the blackjack game at issue here.
DISCLOSURES – The petition was filed by my friends and former colleagues Leif Sigmund and Jennifer Kurcz at the MBHB firm and the firm is a paid sponsor of Patently-O. I also represented TT in other matters up until 2007. That said, I have not discussed this particular case or my here with TT/MBHB other than to request a copy of the petition after I noted its filing.