Wednesday 9 January 2019

Patent Eligible Subject Matter: Bait and Switch Works Well?

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has released guidelines on patent eligible subject matter as well as section 112 issues concerning computer implemented inventions.  Once again, some believe there’s arguably a shift on the treatment of patent eligible subject matter at the USPTO.  It’s hard to imagine that patents may draw investment if there is a lack of certainty and stability with respect to patent rights.  On the other hand, the biotechnology industry arguably developed around many patents that were eventually invalidated—it doesn’t get much more uncertain than arguably changing the rules of the game later.  Does that mean we should look toward broader subject matter or narrow subject matter—both of which could be more certain and stable?  On the broad side, I suppose we can always dump patents later—the U.S. Supreme Court has nicely rejected reliance arguments.  If we experience problems with patents and innovation in the future, then we invalidate the patents.  As long as the capital is drawn forth for productive use based in part from the original patents, then from society’s perspective maybe all is good and the problem is avoided—as long as the industry develops and some investors receive some return (at least enough to keep playing).  Who knows what is lost from broad subject matter--particularly with new, developing technology.  Here is an excerpt from the press release:  

“These guidance documents aim to improve the clarity, consistency, and predictability of actions across the USPTO,” said Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO Andrei Iancu. “The USPTO will provide training to examiners and administrative patent judges on both documents to ensure that guidance is being properly administered.”

The “2019 Revised Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance” makes two primary changes to how patent examiners apply the first step of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Alice/Mayo test, which determines whether a claim is “directed to” a judicial exception.

  • First, in accordance with judicial precedent and in an effort to improve certainty and reliability, the revised guidance extracts and synthesizes key concepts identified by the courts as abstract ideas to explain that the abstract idea exception includes certain groupings of subject matter: mathematical concepts, certain methods of organizing human activity, and mental processes.
  • Second, the revised guidance includes a two-prong inquiry for whether a claim is “directed to” a judicial exception. In the first prong, examiners will evaluate whether the claim recites a judicial exception and if so, proceed to the second prong. In the second prong, examiners evaluate whether the claim recites additional elements that integrate the identified judicial exception into a practical application. If a claim both recites a judicial exception and fails to integrate that exception into a practical application, then the claim is “directed to” a judicial exception. In such a case, further analysis pursuant to the second step of the Alice/Mayo test is required.

The “Examining Computer-Implemented Functional Claim Limitations for Compliance with 35 U.S.C. § 112” guidance emphasizes various issues with regard to § 112 analysis, specifically as it relates to computer-implemented inventions. The guidance describes proper application of means-plus-function principles under § 112(f), definiteness under § 112(b), and written description and enablement under § 112(a).

These guidance documents have been issued concurrently to ensure consistent, predictable, and correct application of these principles across the agency. 

The USPTO is seeking public comments on the new guidance. 

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