The last time that the Supreme Court directly addressed the issue of subject matter eligibility under 35 U.S.C. § 101 was in the early 1980's. In the waning days of the pre-CAFC era, the Supreme Court decided Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303 (1980) and Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175 (1981).
An interesting tidbit of history involves the grant of certiorari in the 1981 Diehr case. The Diehr grant of certiorari occurred on March 17, 1980 – the same day that the court heard oral arguments in Chakrabarty. By that time the court had apparently realized that the patent office needed more Section 101 guidance than the one biotechnology case could provide.
Today's parallel of Bilski v. Kappos and Mayo v. Prometheus is strikingly similar. Of course, the Supreme Court is a different body than it was in 1980 and the Court hears about 50% fewer cases than it did back then. In patent cases where the Government is not a party - such as Mayo v. Prometheus – the court has more recently tended to ask for the views of the Solicitor General (CVSG) before moving forward with a grant of certiorari. The CVSG delay would push-back any decision on certiorari in Mayo v. Prometheus until the spring of 2010 – well after the scheduled November 9 oral arguments in Bilski. Although the Court may not have released a decision in Bilski by that time, the justices will almost certainly know the eventual outcome of that case.
If (1) the Supreme Court's Bilski decision substantially shifts the patentable subject matter doctrine and (2) the Supreme Court sees Mayo v. Prometheus as important, the court may issue a "grant, vacate, and remand" or GVR order. In that scenario, the Federal Circuit would be asked to apply the new law of patentable subject matter to the facts in the case. In an e-mail, Hal Wegner suggested to me that this is a likely outcome.
- Certiorari Granted October 29, 1979
- Argued March 17, 1980
- Decided June 16, 1980
- Certiorari Granted, March 17, 1980
- Argued October 14, 1980
- Decided March 3, 1981
As an aside, up-to-date versions of Mr. Wegner's highly informative top-ten lists are being maintained online here.