by Dennis Crouch
CLS Bank v. Alice Corp. (Fed. Cir. 2013) (en banc)
In a much awaited en banc decision, the Federal Circuit has affirmed the patent ineligibility of Alice Corp’s claims to a computerized method, a computer-readable medium containing computer instructions, and a computer system that implements those instructions. The ten-member en banc panel released seven different decisions. While none of the opinions garnered majority support, seven of the ten judges agreed that the method and computer-readable medium claims lack subject matter eligibility. And, eight of the ten concluded that the claims should rise and fall together regardless of their claim type.
All of the judges recognized that the test for patent eligibility under section 101 should be “a consistent, cohesive, and accessible approach” that provides “guidance and predictability for patent applicants and examiners, litigants, and the courts.” However, the judges hotly disagree as to the pathway that will lead to that result.
The leading five-member opinion written by Judge Lourie provides three guideposts for its analysis:
- First and foremost is an abiding concern that patents should not be allowed to preempt the fundamental tools of discovery—those must remain “free to all . . . and reserved exclusively to none.” . . . [T]he animating concern is that claims should not be coextensive with a natural law, natural phenomenon, or abstract idea; a patent-eligible claim must include one or more substantive limitations that, in the words of the Supreme Court, add “significantly more” to the basic principle, with the result that the claim covers significantly less. Thus, broad claims do not necessarily raise § 101 preemption concerns, and seemingly narrower claims are not necessarily exempt. What matters is whether a claim threatens to subsume the full scope of a fundamental concept, and when those concerns arise, we must look for meaningful limitations that prevent the claim as a whole from covering the concept’s every practical application.
- Next, the cases repeatedly caution against overly formalistic approaches to subject-matter eligibility that invite manipulation by patent applicants. . . . Thus, claim drafting strategies that attempt to circumvent the basic exceptions to § 101 using, for example, highly stylized language, hollow field-of-use limitations, or the recitation of token post-solution activity should not be credited.
- Finally, the cases urge a flexible, claim-by-claim approach to subject-matter eligibility that avoids rigid line drawing.
Abstract Ideas are Disembodied Concepts: Alice Corp’s claims are drawn to methods of reducing settlement risk by effecting trades through a third party intermediary (a supervisory institution) empowered to verify that both parties can fulfill their obligations before allowing the exchange to be completed. This essence, the method is a form of third-party escrow that helps overcome the risk of fraud and non-payment. In thinking about that method, the court determined that it is an abstract idea because it is a “disembodied” concept that is a basic building block of human ingenuity and untethered from any real-world application. Lourie writes:
CLS describes that concept as “fundamental and ancient,” but the latter is not determinative of the question of abstractness. Even venerable concepts, such as risk hedging in commodity transactions, see Bilski, 130 S. Ct. at 3231, were once unfamiliar, just like the concepts inventors are unlocking at the leading edges of technology today. But whether long in use or just recognized, abstract ideas remain abstract. The concept of reducing settlement risk by facilitating a trade through third-party intermediation is an abstract idea because it is a “disembodied” concept, In re Alappat, 33 F.3d 1526, 1544 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (en banc), a basic building block of human ingenuity, untethered from any real-world application. Standing alone, that abstract idea is not patent-eligible subject matter.
After identifying the portion of the claim directed to an abstract idea, Judge Lourie then looked to see whether “the balance of the claim adds ‘significantly more.’” Answering that question in the negative, the court found the claims lack eligibility.
Writing in Dissent, Chief Judge Rader disagreed with the court’s decision. He writes:
I enjoy good writing and a good mystery, but I doubt that innovation is promoted when subjective and empty words like “contribution” or “inventiveness” are offered up by the courts to determine investment, resource allocation, and business decisions. Again, it is almost . . . well, “obvious” . . . to note that when all else fails, it makes sense to consult the simplicity, clarity, and directness of the statute.
As I start my next quarter century of judicial experience, I am sure that one day I will reflect on this moment as well. I can only hope it is a brighter reflection than I encounter today.