In re Bilski

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In re Bilski, 545 F.3d 943 (Fed. Cir. 2008), is an en banc decision by the Federal Circuit that establishes new restrictions on the kinds of inventions that are eligible to participate in the patent system. The Court affirmed the rejection of an application to patent a method for using commodities trading in order to hedge risks caused by bad weather.

The Court interpreted the word "process" in the patent statute to exclude all processes that do not transform physical matter or that are not performed by machines, known as the "machine-or-transformation test." Two judges dissented on the grounds that this test is anachronistic and usurps the legislative role; a third judge dissented because he felt the Court should have gone further and excluded "business methods" entirely from patentability. Judge Paul Michel, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan wrote the opinion for the 9-3 en banc Court.

The Patent Application

The claim is for a method of hedging risk in the field of commodities trading. For example, coal power plants (i.e., the "consumers") purchase coal to produce electricity and are averse to the risk of a spike in demand for coal since such a spike would increase the price and their costs. Conversely, coal mining companies (i.e., the "market participants") are averse to the risk of a sudden drop in demand for coal since such a drop would reduce their sales and depress prices. The claimed method envisions an intermediary, the "commodity provider," that sells coal to the power plants at a fixed price, thus isolating the power plants from the possibility of a spike in demand increasing the price of coal above the fixed price. The same provider buys coal from mining companies at a second fixed price, thereby isolating the mining companies from the possibility that a drop in demand would lower prices below that fixed price. And the provider has thus hedged its risk; if demand and prices skyrocket, it has sold coal at a disadvantageous price but has bought coal at an advantageous price, and vice versa if demand and prices fall. Importantly, however, the claim is not limited to transactions involving actual commodities, and the application discloses that the recited transactions may simply involve options, i.e., rights to purchase or sell the commodity at a particular price within a particular timeframe.

The patent examiner ultimately rejected claims 1-11 under 35 U.S.C. § 101, stating: "[r]egarding ... claims 1-11, the invention is not implemented on a specific apparatus and merely manipulates [an] abstract idea and solves a purely mathematical problem without any limitation to a practical application, therefore, the invention is not directed to the technological arts." The examiner noted that Applicants had admitted their claims are not limited to operation on a computer, and he concluded that they were not limited by any specific apparatus.

Appeal to Patent Board

On appeal, the Board held that the examiner erred to the extent he relied on a "technological arts" test because the case law does not support such a test. Further, the Board held that the requirement of a specific apparatus was also erroneous because a claim that does not recite a specific apparatus may still be directed to patent-eligible subject matter "if there is a transformation of physical subject matter from one state to another." Elaborating further, the Board stated: "'mixing' two elements or compounds to produce a chemical substance or mixture is clearly a statutory transformation although no apparatus is claimed to perform the step and although the step could be performed manually."

But the Board concluded that Applicants' claims do not involve any patent-eligible transformation, holding that transformation of "non-physical financial risks and legal liabilities of the commodity provider, the consumer, and the market participants" is not patent-eligible subject matter. The Board also held that Applicants' claims "preempt[] any and every possible way of performing the steps of the [claimed process], by human or by any kind of machine or by any combination thereof," and thus concluded that they only claim an abstract idea ineligible for patent protection. Finally, the Board held that Applicants' process as claimed did not produce a "useful, concrete and tangible result," and for this reason as well was not drawn to patent-eligible subject matter.

The "Machine-or-Transformation" Test

The Court affirmed the rejection of this patent application based on the "machine-or-transformation test," which the Court described as follows:

The machine-or-transformation test is a two-branched inquiry; an applicant may show that a process claim satisfies § 101 either by showing that his claim is tied to a particular machine, or by showing that his claim transforms an article. See Benson, 409 U.S. at 70. Certain considerations are applicable to analysis under either branch. First, as illustrated by Benson and discussed below, the use of a specific machine or transformation of an article must impose meaningful limits on the claim's scope to impart patent-eligibility. See Benson, 409 U.S. at 71-72. Second, the involvement of the machine or transformation in the claimed process must not merely be insignificant extra-solution activity. See Flook, 437 U.S. at 590.

Transforming data into a visual representation satisfies this test, but merely "extra-solution activity" does not.

