Matthew Allen, Harrity Team

Statements in Specification May Harm Patent Eligibility

By Matthew Allen, Associate

The Federal Circuit recently issued a decision that indicates how certain types of statements, made in an Applicant’s own specification, can undermine patent eligibility.  Specifically, in Solutran Inc. v. Elavon, Inc., U.S. Bancorp, 2019-1345, (Fed. Cir. Jul. 30, 2019) (“Solutran”), the Federal Circuit highlights how patent eligibility under 35 U.S.C. §101 might turn based on a specification’s background information and statements regarding proposed advancements, or benefits, of an invention .

At issue in Solutran is claim 1 of U.S. Patent No. 8,311,945 (’945 patent), which recites:

A method for processing paper checks, comprising:

a) electronically receiving a data file containing data captured at a merchant s point of purchase, said data including an amount of a transaction associated with MICR information for each paper check, and said data file not including images of said checks;

b) after step a), crediting an account for the merchant;

c) after step b), receiving said paper checks and scanning said checks with a digital image scanner thereby creating digital images of said checks and, for each said check, associating said digital image with said check s MICR information; and

d) comparing by a computer said digital images, with said data in the data file to find matches.

When analyzing the claim under part one of the Supreme Court’s Alice test, the Federal Circuit determined that claim 1 was “directed to the abstract idea of crediting a merchant’s account as early as possible while electronically processing a check.”  In making its determination, the court examined the purported benefits of the ‘945 patent.  Two benefits were identified in the specification: “improved funds availability,” and “outsourcing.”  However, the court noted that while two benefits were identified in the specification, the claims were not limited to an embodiment that resulted in both benefits, stating that “[t]he only advance recited in the asserted claims is thus crediting the merchant’s account before the paper check is scanned.”  In other words, because the claims did not include features that required “outsourcing,” the court considered the only relevant benefit to be “improved funds availability.”

The court determined that the claimed advance (“improved funds availability”) was similar to abstract concepts such as “hedging” and “mitigating settlement risk,” and that “[t]he desire to credit a merchant’s account as soon as possible is an equally long standing commercial practice.”  Thus, the Federal Circuit used the purported advance of the ‘945 patent, as indicated in the specification and supported by the claims, in determining that claim 1 was directed to an abstract idea.  The court also noted that its characterization of claim 1 was appropriate where “the abstract idea tracks the claim language and accurately captures what the patent asserts to be the ‘focus of the claimed advance over the prior art.’”  This further signifies the importance the court placed on the alleged benefits of the application.

When addressing step two of the Alice test, the Federal Circuit used the background of the ‘945 patent against the patentee by stating that “the background of the ’945 patent describes each individual step in claim 1 as being conventional. Reordering the steps so that account crediting occurs before check scanning (as opposed to the other way around) represents the abstract idea in the claim, making it insufficient to constitute an inventive concept.”  In other words, simply re-ordering admittedly known steps will not constitute an inventive concept for purposes of step two of the Alice test.  Thus, the court used the applicant’s own statements in the specification, indicating that certain steps are conventional, to find that the claim was not patent eligible.

This decision provides important lessons about drafting and prosecuting a patent application that may increase the application’s likelihood to survive a §101 challenge.  First, practitioners should make sure that benefits identified in a patent application are exhibited in the claimed embodiments.  The identified benefits should ideally be clearly technical.  Second, practitioners should ensure that the patent application does not include any statements that might be used to argue against the patent eligibility of the claims.  This may include considering whether a detailed background may do more harm than good.

Kenneth Hartmann Harrity Team

Technical Details are Needed to Avoid Patent Eligibility Issues for Patent Applications

By Kenneth Hartmann, Associate

Many patent practitioners have likely found success in overcoming and/or avoiding 35 USC §101 rejections since the USPTO’s Revised Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance was released last January.  However, the Federal Circuit (“the court”) recently made it clear that continued attention and care should be given when drafting patent applications focused on payment systems and/or payment processing.

In Innovation Sciences, LLC v. Amazon.com, Inc. 2018-1495 (Fed. Cir. Jul. 2, 2019) (“Innovation Sciences v. Amazon”) the court determined that a claim to an “online method for a payment server to support online buying over the Internet” in U.S. Reissue Patent No. 46,140 (the ’140 patent) was ineligible under Step 2 of Alice.  More specifically, the court agreed with the district court that the claim was directed to the abstract idea of “securely processing a credit card transaction with a payment server” and that the claim lacked an inventive step, stating that the transmission of credit card payment information through the completion of a purchase are the same as those used in a “conventional Internet transaction system having adequate credit card information security” as admitted in the specification of the ’140 patent.

While Innovation Sciences argued that a “wherein” clause indicating the process involved a switch from a server with less security to a server with more security, the court held that that claim is directed to the abstract idea of “switching.”  The court further mentioned that the claim seeks to capture the broad concept of switching to a more secure server, rather than a “specific way of doing so.”  For Step 1 of the Alice test, the court indicated that the claim may have avoided being directed to an abstract idea if the claim and/or specification had indicated a specific way of carrying out the switch from a less secure server to a more secure server.

Patent applications directed to payments or other financial related processes will likely continue to receive the highest level of scrutiny with respect to patent eligibility due to the Alice decision being based on a financial/business method patent application.  The fact is, many of these patent applications and/or patents likely involve novel technical features, communications, and/or processes that were overlooked and/or not considered when the patent application was drafted.  In Innovation Sciences v. Amazon, the court specifically referred to a lack of detail with respect to switching between a less secure server and a more secure server.  In fact, the word “switched” is mentioned only ONCE in the specification and ONCE in a flowchart.  It is no wonder that the court found Innovation Science’s arguments regarding the switch between servers to be futile.

The ’140 patent claims priority to a patent application filed back in April 2000.  That was obviously a different era of patent preparation and prosecution.  Today, patent practitioners should consider and outline the technical aspects of processes (especially business method processes) without taking for granted that one or more steps of the process are inventive, in and of, themselves.  Clearly, the switch between servers, considered to be one step in the overall process for performing an online method for a payment server, involved its own processes and/or steps.  How/when was the decision made to switch the servers?  What parameters were used to select the new server?  How were those parameters analyzed to make the selection? What types of communications (and/or how many) were needed to perform the switch?  Again, it was a different era of drafting patent applications in 2000.  However, if the patent application drafter was able to predict the future, those are just a few example questions that, if answered in the claim and/or specification, would have improved Innovation Sciences’ case for patent eligibility.  Moreover, to have the best chances of success, patent drafters should continue to discuss the technical problems solved by these processes (and/or by the steps of the processes) and any corresponding technical benefits.

Harrity Blog

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

By Tim Hirzel

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.

For a shorter summary of the above, visit here.

Tim Hirzel Harrity Team

Summary of USPTO Revised Guidance on Subject Matter Eligibility

By Tim Hirzel

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.
Harrity Blog

Analysis of December 2016 USPTO Subject Matter Eligibility Examples

By Kris Rhu & Paul Gurzo

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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