They Know It When They See It: Patentable Subject Matter After Alice
To those with even a casual interest in the preparation and prosecution of patents in the United States, the holding in the Supreme Court’s June 2014 decision in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International is well known: claims directed to intermediated settlement encompass an abstract idea, and generic recitation of a computer implementation in such claims fails to transform the abstract idea into patent-eligible subject matter. Predictably, numerous articles have since been published extolling the virtues (or lack thereof, as the case may be) of theAlice decision. While the patent eligibility debate is good and necessary, it leaves open the question of many would-be patentees: may I get a patent on my software-based innovation?
While the Court provided virtually no “bright line” rules in answer to this question, the decision nevertheless suggests various approaches that may be employed going forward to best ensure your patent application embraces patent-eligible subject matter.
Alice Corporation obtained various patents directed to, as the Court put it, “a computerized scheme for mitigating ‘settlement risk’—i.e., the risk that only one party to an agreed-upon financial exchange will satisfy its obligation.” In a highly fractured opinion, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit concluded that all of Alice’s claims were directed to patent-ineligible subject matter.
On further appeal, the Court cited its recent decision in Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., in which the Court laid out its two-step process for separating patents directed to patent ineligible concepts from “those that claim patent-eligible applications of those concepts.” First, one must “determine whether the claims at issue are directed to . . . patent ineligible concepts.” If so, in the second step, one must then ask what else is in the claims that may be sufficient to “transform” the ineligible concept into a patent-eligible application thereof.
Unfortunately, the Court provides no guidance how one goes about determining whether claims are directed to ineligible concepts in the first step. In fact, the Court expressly takes a pass on the issue, stating that it “need not labor to delimit the precise contours” of what constitutes a patent-ineligible concept. Instead, the Court noted that it’s Bilski decision concerned claims directed to “hedging,” which “all members of the Court agreed” constituted an abstract idea. Without further reference to the actual language of the claims, the Court stated that Alice’s “claims . . . are drawn to the concept of intermediated settlement.” With this setup, the Court quickly concluded that “[l]ike the risk hedging in Bilski, the concept of intermediated settlement is a ‘fundamental economic practice long prevalent in our system of commerce.'”
Turning to the second step, the Court had little trouble in determining that various other recitations in the claim beyond the abstract idea failed to “do more than simply instruct the practitioner to implement the abstract idea of intermediated settlement on a generic computer.” Looking at “the claim elements separately,” the Court stated that “each step does no more than require a generic computer to perform generic computer functions.” Further, considering the claimed computer elements “as an ordered combination” did not add anything “that is not already present when the steps are considered separately.”
So, you are now considering patent protection for your new, software-implemented invention, but the Court’s “guidance” in Alice has left you unsure whether it makes sense to proceed. Despite the outcome in Alice, patents based on software-implemented innovations have not been knocked out entirely, though they did take a pretty good punch to the gut. Going forward, would-be patentees must take greater care to ensure that they claim and present their inventions in a manner that minimizes the likelihood of being interpreted as an “abstract idea.” The following observations should help you avoid that pitfall.
1. Stay As Far Away From Bilski and Alice As You Can
As noted, the closest the Court came to providing concrete guidance for identifying patent-ineligible abstract ideas was to measure how close the underlying “inventive concept” of an invention comes to the abstract ideas found in Bilski and, in the future, Alice. That is, if the subject matter of your claims is reasonably analogous to the risk hedging claimed in Bilski or the intermediated settlement in Alice, it’s almost certainly going to be viewed as embracing an abstract idea. Instead, try to find a way to describe the subject matter of your invention as something other than a concept that is related to these concepts.
Even more so than before, for software-implemented ideas, application drafting will require a careful balancing of what you say in the specification and in the claims. That is, the difference between whatever abstract idea is arguably discussed in the specification versus the limitations in your claims (∆abst) should be as large as possible.
