In Re Bilski

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United States Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit. In re Bernard L. BILSKI and Rand A. Warsaw.

No. 2007-1130. Oct. 30, 2008.

Background: 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.

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.


Dyk, Circuit Judge, filed opinion concurring, in which Linn, Circuit Judge, joined.

Newman, Circuit Judge, filed opinion dissenting.

Mayer, Circuit Judge, filed opinion dissenting.

Rader, Circuit Judge, filed opinion dissenting.


Opinion for the court filed by Chief Judge MICHEL, in which Circuit Judges LOURIE, SCHALL, BRYSON, GAJARSA, LINN, DYK, PROST, and MOORE join. Concurring opinion filed by Circuit Judge DYK, in which Circuit Judge LINN joins. Dissenting opinion filed by Circuit Judge NEWMAN. Dissenting opinion filed by Circuit Judge MAYER. Dissenting opinion filed by Circuit Judge RADER.

MICHEL, Chief Judge.

Bernard L. Bilski and Rand A. Warsaw (collectively, “Applicants”) appeal from the final decision of the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (“Board”) sustaining the rejection of all eleven claims of their U.S. Patent Application Serial No. 08/833,892 (“ ′892 application”). See Ex parte Bilski, No.2002-2257, 2006 WL 5738364 (B.P.A.I. Sept. 26, 2006) (“ Board Decision ”). Specifically, Applicants argue that the examiner erroneously rejected the claims as not directed to patent-eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101, and that the Board erred in upholding that rejection. The appeal was originally argued before a panel of the court on October 1, 2007. Prior to disposition by the panel, however, we sua sponte ordered en banc review. Oral argument before the en banc court was held on May 8, 2008. We affirm the decision of the Board because we conclude that Applicants' claims are not directed to patent-eligible subject matter, and in doing so, we clarify the standards applicable in determining whether a claimed method constitutes a statutory “process” under § 101.

I. Applicants filed their patent application on April 10, 1997. The application contains eleven claims, which Applicants argue together here. Claim 1 reads:

A method for managing the consumption risk costs of a commodity sold by a commodity provider at a fixed price comprising the steps of:

(a) initiating a series of transactions between said commodity provider and consumers of said commodity wherein said consumers purchase said commodity at a fixed rate based upon historical averages, said fixed rate corresponding to a risk position of said consumer;

(b) identifying market participants for said commodity having a counter-risk position to said consumers; and

(c) initiating a series of transactions between said commodity provider and said market participants at a second fixed rate such that said series of market participant transactions balances the risk position of said series of consumer transactions

′892 application cl.1. In essence, the claim is for a method of hedging risk in the field of commodities trading. For example, coal power plants (i.e., the “consumers”) purchase coal to produce electricity and are averse to the risk of a spike in demand for coal since such a spike would increase the price and their costs. Conversely, coal mining companies (i.e., the “market participants”) are averse to the risk of a sudden drop in demand for coal since such a drop would reduce their sales and depress prices. The claimed method envisions an *950 intermediary, the “commodity provider,” that sells coal to the power plants at a fixed price, thus isolating the power plants from the possibility of a spike in demand increasing the price of coal above the fixed price. The same provider buys coal from mining companies at a second fixed price, thereby isolating the mining companies from the possibility that a drop in demand would lower prices below that fixed price. And the provider has thus hedged its risk; if demand and prices skyrocket, it has sold coal at a disadvantageous price but has bought coal at an advantageous price, and vice versa if demand and prices fall. 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.” 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.

On appeal, the Board held that the examiner erred to the extent he relied on a “technological arts” test because the case law does not support such a test. Id. at 41-42. 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.” Id. at 42. Elaborating further, the Board stated: “ ‘mixing’ two elements or compounds to produce a chemical substance or mixture is clearly a statutory transformation although no apparatus is claimed to perform the step and although the step could be performed manually.” Id. 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. Id. at 43. The Board also held that Applicants' claims “preempt[ ] any and every possible way of performing the steps of the [claimed process], by human or by any kind of machine or by any combination thereof,” and thus concluded that they only claim an abstract idea ineligible for patent protection. Id. at 46-47. 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.

Applicants timely appealed to this court under 35 U.S.C. § 141. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(4)(A).