The Court held that "the operative question ... is whether Applicants' claim 1 satisfies the transformation branch of the machine-or-transformation test." The Court held that it does not:

We hold that the Applicants' process as claimed does not transform any article to a different state or thing. Purported transformations or manipulations simply of public or private legal obligations or relationships, business risks, or other such abstractions cannot meet the test because they are not physical objects or substances, and they are not representative of physical objects or substances. Applicants' process at most incorporates only such ineligible transformations. See Appellants' Br. at 11 ("[The claimed process] transforms the relationships between the commodity provider, the consumers and market participants ") As discussed earlier, the process as claimed encompasses the exchange of only options, which are simply legal rights to purchase some commodity at a given price in a given time period. See J.A. at 86-87. The claim only refers to "transactions" involving the exchange of these legal rights at a "fixed rate corresponding to a risk position." See '892 application cl.1. Thus, claim 1 does not involve the transformation of any physical object or substance, or an electronic signal representative of any physical object or substance. Given its admitted failure to meet the machine implementation part of the test as well, the claim entirely fails the machine-or-transformation test and is not drawn to patent-eligible subject matter.

"Physical Steps" Test

The Court affirmed its rejection that a patent must include "physical steps":

In AT&T, we rejected a "physical limitations" test and noted that "the mere fact that a claimed invention involves inputting numbers, calculating numbers, outputting numbers, and storing numbers, in and of itself, would not render it nonstatutory subject matter." 172 F.3d at 1359 (quoting State St., 149 F.3d at 1374). The same reasoning applies when the claim at issue recites fundamental principles other than mathematical algorithms. Thus, the proper inquiry under § 101 is not whether the process claim recites sufficient "physical steps," but rather whether the claim meets the machine-or-transformation test. As a result, even a claim that recites "physical steps" but neither recites a particular machine or apparatus, nor transforms any article into a different state or thing, is not drawn to patent-eligible subject matter. Conversely, a claim that purportedly lacks any "physical steps" but is still tied to a machine or achieves an eligible transformation passes muster under § 101.

Accordingly, the Court confirmed that "it is simply inapposite to the § 101 analysis whether process steps performed by software on a computer are sufficiently 'physical.'" But it emphasized that "a claimed process wherein all of the process steps may be performed entirely in the human mind is obviously not tied to any machine and does not transform any article into a different state or thing. As a result, it would not be patent-eligible under § 101."

"Technological Arts Test"

The Court held that the technological arts test is nothing more than a "short-cut" for its machine-or-transformation test.

Judge Mayer, in dissent, sharply disagree:

To the contrary, however, the two tests are fundamentally different. Consider U.S. Patent No. 7,261,652, which is directed to a method of putting a golf ball, U.S. Patent No. 6,368,227, which is directed to a method of swinging on a swing suspended on a tree branch, and U.S. Patent No. 5,443,036, which is directed to a method of "inducing cats to exercise." Each of these "inventions" involves a physical transformation that is central to the claimed method: the golfer's stroke is changed, a person on a swing starts swinging, and the sedentary cat becomes a fit feline. Thus, under the majority's approach, each of these inventions is patent eligible. Under a technological arts test, however, none of these inventions is eligible for patent protection because none involves any advance in science or technology.

Judge Mayer argued for excluding non-technological inventions from patentability:

Regardless of whether a claimed process involves a "physical transformation," it should not be patent eligible unless it is directed to an advance in science or technology. See Benson, 409 U.S. at 64-71 (finding a process unpatentable even though it "transformed" binary-coded decimals into pure binary numbers using a general purpose computer). Although the Supreme Court has stated that a patentable process will usually involve a transformation of physical matter, see id. at 70, it has never found a process patent eligible which did not involve a scientific or technological innovation. See Diehr, 450 U.S. at 192-93 (finding a process patentable where it involved new technology for curing rubber).
The majority refuses to inject a technology requirement into the section 101 analysis because it believes that the terms "technological arts" and "technology" are "ambiguous." See ante at 21. To the contrary, however, the meaning of these terms is not particularly difficult to grasp. "The need to apply some sort of 'technological arts' criterion has hardly led other countries' and regions' patent systems to grind to a halt; it is hard to see why it should be an insurmountable obstacle for ours." Cotter, supra at 885. As discussed more fully in section III, a claimed process is technological to the extent it applies laws of nature to new ends. See Benson, 409 U.S. at 67 ("'If there is to be invention from ... a discovery, it must come from the application of the law of nature to a new and useful end.'" (quoting Funk Bros., 333 U.S. at 130)). By contrast, a process is non-technological where its inventive concept is the application of principles drawn not from the natural sciences but from disciplines such as business, law, sociology, or psychology. See Thomas (1999), supra at 1168 ("[F]ew of us would suppose that inventions within the domain of business, law or fine arts constitute technology, much less patentable technology."). The inventive aspect of Bilski's claimed process is the application of business principles, not laws of nature; it is therefore non-technological and ineligible for patent protection.

