Monday, November 9, 2009

Reflections On The Erosion of Method Claims

It wasn’t that long ago that patent practitioners held the view that means-plus-function claims were the broadest and best way to protect an invention. Over time, many learned (the hard way) that this isn’t true anymore. With means-plus-function claims being construed narrowly in view of the specification, it became increasingly popular to include method claims to cover the process taking place in the described apparatus. After all, what could be better than not being limited by any structural limitations? Well, as it turns out, the last couple of years have not been particularly kind to method claims.

Patentable Subject Matter:

Today the Supreme Court is hearing oral argument in Bilsky, a case that many feel will significantly redefine the scope of patentable subject matter for method claims. (And providing motivation for today's musings.) Bilsky is the culmination of at least a two year trend at the Federal Circuit where 35 U.S.C. 101 has been increasingly applied as the basis for denying patent protection for claims directed to methods. The Federal Circuit's now infamous “machine or transformation test,” set forth in Bilsky represents a considerable narrowing of patentable subject matter for methods. Clearly, those post-State Street feel good days for business method patents are behind us for the moment. But, Bilsky and Section 101 is a subject all its own (and the subject to countless other posts and articles), so lets move on to some other issues.

Infringement of Method Claims

Divided Infringement:
Last year, in Muni-Auction v. Thomas, 532 F. 3d 1318 (Fed Cir. 2008) the Federal Circuit addressed the issue of infringement of a method claim when two or more entities were required to act in order to perform all of the steps of a claimed method. In the patent in dispute in Muni-Auction “at least the inputting step of claim 1 is completed by the bidder, whereas at least a majority of the remaining steps are performed by the auctioner’s system.” Id. at 1328. In finding that there was no direct infringement (and therefore no predicate for third party liability based on inducement or contributory infringement) the Federal Circuit looked to the relationship between the bidder and the auctioner. The court held that:

Accordingly, where the actions of multiple parties combine to perform every step of a claimed method, the claim is directly infringed only if one party exercises “control or direction” over the entire process such that every step is attributable to the controlling party, i.e., the “mastermind.” [Citation omitted] At the other end of this multi-party spectrum, mere “arms-length cooperation” will not give rise to direct infringement by any party.

* * *
Under BMC Resources, the control or direction standard is satisfied in situations where the law would traditionally hold the accused direct infringer vicariously liable for the acts committed by another party that are required to complete performance of a claimed method.

Although the holding in Muni-Auction is consistent with earlier cases on the issue of divided infringement, such as BMC Resources v. Paymentech, L.P., 498 F.3d. 1373 (Fed. Cir. 2007), this decision seems to raise the bar regarding the nature of the relationship required in order to find liability under a “divided infringement” theory. Under Muni-Auction, to establish infringement of a method claim under a divided infringement theory, one must not only show that the entities involved perform all of the steps within the scope of the claim, but must also establish a close legal relationship among those entities.

Steps performed Abroad:

In August, an en banc Federal Circuit addressed whether a method claim could be infringed under 35 U.S.C. 271(f). The Court held that “because one cannot supply the step of a method, Section 271(f) cannot apply to method or process patents.” Cardiac Pacemakers v. St. Jude Medical, 2007-1296 (Fed. Cir., August 19, 2009). The court further held that “271(f) does not encompass devices that may be used to practice a patented method.” Id. at 30. Thus, a device built in the United States that is capable of performing a patented method, but does not actually perform that method in the United States, does not infringe a claim to the patented method under 35 U.S.C. 271(a) or (f). Again, without direct infringement, there is no basis for assertions of third party liability based on threats of inducement or contributory infringement.

Going back a few years, in NTP v. Research in Motion, the Federal Circuit held that “a process cannot be used ‘within’ the United States as required by section 271(a) unless each of the steps if performed within this country.” 418 F.3d 1282, 1318 (Fed. Cir. 2005)(en banc)(emphasis added). In contrast, the Court also held that “use of a claimed system under section 271(a) is the place at which the system as a whole is put into service, i.e., the place where control of the system is exercised and beneficial use of the system obtained.” Id. at 1317 (emphasis added). Unlike the method claim, for the system claim, the Federal Circuit upheld the finding of infringement even though one component of the claimed system was not present in the United States.


Whether the Supreme Court limits or expands the scope of patentable subject matter in Bilsky, it is apparent that the scope of method claims have already been limited. For those who thought (or just hoped) that method claims were the next best thing since means-plus-function claims…well, just like with means-plus-function claims, this was a good theory put to rest by subsequent case law. Its now time to adapt again.

Common Sense Practice Note: Things that today are considered "conventional wisdom" may not always have been considered "conventional" in the past, and may not always be considered "wisdom" in the future. For patent practitioners, the best strategy remains timeless - keep applying for claims of varying format, varying subject matter and varying scope, since one never knows what tomorrow may bring.

1 comment:

  1. Oral Argument on Bilsky v. Tafas ended shortly after this post. Here is one blog post discussing the argument.