Sending Alice to Planet Blue

Planet Blue -- Neptune perhaps?
Planet Blue — Neptune perhaps?

Forget “patent invalid because abstract”, the Planet Blue decision finds the real issue is preemption, and non-preemptive software claims are not abstract.

As previously discussed, in recent years the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) issued a series of confused rulings such as the “Alice” and “Mayo” decisions.  SCOTUS ruled that “abstract” inventions were not patentable, but didn’t define “abstract”, thus making the issue very subjective and bringing much confusion to software and biotech patents.

Fortunately, perhaps realizing that they did more harm than good, SCOTUS has recently started to decline further cases of this type.  They are apparently now leaving it to the Federal Circuit (the court right below SCOTUS) to clean things up.

Over the past few months, the Federal Circuit has initiated a number of damage control efforts, including their “Enfish”, “Bascom”, and “Rapid Litigation” decisions.  Now with another case, “Mcro, Inc. v. Bandi Namco Games, we have still more damage control. (Mcro calls itself “Planet Blue”, so we will call this the “Planet Blue” decision.)

The “Planet Blue” patent involved some improved methods of lip synchronization for animated cartoons, and their claims covered some novel but general rules to do this.  A lower court had originally invalidated these as being abstract, but the Federal Circuit reversed and said that the claims were OK.

As per their earlier Enfish decision, the Federal Circuit did not simply assume that software is “abstract” (under Alice step 1).  Instead, they asked the broader question, why is “abstract” a problem anyway?  As they interpreted it, “The concern underlying the exceptions to § 101 is not tangibility, but preemption.”  [Emphasis added]

Some history about patents and “preemption”: Back in1853 Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, tried to get a claim for the use of electromagnetism for any method of printing characters or signs. However, this particular claim omitted any other details. The 1853 SCOTUS said “no”, because claims where “it matters not by what process or machinery the result is accomplished” (e.g. are preemptive) are not going to be allowed.

In Planet Blue, the Federal Circuit (possibly giving up on the more recent rulings as being hopelessly confused), has essentially gone back to the 1853 Morse case for some coherent guidance.  The Federal Circuit ruled that with regards to the Planet Blue claims, “The claim uses the limited rules in a process specifically designed to achieve an improved technological result in conventional industry practice… Claim 1 of the ’576 patent, therefore, is not directed to an abstract idea.” In other words, this passes Alice “step 1”, and you get a free “get out of abstract patent eligibility rejections” card.

The big win here is that “preemption” is a more objective issue, and by changing the analysis from “abstract” to “preemption”, we remove a lot of randomness from the patent process. To me, this looks like an important ruling, and good news for software patents, biotech patents, and indeed all types of patents.

Writing patent claims

A patent claim is like a jigsaw puzzle piece
A patent claim is like a jigsaw puzzle piece

Writing patent claims is analogous to describing multidimensional jigsaw puzzle pieces using words.  Your claims have to fit in the spaces between prior art.

Patent claims are the most important part of a patent because the claims are legally enforceable.  Claims are also the trickiest part because they have to follow many rules.  Claims should describe your invention, not read on the prior art, and not be obvious variations on prior art. Claims should also be precise enough that others can clearly determine what it is that you are claiming.

Like a jigsaw puzzle:  As a useful analogy, consider each patent claim to be somewhat like a multidimensional jigsaw puzzle piece. Each claim should be written using words and clauses that, in addition to describing your invention, “bend in” to avoid prior art, and “bend out” when there is no prior art.

From the patent examiner’s standpoint, he or she is looking at your claims in the context of the other prior art (the other pieces). The examiner is determining if each of your particular claim “pieces” is fitting nicely into the holes between prior art, or if they are hitting the other prior art “pieces”.  If there is overlap, the examiner will, at a minimum, want you to make your claims “bend in more” to avoid that prior art.  Part of the process of writing patent applications is to try to anticipate where this might happen and to write the patent in a way that gives you more options to “bend in” and “bend out” during the patent examination process.

There is one big difference between jigsaw puzzles and patent claims, however.  In jigsaw puzzles, although the different pieces can’t overlap, the gap between the different pieces can be made very small.  Think of this gap as the area where, given that one piece is “bending in“, it is “obvious” that the other piece must “bend out“.

Unlike jigsaw puzzles, examiners often require that this “gap” be big enough so that the shape of your jigsaw puzzle piece (claim) is not immediately obvious in view of the shape of the neighboring pieces.  In fact, a big part of the patent examination process is negotiating the extent of this gap, and how best to amend the claims accordingly.

