In-depth Summary of USPTO Revised Guidance on Subject Matter Eligibility

By Tim Hirzel

January 9, 2019 – In-depth Summary of USPTO Revised Guidance on Subject Matter Eligibility

The PTO released their highly anticipated revised guidance on subject matter eligibility that take effect on January 7, 2019.[1]  Below, we discuss the changes to the subject matter eligibility analysis made by the revised guidance and how Applicants may address these changes in practice.

Summary of Revised Guidance

The revised guidance maintains the two step Alice/Mayo Test but revises the procedure for determining whether a claim is directed to a judicial exception (e.g., an abstract idea) under Step 2A.  Previously, the PTO guidelines (wrongly) equated a claim merely “reciting” an abstract idea with a claim being “directed to” the abstract idea under Step 2A.  The PTO has replaced this approach with a new two prong analysis.

In the first prong of Step 2A, Examiners evaluate whether a claim recites an abstract idea.  The first prong is similar to the previous approach with one important change.  Previously, Examiners were to describe the subject matter claimed and identify whether the subject matter had previously been found to be directed to an abstract idea by the courts.  The PTO found this approach impractical due to the ever-increasing number of court decisions and rightly noted that it has been difficult for Examiners to apply this approach in a predictable manner, especially between different technology centers.

Instead of this case law specific approach, the PTO newly identified three groups of abstract ideas: mathematical concepts, certain methods of organizing human activity, and mental processes.  Examiners must now a) identify specific limitations in the claims believed to be an abstract idea, and b) determine whether the identified limitations fall within any of the three newly identified groups.  If the identified limitations fall within the three groups of abstract ideas, the analysis proceeds to the second prong of Step 2A.

In the second prong of Step 2A, Examiners evaluate whether the claim as a whole integrates the abstract idea into a practical application.  The million-dollar question then becomes what is a practical application?  The PTO broadly answers this question by stating “[a] claim that integrates a judicial exception into a practical application will apply, rely on, or use the judicial exception in a manner that imposes a meaningful limit on the judicial exception.”  The PTO also gives several examples based on case law that indicate an additional element or combination of elements may have integrated an exception into a practical application, such as: improving the functioning of a computer or a technical field, effecting a treatment for a medical condition, using the judicial exception with a particular machine, or transforming or reducing a particular article to a different state or thing.

The PTO acknowledges that these examples and the second prong of step 2A overlap considerations that the courts and the PTO’s guidance consider under Step 2B but feels that this new approach will increase certainty and reliability.  For clarity, the PTO reiterated that merely using a computer as a tool to perform the abstract idea, adding insignificant extra-solution activity, or generally linking the abstract idea to a technical field will still not be enough to establish a practical application and patent eligibility.  If the claim does not integrate the abstract idea into a practical application, then the claim is directed to an abstract idea under Step 2A and the analysis proceeds to Step 2B.

Step 2B has not been changed under the revised guidance and Examiners are still to evaluate whether the claims provide an inventive concept by reciting significantly more than the abstract idea.  However, the incorporation of several Step 2B considerations into the second prong of Step 2A limits how much additional analysis the Examiner needs to apply in Step 2B.  Importantly, whether the additional elements are well-understood, routine, conventional activity is not evaluated under the second prong of Step 2A and is unrelated to whether the claim integrates the abstract idea into a practical application.  This evaluation is still done in Step 2B pursuant to the Berkheimer memo[2] to determine whether the additional element or combination of elements adds limitations that are not well-understood, routine, conventional activity in the field which is indicative that an inventive concept may be present.

Our Impressions

The new two prong approach to Step 2A should make it easier to work with Examiners, especially during interviews, to overcome 101 rejections.  Under the prior guidance, Examiners would often dismiss any Step 2A arguments because their guidelines simply said a claim was directed to an abstract idea if any part of the claim recited an abstract idea.  This made it very easy for Examiners to establish the claims were directed to an abstract idea without much analysis.  The revised guidelines will make it much more difficult for the Examiner to simply dismiss an Applicant’s Step 2A arguments.

Equally as frustrating was Examiners misapplying case law when attempting to identify a decision that found subject matter, similar to the claims, to be directed to an abstract idea.  Applicants should be able to avoid the necessity of debating case law cited by Examiners (which was rarely an effective manner of overcoming a 101 rejection anyway) because the Examiners are not required to cite specific decisions in their rejections anymore and merely must identify one of the three newly defined groups of abstract ideas.

