Talk:In Re Bilski

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Courtney

Patent applicants challenged denial of patent application for method of hedging risk in field of commodities trading based on lack of patent-eligible subject matter. The Patent and Trademark Office, Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences, 2006 WL 5738364, sustained rejection of all claims in application. Applicants appealed.

The examiner ultimately rejected claims 1-11 under 35 U.S.C. § 101, stating: “[r]egarding ... claims 1-11, the invention is not implemented on a specific apparatus and merely manipulates [an] abstract idea and solves a purely mathematical problem without any limitation to a practical application, therefore, the invention is not directed to the technological arts.” See Board Decision, slip op. at 3. The examiner noted that Applicants had admitted their claims are not limited to operation on a computer, and he concluded that they were not limited by any specific apparatus. See id. at 4.

The true issue before us then is whether Applicants are seeking to claim a fundamental principle (such as an abstract idea) or a mental process. And the underlying legal question thus presented is what test or set of criteria governs the determination by the Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”) or courts as to whether a claim to a process is patentable under § 101 or, conversely, is drawn to unpatentable subject matter because it claims only a fundamental principle.

The question before us then is whether Applicants' claim recites a fundamental principle and, if so, whether it would pre-empt substantially all uses of that fundamental principle if allowed. Unfortunately, this inquiry is hardly straightforward. How does one determine whether a given claim would pre-empt all uses of a fundamental principle? Analogizing to the facts of Diehr or Benson is of limited usefulness because the more challenging process claims of the twenty-first century are seldom so clearly limited in scope as the highly specific, plainly corporeal industrial manufacturing process of Diehr; nor are they typically as broadly claimed or purely abstract and mathematical as the algorithm of Benson.

[5] Headnote Citing References[6] Headnote Citing References The Supreme Court, however, has enunciated a definitive test to determine whether a process claim is tailored narrowly enough to encompass only a particular application of a fundamental principle rather than to pre-empt the principle itself. A claimed process is surely patent-eligible under § 101 if: (1) it is tied to a particular machine or apparatus, or (2) it transforms a particular article into a different state or thing. See Benson, 409 U.S. at 70, 93 S.Ct. 253 (“Transformation and reduction of an article ‘to a different state or thing’ is the clue to the patentability of a process claim that does not include particular machines.”); Diehr, 450 U.S. at 192, 101 S.Ct. 1048 (holding that use of mathematical formula in process “transforming or reducing an article to a different state or thing” constitutes patent-eligible subject matter); see also Flook, 437 U.S. at 589 n. 9, 98 S.Ct. 2522 (“An argument can be made [that the Supreme] Court has only recognized a process as within the statutory definition when it either was tied to a particular apparatus or operated to change materials to a ‘different state or thing’ ”); Cochrane v. Deener, 94 U.S. 780, 788, 24 L.Ed. 139 (1876) (“A process is ... an act, or a series of acts, performed upon the subject-matter to be transformed and reduced to a different state or thing.”).FN7 A claimed process involving a fundamental principle that uses a particular machine or apparatus would not pre-empt uses of the principle that do not also use the specified machine or apparatus in the manner claimed. And a claimed process that transforms a particular article to a specified different state or thing by applying a fundamental principle would not pre-empt the use of the principle to transform any other article, to transform the same article but in a manner not covered by the claim, or to do anything other than transform the specified article.

CONCLUSION Because the applicable test to determine whether a claim is drawn to a patent-eligible process under § 101 is the machine-or-transformation test set forth by the Supreme Court and clarified herein, and Applicants' claim here plainly fails that test, the decision of the Board is

AFFIRMED.

Maura

Importantly, however, the claim is not limited to transactions involving actual commodities, and the application discloses that the recited transactions may simply involve options, i.e., rights to purchase or sell the commodity at a particular price within a particular timeframe. See J.A. at 86-87.

The examiner ultimately rejected claims 1-11 under 35 U.S.C. § 101, stating: “[r]egarding ... claims 1-11, the invention is not implemented on a specific apparatus and merely manipulates [an] abstract idea and solves a purely mathematical problem without any limitation to a practical application, therefore, the invention is not directed to the technological arts.”

Further, the Board held that the requirement of a specific apparatus was also erroneous because a claim that does not recite a specific apparatus may still be directed to patent-eligible subject matter “if there is a transformation of physical subject matter from one state to another.”

But the Board concluded that Applicants' claims do not involve any patent-eligible transformation, holding that transformation of “non-physical financial risks and legal liabilities of the commodity provider, the consumer, and the market participants” is not patent-eligible subject matter.

Finally, the Board held that Applicants' process as claimed did not produce a “useful, concrete and tangible result,” and for this reason as well was not drawn to patent-eligible subject matter. Id. at 49-50.