Patents and national security

Spike, logo of national security satellite NROL61

Filing a patent with national security implications? Check your filing receipt for a foreign filing authorization before filing outside the US.

After you file a US patent application, the USPTO will send you a filing receipt. On page two of this receipt, you will usually find the words: “If Required, Foreign Filing License Granted: [date]”.

What does this mean? Welcome to the interesting rules involving patents and national security.

Under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951, the US government has the right to classify patent applications that, in the opinion of the USPTO, may pose a threat to the security of the US. In effect, the USPTO subjects every new patent application to at least a cursory security review. Think of it as a patent application TSA (airport style) inspection.

The vast majority of all applications will pass through the security review quickly, and those that pass will get the “Foreign Filing License Granted” clearance. But occasionally, something catches the interest of the national security review staff. For example, I can pretty much guarantee that a patent application for “Improved methods for detecting stealth aircraft” will get a very careful national security review!

What if you are planning to also file your invention outside the US? Doing a foreign patent filing without proper advance approval is much like trying to jump a TSA line. Folks get excited, and unfortunate things may happen. At a minimum, you could easily lose the US patent rights on your invention.

The amount of security review can vary depending upon world events. For example, after 9/11, it appears as if an unusually large amount of scrutiny took place. Scrutiny may also vary according to what areas of technology are considered sensitive at any given time.

So the take-home lesson, which is particularly relevant for US inventors of patent applications with potential dual-purpose civilian/military uses, is to look for that “Foreign Filing License Granted” small print before filing outside the US. Alternatively, if there has been a delay, file a PCT application through the USPTO, rather than filing directly outside the US.

Patent demand letters

Frustrated patent troll
Frustrated patent troll

Patent demand letters are stressful.  Before responding or ignoring, evaluate infringement, patent prosecution history, ownership, and litigation history.

Has your startup received a “demand” letter asserting that you are infringing on a patent?  Although real infringement of valid patents does occur, and some of these letters are legitimate, many demand letters are sent in less than 100% good faith. The sender may be betting that the startup will settle quickly to avoid litigation costs, regardless of the actual merits of the situation.

Don’t immediately contact the sender, and don’t ignore the letter either.  Instead, calm down and evaluate the facts, preferably with the help of a patent attorney.  Is there a plausible infringement problem or not?  How to tell the difference?  A few common methods are discussed below.

To start, get: 1) a copy of the issued patents discussed in the demand letter, 2) the USPTO prosecution history of these patents, and 3) information about the allegedly infringing product.  If the letter doesn’t provide actual issued patent numbers, or if the letter only cites patent application numbers, the probability that the letter is bogus becomes higher.

Look at the independent claims for each patent (claim 1 is not always the broadest claim), and see if your allegedly infringing product infringes the entire wording of any independent claim. If so, look at the relevant dependent claims for more detail. If the letter argues contributory infringement, combine your product with the other accused product for this analysis, and check if your marketing literature is promoting this combination.

The patent prosecution history for the patents in question, usually downloadable from the USPTO, can be very relevant. This history will often reference if the patent has been used in litigation before; if the patent has been reevaluated by either reexamination or the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB); and if the patent applicant had to make significant concessions during the patent prosecution history.

The patent’s USPTO assignment records can be used to better understand the relationship between the sender and the actual patent owner of record. This is often obfuscated. What is this relationship, and is the purported patent owner the real patent owner?

If there is a history of litigation, check it out. Patent litigation usually takes place in Federal Courts.  This is usually available through PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) and a number of other sources. Has the patent owner been filing a lot of lawsuits and then settling before the court reaches a decision, or does the patent owner usually win?

There are many other issues that can be explored as well, but this type of information can help you and your attorney better evaluate what your next steps should be.

Rapid Litigation: Biotech patent win

Cleaning up a legal mess
Rapid Litigation v Cellzdirect: Federal Circuit cleaning up a patent mess

In Rapid Litigation v Cellzdirect, the Federal Circuit has further cleaned up the patent eligibility mess caused by SCOTUS’s Alice and Mayo decisions.

In 2012 and 2014, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS), which wanted to invalidate a few pesky financial and medical diagnostics patents, decided to use legal “nuclear weapons” rather than legal “fly swatters“.  The SCOTUS legal nuclear weapons were the now infamous two-step “abstract material” patent eligibility test.  Step 1 of this test is summarized below:

Step 1) Determine if the patent is directed to “abstract” subject material.  If not then congratulations, the patent passes this test and is patent eligible.  

SCOTUS refused to define “abstract material”. This allowed the USPTO and the lower courts to run amok and start randomly invalidating patents. This, in turn, started to damage US biotech and software startups, which need patents to get funding, as well as for protection from larger competitors.