Instead, Applicants can now focus on the newly articulated “practical application” consideration in the second prong of Step 2A.  While the examples of practical applications given in the revised guidelines are nothing new and come straight from case law Applicants should have already been using to overcome 101 rejections, the examples were not always given much weight by the Examiners or simply dismissed nominally in Step 2B.  The revised guidelines’ focus on the “practical application” consideration and the given examples may make it easier to use these examples to effectively overcome the 101 rejections (without necessarily having to argue the case law behind the examples).

Moreover, the PTO broadly describing the case law as establishing a “practical application” consideration gives Applicants more leeway than relying on specific court decisions as done in the past.  For example, it may be easier to convince an Examiner on a technical level that claims “apply, rely on, or use the judicial exception” in a meaningful manner than to convince the Examiner that claims are similar to subject matter previously held by the courts to be directed to statutory subject matter.  However, Applicants must be mindful that the goal is not simply to get patent applications allowed by satisfying the PTO’s revised guidelines, but to have claims that are statutory as supported by case law and that can withstand the 101 analysis performed by the courts.

Any noticeable change in examination will depend heavily on how Examiners are trained to implement the new guidance.  Accordingly, it may be months before we fully realize how significant the changes will be to 101 rejections in practice.

[1] 2019 Revised Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance

[2] Revising 101 Eligibility Procedure in view of Berkheimer v. HP, Inc.

Tim Hirzel Harrity TeamTim Hirzel Harrity Team

Summary of USPTO Revised Guidance on Subject Matter Eligibility

By Tim Hirzel
January 9, 2019 – Summary of USPTO Revised Guidance on Subject Matter Eligibility

The PTO released their highly anticipated revised guidance on subject matter eligibility that take effect on January 7, 2019.  A summary of the guidance is provided below.  A more in-depth discussion can be found on our website HERE.

Summary of Revised Guidance

The revised guidance maintains the two step Alice/Mayo Test but revises the procedure for determining whether a claim is directed to a judicial exception (e.g., an abstract idea) under Step 2A by instituting a two-prong analysis.

  1. First prong of Step 2A – Examiners evaluate whether a claim recites an abstract idea.  Instead of a case law specific approach as previously performed, the PTO newly identified three groups of abstract ideas: mathematical concepts, certain methods of organizing human activity, and mental processes.  If any recited claim limitations fall within the three groups of abstract ideas, the analysis proceeds to the second prong of Step 2A.
  2. Second prong of Step 2A – Examiners evaluate whether the claim as a whole integrates the abstract idea into a practical application. A practical application will apply, rely on, or use the judicial exception in a manner that imposes a meaningful limit on the judicial exception.  The PTO gives examples based on case law that indicate practical applications, such as: improving the functioning of a computer or a technical field, effecting a treatment for a medical condition, using the judicial exception with a particular machine, or transforming or reducing a particular article to a different state or thing.  If the claim does not integrate the abstract idea into a practical application, then the claim is directed to an abstract idea under Step 2A and the analysis proceeds to Step 2B.

Step 2B has not changed under the revised guidance and is still performed pursuant to the Berkheimer memo.

Our Impressions

  1. Under the prior guidance, Examiners would often dismiss any Step 2A arguments because their guidelines simply said a claim was directed to an abstract idea if any part of the claim recited an abstract idea.  The two-prong approach will make it much more difficult for Examiners to simply dismiss an Applicant’s Step 2A arguments.
  2. Applicants should now be able to avoid the necessity of debating case law with Examiners because the Examiners are not required to cite specific decisions in their rejections and only have to identify one of the three newly defined groups of abstract ideas. Instead, Applicants can now focus on the newly articulated “practical application” consideration in the second prong of Step 2A.
  3. While the examples of practical applications given in the revised guidelines are nothing new, the revised guidelines’ focus on the “practical application” consideration may make it easier to use these examples to effectively overcome the 101 rejections (without necessarily having to argue the case law behind the examples).
  4. The PTO broadly describing the case law as establishing a “practical application” consideration gives Applicants more leeway than relying on specific court decisions as done in the past.  For example, it may be easier to convince an Examiner on a technical level that claims “apply, rely on, or use the judicial exception” in a meaningful manner than to convince the Examiner that claims are similar to subject matter previously held by the courts to be directed to statutory subject matter.
  5. Any noticeable change in examination will depend heavily on how Examiners are trained to implement the new guidance.  Accordingly, it may be months before we fully realize how significant the changes will be to 101 rejections in practice.

