Ex parte Cornea-Hasegan (BPAI 2009)(non-precedential)
I have been following the BPAI's response in the wake of the Federal Circuit's series of patentable subject matter cases that culminated with In re Bilski, 545 F.3d 943 (Fed. Cir. 2008) (en banc). In Bilski, the full appellate court held that to be patentable, a process claim must either be "tied to a particular machine or apparatus" or transform "a particular article into a different state or thing." Bilski explicitly focuses only on process (or method) claim, and practitioners have been left to question its impact on other claim forms.
In Cornea-Hasegan, Intel is attempting to obtain a patent on a short-cut method of performing mathematical calculations when the outcome is likely "tiny." According to the claim, when the mathematical result is likely tiny, then software is used to calculate the result; otherwise, hardware is used to calculate the result. The application claims both "a method" and "a computer readable media including program instructions which when executed by a processor case the processor to perform" the method. The body of both claims are essentially identical, and neither discuss particular machinery beyond "a processor," "software," and "floating-point hardware."
Processor Insufficient: A claim will be considered to cover patentable subject matter if it is tied to a particular machine. Here, however, the BPAI found that requiring "a processor" is not a "particular" machine.
The recitation of a "processor" performing various functions fails to impose any meaningful limits on the claim's scope. The recitation of a "processor" performing various functions is nothing more than a general purpose computer that has been programmed in an unspecified manner to implement the functional steps recited in the claims. The recitation of a processor in combination with purely functional recitations of method steps, where the functions are implemented using an unspecified algorithm, is insufficient the recitation of a processor does not limit the process steps to any specific machine or apparatus.
Post-Solution Activity: Although the claimed "floating-point hardware" may be a particular machine, the BPAI disregarded that element as "insignificant extra-solution activity … 'that will not transform an unpatentable principle into a patentable process.'" (Quoting Bilski).
Transforming Data: A claim will be considered to cover patentable subject matter if it transforms a particular article into a different state or thing. However, the transformation of abstract data or abstract data structures will not be sufficient to render the claim patentable. Here, the only arguable transformation is of data that has no direct physical world corollary.
Non-Method Claims: Some of Intel's claims are directed to a "computer readable media" rather than a method or process. Intel argued that Bilski should not apply to those "manufacture claims" because Bilski's sole focus was method claims. Rejecting that argument, the BPAI panel determined that the Section 101 analysis is the same – regardless of whether the subject is a "manufacture" claim or a "process" claim. (Citing AT&T v. Excel (Fed. Cir. 1999)(abrogated by Bilski)). Remember here that the State Street case – which released the business method rush – determined the patentability of a "data processing system."
Applying Bilski to the "computer readable media" claim, the BPAI found that the claimed invention was unpatentable because it did not require transformation of any article nor was it tied to any particular machine. Although the claim recites a "computer readable media" and "hardware," those elements were seen as insignificant extra-solution activities.
Limiting the claim to computer readable media does not add any practical limitation to the scope of the claim. Such a field-of-use limitation is insufficient to render an otherwise ineligible claim patent eligible.
Quoting the Supreme Court in Diehr (1981), the BPAI noted that Section 101 eligibility "cannot be circumvented by attempting to limit the use of the formula to a particular technological environment."
Rejection of all claims under Section 101 affirmed.
- In Ex parte Bo Li, the BPAI reversed the rejection of a claim written in similar Beauregard format. That case could be distinguished by additional links to a machine or apparatus found in Bo Li's claims. In particular, Bo Li's claim "presents a number of software components, such as the claimed logic processing module, configuration file processing module, data organization module, and data display organization module, that are embodied upon a computer readable medium." [Link]
- In Comiskey (Revised opinion 2009), the Federal Circuit issued a remand order to the BPAI to consider whether Comiskey's claims of a "system for mandatory arbitration" are directed to statutory subject matter under Section 101.
- The BPAI opinion here relies on the following statement from the original Comiskey opinion: "the mere use of the machine to collect data necessary for application of the mental process may not make the claim patentable subject matter." Comiskey (Fed. Cir. 2007). That statement was deleted from the revised Comiskey opinion.