By Jason Rantanen
There are three articulated exceptions to the scope of patentable subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101: laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas. Research Corp. v. Microsoft places a high hurdle in front of challengers who seek to invalidate process patents on the third ground.
Research Corp. Technologies v. Microsoft Corp. (Fed. Cir. 2010)
Panel: Rader (author), Newman, and Plager
Research Corporation ("RCT") owns several patents relating to digital image halftoning, which is the process of generating electronic display and print images using only a small number of pixel colors (ex.: red, blue and green in the case of color displays) while appearing to present many more colors and shades than were actually used. Four related patents are relevant to this summary: Nos. 5,111,310, 5,341,228, 5,477,305, and 5,726,772. The applications for the '310 and '228 patents (a continuation-in-part of the '310 patent) were filed before December 4, 1991; the remaining patents are continuations of the '228 patent and claim priority to the earlier filing dates.
RCT brought an infringement action against Microsoft based on these patents; in response, Microsoft asserted, and the district court initially concluded, that the patents were unenforceable due to inequitable conduct, invalid and not infringed. The Federal Circuit reversed that determination in 2008. Microsoft subsequently sought summary judgment against the '310 and '228 patents on Section 101 patentable subject matter grounds, and asserted that the claims of the '772 patent were not entitled to the earlier priority date, thus rendering them anticipated. The district court granted Microsoft's motions, and subsequently held that the only remaining claim, claim 29 of the '305 patent, also lacked entitlement to the earlier priority date. Based on these ruling, the parties stipulated to a dismissal of the suit and RCT appealed.
Section 101 and Process Claims
In reversing the district court's ruling that the '310 and '228 patents failed to satisfy Section 101, the Federal Circuit identified a set of considerations that can be applied when assessing the question of abstractness. Drawing upon the Supreme Court's precedent in this area, including its recent decision In re Bilski, the opinion first reiterates that there are only three articulated exceptions to subject matter eligibility: "laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas."
Focusing on the category of abstract ideas, the court noted the Supreme Court's admonition in Bilski not to provide a rigid formula or definition for abstractness. Rather, "the Supreme Court invited this court to develop 'other limiting criteria that further the purpose of the Patent Act and are not inconsistent with its text.'" Slip Op. at 14. With that guidance, the panel concluded that it perceived nothing abstract in the subject matter of the processes claimed in the '310 and '228 patents. Specifically, the court observed that:
- "The invention presents functional and palpable applications in the field of computer technology";
- Some claims in the patents require physical components;
- "[I]nventions with specific applications or improvements to technologies in the marketplace are not likely to be so abstract that they override the statutory language and framework of the Patent Act"; and
- The incorporation of algorithms and formulas does not prevent patent eligibility.
Nevertheless, while finding these factors met in the instant case, the panel further noted that its analysis was limited to the context of Section 101, which provides only a coarse filter. Abstractness challenges can also be brought against specific claims under Section 112 even if the requirements of Section 101 are met.
Comment: The court's discussion of Section 101 suggests that the issue of patentable subject matter should be analyzed with respect to the patent as a whole; in contrast, Section 112 challenges are analyzed on a per-claim basis.
Burden of Proof for Establishing Priority
In addressing the district court's ruling that the asserted claims of the '772 and '305 patents were not entitled to claim priority to the '310 and '228 filing dates, the opinion reinforced the court's prior ruling that the patent holder bears the burden of establishing priority. As the court held, although a patent challenger has the burden of going forward with invalidating prior art, once it has done so the burden shifts to the patent holder. Thus, in an instance where the patent holder attempts to defeat the assertion of invalidity by claiming priority to an earlier application, the patent holder bears the burden of proving the entitlement to priority - including that the claims of the earlier patent are supported by the written description of the earlier specification.
Note: The '772 and '305 patents shared the same specification as the earlier '305 and '228 patents. If the relevant claims had been contained in the '305 or '228 patents, Microsoft would have had the burden of proving lack of written description, as opposed to the burden resting with RCT. Thus, the fact that the claims were part of a continuation was highly significant with respect to the allocation of the burden.
Comment: A related issue is who bears the burden of proof in the context of claims to a pre-filing conception or reduction to practice date. Although not mandated by the text of the opinion, which specifically refers to the burden to establish "an earlier filing date," the court's analysis could be read to support the conclusion that the patent holder bears the burden of proof in this situation as well.
After dispensing with RCT's challenge to the district court's allocation of burden, the panel proceeded to address the priority claims on the merits. With respect to the '772 claims, the panel agreed with the district court, concluding that they were unsupported by the prior disclosure. The panel did reverse on the '305 claim, however, ruling that to satisfy the written description requirement for apparatus claims, the patent need not disclose every method of making the apparatus.