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Full Clause 8 interview available here https://www.clause8.tv/ or via your favorite podcast app.

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Practice Insights in the Wake of Visual Memory LLC v. NVIDIA Corp.

By Sean Quinn & Peter Glaser

August 25, 2017- In Visual Memory LLC v. NVIDIA Corp. (Fed. Cir. Aug. 15, 2017), a divided panel at the Federal Circuit determined that U.S. Patent No. 5,953,740 is not directed to an abstract idea.

The decision provides a positive result in the context of software-based inventions, and provides a few insights regarding potential patent drafting strategies.  Namely, the decision highlights the importance of focusing the specification on improvements to hardware components, and bolsters the importance of mentioning technical benefits wherever appropriate.  

The ‘740 patent teaches a memory system having programmable operational characteristics that are capable of being configured for use with multiple different types of processors without causing a reduction in performance ostensibly present in the prior art computer systems.  This enables the memory system to be used efficiently with multiple types of processors, rather than only with a single type of processor.  Further, the ‘740 patent claims a computer memory system comprising a main memory, a cache, and programmable operational characteristics that determine a type of data stored by the cache.

On appeal from a district court’s grant of NVIDIA’s motion to dismiss based on the asserted claims being directed to patent -ineligible subject matter, Judge Stoll, writing for the majority, stated that “[courts] must articulate with specificity what the claims are directed to (citing Thales Visionix Inc. v. United States),” and “ask whether the claims are directed to an improvement to computer functionality versus being directed to an abstract idea (citing Enfish LLC v. Microsoft).”  (Opinion at 7).

Using Enfish and Thales as guidance, the majority stated that the ‘740 patent’s claims are directed to an improved computer memory system rather than to an abstract idea of categorical data storage and  mentioned that claim 1 of the ‘740 patent requires a memory system “having one or more programmable operational characteristics, said characteristics being defined through configuration by said computer based on the type of said processor,” and “determin[ing] a type of data stored by said cache.”  (Opinion at 9).  Further, the  majority stated that dependent claims 2 and 3, respectively, narrow the memory system’s programmable operational characteristic to storing certain types of data and buffering data from certain sources and that none of the claims recite all types and all forms of categorical data storage.

The majority noted that the ‘740 patent’s specification mentions various technical benefits associated with the memory system, such as permitting different types of processors to be installed with the subject memory system without significantly compromising their individual performance, obviating the need to design a separate memory system for each type of processor, avoiding the performance problems of prior art memory systems, enabling interoperability with multiple different processors, and outperforming prior art memory systems having larger cache sizes.

Analogizing the ‘740 patent to the self-referential table in Enfish and the motion tracking system in Thales, the majority noted that the ‘740 patent’s claims are directed to a technological improvement and focus on a specific asserted improvement in computer capabilities rather than a process that qualifies as an abstract idea for which computers are invoked merely as a tool.  Further, the majority noted that the specification of the ‘740 patent discusses the advantages offered by the proffered technological improvement.  

Juxtaposing the ‘740 patent and the claims in Content Extraction & Transmission LLC v. Wells Fargo Bank and In re TLI Communications LLC Patent Litigation, the majority noted that the ‘740 patent recites an ostensibly new, improved, and more efficient memory system as opposed to claims that are not directed to an improvement in computer functionality and cover abstract ideas operating on generic hardware.

In dissent, Justice Hughes posited that the ‘740 patent fails to describe how the invention’s purpose is achieved, fails to describe how to implement the programmable operational characteristic, requires a third party to supply the innovative programming, and, as such, is not properly described as being directed to an improvement in computer systems.

In response, the majority identified three flaws with Justice Hughes’s posit.  

First, the majority noted that the ‘740 patent includes an appendix having 263 frames of code, and noted that the assumption that the code does not teach a person of ordinary skill in the art was improper at the stage of reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, where all factual inferences must be drawn in favor of the non-moving party.

Second, the majority noted that the question of whether a patent specification teaches a person of ordinary skill in the art how to implement the claimed invention presents an enablement issue under 35 U.S.C. § 112 rather than an eligibility issue under § 101.  Further, the majority noted that the implementation details regarding how to configure a programmable operational characteristic may very well fall within the routine knowledge of persons having ordinary skill in the art and, as such, may have been permissibly omitted.  