The Federal Circuit, one step below SCOTUS, and charged with cleaning-up patent law, waited several years for SCOTUS to correct itself, to no avail.  However, their recent (mid-2016) series of patent eligibility decisions, first Enfish, then Bascom, now Rapid Litigation (Celsis) v Cellzdirect suggest that the Federal Circuit is now getting serious about damage control.

“Abstract” is just as undefined for biotech as it is for software, but for biotech, it seems have more of a “natural law-ish” flavor.  Arguably a technologically illiterate approach since everything involves natural laws, but alas SCOTUS has no STEM majors.

Fortunately, some Federal Circuit judges are STEM majors, and they have the power to do at least some damage control by providing official interpretations/clarifications of SCOTUS decisions. Here they clarified that in step 1, “directed to” is not the same thing as “involving”.

The patent in this case, 7,604,929, was about an improved method of freeze storing liver cells (cryopreservation of hepatocytes).  Before the patent, everyone in the field believed that freezing damages living cells, and that multiple freeze-thaw cycles should be avoided.  The inventors discovered that some hepatocytes were resistant to this problem, and used this discovery to invent an improved hepatocyte cryopreservation method.  This method first freeze-thawed the cells, then used a density gradient to select for the freezing resistant cells, and then refroze these resistant cells again, producing very freeze resistant hepatocytes.

An earlier court had ruled this patent invalid by arguing that discovering that some hepatocytes could survive multiple freeze-thaw cycles involved a “law of nature”. However, the Federal Circuit pointed out that “involved” isn’t enough grounds to invalidate a patent, because the ‘929 methods also claimed other steps, such as using density gradients.  So “directed to” is more than just “involves“.

This Federal Circuit decision makes it harder to invalidate biotech patents, at least in the most common cases where the claims also have other steps in addition to the “natural law” steps.  The fact that the ‘929 claims were relatively simple helps to further clarify the legal issues.

Bascom: another Alice software win

Bascom - fish delivering mail
Bascom – fish delivering mail

The Bascom court decision helps software patents by suggesting that step 2 of the Alice test should follow established obviousness rules.

US software patents got another win from the Federal Circuit Court this week.  This court, which has a Congressional mandate to clarify patent law, made an important clarification to the Alice (software patent killer) “abstract subject matter” test in the Bascom v AT&T case (Bascom).

As you may recall from our last “Enfish” episode, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) “Alice” decision created a judge-ordered incoherent two-step test that any given patent must pass in order to be patent eligible under 35 USC 101 rules.  To simplify:

Step 1) Determine if the patent is directed to “abstract” subject material.  If not then congratulations, the patent passes this test.  

Step 2) But if the patent is found to be “abstract” in step 1, then determine if the patent contains “something extra” beyond just “abstract” subject material.  If there is nothing extra, then reject the patent as being “abstract”.   

The Federal Circuit is one step down from SCOTUS.  The Federal Circuit doesn’t have enough clout to overrule SCOTUS, but does have enough clout to overrule the USPTO and the lower courts.  More importantly, the Federal Circuit has both the clout and mandate to “clarify” SCOTUS decisions.

The USPTO and the lower courts were often ignoring Alice step 1 and just assuming that a patent had “abstract” subject matter. The previous Federal Circuit “Enfish” decision pointed out that this was improper.  By contrast, the newer Federal Circut “Bascom” case is now clarifying that another common practice, just asserting that the patent fails Alice step 2 because it lacks an undefined “something extra”, isn’t right either.

More specifically, in Bascom, the Federal Circuit pointed out that based on earlier SCOTUS decisions (e.g. Mayo v. Prometheus, which SCOTUS used for “Alice”), Alice step 2 tests if the claim is “well-understood, routine or conventional”.  According to the Federal Circuit’s interpretation, SCOTUS was probably thinking about something similar to an obviousness test.   The Federal Circuit also pointed out that there are well-established rules for establishing obviousness, which the USPTO and the lower courts were (also) ignoring.

Specifically, the Bascom case was an appeal of a lower court decision that had earlier found the Bascom patent claims to be “abstract” and therefore invalid.  The lower court’s arguments (in simplified form) were that the Bascom patent claim language words described conventional computer pieces, and therefore the Bascom claims failed Alice step 2 due to lack of “something more”.  

In Bascom, the Federal Circuit Court, after “clarifying” Alice by pointing out that SCOTUS’s Alice step 2 resembled an obviousness test, then pointed out that the lower court had failed to follow established rules to determine obviousness (35 USC 103 rules).  These 35 USC 103 rules require that the combination of the pieces and the motive for combining the pieces also be considered.  Here conventional pieces, arranged in a non-conventional way, are often not obvious.

