Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Patent Eligible Subject Matter Debate Continues

No question in patent law in recent times has been quite as vexing as the scope of patent eligible subject matter, especially as it relates to computer-implemented methods.  The Supreme Court has addressed the issue twice in three years in Bilski and Prometheus Labs, and we still seem no closer to understanding what makes an invention “patent elibible” under 35 U.S.C. 101.   The debate keeps on rolling along with the Federal Circuit's recent decision in CLS Bank Int’l  v. Alice Corporation, 2011-1301.

The claims at issue in CLS were found in three patents that each “cover a computerized trading platform for exchanging obligations in which a trusted third party settles obligations between a first and second party so as to eliminate ‘settlement risk..’”  Opinion at 2.  The claims at issue cover three different statutory classes, with method claims, system claims and article of manufacture claims directed to computer instructions stored on computer readable media.  The district court analyzed the claims in each class separately and found all claims invalid as not defining patent eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. 101.

In reversing the district court, the majority provided a lengthy discussion on the history of patent eligibility cases, especially addressing the “abstract idea” and “law of nature” exceptions to patent eligibility.  Opinion 11-21.  (Since the first paragraph of the ten page analysis includes the quote 'Congress intended statutory subject matter to "include anything under the sun that is made by man,"' [citations omitted] you quickly get a sense where the majority is headed).  At the end of its 10 page discussion, the majority sets forth a somewhat remarkable holding: “this court holds that when -- after taking all of the claim recitations into consideration — it is not manifestly evident that claim is directed to a patent ineligible abstract idea, that claim must not be deemed for that reason to be inadequate  under 101.”  Opinion at 20.  I for one, am lost by this statement.  A patent is presumed valid and a party seeking to invalidate a patent claim must do so by clear and convincing evidence.  It was my impression that this same standard applies to defenses under 35 U.S.C. 101.  I am not sure what “manifestly evident” is, but it sounds like a higher burden than clear and convincing evidence.  Perhaps, the defendant’s new burden on this issue is to prove by clear and convincing evidence that it is “manifestly evident that [an asserted] claim is directed to a patent ineligible abstract idea” in order to prevail on this issue?

The case includes a spirited dissent by J. Prost (with barbs and jabs laced throughout both the majority and dissenting opinions) that argues that “[t]he majority has failed to follow the Supreme Court’s instructions—not just in its holding, but more importantly in its approach.”  Dissent at 3.

Much more could be said about this 27 page opinion and 11 page dissent.  But, since the petition for rehearing en banc is likely already being drafted (and in my opinion will likely be granted), we might as well wait for the en banc opinion to delve deeper into this case.  

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