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.

Software patents in China, Europe, and the US

China-Europe-US
Software patents in China, Europe, and the US

Summary: In general, software patents that deal with technical effects, physical parameters, and improving computer function tend to be favored. By contrast, software patents focused on business methods tend to be disfavored.

China: Before April 2017, China restricted software patents to methods that solve technical problems, control internal or external processes according to the laws of nature, and produce technical effects in accordance with the laws of nature.  Machine readable medium type claims, and game patents, were not allowed. However these guidelines are now somewhat more expansive. For example, business methods that also have a technical aspect may now also be eligible for patent protection.

Europe: Software patents should have a “technical effect” (e.g. controlling industrial aspects, improvements in computer technology, data pertains to physical properties,). Pure methods directed “only” to doing business and computer programs without “technical effect” are not allowed.

United States: The rules are presently incoherent. Traditionally (before 2014-2015) US policy was permissive. Indeed the present written (i.e. statutory) US legal standard is that all types of software patents are permitted. However the latest judicial rulings and USPTO policies are that at least some software patents may represent “abstract ideas” run on “generic computers” that are not patentable unless there is “something more”. Unfortunately the terms “abstract”, “generic computer” and “something more” are effectively undefined (and thus can vary according to the whims of the judge or patent examiner at hand).

How will US software patent rules evolve in the future? This is a bit like reading tea leaves, but the latest US software patent decisions appear to be trending more towards a Chinese or European-like approach. On average, “Business method” software is increasingly being rejected as being “abstract”. However software that exhibits technical effects, operates on data pertaining to physical properties, or improves computer function is often accepted on the basis that it is not “abstract”, not run on “generic computers” or contains “something more”.  Arguably the US, presently lacking coherent rules, may be at least temporarily filling the void by borrowing rules from other countries.  The constitutionality of this approach remains to be determined.

Federal Circuit rules against PTAB “Chewbacca defenses”

Chewbacca defense?

Litigation by unfair surprise is out, at least for US patent PTAB cases — for European patent oppositions, not so much. 

One thing that I will never forget about my experience with European patent oppositions is that to American eyes, the European process appears to be rather “due process of law” impaired.

For example, although in theory, issues should be argued in advance by written briefs, the European opposition process also allows parties to introduce new issues during the last minute oral arguments.

This allows for litigation by “unfair surprise”, rather than by reasoned arguments.  In this sort of setting, I have seen that illogical but last minute “Chewbacca defenses” can work quite well.  The clock is ticking, proceedings are going to finish in an hour, and suddenly you have to discuss entirely new and logically irrelevant issues. It is as if you suddenly have to shift gears and focus on if the Star Wars character Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor or not.

In this regard, it is refreshing to see that the Federal Circuit in Dell Inc., v. Acceleron, LLC (March 15, 2016) has confirmed that this sort of litigation by unfair surprise is unacceptable for US PTAB patent reviews. Due process wins — arguments made during oral argument must be restricted to only those arguments previously discussed in writing beforehand.

Harming the economy with over-aggressive, haphazard Alice-based 101 rejections

madteaparty
Alice in Wonderland – Mad Tea Party

What to do about “Alice”? The US Supreme Court’s “Alice” decision has invited us all to a Mad Tea Party.  What fun! But, as previously discussed, if you like logical coherency, or even just want to keep from crashing the economy, there are a few problems with this decision.

Attorney Louis Hoffman, writing in ipwatchdog.com, sums up some of these recent”Alice” problems nicely.

Damaging the economy: As Louis points out, some of the most important areas of US technology are based on software, business methods, and biotechnology.  The USPTO has recently taken upon itself to reject many patents in this area.  However this loss of patent coverage can impede the economy by making investments difficult, and/or by driving inventions underground in the form of trade secrets.

http://www.ipwatchdog.com/2016/02/07/uspto-harms-over-aggressive-and-haphazard-application-of-alice/id=65810/

What about actual (written) patent law? Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the US Constitution has empowered Congress to:  “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

Congress has done so, and has determined under 35 USC 101 that:  “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 the conditions and requirements of this title.”

The US Supreme Court has given itself the power to override Congress, however.  In Alice, they chose to exercise this power.  In this regard, Attorney John Duffy writes in Scotusblog:  “The uncertain expansion of judge-made exceptions to patentability” points out some interesting implications of this decision.

If you want to know what’s important about this case, it’s right there: the Court’s acknowledgement that the judge-made “exclusionary principle” has the potential to “swallow all of patent law” because “all patents” are at some level based on the very things that can’t be patented under the judge-made doctrine.

Decisions, decisions: So the Alice decision, read too broadly, produces an unconstitutional result.  At some point, there will be likely corrective action.  However the practical question that some inventors, particularly business method inventors, have to address today is: file a patent and risk an “‘Alice” rejection, or don’t file a patent and be certain that the invention will become public domain?

