by Dennis Crouch
Thomas v. Iancu (Supreme Court 2020)
Doug Thomas is a silicon valley patent attorney at a small (and thriving) firm. Thomas is also a prolific inventor and entrepreneur. In April 2020, I wrote about the Federal Circuit’s opinion affirming a USPTO rejection of his claimed method of “notifying users having patents of subsequent publications that reference the patents.” The April decision was one of four cases that he has brought to the Federal Circuit:
- In re Thomas, Appeal No. 17-1100 (November 17, 2017) (Affirming anticipation rejection for Application No. 12/878,19–method for creating an electronic document using a word processing program).
- In re Thomas, Appeal No. 17-1149 (December 13, 2017) (Affirming rejection for Application No. 13/099,285 without opinion– managing computer
temperature by measuring temp and changing fan speed) [ThomasThermalTemp].
- In re Thomas, Appeal No. 19-2053 (March 5, 2020) (Affirming 101 rejection for Application No. 11/253,299 without opinion–method for producing an online survey).
- In re Thomas, Appeal No. 19-1957 (April 8, 2020) (Affirming 101 rejection of method for notifying users of publications that reference their patent). See, Dennis Crouch, Patenting the Patenting Process, Patently-O (April 8, 2020).
Thomas now filed a petition to the Supreme Court in the third case (the ‘299 application) that was rejected for lack of eligibility. Thomas writes the question as follow:
Contrary to Congress’ directives and this Court’s guidance, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“Federal Circuit”) fabricated legal theories to unfairly discriminate against software innovations. The Federal Circuit incorrectly held that the Patent Trial and Appeal Board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) did not commit legal error when, under the guise of following the framework provided in Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2354 (2014) (so called “Alice/Mayo framework”), it (i) excessively abstracted the claims, and (ii) ignored claim limitations that were found to be nonobvious when concluding that the claims lacked an inventive concept. The questions presented are:
1. Whether software innovations, simply because they are implemented on a general purpose computer, are ineligible for patenting unless they claim some hardware limitations beyond a general purpose computer that provide an improvement to computer technology.
2. Whether, contrary to Diehr, claim limitations can be ignored, under the guise of the Mayo/Alice framework, when a claim is evaluated for presence of an inventive concept, even when the ignored claim limitations were found to be nonobviousess.
Thomas Petition. The basic thrust of the petition is that innovative engineering solutions do not require a new physical technological component — and that the claimed creation of online documents should be treated as eligible.
The petition goes on to argue that the abstract idea exception should be eliminated or severely curtailed:
The time has come for this Court to reevaluate the abstract idea exception to Section 101. This exception is entirely a judicial creation, having no basis in the text of the statute. The Court should undertake to implement Section 101’s broad and explicit language. Thus, where, as here, the patents claim a “new or useful process” or new and useful improvement to a process, the inventions should be eligible under Section 101 as Congress intended based on the language of that provision.
Id. The 15-step method claim at issue is listed below — directed to a method for producing an online survey:
20. A method for producing an on-line survey through interaction with a remote server from a network browser operating on a client computer associated with a requestor of the online survey, the network browser and the remote server capable of communicating via a data network, said method comprising:
(a) requesting initial survey remarks to be provided for the on-line survey;
(b) receiving, at the remote server, the initial survey remarks from the survey requestor;
(c) requesting identification of one or more participant groups from a plurality of available participant groups;
(d) receiving, at the remote server, selection from the survey requestor of one or more participants groups from the plurality of available participant groups;
(e) requesting at least one survey question;
(f) receiving, at the remote server, at least one survey question from the survey requestor;
(g) requesting an answer format for the at least one survey question;
(h) receiving, at the remote server, the answer format from the survey requestor;
(i) receiving content for at least one answer choice for the at least one survey question;
(j) repeating (e) – (i) for one or more additional survey questions;
(k) requesting subsequent survey remarks to be provided for the online survey;
(l) receiving, at the remote server, the subsequent survey remarks from the survey requestor; and
(m) producing, at the remote server, the on-line survey to include the initial survey remarks, the survey questions, the answer choices corresponding to the survey questions and the answer format utilizing the answer formats, and the subsequent survey remarks;
(n) providing and storing the on-line survey in an electronic manner to an Internet-based survey manager that hosts the on-line survey; and
(o) thereafter inviting a plurality of survey participants that are classified to be within the selected one or more participant groups to take the on-line survey by interaction with the Internet-based survey manager.
The application here claims priority back to a 1996 provisional application filed by Thomas. The provisional was followed by a non-provisional application that was prosecuted for 8 years before being abandoned following a Board decision affirming an obviousness rejection. (At the time, the process only had steps a-f). At that time, Thomas filed the present continuation and prosecution kept going for 15 more years. Much of this time has been occupied by two appeals. The first appeal was actually successful with the examiner being reversed with the Board finding no prima facie case of obviousness. [11253299 First Board Decision]. However, by that time Alice had been released and the examiner added the new eligibility rejection.