Third, the majority noted that Justice Hughes’s assumption that the innovative effort in the ‘740 patent lies in the programming required for a computer to configure a programmable operational characteristic of a cache memory was misplaced.  In support, the majority noted that the assumption was inconsistent with the ‘740 patent’s specification and claims, which expressly state that the improved memory system is achieved by configuring a programmable operational characteristics of a cache memory based on the type of processor connected to the memory system.

In closing, the majority refrained from proceeding to step two of the Alice test because of the finding that the claims of the ‘740 patent are not directed to an abstract idea.   

Going forward, the decision provides some instruction regarding potential patent drafting and prosecution strategies regarding software-based inventions and § 101 issues.  For example, the decision highlights the importance of directing the specification and claims to improvements in computer systems, and the importance of mentioning technical benefits provided by the invention wherever feasible.  Moreover, the case highlights a distinction that can be drawn between enablement and eligibility.

Download Practice Insights in the Wake of Visual Memory LLC v. NVIDIA Corp.

 

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Patents: A Survey

By Peter Glaser, July 26, 2017- Although many think of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or “drones” as a modern development, UAVs have an extensive history dating back to the original development of lighter-than-air flight.  Initial attempts were limited by the technology of the age – an attempt by the Austrian empire to launch balloon bombs against the Venetian state failed when a shift in wind resulted in the balloon bombs returning toward the Austrian troops.  Early engineering efforts to support unmanned aerial flight included the development of radio-based remote control by Serbian-American Nikola Tesla, an “Aerial Target” developed in 1916-17 by Englishman Archibald Low, and an “AutomaticAirplane” developed in 1916-18 by Americans Elmer Sperry and Peter Cooper Hewitt.  Early attempts often ended in failure – Low’s Aerial Target crashed during all three test flights before being abandoned; Sperry and Hewitt’s Automatic Airplane successfully completed a single successful test flight of 1000 feet, but all completed test airframes were destroyed in subsequent crashes resulting in abandonment.

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His first interview is with former Chief Federal Circuit Judge Michel. During the interview, Judge Michel talks about his personal story and shares his thoughts about America’s patent system, patent eligibility, and the PTAB. He also provides great advice to those in, or thinking about being in, the IP field.

Please check it out and sign up to be notified about future interviews! www.clause8.tv

 

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Is It Really That Obvious? A Tale of Two Decisions

By William Gvoth & Paul Gurzo April 9, 2017- On January 3, 2017 the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (the court) handed down two decisions relating to obviousness under § 103 – In re: Marcel Van Os, Freddy Allen Anzures, Scott Forstall, Greg Christie, Imran Chaudhri, No. 2015-1975 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (Van Os) and In re: Ethicon, Inc., No. 2015-1696 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (Ethicon).  This article will tell the tale of these two decisions as well as highlight some of the questions that these decisions raise.

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Analysis of December 2016 USPTO Subject Matter Eligibility Examples

By Kris Rhu & Paul Gurzo

March 20, 2017- On December 15, 2016, the USPTO published three subject matter eligibility examples focusing on business method claims, which can be found here.  The purpose of these examples is to give guidance on how claims should be analyzed using the 2014 Interim Guidance on Subject Matter Eligibility, recent Supreme Court and Federal Circuit decisions, and recent Memorandums published by the USPTO.  These examples seem to indicate that the power of §101 to restrict patentability has been whittled down since Alice and that the USPTO would like to reduce the number of §101 rejections for technological claims in light of court decisions post-Alice.  Below, we describe each example provided by the USPTO, explain the USPTO guidance for each example, and provide practical practice tips that practitioners can use to help reduce or overcome §101 rejections.

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Alice on Dulany Street: How the PTAB Handles 101 in Ex Parte Appeals

By Eli Mazour & James Bennin

February 15, 2017- “The outlook has become only more grim for appellants who are hoping that the PTAB will overturn a § 101 rejection.”

Previously, we analyzed ex parte appeal decisions by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) from the year following the Alice v. CLS Bank decision. At the time, we concluded that the PTAB is unlikely to reverse § 101 rejections based on Alice. We decided to revisit this conclusion based on ex parte appeal decisions from December 2016.

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