Guest post by Howard Skaist, founder of Berkeley Law & Technology Group, LLC.
In 2014, two months after Alice was decided by the Supreme Court, a post that I wrote appeared on Patently-O proposing an approach to claim drafting in light of the Alice decision using a “thought experiment” as an illustration. A hypothetical in that post suggested trying to claim the original computer spreadsheet VisiCalc before the Alice decision and then after the Alice decision. The conclusion of the post as to Section 101 was summarized at the time, as follows:
“…from a formal perspective, it is necessary that innovative aspects of the invention, as implemented or intended to be implemented, be on the face of the claim …” (emphasis supplied)
One problem, however, as illustrated starkly by the hypothetical is that claims drafted in light of the Alice decision are generally narrower than they would have been otherwise. Today, perhaps, one could write better (e.g., broader) claims to pass muster under the Mayo–Alice Framework than the example claims provided in that 2014 post. However, the point of this post is not to attempt to do that, but rather to consider the pre-Alice claim provided as an illustration and ask the following two questions.
First, how would the pre-Alice claim from that original post fare under the subject matter eligibility guidance recently published in January 2019? Second, how might that claim (or claims) be re-drafted to hopefully significantly improve the chances that the claim (or claims) will pass muster under that same new guidance?
To refresh, the ‘before’ claim of the post was:
- A method comprising: implementing a spreadsheet on a computer.
The primary change under the new subject matter guidance is to so-called step 2A (using the terminology of the US Patent Office) — whether the claim is directed toward a judicial exception such as an abstract idea. The new subject matter guidance adds a first prong and a second prong to Step 2A. Following the first prong, an examiner is to determine whether the claim recites a judicial exception, in this case an abstract idea, by referring to subject matter groupings. The subject matter groupings are specified as: mathematical concepts, certain methods of organizing human behavior, and mental processes.
I note that the guidance is quite specific in saying that the claim must “recite” matter that falls within the enumerated groupings. Thus, here, I would say it does not. Nonetheless, I have to question if an examiner would take that view. While the claim clearly does not recite a mathematical concept, I could imagine an examiner asserting that the claim recites a mental process. While I would not agree with this latter conclusion, I could imagine that an examiner might say, for example, that a spreadsheet can be a mental process and that the language “implementing … on a computer” is nothing more than clever patent drafting.
How, then, might the claim be re-drafted to overcome such a rejection, but still retain some measure of breadth? To challenge ourselves, and perhaps, recite slightly more than necessary, how about this claim?
- A method comprising: implementing a spreadsheet via a computer, including determining contents of one or more cells thereof, based at least in part on one or more user-specified operations to be applied to signals and/or states to be provided as operands for the one or more user-specified operations.
This re-drafted claim at least arguably does not recite a mental process. Rather, the claim language is pretty specific to make it clear that physical processes are taking place. Thus, at least two out of three groupings have been drafted around.
Still, an examiner might say that a spreadsheet is a long-standing, fundamental economic practice or one that is a method of organizing human activities, demonstrating one danger with this particular grouping. It is, by its very nature, a bit vague. Without making any admissions, thus, it would not be not entirely unreasonable for an examiner to suggest that a spreadsheet might fall into this grouping.
Fortunately, all is not lost. Even if one fails to pass muster under the first prong, an opportunity to satisfy section 101 under the second prong remains. Here, the new guidance says that if the recited exception is integrated into a practical application, then the claim is still patent-eligible.
Specifically, the guidance says that to meet the second prong the claim is to integrate the judicial exception into a practical application that imposes a meaningful limit on the judicial exception, such that the claim is more than a drafting effort to monopolize the judicial exception. Being an advocate, my position would be that we have met this already with the claim above.
However, again, to be especially hard on ourselves, perhaps we need to make it clear that some sort of result is generated, so that, as a whole, the claim comprises an improvement over a spreadsheet generated by hand, perhaps, as follows:
- A method comprising: implementing a spreadsheet via a computer, including: determining contents of one or more cells thereof, based at least in part on one or more user-specified operations to be applied to signals and/or states to be provided as operands for the one or more user-specified operations; and generating output signals and/or states based at least in part on the determining, wherein the generating includes generating a report that comprises at least a table portion or a sub-portion of the spreadsheet.
Now, it seems that it would be challenging to assert that a practical application with meaningful limits has not been claimed. Furthermore, if needed, more dependent claims could be used to flush out more application specific features. Thus, it would seem, we have successfully written or could successfully write a claim that is patent-eligible under the new guidance.
Given the length limitations of a post such as this, it is important that I now quickly move to the point of my prior musings. So, I have three general observations to make in light of my “thought experiment” above.
First, that my re-drafted claim would pass the Mayo–Alice Framework under the close scrutiny of a court at best is unclear. Thus, as one conclusion, even if you are able to draft a claim to pass the new subject matter guidance, it seems prudent to include, as dependent claims, features that you believe more clearly pass the patent eligibility test being applied by courts.
As a second conclusion, in an attempt to provide greater certainty, it appears that the new guidance permits one to present broader patent-eligible claims to the US Patent Office than previously. To rephrase this latter point, the Patent Office has provided guidance intended to ferret out the more egregious cases of patent-ineligibility, thereby leaving it to courts to sort out closer question situations, as this example might illustrate.
As a third conclusion, with respect to the new guidance, the “money,” so to speak, resides in meeting the second prong. More specifically, while a patent drafter should certainly attempt to draft claims to comply with the first prong and the second prong; still, given the vagueness at the edges of the first prong groupings, efforts by a patent claim drafter to comply with the second prong appear to me to be more likely to succeed.