Guest Post by Shubha Ghosh, Crandall Melvin Professor of Law and Director, IP & Tech Commercialization Law Program and Syracuse Intellectual Property Law Institute, Syracuse University College of Law. I asked Professor Ghosh to offer his views on the ACLU and Law Professors’ letter. Below is is response. -Jason
As a law professor, I am in the camp of those who are critical of the proposed bipartisan, bicameral legislation (“the Coons-Tillis bill”) to amend provisions of the Patent Act dealing with patentable subject. I am also in the camp of those who find the “two-step test” introduced by the Supreme Court in its Mayo v, Prometheus, 566 U.S. 66 (2012), and Alice v CLS Bank, 573 U.S. 208 (2014), decisions unworkable and inconsistent with its own precedent. I am also in the perhaps much smaller camp that is skeptical of the approach adopted by the Court in its Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad, 569 U.S. 576 (2013) decision (even if I agree with the result that identified genetic sequences are not patent eligible). Here are my thoughts about the Coons-Tillis bill and the comments in the letter from the ACLU and the law professors and practitioners organized by Professor Ted Sichelman of University of San Diego Law School.
A proposed provision of the Coons-Tillis legislation states: “No implicit or other judicially created exceptions to subject matter eligibility, including ‘abstract ideas,’ ‘laws of nature,’ or ‘natural phenomena,’ shall be used to determine patent eligibility under section 101, and all cases establishing or interpreting those exceptions to eligibility are hereby abrogated.”
The language expresses frustrations with judge-made exceptions to patentable subject matter based on implications drawn from the language of the Act or from judge made common law reasoning. If enacted, the amendment would not only remove established exceptions to patentable subject matter, but also would limit the power of the federal judiciary to create exceptions based on its own reasoning and interpretation of the Patent Act. Such legislation is in conflict with the long-established relationship between federal courts and Congress. If enacted, it would invite constitutional challenges claiming violation of the separation of powers, under Article III, of the Constitution. The proposed amendment would very likely be found unconstitutional.
Federal courts have as their role the interpretation of statutes. By abrogating the federal court’s power to develop any implications from the statutory language and to engage in common law reasoning in interpreting the statute, Congress invades long-standing judicial power. Although a full analysis of the separation of powers is beyond the scope of this post, Congressional limitations on judicial power in other realms have failed under judicial scrutiny. At the extreme, Congress is limited in its power to legislate that federal courts cannot hear certain cases or controversies. See Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723 (2009) (suspension of writ of habeas corpus unconstitutional); United States v. Klein, 80 U.S. 128 (1871) (Congress’ limitations on claims relating to confiscated and abandoned property unconstitutional). But see Patchak v. Zinke, 138 S.Ct. 897 (2018) (Congress’ stripping federal court jurisdiction over claims arising from Department of Interior’s taking of land into trust was not unconstitutional).
I am not suggesting that the proposed abrogation goes as far as the suspect legislation in Boumediene and Klein. Federal courts can still adjudicate patent law questions under the Coons-Tillis bill. But the bill does put limitations on how courts can decide cases. This attempt to bind the way federal judges approach a federal question is as problematic as taking away their power to adjudicate in the first place. The Coons-Tillis bill if enacted as drafted will invite substantive litigation which may well lead to the legislation being struck down, in part, as an unconstitutional exercise of Congressional power.
The drafters of the ACLU letter express the concern that the abrogation of the established exceptions will essentially reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling in Myriad that isolated gene sequences are not patentable subject matter. I am not as sure of the specter of genes coming back under patent should Coons-Tillis be enacted. My hesitation stems from what I find to be the opacity in the Supreme Court’s analysis in Myriad. If the Court’s reasoning rested on a constitutional holding that natural occurring substances like genetic sequences are not the “discovery of an inventor” contributing to “progress” in the “useful arts,” as required by Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution, then perhaps the Myriad holding survives a possible enactment of the Coons-Tillis bill.
