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Navigating the patent process

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Indiana Lawyer Focus

Attorneys in the intellectual property arena waited for “the case” to come down during the past year, but what they got June 28 was anything but the landmark decision so many lawyers expected.

Rather than an expansive or limiting holding about what a patentable “process” is, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling that didn’t change much for IP attorneys throughout the country. With its decision in Bilski v. Kappos, No. 08-964, the court chose not to weigh in on much-debated issues affecting software patents and instead maintained the status quo.

Justices unanimously agreed with the result reached by the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in affirming a lower court decision that rejected a patent for a type of business process that was at issue in this case.

Specifically, this case involved the founders of a Pittsburgh company that sells customized consumer energy products. The company requested a patent for how they hedged energy trade. But their request to patent this business “process” was repeatedly rejected because it was considered an abstract idea, not eligible for patent protection under §101 of the Patent Act.

With its en banc ruling in October 2008, the Federal Circuit held that a process for predicting and hedging risk in commodities markets did not deserve a patent because it was not tied to a machine and did not result in a physical transformation. In affirming the patent claims rejection, the federal appellate court also applied the “machine-or-transformation test” that had been in place for more than a century before 1998.

Leading up to the decision, IP attorneys, businesses, and inventors worried that the court could have upheld the ruling in a broad way that would have invalidated hundreds of software business patents already secured; or that it would have restricted or shifted the standard for how those types of patents are obtained in the future. The case could have had significant impact for Indiana, where pharmaceutical, life sciences, and bio-fuel industries have a large stake in securing patents for their devices and services – such as the impact on a company using a particular software program to analyze an X-ray image, or the makeup of a particular medicine.

But justices decided it wasn’t necessary to make broad sweeping decisions about patents to dispose of the case. They instead relied on existing precedent to make its decision and decided not to further define what constitutes a patentable process.

“With ever more people trying to innovate and thus seeking patent protections for their inventions, the patent law faces a great challenge in striking the balance between protecting inventors and not granting monopolies over procedures that others would discover by independent, creative application of general principles,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote. “Nothing in this opinion should be read to take a position on where that balance ought to be struck.”

The court largely relied on its landmark trilogy of patent cases that shaped what is eligible to receive a patent – Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63 (1972), Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584 (1978), and Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175 (1981).

“Today, the Court once again declines to impose limitations on the Patent Act that are inconsistent with the Act’s text,” Justice Kennedy wrote, referring to past precedent as the “guideposts” in this area.

Even though the justices agreed in result, they were divided 5-4 in their reasoning, and the majority’s view was that there needed to be a flexible test for emerging technologies. The main opinion is 16 pages, while the other justices penned two concurring opinions – one 47 pages and the other four pages – that delved into their views.

Justice Kennedy wrote that the court was not endorsing that idea of the “machine-or-transformation” test.

“There are reasons to doubt whether the test should be the sole criterion for determining the patentability of inventions in the Information Age,” he wrote. “In the course of applying the machine-or-transformation test to emerging technologies, courts may pose questions of such intricacy and refinement that they risk obscuring the larger object of securing patents for valuable inventions without transgressing the public domain.”

But in the 47-page concurring opinion joined by three of his colleagues, Justice John Paul Stevens – in one of his final actions on the court before his retirement – disagreed with the majority’s approach to a “process” as applied today.

“Although this is a fine approach to statutory interpretation in general, it is a deeply flawed approach to a statute that relies on complex terms of art developed against a particular historical background,” he wrote. “Indeed, the approach would render §101 almost comical. A process for training a dog, a series of dance steps, a method of shooting a basketball, maybe even words, stories, or songs if framed as the steps of typing letters or uttering sounds – all would be patent eligible. I am confident that the term ‘process’ in §101 is not nearly so capacious.”

Still, he wrote about the importance of keeping patent law stable and clear, and relying on precedent in restoring patent law to its historical and constitutional moorings. He analyzed the patent law history dating to England, the foundations of American patent law, and how it’s developed through the centuries to this point.

Overall, he wrote that “the scope of patentable subject matter ... is broad. But it is not endless.”•

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  1. Indianapolis employers harassment among minorities AFRICAN Americans needs to be discussed the metro Indianapolis area is horrible when it comes to harassing African American employees especially in the local healthcare facilities. Racially profiling in the workplace is an major issue. Please make it better because I'm many civil rights leaders would come here and justify that Indiana is a state the WORKS only applies to Caucasian Americans especially in Hamilton county. Indiana targets African Americans in the workplace so when governor pence is trying to convince people to vote for him this would be awesome publicity for the Presidency Elections.

  2. Wishing Mary Willis only God's best, and superhuman strength, as she attempts to right a ship that too often strays far off course. May she never suffer this personal affect, as some do who attempt to change a broken system: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QojajMsd2nE

  3. Indiana's seatbelt law is not punishable as a crime. It is an infraction. Apparently some of our Circuit judges have deemed settled law inapplicable if it fails to fit their litmus test of political correctness. Extrapolating to redefine terms of behavior in a violation of immigration law to the entire body of criminal law leaves a smorgasbord of opportunity for judicial mischief.

  4. I wonder if $10 diversions for failure to wear seat belts are considered moral turpitude in federal immigration law like they are under Indiana law? Anyone know?

  5. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

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