For example, assume an invention concerns a new technique for completing payments for goods and services via mobile, wireless devices, which method facilitates a more rapid exchange of certain types of data. Having a method claim that begins “A method for completing payments via mobile, wireless devices” strongly suggests that the “inventive concept” is directed to the mere idea of completing financial transactions, which starts to sound awfully similar to the intermediated settlement of Alice. Rather than focusing the claim on the novelty of the financial transaction itself, attempt to focus the claim on the effect the method has on the underlying mobile device, e.g., “A method for communicating transactional data by a mobile, wireless device.”
2. Get “Technical”
Perhaps more importantly, even if you can strongly contrast your claims to the underlying abstract idea, you may still be on shaky grounds if your application doesn’t somehow discuss how it leads to a technological improvement. In Alice, when rejecting the sufficiency of a generic computer implementation to rescue claims otherwise directed to an abstract idea, the Court specifically noted that the claim did not “purport to improve the functioning of the computer itself . . . [or] effect an improvement in any other technology or technical field.” Stated another way, rather than directing your specification and claims as teaching improvements to a traditionally human-implemented field of endeavor (e.g., hedging risk, mediating settlement risk), they should clearly establish how the innovation improves the operation of a machine (i.e., the computer implementing the software-driven method) or an overarching “technology or technical field” in which the computer-implemented method is employed.
The graph below illustrates the apparent “sliding scale” nature of the abstract idea and technology aspects of the Alice decision. As shown, the connection of the claimed subject matter to improvement to a particular technology is shown along one axis, and the distinction of the claims over an encompassed abstract idea (∆abst) is shown along the other. For claimed subject matter that demonstrates little distinction from the alleged abstract idea and that demonstrates a weak connection to a technological improvement, there is little likelihood (“No Chance”) of demonstrating subject-matter eligibility. Oppositely, for claimed subject matter that is strongly distinguished from the alleged abstract idea and that clearly concerns a technological improvement, there is a much greater likelihood (“No Problem”) of demonstrating subject-matter eligibility. It is to be expected, however, that the relative areas of the illustrated outcomes will be different according to the particular realm of abstract ideas at hand, i.e., the “No Chance” area is likely to be much larger when dealing with finance-related inventions versus inventions concerning, say, telecommunications.
For example, assume an invention concerns a new process applicable to trading platforms for various financial instruments, e.g., stocks, commodities, etc. Where possible, one should not stress how the claimed process makes trading markets more efficient or enables different types of financial instruments to be traded. Instead, it may be better to acknowledge in the specification that electronic trading is well-known and that the invention leads to better operation of the underlying machines (e.g., where the claimed process enables the machine to complete more trades per unit of time, complete the trades more accurately, in a manner less consuming of resources, etc.) or broadens the capabilities of such machines (e.g., where the process provides a function that was previously unavailable). In drafting the specification, carefully ascribe certain steps to humans versus machines where possible and then make sure the claims don’t include any of the human-performed steps.
3. Get to Know a European Patent Attorney
It has been observed by many commentators that the Alice decision is yet another nudge of U.S. practice in the direction of European practice, i.e., focused on a “technical problem” for which your invention must provide a “technical solution.” European patent attorneys have been dealing with such issues for many years and may be able to offer valuable insights how to best position your invention in an application.
4. Be Prepared to Make Decision Makers Prove “Abstractness”
A concern with the Court’s lack of guidance when assessing whether a claim embraces excluded subject matter is that, not unlike those seeking to obtain patents, the examiners at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) and federal district court judges will be equally in the dark. Unfettered from concrete guidance, it may be anticipated that examiners and judges will be more apt to make unsubstantiated assertions that claims encompass abstract ideas. Having drafted your claims and specification as noted above, i.e., emphasizing less how the invention helps achieve a business goal or perform human tasks better and instead illustrating how it improves/extends operation of an underlying machine or overarching technology, you will at least have a stronger foundation for arguing against the alleged abstract idea.