In re Bilski, __ F.3d __ (Fed. Cir. 2008)(en banc)
The Federal Circuit has affirmed the PTO's Board of Patent Appeals (BPAI) finding that Bilski's claimed invention (a method of hedging risks in commodities trading) does not satisfy the patentable subject matter requirements of 35 U.S.C. § 101. In doing so, the nine-member majority opinion (penned by Chief Judge Michel) spelled out the "machine-or-transformation" test as the sole test of subject matter eligibility for a claimed process.
The Supreme Court … 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.
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.
State Street Test Is Out: In State Street, the Federal Circuit used the "useful, concrete, and tangible result" of a process as a touchstone for patentability. In Bilski, the en banc panel found the State Street formulation "insufficient to determine whether a claim is patent-eligible under § 101."
[W]e also conclude that the "useful, concrete and tangible result" inquiry is inadequate and reaffirm that the machine-or-transformation test outlined by the Supreme Court is the proper test to apply.
Some Business Methods and Software Are Still In: Still, the court made clear that business methods and Software will still be patentable – if they meet the machine-or-transformation test.
We rejected [a categorical] exclusion in State Street, noting that the so-called "business method exception" was unlawful and that business method claims (and indeed all process claims) are "subject to the same legal requirements for patentability as applied to any other process or method." We reaffirm this conclusion.
[A]lthough invited to do so by several amici, we [also] decline to adopt a broad exclusion over software or any other such category of subject matter beyond the exclusion of claims drawn to fundamental principles set forth by the Supreme Court
To be clear, the machine-or-transformation test is not a physicality test – i.e., a claim can still be patentable even if it does not recite sufficient "physical steps." On the flip-side, "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." Here, the court spelled out the specific issue in mind: a claimed process where every step may be performed entirely in the human mind. In that situation, the machine-or-transformation test would lead to unpatentability. "Of course, a claimed process wherein all of the process steps may be performed entirely in the human mind is obviously not tied to any machine and does not transform any article into a different state or thing. As a result, it would not be patent-eligible under § 101."
Along this line, the court also dispelled two rising concerns, noting that that (1) neither novelty nor obviousness have any relevance to the section 101 inquiry, and (2) the fact that an individual claim element is – standing alone – patent ineligible does not render the claim unpatentable because patent eligibility is considered while examining the claim as a whole.
What is a Transformation?: The courts have already developed an understanding of transformation as it relates to the Section 101 inquiry. Here, the Federal Circuit referred to the distinction made in the 1982 Abele case. There, the court distinguished between two of Abele's claims – finding only one patentable. The unpatentable claim recited "a process of graphically displaying variances of data from average values" without specifying "any particular type or nature of data … or from where the data was obtained or what the data represented." The patentable dependent claim identified the "data [as] X-ray attenuation data produced in a two dimensional field by a computed tomography scanner." In retrospect, the Federal Circuit sees the difference between these two claims to be that of transformation. The second claim included sufficiently specific transformation because it changed "raw data into a particular visual depiction of a physical object on a display." Notably, the transformation did not require any underlying physical object. As the court noted later in the opinion, the transformed articles must be "physical objects or substances [or] representative of physical objects or substances."
The Bilski claims themselves were not seen as transforming an article:
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' process at most incorporates only such ineligible transformations. . . . As discussed earlier, the process as claimed encompasses the exchange of only options, which are simply legal rights to purchase some commodity at a given price in a given time period. The claim only refers to "transactions" involving the exchange of these legal rights at a "fixed rate corresponding to a risk position." Thus, claim 1 does not involve the transformation of any physical object or substance, or an electronic signal representative of any physical object or substance.
The principle behind the test is to prevent a patentee from obtaining claims that preempt the use of fundamental principles. That principle reaches back more than 150 years to the Morse case where the inventor was precluded from claiming all uses of electromagnetism to print characters at a distance.
We believe this is faithful to the concern the Supreme Court articulated as the basis for the machine-or-transformation test, namely the prevention of pre-emption of fundamental principles. So long as the claimed process is limited to a practical application of a fundamental principle to transform specific data, and the claim is limited to a visual depiction that represents specific physical objects or substances, there is no danger that the scope of the claim would wholly pre-empt all uses of the principle.
What is a "Particular Machine"?: For software and business methods, the question will remain as to whether a general purpose computer is sufficiently particular to qualify as a "particular machine." "We leave to future cases the elaboration of the precise contours of machine implementation, as well as the answers to particular questions, such as whether or when recitation of a computer suffices to tie a process claim to a particular machine." As Professor Duffy noted in an earlier Patently-O article, the PTO Board of Patent Appeals (BPAI) has already answered this question: "A general purpose computer is not a particular machine, and thus innovative software processes are unpatentable if they are tied only to a general purpose computer." See Ex parte Langemyr (May 28, 2008) and Ex parte Wasynczuk (June 2, 2008). More commonly, the claim may tie the software to computer memory or a processor – is that sufficiently particular? I suspect this fact pattern will arise shortly.
- Although three dissenting opinions were filed, Judge Newman is the only judge who found patentable subject matter in Bilski's claim.
- In Dissent, Judge Mayer thought the decision did not go far enough: "Affording patent protection to business methods lacks constitutional and statutory support, serves to hinder rather than promote innovation and usurps that which rightfully belongs in the public domain." Citing work by Professors Dreyfuss and Pollack, Mayer argues that business method patents have the overall effect of stifling innovation by restricting competition.
- In his Dissent, Judge Rader asks the insightful question of why a new test is necessary when settled law already answers the question. Rader would have decided the opinion with one line: "Because Bilski claims merely an abstract idea, this court affirms the Board's rejection." I believe Rader's position is quite defensible. In particular, the majority justifies its need for the test as a way to ensure that we avoid the "preemption of fundamental principles." In the majority construct, the machine-or-transformation test serves as a fairly accurate proxy for preventing preemption. The court does not, however, answer why any proxy is necessary – if the purpose is to exclude overbroad abstract ideas why not simply rely on the current rule preventing patenting of abstract ideas (as well as the law requiring full enablement)?
Concurring opinion by Judge DYK (joined by Judge LINN) attempt to reconcile the history of the patent system with the new rule of patentability.