Fixing Patent Eligibility by Limiting Scope to Disclosed Embodiments

The U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Alice[1] and Mayo[2], and subsequent attempts to apply those decisions, continue to create some uncertainty in the availability of patent protection for certain technical fields. Although recent guidance has somewhat clarified the issue, eligibility questions continue to vex practitioners, and reflect an all-or-nothing approach to patentability. As a result, commentators and national intellectual property law associations have proposed amending 35 U.S.C. §101. These proposals range from eliminating § 101[3] to amending the Patent Act to codify a broader definition of eligible subject matter.[4]

We offer an alternative approach for amending § 101 to allow some range of patentability for inventions directed to judicially-recognized eligibility exceptions. Rather than attempting to redefine the line between eligible and ineligible subject matter (a revision that preserves the current all-or-nothing approach), we propose amending §101 to implement disclosure-based limits on the scope of claims directed to judicially-recognized exceptions (abstract ideas, laws of nature, and natural phenomena).

Section 112(f) as a Model

Preemption is a common concern raised in eligibility cases. For example, claims directed to a law of nature should not be so broad as to preempt subsequent attempts by other researchers to develop other applications exploiting the law of nature. But preemption concerns may be addressed adequately by disclosure-based limits on claim scope, rather than by precluding patentability in toto. Furthermore, the Patent Act already contains a workable model for disclosure-based limits on claim scope: 35 U.S.C. §112(f).

Currently, if an applicant opts to rely on functional claim language, the claims are limited by the content of the applicant’s disclosure under § 112(f). Borrowing the same approach to limit claims directed to abstract ideas, laws of nature, or natural phenomena, § 101 could be adapted to prevent an applicant from claiming a judicially-recognized exception per se, while permitting claims essentially limited to specific embodiments disclosed in the specification.

Proposed Amendment to Section 101

101. Inventions patentable

(a) Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to subsection (b) and the conditions and requirements of this title.

(b) A claim directed to a judicially-recognized exception to subsection (a) hereof shall be construed to cover the structures, materials, or acts described in the specification and equivalents thereof.

Application

Under § 101 as amended, an examiner that considers a claim to be directed to a judicially-recognized exception would identify it as being subject to § 101(b) and point out the corresponding specific structures or processes disclosed in the specification to be covered by the claims, if any. The applicant could then attempt to refute the § 101(b) characterization through amendment or argument, or both, as is common practice under the current § 101 scheme. Alternatively, the applicant could acquiesce to the examiner’s characterization and possibly identify additional specific structures or processes disclosed in the specification to be covered by the claims. So limited, the claim would be eligible under § 101(b), and the disclosure would delimit claim scope for patentability and infringement.

Advantages

This proposed amendment would not affect an application for a process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter that is not directed to a judicially-recognized exception to eligibility. On the other hand, claims directed to a law of nature or other judicially-recognized exception per se (claims without a corresponding disclosure of a specific working embodiment) would be indefinite under § 112(b) and thus not be patentable. The proposal improves predictability during patent prosecution, since most eligibility concerns will result in narrower claim scope, rather than the prospect of across-the-board ineligibility. Additionally, this proposed amendment preserves the central role of § 101 in governing eligibility, applies consistently across all fields of invention, and can be efficiently managed by the examining corps since they are already familiar with the operation of § 112(f).

Conclusion

The evolving nature of technology makes eligible/ineligible line-drawing difficult. Rather than just focusing on that boundary, attention can be directed to the consequences of stepping over that line. The proposed amendment of § 101 would clarify the scope of claims directed to a judicially-recognized exception, rather than simply rejecting those claims as wholly unpatentable.

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[1] Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International, 573 U.S. __, 134 S. Ct. 2347 (2014).

[2] Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., 566 U.S. ___, 132 S. Ct. 1289 (2012).

[3] See https://www.law360.com/articles/783604/kappos-calls-for-abolition-of-section-101-of-patent-act.

[4] See http://admin.aipla.org/resources2/reports/2017AIPLADirect/Documents/AIPLA%20Report%20on%20101%20Reform-5-12-17.pdf (AIPLA proposal); https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/intellectual_property_law/advocacy/advocacy-20170328-comments.authcheckdam.pdf (ABA IPL Section proposal).