The Federal Circuit then looked at the Bascom claims, determined that they were not obvious, and (again somewhat simplifying) therefore had “something more” that satisfied step 2 of the Alice test.  They then overruled the lower court and found the Bascom patent to be “not abstract” and therefore valid under 35 USC 101.

If this holds up, the Bascom decision could almost bring some sanity to the Alice test.  Stay tuned…

Enfish for Alice: a software win

Einfish is good news for software patents
Enfish is good news for software patents

The recent Enfish court decision improves the outlook for US software patents.

Good news for software patents.  The negative impact of the 2014 SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the US) “Alice” decision (invalidating some business method and financial software patents) has been somewhat mitigated by the recent “Enfish” court decision.

What is “abstract?”  “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.” Inigo Montoya, “The Princess Bride”.

In “Alice”, SCOTUS did not make business-method and financial software patents patent ineligible.  Instead, they determined that “abstract” subject matter is patent ineligible.  Unfortunately, SCOTUS refused to define the meaning of “abstract”, and then further confused things by using circular logic.  The present two-step, circular-logic, SCOTUS mandated test for patent eligibility is:

Step 1) Determine if the patent is directed to “abstract” subject material.  If not then congratulations, the patent passes this test.   

Step 2) But if the patent is found to be “abstract” in step 1, then determine if the patent contains “something extra” beyond just “abstract” subject material.  If there is nothing extra, then reject the patent as being “abstract”.    

No one knows what “abstract” means.  Unfortunately since late 2014, the USPTO has been generally assuming that patents for software running on standard computers must be abstract under step 1.  Many USPTO examiners (and judges) have been totally skipping step 1 of the two-step Alice test.  They just assume that a given software patent is abstract, and start their Alice test at step 2 “something more”.  This makes it much easier to reject the patent.

What is “something more?”  It is also undefined, but financial and business software generally seems to be lacking.  We could substitute “evil spirits” for “abstract”, and “charisma” for “something more”.  We could almost as validly say that lately, many USPTO examiners and judges have been rejecting most business and financial method patents because 1) assumption of evil spirits and 2) a further lack of charisma.  It is easier to understand if you don’t expect logic.

In 1982, Congress established the Federal Circuit Court to bring more logic and consistency to patent law.  In the recent (May 12, 2016) “Enfish v Microsoft” (Enfish) decision, the Federal Circuit has finally started to do its job.  The Enfish court has ruled that examiners and judges can’t just arbitrarily skip step 1 of the two-step Alice test.  Specifically, the Enfish court ruled that it is improper to assume that software running on standard computers is “step 1” abstract.

The Enfish court pointed out that in Alice, SCOTUS didn’t rule that software is automatically abstract.  Further in Alice, SCOTUS also warned against running amok since every patent is somewhat abstract.  So don’t make software automatically fail the two-step Alice test at step 1.  The Federal Circuit further determined that software running on standard computers that improves an existing technology (such as a database) is not abstract at step 1.

This is another important point:  “abstract” is an undefined legal term, and you and I lack the authority to officially define it.  But the Federal Circuit does have the legal authority to define “abstract”.  The USPTO and other judges have to follow this updated definition.  So Enfish is good news for US software patent law.

Patent restrictions and elections

Why is my examiner holding a chainsaw?

USPTO examiners can require patent restrictions.  These narrow the scope of your originally submitted patent claims.  Choose carefully here.

A while back, you filed a patent application.  Now you have received a phone call or letter from your examiner.  You are informed that there are “Election/Restrictions” and that you must choose between various patent claims on various “Species group” lists.  What is this?

Your initial USPTO patent filing fee buys your patent application about 25 to 30 hours of total examination time.  This is not a lot of time, and frequently examiners think that an application will take longer than this. When this happens, the examiner can reduce his workload by asserting that your application contains “multiple inventions”.  Each of these “multiple inventions” is called a “species”.  These “species” are pieces or fragments of your original claim set.  Examiners divide your claim set among these species, and then send you a notice asking you to “elect” a “species” and claims for examination.  The claims that you don’t elect are called “withdrawn”.

Be careful here.  Examiners have orders to initially reject most patent applications.  The examiner is chopping your invention into smaller pieces to make it quicker and easier to reject. This chopping is uneven. Some pieces may be commercially useful, others not.  Some pieces may be easy to reject, others hard. Sometimes there are only a few pieces, but other times the examiner may split your invention into 15 or even 50+ pieces!

