Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Judges Lourie and Newman of the Federal Circuit Critique Alice/Mayo and Myriad

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in AatrixSoftware, Inc. v. Green Shades Software, Inc., recently denied a rehearing en banc concerning two cases that may make it more difficult to dismiss a claim challenged for lack of patent eligible subject matter under the Alice/Mayo test because of factual issues.  This leaves intact the ability of counsel to raise factual issues which may avoid early resolution of a patent infringement action on patent eligible subject matter grounds.  Notably, Judges Lourie and Newman, both of whom have graduate degrees in technical fields and are very experienced members of the Federal Circuit, requested in a concurring opinion that the U.S. Congress revisit patent eligible subject matter, particularly in light of the Alice/Mayo test and the U.S. Supreme Court “abstract idea gloss.”  Judge Lourie states:

The case before us involves the abstract idea exception to the statute.  Abstract ideas indeed should not be subject to patent.  They are products of the mind, mental steps, not capable of being controlled by others, regardless what a statute or patent claim might say.  Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 67 (1972) (“[M]ental processes, and abstract intellectual concepts are not patentable, as they are the basic tools of scientific and technological work.”).  No one should be inhibited from thinking by a patent.  See Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson (Aug. 13, 1813) (“[I]f nature has made any one thing less susceptible, than all others, of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an Idea.”).  Thus, many brilliant and unconventional ideas must be beyond patenting simply because they are “only” ideas, which cannot be monopolized.  Moreover such a patent would be unenforceable.  Who knows what people are thinking?  

But why should there be a step two in an abstract idea analysis at all?  If a method is entirely abstract, is it no less abstract because it contains an inventive step?  And, if a claim recites “something more,” an “inventive” physical or technological step, it is not an abstract idea, and can be examined under established patentability provisions such as §§ 102 and 103.  Step two’s prohibition on identifying the something more from “computer functions [that] are ‘well-understood, routine, conventional activit[ies]’ previously known to the industry,” Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2359 (2014) (alteration in original) (quoting Mayo, 566 U.S. at 73), is essentially a §§ 102 and 103 inquiry.  Section 101 does not need a two-step analysis to determine whether an idea is abstract.   I therefore believe that § 101 requires further authoritative treatment.  Thinking further concerning § 101, but beyond these cases, steps that utilize natural processes, as all mechanical, chemical, and biological steps do, should be patent-eligible, provided they meet the other tests of the statute, including novelty, nonobviousness, and written description.  A claim to a natural process itself should not be patentable, not least because it lacks novelty, but also because natural processes should be available to all.  But claims to using such processes should not be barred at the threshold of a patentability analysis by being considered natural laws, as a method that utilizes a natural law is not itself a natural law.

Judge Lourie also criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Myriad Genetics:

[F]inding, isolating, and purifying such products are genuine acts of inventiveness, which should be incentivized and rewarded by patents.  We are all aware of the need for new antibiotics because bacteria have become resistant to our existing products.  Nature, including soil and plants, is a fertile possible source of new antibiotics, but there will be much scientific work to be done to find or discover, isolate, and purify any such products before they can be useful to us.  Industry should not be deprived of the incentive to develop such products that a patent creates.  But, while they are part of the same patent-eligibility problems we face, these specific issues are not in the cases before us.   Accordingly, I concur in the decision of the court not to rehear this § 101 case en banc.  Even if it was decided wrongly, which I doubt, it would not work us out of the current § 101 dilemma.  In fact, it digs the hole deeper by further complicating the § 101 analysis.  Resolution of patent-eligibility issues requires higher intervention, hopefully with ideas reflective of the best thinking that can be brought to bear on the subject.

There are numerous proposals for changing patent eligible subject matter before the U.S. Congress, for example, see the AIPLA proposal, here. 

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