"Business Methods" Patents

The Court was invited to exclude "business methods" from patentability, but declined:

We further reject calls for categorical exclusions beyond those for fundamental principles already identified by the Supreme Court. 22 We rejected just such an exclusion in State Street, noting that the so-called "business method exception" was unlawful and that business method claims (and indeed all process claims) are "subject to the same legal requirements for patentability as applied to any other process or method." 149 F.3d at 1375-76. We reaffirm this conclusion.

This sparked a strong dissent by Judge Mayer:

The en banc order in this case asked: "Whether it is appropriate to reconsider State Street Bank & Trust Co. v. Signature Financial Group, Inc., 149 F.3d 1368 (Fed. Cir. 1998), and AT&T Corp. v. Excel Communications, Inc., 172 F.3d 1352 (Fed. Cir. 1999), in this case and, if so, whether those cases should be overruled in any respect?" I would answer that question with an emphatic "yes." The patent system is intended to protect and promote advances in science and technology, not ideas about how to structure commercial transactions. Claim 1 of the application of Bernard L. Bilski and Rand A. Warsaw ("Bilski") is not eligible for patent protection because it is directed to a method of conducting business. Affording patent protection to business methods lacks constitutional and statutory support, serves to hinder rather than promote innovation and usurps that which rightfully belongs in the public domain. State Street and AT&T should be overruled.

The Dissents

Three judges dissented. Judge Mayer felt the Court opinion did not go far enough, and should have categorically excluded from future patents all business methods (see above). He wrote that "[t]he majority's proposed "machine-or-transformation test" for patentability will do little to stem the growth of patents on non-technological methods and ideas. Quite simply, in the context of business method patent applications, the majority's proposed standard can be too easily circumvented. ... Through clever draftsmanship, nearly every process claim can be rewritten to include a physical transformation. Bilski, for example, could simply add a requirement that a commodity consumer install a meter to record commodity consumption. He could then argue that installation of this meter was a 'physical transformation,' sufficient to satisfy the majority's proposed patentability test." Judge Mayer stated, "The majority's approach will encourage rent-seeking on a broad range of human thought and behavior. For example, because organizing a country into a democratic or socialist regime clearly involves a physical transformation, what is to prevent patents from issuing on forms of government?"

Judge Mayer wrote a stinging conclusion:

The patent system has run amok, and the USPTO, as well as the larger patent community, has actively sought guidance from this court in making sense of our section 101 jurisprudence. See Supplemental Br. of Appellee at 3 ("[The Federal Circuit] should clarify the meaning of State Street and AT&T, as they have been too often misunderstood."); Br. of Fin. Serv. Indus. at 1 ("The rise of [business method patents] in recent years has ... led to uncertainty over the scope of the patents granted and, more fundamentally, the definition of patentable subject matter itself. [We] seek a workable standard defining the scope of patentable subject matter, one that ... provides clear guidance to the Patent and Trademark Office ... and the public."); Br. of Samuelson Law, Tech. and Public Policy Clinic at 1 ("Ever since State Street, the [USPTO] has been flooded with applications for a wide variety of non-technological 'inventions' such as arbitration methods, dating methods, tax-planning methods, legal methods, and novel-writing methods. These applications have eroded public confidence in the patent system and driven up the cost and decreased the return for applicants seeking legitimate technological patents." (footnote omitted)); Br. of Assoc. of Am. Medical Colleges at 29 (arguing that "broad swaths of the public and certain industry sectors" have lost respect for the patent system and that "[the Federal Circuit] should act, even if its actions mean unsettling the settled expectations of some"). The majority, however, fails to enlighten three of the thorniest issues in the patentability thicket: (1) the continued viability of business method patents, (2) what constitutes sufficient physical transformation or machine-implementation to render a process patentable, and (3) the extent to which computer software and computer-implemented processes constitute statutory subject matter. The majority's "measured approach" to the section 101 analysis, see ante at 25, will do little to restore public confidence in the patent system or stem the growth of patents on business methods and other non-technological ideas.
Where the advance over the prior art on which the applicant relies to make his invention patentable is an advance in a field of endeavor such as law (like the arbitration method in Comiskey), business (like the method claimed by Bilski) or other liberal--as opposed to technological--arts, the application falls outside the ambit of patentable subject matter. The time is ripe to repudiate State Street and to recalibrate the standards for patent eligibility, thereby ensuring that the patent system can fulfill its constitutional mandate to protect and promote truly useful innovations in science and technology. I dissent from the majority's failure to do so.