That is the promise of the Law Professor Letter promoted by Ted Sichelman (and his co-authors Kevin Noonan and Adam Mossoff). Their principal point is that courts can base patent subject matter exceptions in the constitutional language rather than in a murky common law. This point they contend is true for the established exceptions of abstract ideas, laws of nature, and natural phenomena. But this optimistic assertion is far from clear; it is certainly possible, but not guaranteed. The Coons-Tillis bill, however, offers no guidance on how the courts should assess patentable subject matter. The proposed legislation requires courts to consider eligibility based on “the claimed invention as a whole” and to disregard the manner in which the invention was made, the state of the art at the time of invention, whether limitations are well-known, conventional or routine, or to the standards of novelty, nonobviousness, or enablement. I would assert that there is some general acceptance for excluding laws of nature, abstract ideas, and natural phenomena from patent eligibility (even if there is disagreement on the scope of these exceptions). I find little comfort in abrogating am established body of law on the hope that a Constitutional analysis will either not change the status quo or provide more light.
In summary, the Constitution may not come to the rescue of the proposed abrogation and more likely the Constitution will be its downfall.
Instead of shackling judicial decision making, a bill more carefully tailored to address the problems with the two-step test of Alice/Mayo and the unclear holding of Myriad would be more desirable.
The two-step test requires the PTO or a court to first determine whether patent claims are directed to an abstract idea, natural phenomenon, or law of nature. If they are not, then the claims are patentable subject matter. If the patent claims are directed to ineligible subject matter, the second step requires the agency or court to identify an inventive concept for which the ineligible subject matter is embodied, used, or applied. What “directed to” and “inventive concept” mean has been the source of controversy with courts often failing to find an inventive concept beyond the ineligible subject matter. The problem is that there is no meaningful definition of an inventive concept beyond the notions of novelty, nonobviousness, usefulness, and enablement. The Coons-Tillis bill attempts to finesse this problem by basing a determination of patent eligibility on a consideration of the “claimed invention as a whole,” but this only begs the issue.
More targeted reform would abrogate the two-step test with its confusing language of “directed to” and “inventive concept.” Instead, Congress might attempt to more clearly define the established exceptions, drawing on precedent. The Supreme Court tried to do something like this in its Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593 (2010), decision. Justice Stevens’ concurrence would have established an exception for “business methods” but for the switch in Justice Kennedy’s vote. Although the Court, Congress, and the patent bar disfavor exceptions for broad classes of inventions, like software or business methods, Justice Stevens’ approach would have set forth a more principled approach to defining the exception that rested on a careful interpretation of the word “process” in the Patent Act. Instead of this potentially fruitful approach, we were given an open-ended opinion by Justice Kennedy that quite correctly avoided any specific test while endorsing open ended standards. Justice Stevens’ policy-based interpretation of the word “process” would have taken us further. The irony is that despite Justice Kennedy’s refusal to adopt a specific test, the Court adopts a rigid, unworkable test in Mayo/Alice.
Congress can follow the trail blazed in Justice Stevens’ Bilski concurrence by spending time offering more helpful definitions of the established exceptions. The Court’s Myriad decision illustrates the need for more clear definitions. In determining whether Myriad’s isolated gene sequences were natural phenomena, Justice Thomas’s opinion took us through an exploration of biotechnology that read like outtakes from an episode of Nova. The purpose of his scientific exegesis was to explain why the isolated gene sequences were in fact identical at the level of code to the natural phenomena of the naturally-occurring gene sequences. Justice Scalia would have none of this exegesis and simply concluded, in his concurrence, that the two were in fact the same based on his reading of the record. Notably, the Federal Circuit came to the opposite conclusion, ruling that the isolated sequences differed in chemical composition from the naturally occurring sequences. This conflict as to determining how the subject matter of an invention compares to ineligible subject matter shows to me that guidance from Congress would be desirable.
One source of uproar over the state of the patent subject matter doctrine is the Federal Circuit’s decision in Ariosa v. Sequenom, 788 F.3d 1371 (Fed. Cir. 2015), finding ineligible an arguably valuable pre-natal diagnostic test because it involved cell-free fetal DNA. The court’s analysis is a collision of two errors, combining the two-factor test in Mayo/Alice with the question of when isolated DNA is naturally occurring in Myriad. Finding the claims directed to natural phenomena and laws of nature, the court failed to find an inventive concept. Its analysis reduced the test to its nonpatentable elements and not finding more. The case illustrates the mechanical application of the two-step test combined with the uncertainties of determining when an invention is identical to ineligible subject matter.
Can Congress set forth clearer definitions of the recognized categories of ineligible subject matter? Can it clarify the definition of process as Justice Stevens set forth in Bilski? The politics of patent reform may inevitable corrupt the process. But better than stripping courts of common law decision making in patent law, Congress should nudge the process along through clearer statutory guidance.