Guest Post by Professor Bernard Chao
The issue of patentable subject matter eligibility has been in considerable flux. Currently, it's unclear whether adding computer limitations to an otherwise unpatentable concept somehow renders the concept patent eligible. The Federal Circuit tried to settle this question when the entire court heard CLS Bank Int'l v. Alice, 717 F.3d 1269 (Fed. Cir. 2013). But the judges could not find common ground and the decision contained seven separate opinions reflecting at least three distinct approaches. Now it has been suggested that the CLS Bank Int'l provided the lower courts with absolutely no guidance. After all, no opinion garnered more than five judges' support. In an effort diminish Lourie's opposing opinion, Judge Rader even went so far as to say that "nothing" in the CLS Bank Int'l decision "beyond our judgment has the weight of precedent." Id. at 1292, n 1.
Ironically, under the so called Marks rule, Judge Rader may not just be wrong, his opinion could be considered the holding of the court. The United States Supreme has said that when one of its decisions has no majority opinion in support of the judgment, "the holding of the Court may be viewed as that position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgment on the narrowest grounds." Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188, 193 (1977). Now there is some disagreement about how to identify the narrowest concurring opinion. What's more it's unclear if the Marks rule applies to en banc decisions of the various Courts of Appeals. But there is certainly plenty of room to argue that Judge Rader's opinion is the Federal Circuit's holding under Marks.
To understand how the Marks rule would apply to CLS Bank Int'l, we have to examine the decision's different opinions. I discuss these opinions in some detail in an upcoming article in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, but I will provide a very short summary of the judges' views here. Judge Lourie's opinion (joined by Judges Dyk, Prost, Reyna and Wallach) took a "strong view" of § 101's subject matter patent eligibility requirement. Consequently, these five judges would have found that all of Alice's claims were ineligible for patenting. Judge Rader (joined by and Judges Linn, Moore and O'Malley) took a relatively "weak view" of § 101's eligibility requirement. But Judges Rader and Moore applied this methodology differently than Judges Linn and O'Malley. Rader and Moore argued that the method and media claims were not patent eligible, but the system claims were. In contrast, Linn and O'Malley's would have left all the claims intact. Finally, Judge Newman took an even weaker view of §101 arguing for almost no scrutiny of patentable subject matter eligibility whatsoever. Accordingly, she would have also found all the claims were patent eligible.
Both Lourie's and Rader's opinions concurred in the judgment of patent ineligibility for the method claims. So seven judges agreed that the method claims were not patent eligible. Lourie's strong view advocated for a rule that would render many claims patent ineligible, while Rader's weak view is more conservative and jeopardizes a smaller set of claims. As applied to the patents in CLS Bank Int'l, this meant that only the method claims would be ineligible. Under one interpretation of Marks, Rader's opinion is the narrowest view supporting the end result and would be considered the holding of CLS Bank Int'l.
To be clear, I actually disagree with Rader's analysis and say so in my article. I also don't want to overstate the significance of the Marks analysis. Clearly, CLS Bank Int'l is still shaky precedent and the success of any appeal to the Federal Circuit may simply be panel dependent. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will resolve the issue. In fact, the Court is currently considering a petition for certiorari in Wildtangent v. Ultramercial. But in the meantime, software patents continue to be challenged on subject matter patent eligibility grounds and the Marks rule provides one way to try to interpret the confusing precedent now.