II. [1] Headnote Citing References[2] Headnote Citing References[3] Headnote Citing References[4] Headnote Citing References Whether a claim is drawn to patent-eligible subject matter under § 101 is a threshold inquiry, and any claim of an application failing the requirements of § 101 must be rejected even if it meets all of the other legal requirements of patentability. In re Comiskey, 499 F.3d 1365, 1371 (Fed.Cir.2007) FN1 (quoting *951 Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 593, 98 S.Ct. 2522, 57 L.Ed.2d 451 (1978)); In re Bergy, 596 F.2d 952, 960 (CCPA 1979), vacated as moot sub nom. Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 444 U.S. 1028, 100 S.Ct. 696, 62 L.Ed.2d 664 (1980). Whether a claim is drawn to patent-eligible subject matter under § 101 is an issue of law that we review de novo. Comiskey, 499 F.3d at 1373; AT & T Corp. v. Excel Commc'ns, Inc., 172 F.3d 1352, 1355 (Fed.Cir.1999). Although claim construction, which we also review de novo, is an important first step in a § 101 analysis, see State St. Bank & Trust Co. v. Signature Fin. Group, 149 F.3d 1368, 1370 (Fed.Cir.1998) (noting that whether a claim is invalid under § 101 “is a matter of both claim construction and statutory construction”), there is no claim construction dispute in this appeal. We review issues of statutory interpretation such as this one de novo as well. Id.

   FN1. Although our decision in Comiskey may be misread by some as requiring in every case that the examiner conduct a § 101 analysis before assessing any other issue of patentability, we did not so hold. As with any other patentability requirement, an examiner may reject a claim solely on the basis of § 101. Or, if the examiner deems it appropriate, she may reject the claim on any other ground(s) without addressing § 101. But given that § 101 is a threshold requirement, claims that are clearly drawn to unpatentable subject matter should be identified and rejected on that basis. Thus, an examiner should generally first satisfy herself that the application's claims are drawn to patent-eligible subject matter.

A. As this appeal turns on whether Applicants' invention as claimed meets the requirements set forth in § 101, we begin with the words of the statute:

Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.

35 U.S.C. § 101. The statute thus recites four categories of patent-eligible subject matter: processes, machines, manufactures, and compositions of matter. It is undisputed that Applicants' claims are not directed to a machine, manufacture, or composition of matter.FN2 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

   FN2. As a result, we decline to discuss In re Nuijten because that decision primarily concerned whether a claim to an electronic signal was drawn to a patent-eligible manufacture. 500 F.3d 1346, 1356-57 (Fed.Cir.2007). We note that the PTO did not dispute that the process claims in Nuijten were drawn to patent-eligible subject matter under § 101 and allowed those claims.

   FN3. Congress provided a definition of “process” in 35 U.S.C. § 100(b): “The term ‘process' means process, art or method, and includes a new use of a known process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or material.” However, this provision is unhelpful given that the definition itself uses the term “process.”

As several amici have argued, the term “process” is ordinarily broad in meaning, at least in general lay usage. 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.” Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 185, 101 S.Ct. 1048, 67 L.Ed.2d 155 (1981) (citing Flook, 437 U.S. at 589, 98 S.Ct. 2522, and Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 67, 93 S.Ct. 253, 34 L.Ed.2d 273 (1972)). Such fundamental principles FN5 are “part of the storehouse of knowledge of all men ... free to all men and reserved exclusively to none.” Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., 333 U.S. 127, 130, 68 S.Ct. 440, 92 L.Ed. 588 (1948); see also Le Roy v. Tatham, 55 U.S. (14 How.) 156, 175, 14 L.Ed. 367 (1852) (“A principle, in the abstract, is a fundamental truth; an original cause; a motive; these cannot be patented, as no one can claim in either of them an exclusive right.”). “Phenomena of nature, though just discovered, mental processes, and abstract intellectual concepts are not patentable, as they are the basic tools of scientific and technological work.” Benson, 409 U.S. at 67, 93 S.Ct. 253; see also Comiskey, 499 F.3d at 1378-79 (holding that “mental processes,” “processes of human thinking,” and “systems that depend for their operation on human intelligence alone” are not patent-eligible subject matter under Benson ).

   FN4. The Patent Act of 1793 originally used the term “art” rather than “process,” which remained unchanged until Congress enacted the current version of § 101 in 1952. But the Supreme Court has held that this change did not alter the scope of patent eligibility over processes because “[i]n the language of the patent law, [a process] is an art.” Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 182-84, 101 S.Ct. 1048, 67 L.Ed.2d 155 (1981) (quoting Cochrane v. Deener, 94 U.S. 780, 787-88, 24 L.Ed. 139 (1877)); see also Comiskey, 499 F.3d at 1375.

   FN5. As used in this opinion, “fundamental principles” means “laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas.”