By Dennis Crouch
Here are several recent BPAI decisions on patentable subject matter eligibility.
New Rejection in Answer: Examiner's Answer raised new a new Section 101 issue, but applicant failed to respond in the reply brief. BPAI Holding: "We therefore summarily sustain this rejection." Ex Parte Maeng, 2011 WL 6012458 (BPAI November 30, 2011).
Delay in Adjudication: L'OREAL claims a "method for recommending a beauty product" that includes several steps, including applying a beauty product to a person and then seeing how the person looks under various simulated lighting environments. The examiner rejected the claim as unpatentable based upon its failure to satisfy the machine-or-transformation test. On appeal, the BPAI reversed the rejection, holding that "a full analysis as outlined in Bilski v. Kappos … should have resulted in a finding by the Examiner that the claimed subject matter either was or was not an abstract idea, and hence, respectively, that the claimed subject matter was not patent eligible or was patent eligible in this particular instance." This case highlights a problem with the growing backlog at the BPAI. The Examiner's final rejection was mailed in 2009 and she mailed the Examiner's Answer in February 2010, a few months prior to the Supreme Court's decision rejecting the machine-or-transformation test as a determinative test of patentable subject matter eligibility. Ex Parte Hessel, 2011 WL 6012477 (BPAI November 30, 2011)
CyberSource Rejections: Citing the Federal Circuit's recent decision in CyberSource Corp. v. Retail Decisions, Inc., 654 F.3d 1366, 1371 (Fed. Cir. 2011), the BPAI has affirmed a Section 101 rejection of an IBM application that claims a "computer-implemented method for partitioning a domain dataset." Despite the "computer implemented preamble, the BPAI held that the claimed process was not patent eligible because it "could be performed by a human writing on a piece of paper." The Board quoted CyberSource for the proposition that "a method that can be performed by human thought alone is merely an abstract idea and is not patent-eligible under § 101."
IBM had also include claims directed to a "system for partitioning" that included "nominal recitations of conventional hardware in the body of the claim (e.g., 'a memory' and 'a processor')." As instructed by CyberSource, the court considered the "underlying invention for patent-eligibility purposes" rather than particular nominal claim limitations. Here, the BPAI found that the true invention was the process and that the system claims were simply reformulated versions of the method and therefore, that the system claims should be interpreted as process claims.
In analyzing the underlying invention of independent "system" claims 26, 27, and 28 as a process, we again conclude that the scope of the recited functions (steps) covers functions that can be performed in the human mind, or by a human using a pen and paper (e.g., claim 26: "establish an evaluation function" and "partition said domain subset"). Therefore, we conclude that unpatentable mental processes fall within the subject matter of independent claims 26-28.
IBM also include "Beauregard claims" directed to an "article of manufacture" comprising "a computer readable medium." The BPAI likewise found those claims unpatentable under 35 U.S.C. §101 as interpreted by CyberSource. Ex Parte Vilalta, 2011 WL 6012377 (BPAI November 29, 2011). On the flip side of this, the BPAI has also been holding that claim scope must be determined before Section 101 analysis can be complete. See Ex Parte Black, 2011 WL 6012476 (BPAI November 28, 2011).
Software Not Patentable: OPNET Tech's patent application is directed toward a "network monitoring system" that includes a set of "collectors", "analyzers", and "reporters" as well as an "automated engine" configured to control the applications in achieving a target task. In the specification, the applicant wrote that each element of the system could be created in software and the Board concluded that "the invention can exist solely as software." Citing the Federal Circuit's 1994 Warmerdam decision, the Board held that a claim that covers a "purely software embodiment" cannot be patentable subject matter. Ex Parte Cohen, 2011 WL 6012432 (BPAI November 29, 2011). On the flip side, the BPAI held that a "web based system" is patent eligible because such a network based requires "more than software per se, because a web, upon which a web-based system is based, is physical, in addition to software, in that it requires computers and routers and telecommunications equipment to operate." Ex Parte Vogel, 2011 WL 6012447 (BPAI November 21, 2011).
Providing, Receiving, and Manufacturing: Small paper manufacturer Grays Harbor has seemingly spent a small fortune prosecuting its patent application No. 09/849,504. The invention relates to their computerized system for processing paper and was filed back in 2001. One step of rejected method claim 11 was written as follow "receiving a promotions order from a third-party advertiser to place promotional material on an enclosure…" OK, nothing brilliant in this limitation (or another limitation involving "providing instructions") with regard to inventiveness, but the Board's rejection was odd – holding that that the claim's "recitation of the steps of receiving and providing are merely abstract ideas because each step is recited in the future tense of 'to place', 'to create', 'to deliver', and hence is only contemplated, rather than executed." Ex Parte Quigg, 2011 WL 6012448 (BPAI November 22, 2011)