Thus, the issue before us involves what the term “process” in § 101 means, and how to determine whether a given claim-and Applicants' claim 1 in particular-is a “new and useful process.” FN3

In 1952, at the time Congress amended § 101 to include “process,” FN4 the ordinary meaning of *952 the term was: “[a] procedure ... [a] series of actions, motions, or operations definitely conducing to an end, whether voluntary or involuntary.” Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language 1972 (2d ed.1952). There can be no dispute that Applicants' claim would meet this definition of “process.” But the Supreme Court has held that the meaning of “process” as used in § 101 is narrower than its ordinary meaning. See Flook, 437 U.S. at 588-89, 98 S.Ct. 2522 (“The holding [in Benson ] forecloses a purely literal reading of § 101.”). Specifically, the Court has held that a claim is not a patent-eligible “process” if it claims “laws of nature, natural phenomena, [or] abstract ideas.”

The true issue before us then is whether Applicants are seeking to claim a fundamental principle (such as an abstract idea) or a mental process. And the underlying legal question thus presented is what test or set of criteria governs the determination by the Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”) or courts as to whether a claim to a process is patentable under § 101 or, conversely, is drawn to unpatentable subject matter because it claims only a fundamental principle.

The Court declared that while a claim drawn to a fundamental principle is unpatentable, “an application of a law of nature or mathematical formula to a known structure or process may well be deserving of patent protection.”

The question before us then is whether Applicants' claim recites a fundamental principle and, if so, whether it would pre-empt substantially all uses of that fundamental principle if allowed. Unfortunately, this inquiry is hardly straightforward. How does one determine whether a given claim would pre-empt all uses of a fundamental principle?

The Supreme Court, however, has enunciated a definitive test to determine whether a process claim is tailored narrowly enough to encompass only a particular application of a fundamental principle rather than to pre-empt the principle itself. A claimed process is surely patent-eligible under § 101 if: (1) it is tied to a particular machine or apparatus, or (2) it transforms a particular article into a different state or thing.

At present, however, and certainly for the present case, we see no need for such a departure and reaffirm that the machine-or-transformation test, properly applied, is the governing test for determining patent eligibility of a process under § 101.FN12

Pre-emption of all uses of a fundamental principle in all fields and pre-emption of all uses of the principle in only one field both indicate that the claim is not limited to a particular application of the principle. See Diehr, 450 U.S. at 193 n. 14, 101 S.Ct. 1048 (“A mathematical formula in the abstract is nonstatutory subject matter regardless of whether the patent is intended to cover all uses of the formula or only limited uses.”) (emphasis added). In contrast, a claim that is tied to a particular machine or brings about a particular transformation of a particular article does not pre-empt all uses of a fundamental principle in any field but rather is limited to a particular use, a specific application. Therefore, it is not drawn to the principle in the abstract.

The first of these is known as the Freeman-Walter-Abele test after the three decisions*959 of our predecessor court that formulated and then refined the test: In re Freeman, 573 F.2d 1237 (CCPA 1978); In re Walter, 618 F.2d 758 (CCPA 1980); and In re Abele, 684 F.2d 902 (CCPA 1982). This test, in its final form, had two steps: (1) determining whether the claim recites an “algorithm” within the meaning of Benson, then (2) determining whether that algorithm is “applied in any manner to physical elements or process steps.” Abele, 684 F.2d at 905-07.

To be sure, a process tied to a particular machine, or transforming or reducing a particular article into a different state or thing, will generally produce a “concrete” and “tangible” result as those terms were used in our prior decisions. But while looking for “a useful, concrete and tangible result” may in many instances provide useful indications of whether a claim is drawn to a fundamental principle or a practical application of such a principle, that inquiry is insufficient to determine whether a claim is patent-eligible under § 101. And it was certainly never intended to supplant the Supreme Court's test. Therefore, we also conclude that the “useful, concrete and tangible result” inquiry*960 is inadequate and reaffirm that the machine-or-transformation test outlined by the Supreme Court is the proper test to apply.

Thus, the proper inquiry under § 101 is not whether the process claim recites sufficient “physical steps,” but rather whether the claim meets the machine-or-transformation test.FN25 As a result, even a claim that recites “physical steps” but neither recites a particular machine or apparatus, nor transforms any article into a different state or thing, is not drawn to patent-eligible subject matter. Conversely, a claim that purportedly lacks any “physical steps” but is still tied to a machine or achieves an eligible transformation passes muster under § 101.

Because the applicable test to determine whether a claim is drawn to a patent-eligible process under § 101 is the machine-or-transformation test set forth by the Supreme Court and clarified herein, and Applicants' claim here plainly fails that test, the decision of the Board is AFFIRMED.