Impressions on the new (post AIA) Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) patent trial format

Gavel
Gavel

PTAB:  The 2011 America Invents Act (AIA) significantly changed many aspects of patent law. One change was to try to improve patent quality by allowing potentially invalid patents to be challenged in new types of post-grant opposition procedures.

The Europeans have had a patent opposition process for years, and having observed it in operation at first hand, I am unimpressed.  The European system lacks legal protections that Americans take for granted (e.g. rules of evidence, protections against unfair surprise).  It is also possible to game the European system by requesting that the opposition be done in a language that (conveniently) the original European examiner or other parties may not speak.   Another problem is that the European opposition review panels operate by making instant verbal “shoot from the hip” decisions, and only “justify” the decisions in writing months later.

The USPTO Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) has been working to implement an American version of the opposition process.  They have been hosting roundtables to show their progress to date and solicit feedback.  I attended their April 29, 2014 roundtable at Santa Clara University, and came away favorably impressed.

http://www.uspto.gov/ip/boards/bpai/ptab_aia_trial_roundtables_2014.jsp

In my opinion, the real challenge in doing decent post-grant opposition procedures is the delicate balance between trying to bring in more of the legal protections of common law/Federal law rules of evidence and civil procedure (thus improving on the European system), while minimizing the burdens of a conventional trial process.  Here, in addition to the obvious high costs and long times associated with conventional trials; there is also an issue of legal expertise.

Conventional patent trials are so complex that typically they are handled by expert litigation attorneys.  These litigation attorneys have a detailed knowledge of the trial process, but sometimes less knowledge of patent law and the underlying technology.  By contrast, patents are usually prosecuted by patent attorneys who may have very detailed knowledge of patent law and the underlying technology at issue, but often less trial process expertise.

PTAB appears to be attempting to devise a streamlined review system that retains a number of common law/Federal trial conventions and legal protections, without being overly burdensome.  In my opinion, their approach does improve on the due process of law deficiencies I noticed in European oppositions.  Relative to standard trials, the PTAB approach appears to be relatively simple, and you don’t need to be a litigation expert.

I am hopeful that with some review of the rules of evidence, civil procedure, and of course PTAB procedures, patent attorneys (often most knowledgeable about the patent and related technology) should be able to come up to speed with the new PTAB reviews fairly quickly.

Prometheus bound (or at least distinguished)

Prometheus
Prometheus having a bad day

Mayo v Prometheus: In an ancient Greek myth, the Titan god Prometheus is chained to a mountain by the god of blacksmiths (Hephaestus/Vulcan). Why talk about ancient Greek myths?  Because the story suggests a way out of the recent (2012) unfortunate “Mayo Collaborative Services vs. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc.” holding.

This case involved two medical diagnostics patents (6,355,623 and 6,680,302), in which SCOTUS held that patents that incorporate “laws of nature” may not be patent eligible “unless they have additional features that provide practical assurance that the processes are genuine applications of those laws rather than drafting efforts designed to monopolize the correlations“.

Are there any inventions that don’t operate according to natural law?  What else is a patent claim but a drafting effort designed to monopolize a particular invention?  What exactly are “additional features” and “practical assurance”?  Here the Prometheus decision provides little or no guidance.

The decision’s use of “natural law”, as well as gratuitous citation of various examples from physics as well as medicine, is unfortunate for us scientifically trained types.  This is because the three dimensional nature of the universe, the forward direction of time, and everything else about the world are all based on laws of nature!

Thus unless read narrowly, this decision would produce an unconstitutional result (it would eliminate all patents, hence violating Article 1 section 8 of the constitution).  So the ruling must be read narrowly, because the SCOTUS upholds the constitution and is never wrong, right?

This will eventually get sorted out.  The Federal Circuit (Hephaestus/Vulcan), composed of judges who actually know something about laws of nature and patents, will step in.  Their job is to clean up problems like this.  Eventually they will likely “chain” the overly expansive Prometheus holding by various subsequent lower court holdings.  They can’t totally overturn Prometheus, but they can certainly bring some sense to it by nibbling away at the interpretation.  (Note added 4-10-16 — or maybe not, they are certainly taking their time!)

As one idea, the European Patent office (EPO) makes certain classes of medical methods that are practiced on the human body unpatentable.  Perhaps the Federal Circuit might draw on the EPO for inspiration, and produce rulings that narrow the scope of the Prometheus “natural law” holding to something more akin to present EPO practice.  This would still not be totally great for Biotech, but Biotech manages to survive in Europe nonetheless.

In the meantime, damage control is also underway at the USPTO.  Their July 3, 2012 guidelines state the USPTO’s expectation that Prometheus considerations will primarily impact patents that being examined by Technology Center 1600 – Organic chemistry, drug delivery, molecular biology, biotechnology, and the like. Perhaps they have been reading the EPO rules as well.  They further advise that examiners fully examine all applications, and reject on more than just patent eligibility issues.  This at least gives the applicant a chance to amend patent claims to try to overcome occasional random Prometheus rejections.