Two additional Judges dissented on the grounds that the Court went too far in excluding subject matter from patentability. Judge Newman stated:

The court thus excludes many of the kinds of inventions that apply today's electronic and photonic technologies, as well as other processes that handle data and information in novel ways. Such processes have long been patent eligible, and contribute to the vigor and variety of today's Information Age. This exclusion of process inventions is contrary to statute, contrary to precedent, and a negation of the constitutional mandate. Its impact on the future, as well as on the thousands of patents already granted, is unknown.
This exclusion is imposed at the threshold, before it is determined whether the excluded process is new, non-obvious, enabled, described, particularly claimed, etc.; that is, before the new process is examined for patentability. For example, we do not know whether the Bilski process would be found patentable under the statutory criteria, for they were never applied.

Judge Newman concluded that the Court "usurps the legislative role":

In sum, the text of Section 101, its statutory history, its interpretation by the Supreme Court, and its application by the courts, contravene this court's redefinition of the statutory term "process." The court's decision affects present and future rights and incentives, and usurps the legislative role. The judicial role is to support stability and predictability in the law, with fidelity to statute and precedent, and respect for the principles of stare decisis.
Patents provide an incentive to invest in and work in new directions. In United States v. Line Material Co., 333 U.S. 287, 332, 68 S. Ct. 550, 92 L. Ed. 701 (1948), Justice Burton, joined by Chief Justice Vinson and Justice Frankfurter, remarked that "the frontiers of science have expanded until civilization now depends largely upon discoveries on those frontiers to meet the infinite needs of the future. The United States, thus far, has taken a leading part in making those discoveries and in putting them to use." This remains true today. It is antithetical to this incentive to restrict eligibility for patenting to what has been done in the past, and to foreclose what might be done in the future.

Judge Radar provided the third dissenting opinion, and he complained that the Court "ventured away from the statute":

This court labors for page after page, paragraph after paragraph, explanation after explanation to say what could have been said in a single sentence: "Because Bilski claims merely an abstract idea, this court affirms the Board's rejection." If the only problem of this vast judicial tome were its circuitous path, I would not dissent, but this venture also disrupts settled and wise principles of law.
Much of the court's difficulty lies in its reliance on dicta taken out of context from numerous Supreme Court opinions dealing with the technology of the past. In other words, as innovators seek the path to the next tech no-revolution, this court ties our patent system to dicta from an industrial age decades removed from the bleeding edge. A direct reading of the Supreme Court's principles and cases on patent eligibility would yield the one-sentence resolution suggested above. Because this court, however, links patent eligibility to the age of iron and steel at a time of subatomic particles and terabytes, I must respectfully dissent.

Judge Radar concluded:

In sum, this court today invents several circuitous and unnecessary tests. It should have merely noted that Bilski attempts to patent an abstract idea. Nothing more was needed. Instead this opinion propagates unanswerable questions: What form or amount of "transformation" suffices? When is a "representative" of a physical object sufficiently linked to that object to satisfy the transformation test? (e.g., Does only vital sign data taken directly from a patient qualify, or can population data derived in part from statistics and extrapolation be used?) What link to a machine is sufficient to invoke the "or machine" prong? Are the "specific" machines of Benson required, or can a general purpose computer qualify? What constitutes "extra-solution activity?" If a process may meet eligibility muster as a "machine," why does the Act "require" a machine link for a "process" to show eligibility? Does the rule against redundancy itself suggest an inadequacy in this complex spider web of tests supposedly "required" by the language of section 101?
One final point, reading section 101 as it is written will not permit a flurry of frivolous and useless inventions. Even beyond the exclusion for abstractness, the final clause of section 101--"subject to the conditions and requirements of this title"--ensures that a claimed invention must still satisfy the "conditions and requirements" set forth in the remainder title 35. Id. These statutory conditions and requirements better serve the function of screening out unpatentable inventions than some vague "transformation" or "proper machine link" test.
In simple terms, the statute does not mention "transformations" or any of the other Industrial Age descriptions of subject matter categories that this court endows with inordinate importance today. The Act has not empowered the courts to impose limitations on patent eligible subject matter beyond the broad and ordinary meaning of the terms process, machine, manufacture, and composition of matter. It has instead preserved the promise of patent protection for still unknown fields of invention.
Innovation has moved beyond the brick and mortar world. Even this court's test, with its caveats and winding explanations seems to recognize this. Today's software transforms our lives without physical anchors. This court's test not only risks hobbling these advances, but precluding patent protection for tomorrow's technologies. "We still do not know one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us." Attributed to Albert Einstein. If this court has its way, the Patent Act may not incentivize, but complicate, our search for the vast secrets of nature. When all else fails, consult the statute.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case on June 1, 2009, in Bilski v. Doll.