The work of the Board must go on . . . . In several recent decisions, the Board of Patent Appeals (BPAI or Board) has continued to affirm rejections of claims on patentable subject matter eligibility grounds under 35 U.S.C. § 101.
In Ex parte Kelkar, App. No. 2009–004635 (BPAI, September 24 ,2010), the applicant had claimed a method of determining the similarity between two genetic profiles and a computer program stored on a recordable medium for accomplishing the method. The method involves the broad steps of iteratively matching gene expression profile pairs in clusters until a best match is found. Because the method neither recites any particular machinery nor transforms an article into a different state or thing, the Board held that it failed the machine-or-transformation test. Citing Flook (1978), the Board then held that the claim was improperly directed to an abstract algorithm because the underlying innovation was the unpatentable mathematical algorithm. Some of the method claims included a preamble statement that the method occurred “in a computer.” The Board found that limitation at most a “a field-of-use limitation that is insufficient to render the otherwise ineligible process . . . patent eligible.”
The Board went on to affirm the rejection of the computer program claims that were “stored on a recordable medium.” The Board agreed with the examiner that those the storage medium limitation was broad enough to encompass unpatentable “carrier wave storage.” (See Nuijten (Fed. Cir. 2007)). The Board wrote:
When the broadest reasonable interpretation of a claim covers a signal per se, the claim must be rejected under 35 U.S.C. § 101 as covering nonstatutory subject matter. See In re Nuijten, 500 F.3d 1346, 1356-57 (Fed. Cir. 2007) (transitory embodiments are not directed to statutory subject matter). See also, Subject Matter Eligibility of Computer Readable Media, 1351 Off. Gaz. Pat. Office 212 (Feb. 23, 2010).
In Ex parte MacKenzie, App. No. 2009–-7332 (BPAI, October 4, 2010), the Board issued a new grounds of rejection under Section 101 because the claimed method was directed to an abstract process under Bilski. MacKenzie's rejected claim 1 reads as follows:
1. A method for use in a device associated with a first party for performing a signature operation on a message substantially based on the digital signature algorithm (DSA), the method comprising the steps of:
generating in the first party device a first component associated with the signature operation based on assistance from a device associated with a second party, wherein the assistance from the second party device is received as a first message from the second party device;
transmitting the first component to the second party device;
generating in the first party device a second component associated with the signature operation based on further assistance from the second party device, wherein the further assistance from the second party device is received as a second message from the second party device, wherein the second message comprises results generated using the transmitted first component; and
outputting a form of the first component and the second component as a result of the DSA signature operation.
Although MacKenzie's claim does recite various devices, the Board saw these as “nominal” limitations to “generic devices.” The Board wrote:
As the unpatentability of abstract ideas was reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bilski (2010), clever claim drafting involving the nominal addition of generic structures cannot circumvent the principles articulated by the Court. That is, even when a claim appears to apply an idea or concept in combination with a nominal claim to generic structure(s), one must ensure that it does not in reality seek patent protection for that idea in the abstract.
In Ex parte Venkata, App. No. 2009–007302 (BPAI, October 5, 2010), the Board held that “the claim’s body recites nothing more than software [and therefore] lacks statutory subject matter.” Venkata's claim was directed to a “system” that included two “discovery agents” that operate either via a local network or via an Internet host.
Kelkar's patent application is owned by IBM and prosecuted by its in-house patent department. MacKenzie's patent application is owned by Lucent and prosecuted by the small firm of Ryan, Mason & Lewis. Venkata's patent application is owned by Nokia and prosecuted by the small firm of Hollingsworth & Funk.
The USPTO's January 2010 guidance on the Subject Matter Eligibility of Computer Readable Media is repeated as follows. I would argue that the Nuijten decision – if read to categorically exclude transitory embodiments, is no longer good law post-Bilski.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is obliged to give claims their broadest reasonable interpretation consistent with the specification during proceedings before the USPTO. See In re Zletz, 893 F.2d 319 (Fed. Cir. 1989) (during patent examination the pending claims must be interpreted as broadly as their terms reasonably allow). The broadest reasonable interpretation of a claim drawn to a computer readable medium (also called machine readable medium and other such variations) typically covers forms of non-transitory tangible media and transitory propagating signals per se in view of the ordinary and customary meaning of computer readable media, particularly when the specification is silent. See MPEP 2111.01. When the broadest reasonable interpretation of a claim covers a signal per se, the claim must be rejected under 35 U.S.C. § 101 as covering non-statutory subject matter. See In re Nuijten, 500 F.3d 1346, 1356-57 (Fed. Cir. 2007) (transitory embodiments are not directed to
statutory subject matter) and Interim Examination Instructions for Evaluating Subject Matter Eligibility Under 35 U.S.C. § 101, Aug. 24, 2009; p. 2.
The USPTO recognizes that applicants may have claims directed to computer readable media that cover signals per se, which the USPTO must reject under 35 U.S.C. § 101 as covering both non-statutory subject matter and statutory subject matter. In an effort to assist the patent community in overcoming a rejection or potential rejection under 35 U.S.C. § 101 in this situation, the USPTO suggests the following approach. A claim drawn to such a computer readable medium that covers both transitory and non-transitory embodiments may be amended to narrow the claim to cover only statutory embodiments to avoid a rejection under 35 U.S.C. § 101 by adding the limitation "non-transitory" to the claim. Cf. Animals - Patentability, 1077 Off. Gaz. Pat. Office 24 (April 21, 1987) (suggesting that applicants add the limitation "non-human" to a claim covering a multi-cellular organism to avoid a rejection under 35 U.S.C. § 101). Such an amendment would typically not raise the issue of new matter, even when the specification is silent because the broadest reasonable interpretation relies on the ordinary and customary meaning that includes signals per se. The limited situations in which such an amendment could raise issues of new matter occur, for example, when the specification does not support a non-transitory embodiment because a signal per se is the only viable embodiment such that the amended claim is impermissibly broadened beyond the supporting disclosure. See, e.g., Gentry Gallery, Inc. v. Berkline Corp., 134 F.3d 1473 (Fed. Cir. 1998).
DAVID J. KAPPOS
Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and
Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office