Tuesday 23 April 2019

The Subcommittee on IP in U.S. Senate Reinstated; First Action is Patent Eligible Subject Matter Reform

Recently, several members of Congress have reinstituted the Subcommittee on Intellectual Property in the U.S. Senate.  This, in and of itself, is relatively big news.  We can expect a good amount of proposed legislation moving out of this subcommittee concerning intellectual property in the near future.  
The first document to issue from the subcommittee (and includes support from members of the House of Representatives as well as the Senate) is essentially a framework for Section 101 patent eligible subject matter reform.  Patent eligible subject matter has been a controversial topic in the United States for years, and attempts to cabin the U.S. Supreme Court Alice v. CLS Bank/Mayo v. Prometheus decisions by the United States Patent and Trademark Office and some judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has led to a relatively messy and some may argue contradictory set of guidelines, rules and precedent.  This may be unhelpful to promote investment and innovation. 

A Press Release from Senator Christopher Coons from Delaware sets forth the outline of the framework:

·         Keep existing statutory categories of process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any useful improvement thereof.

·         Eliminate, within the eligibility requirement, that any invention or discovery be both “new and useful.” Instead, simply require that the invention meet existing statutory utility requirements. 

·         Define, in a closed list, exclusive categories of statutory subject matter which alone should not be eligible for patent protection. The sole list of exclusions might include the following categories, for example: 

·         Fundamental scientific principles;

·         Products that exist solely and exclusively in nature;

·         Pure mathematical formulas;

·         Economic or commercial principles;

·         Mental activities. 

·         Create a “practical application” test to ensure that the statutorily ineligible subject matter is construed narrowly.

·         Ensure that simply reciting generic technical language or generic functional language does not salvage an otherwise ineligible claim.

·         Statutorily abrogate judicially created exceptions to patent eligible subject matter in favor of exclusive statutory categories of ineligible subject matter.

·         Make clear that eligibility is determined by considering each and every element of the claim as a whole and without regard to considerations properly addressed by 102, 103 and 112. 

While this list appears to serve as a list of the broad strokes of the new legislation, it clearly appears to roll back the Alice/Mayo test.  Some of the parts of the framework appear to be concessions to some groups who might be opposed to broad subject matter eligibility, such as some technology companies.  For an IP legislative wish list by the AIPLA, please see, here.  A Congressional Research Service report on patent eligibility reform by Professor Jay Thomas is available, here.  The CRS report predates some of the more recent U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and USPTO decisions concerning eligibility, and includes a discussion of patent eligibility reform proposals from major IP trade associations.  If patent eligibility legislation is passed along the lines of the framework, it nicely sets up the question of how we should reform nonboviousness law, which will have increased importance as the major policy lever policing patentability. 

Here are some of the statements of Congressmen supporting patent eligibility reform:

“Today, U.S. patent law discourages innovation in some of the most critical areas of technology, including artificial intelligence, medical diagnostics, and personalized medicine,” said Senator Coons. “That’s why Senator Tillis and I launched this effort to improve U.S. patent law based on input from those impacted most. I am grateful for the engagement of all stakeholders participating in our roundtables, as well as the bipartisan and collaborative efforts of colleagues in both the Senate and the House. I look forward to continuing to receive feedback as we craft a legislative solution that encourages innovation.”

“Senator Coons and I requested to re-instate the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on IP because we saw a need to reform our nation’s complicated patent process, starting with section 101,” said Senator Tillis. “The release of this framework comes after multiple roundtables and extensive discussions with stakeholders who would be affected by reforming Section 101. Senator Coons and I look forward to receiving feedback from the release of this framework and encourage anyone who might potentially be affected to contact our office and offer us input.”

 “Upgrading the patent eligibility test is critical if we want American innovation to continue to lead worldwide,” said Rep. Collins. “Encouraging innovation in Georgia and throughout our country means restoring confidence for inventors and investors that their patent rights will be upheld in court.”

“I’m pleased to participate in this important and relevant roundtable. Many have voiced concerns about uncertainties in in this area of patent law jurisprudence, and I’m interested in hearing from all stakeholders as we continue to work towards a consensus solution,” said Congressman Hank Johnson, who serves as Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, IP and the Internet. “I particularly look forward to—and welcome—feedback on the outline proposal we’re considering here today.”

“In my home state of Ohio, leaders in the fields of biologics research and diagnostics will deliver the cures of tomorrow. This is only possible if we can protect those innovations with the patent protection that rewards the risks and investment necessary to discover the next great idea,” said Rep. Stivers. “We have the opportunity to advance our society in so many exciting and unknown ways, and we need to ensure we have a patent system that encourages that kind of game-changing innovation, instead of stifling it.”

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