Kevin

Holdings: Following sua sponte order of review en banc, the Court of Appeals, Michel, Chief Judge, held that: (1) machine-or-transformation test, rather than test determining whether claim recited algorithm applied in any manner to physical elements or process steps, was applicable test for determining patent-eligibility of process claims, abrogating, In re Freeman, 573 F.2d 1237, In re Walter, 618 F.2d 758, and In re Abele, 684 F.2d 902; (2) machine-or-transformation test, rather than “useful, concrete and tangible result” inquiry, was proper test to apply to determine patent-eligibility of process claims, abrogating In re Alappat, 33 F.3d 1526, State Street Bank & Trust Co. v. Signature Financial Group, Inc., 149 F.3d 1368, and AT&T Corp. v. Excel Communications, Inc., 172 F.3d 1352; and (3) claim was not drawn to patent-eligible subject matter under transformation branch of machine-or-transformation test. Affirmed.

35 U.S.C. § 101. The statute thus recites four categories of patent-eligible subject matter: processes, machines, manufactures, and compositions of matter.

Diehr can be understood to suggest that whether a claim is drawn only to a fundamental principle is essentially an inquiry into the scope of that exclusion; i.e., whether the effect of allowing the claim would be to allow the patentee to pre-empt substantially all uses of that fundamental principle. If so, the claim is not drawn to patent-eligible subject matter.

Nevertheless, we agree that future developments in technology and the sciences may present difficult challenges to the machine-or-transformation test, just as the widespread use of computers and the advent of the Internet has begun to challenge it in the past decade. Thus, we recognize that the Supreme Court may ultimately decide to alter or perhaps even set aside this test to accommodate emerging technologies. And we certainly do not rule out the possibility that this court may in the future refine or augment the test or how it is applied. At present, however, and certainly for the present case, we see no need for such a departure and reaffirm that the machine-or-transformation test, properly applied, is the governing test for determining patent eligibility of a process under § 101.FN12

First, the Court has held that whether a claimed process is novel or non-obvious is irrelevant to the § 101 analysis.

Second, the Court has made clear that it is inappropriate to determine the patent-eligibility of a claim as a whole based on whether selected limitations constitute patent-eligible subject matter.

After all, even though a fundamental principle itself is not patent-eligible, processes incorporating a fundamental principle may be patent-eligible. Thus, it is irrelevant that any individual step or limitation of such processes by itself would be unpatentable under § 101. See In re Alappat, 33 F.3d 1526, 1543-44 (Fed.Cir.1994) (en banc) (citing Diehr, 450 U.S. at 187, 101 S.Ct. 1048).

The machine-or-transformation test is a two-branched inquiry; an applicant may show that a process claim satisfies § 101 either by showing that his claim is tied to a particular machine, or by showing that his claim transforms an article. See Benson, 409 U.S. at 70, 93 S.Ct. 253. Certain considerations are applicable to analysis under either branch. First, as illustrated by Benson and discussed below, the use of a specific machine or transformation of an article must impose meaningful limits on the claim's scope to impart patent-eligibility.

This court and our predecessor court have frequently stated that adding a data-gathering step to an algorithm is insufficient to convert that algorithm into a patent-eligible process.

Purported transformations or manipulations simply of public or private legal obligations or relationships, business risks, or other such abstractions cannot meet the test because they are not physical objects or substances, and they are not representative of physical objects or substances. Applicants'*964 process at most incorporates only such ineligible transformations.

Applicants' arguments are unavailing because they rely on incorrect or insufficient considerations and do not address their claim's failure to meet the requirements of the Supreme Court's machine-or-transformation test. First, they argue that claim 1 produces “useful, concrete and tangible results.” But as already discussed, this is insufficient to establish patent-eligibility under § 101.

On the other hand, while we agree with the PTO that the machine-or-transformation test is the correct test to apply in determining whether a process claim is patent-eligible under § 101, we do not agree, as discussed earlier, that this amounts to a “technological arts” test. See Appellee's Br. at 24-28. Neither the PTO nor the courts may pay short shrift to the machine-or-transformation test by using purported equivalents or shortcuts such as a “technological arts” requirement. Rather, the machine-or-transformation test is the only applicable test and must be applied, in light of the guidance provided by the Supreme Court and this court, when evaluating the patent-eligibility of process claims. When we do so here, however, we must conclude, as the PTO did, that Applicants' claim fails the test.

Applicants' claim is similar to the claims we held unpatentable under § 101 in Comiskey. There, the applicant claimed a process for mandatory arbitration of disputes regarding unilateral documents and bilateral “contractual” documents in which arbitration was required by the language of the document, a dispute regarding the document was arbitrated, and a binding decision resulted from the arbitration. Comiskey, 499 F.3d at 1368-69. We held the broadest process claims unpatentable under § 101 because “these claims do not require a machine, and these claims evidently do not describe a process of manufacture*965 or a process for the alteration of a composition of matter.” Id. at 1379. We concluded that the claims were instead drawn to the “mental process” of arbitrating disputes, and that claims to such an “application of [only] human intelligence to the solution of practical problems” is no more than a claim to a fundamental principle. Id. at 1377-79 (quoting Benson, 409 U.S. at 67, 93 S.Ct. 253 (“[M]ental processes, and abstract intellectual concepts are not patentable, as they are the basic tools of scientific and technological work.”)).