The Supreme Court is reviewing Bernard Bilski's patent application to consider whether the application appropriately claims "patentable subject matter" under 35 U.S.C. 101 as interpreted by the Supreme Court. Much of the focus in the case is on the Federal Circuit's exclusive "machine or transformation" test. However, I thought it would also be important to look at the underlying Bilski patent application because of how it may drive the debate at the Court.
Bilski's application is not published. However, a copy of the 14-page application was included in a joint appendix submitted to the Federal Circuit during the en banc appeal. The application includes one independent claim; eight subsequent dependent claims; no drawings; and a priority claim to a 1996 provisional application. It appears that Buchanan Ingersoll (Pittsburgh) led the prosecution. The BPAI opinion rejected eleven claims - indicating that some amendments occurred during prosecution. (A docket sheet also indicates that drawings were later added.) Amazingly, Bilski's case is based on an appeal from a March 2000 final rejection.
The Invention focuses on a method of managing consumption risk by commodity trading something that - in 1996 was "not currently managed in energy markets." According to Bilski there was a "need for a fixed bill product to manage total energy costs including the consumption of risk." The general idea of using commodity trading as a hedge against risk has been well known for years. However, Bilski proposes that consumers purchase commodities "at a fixed rate based on historical averages." In a dependent claims, Bilski indicates that the risk to be avoided is a "weather-related price risk." Later, that risk is drilled-down to focus on temperature shifts (heating and cooling degree days). Another dependent claim spells-out the equation for calculating the fixed cost based on prior fixed and variable costs, transportation costs, local delivery costs, and a location specific weather indicator. Additional dependent claims require specific Monte Carlo simulations and statistical tests to better calculate the fixed rate. In some claims, the commodity being traded is identified as "energy" and the market participants as "transmission distributors."
The Claims do not focus on any particular machine or software implementation. Rather, they are organized as "methods" followed by a series of steps such as "initiating a series of transactions . . . "; "performing a Monte Carlo simulation . . ."; and "continuing to re-price the margin in the transaction until the expected portfolio margin and likelihood of portfolio loss is acceptable."
No Machine: Even an amateur implementation of these methods would make extensive use of software and computer hardware. However, those elements are not present in the claims. Why did Bilski not include software and computer hardware in his application? My speculation: First, it does not appear - at least from the patent application - that he invented any software application of his hedging theory. Second, perhaps Bilski believed that a computer implementation element would unduly limit the scope of his invention.
Obvious and Not Enabled: The claims are likely obvious based on extensive prior art in the industry. In addition, the claims may well fail the tests of enablement and/or written description (if it survives Ariad v. Eli Lilly). However, the PTO worked-hard to properly couch this case as a test of patentable subject matter.
The abstract reads as follows:
A method is provided for managing the risk-associated costs of a commodity sold by a commodity provider at a fixed price. Such risk-associated costs include the weather-related costs of a fixed price-energy bill. The commodity provider initiates a series of transactions with consumers of the commodity wherein the consumers purchase the commodity at a fixed rate based upon historical averages. The fixed rate corresponds to a risk position of the consumers. The commodity provider then identifies market participants for the commodity who have a counter-risk position to that of the consumers. The commodity provider then initiates a series of transactions with the market participants at a second fixed rate such that the series of market participant transactions balances the risk position of the series of consumer transactions.
Read the application here: BilskiApplication.pdf