USPTO rules allow restrictions and elections to be done either orally or in writing.  Sometimes your examiner may call you on the phone, explain the restriction and election options, and ask what you want.  A bad decision can be costly, and these oral elections are often legally binding.  I recommend not deciding on the spot.  To be sure you understand all the details and have time to think, request the restriction in writing.

There are restriction rules.  The species need to be distinct, and the restriction should not destroy the invention.  If your examiner has violated these rules, you can and should argue back (this is called a “traverse”) in writing.  Unfortunately, you still have to choose, no matter how unreasonable your examiner’s scheme may look.

Even if your examiner rejects your arguments, there will be other chances.  Later in the examination process, after your elected claims are found to be allowable, you can request “rejoinder” and try to get more claims examined.  You can also have the unelected claims examined later (for extra filing fees) as one or more divisional applications.

USPTO office actions

USPTO office actions
USPTO office actions

USPTO office actions are used to reject most patent applications by using “done before”, “obvious”, “vague”, or “not patent eligible” type arguments.

Although we all hope that a patent application will sail through the USPTO patent examination process and be allowed “as is”, this usually doesn’t occur.  As a practical matter, examiners work on a quota system. The net effect of this quota or “count” system is that the average successful patent is usually rejected several times before it is allowed.

Typically an examiner will first read the patent claims, and search for various citations (often earlier filed patent applications) that match certain claim key-words.  The examiner will then write a 20-40+ page “office action” document that rejects your various claims for various reasons, and send it to the correspondence contact of record.  The examiner expects you to respond within three months by submitting a written “office action response” that rebuts these various rejections.

The most “popular” USPTO rejections are:

Done before – 35 USC 102: The examiner thinks he has found another single citation that teaches everything in your particular claim. However absent actual copying, no two patents are usually totally alike. This type of rejection can often be rebutted by explaining where the citation is different, or amending the claims to add additional detail that differs from the citation.

Obvious – 35 USC 103:  The examiner (sometimes impermissibly guided by your disclosure) is attempting to reject your claim by combining features from multiple citations. The examiner may often create a Frankenstein concept that may or may not be plausible. Fortunately, there are examination rules here. Often this type of rejection can be rebutted by any of 1) showing that the examiner is misquoting the citations, 2) amending your claims, 3) showing which “103” examination rules were broken.

Vague – 35 USC 112:  This “vagueness” or “indefinite” type rejection is used for different things. Sometimes it is harmless and easily corrected, such as when the claim’s grammar is off. Sometimes it is deadly, such as when your underlying patent application doesn’t teach how your invention works in adequate detail.  This is more likely to happen if the original application lacks specific examples.  Although this can often be rebutted or fixed by changing the claims, sometimes the only way to attempt to fix this is to file a “continuation in part” application that adds the missing detail.

Not eligible – 35 USC 101:  In the old days (i.e. before 2015), this was a rarely used rejection because the 35 USC 101 law was written to be very expansive. However, recent court decisions have made this area quite a swamp, and this is still being sorted out. In the meantime, realize that business methods and financial methods have a higher than average rejection risk.

Continuation applications

Don’t like having your own inventions used against you?  Before your patent issues, consider filing a continuation application.

Continuation applications
Continuation applications

Just got your US patent application allowed?  Congratulations!  Now before it issues (usually about 2-4 months after you pay the issue fee), you need to decide if you ever will want to file any improvements or variations of that invention in the future.

If you do have some improvements or variations in mind, now is the time to start working on filing a “continuation-in-part” (or CIP).  In a CIP, you are basically telling the USPTO that you have added some new concepts to your original patent application.  This is OK – worst case the examiner may determine that the new concepts have a later filing date, but in any event, the examiner won’t hold your original patent application against you.

In contrast to a CIP, patent continuation applications are essentially a repeat of the original application. Any differences to the claims had better be fully disclosed in the original application.

Why file a continuation?  One common reason is that you think that you may be able to get stronger claims the second time around, perhaps by making the claims shorter and hence stronger.  Or perhaps there was something in the original application that you forgot to put into your original claims. Both types of claim changes are fine so long as you can show that the newer claims were fully disclosed in the original application.

A second common reason is a nagging fear that although you might not have thought of any improvements or variations yet, you can’t rule out the possibility that you might do so in the near future.  Here, if you don’t file a continuation, after your patent issues, your own patent will be used against your later patent applications as if someone else had invented it.

However if you do file a continuation, it essentially keeps your original patent “alive” a while longer (usually at least another year or so).  Then, if you do come up with an improvement, you can then file a CIP to your continuation application.  When you use this strategy, the USPTO will allow you to claim your later improvement without using your original application against you.