On January 4, 2019, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office released new guidance documents that USPTO Patent Examiners are to use when evaluating whether a patent application claims patent-eligible subject matter under Section 101 of the Patent Act. The new documents also address whether claims directed to computer-implemented inventions should be considered to be purely functional and/or indefinite under Section 112 of the Patent Act.
Taken together, the new guidance documents may narrow the situations in which Examiners issue rejections under Section 101 of the Patent Act, but may expand the number of rejections issued under Section 112 of the Patent Act. The documents indicate that inventors who want to patent computer-implemented inventions must be sure that the patent application: (a) describes and claims a practical application of the invention; and (b) discloses specific algorithms for performing claimed functions.
2019 Revised Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance (Section 101)
Unlike previous USPTO patent-eligibility guidance, the new Section 101 guidance focuses on situations in which patent claims should be eligible, and it limits situations in which USPTO Examiners should issue rejections under Sections 101 of the Patent Act.
In particular, the 2019 Revised Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance opens the door to patent-eligibility for patent claims that are limited to practical applications. In particular, the Section 101 guidance states that “a patent claim or patent application claims that recites a judicial exception [i.e., a law of nature, a natural phenomena or an abstract idea] is not ‘directed to’ the judicial exception if the judicial exception is integrated into a practical application of the judicial exception.”
The new Section 101 Guidance states that to determine that a claim recites an abstract idea, Examiners must “(a) identify the specific limitations(s) in the claim … that the examiner believes recites an abstract idea; and (b) determine whether the identified limitation(s) fall within the subject matter groupings” — that is, one of the following judicial exceptions to patentability: (1) mathematical concepts; (2) certain methods of organizing human activity; or (3) mental processes. Laws of nature or natural phenomena are another subject matter grouping to be considered. If the Examiner believes that the claim falls within one of these groupings, the Examiner must “evaluate whether the claim integrates the judicial exception into a practical appplication.”
The new Section 101 guidance instructs Examiners that analysis of whether a claim includes significantly than the judicial exception is only needed if “a claim recites a judicial exception and fails to integrate the exception into a practical application.” The guidance also states that “a practical application will apply, rely on, or use the judicial exception in a manner that imposes a meaningful limit on the judicial exception, such that the claim is more than a drafting effort designed to monopolize the judicial exception. When the exception is so integrated, then the claim is not directed to a judicial exception … and is eligible.”
Examples of practical applications include:
- an element that improves the functioning of a computer or other technology;
- an element that effects a particular treatment or prohylaxis for a disease or medical condition;
- an element that is operates in conjunction with a particular machine or manufacture that is integral to the claim; or
- an element that applies or uses the exception in a menaingful way beyond generally linking the use of the exception to a particular technological environment, so that the claim is more than a drafting effort designed to monopolize the exception.
The Section 101 guidance also states claims that include elements that are not well-understood, routine or conventional in a way that does not simply append those elements to the claim may be eligible.
Also significant: even if an Examiner rejects claims under Section 101, the Examiner must still examine each claim under Sections 102, 103 and 112 of the Patent Act.
The 2019 Section 101 guidance “supercedes all versions of the USPTO’s Quick Reference Sheet[s]” and indicates that those prior documents “should not be relied upon” by Examiners or Applicants.
Guidance for Examining Computer-Implemented Functional Claim Limitations for Compliance with 35 U.S.C. §112
The USPTO’s 2019 Guidance for Examining Computer-Implemented Functional Claim Limitations for Compliance with 35 U.S.C. 112 provides cautionary warnings to patent applicants who describe and claim computer-implemented inventions in only broad, general terms. This new guidance is intended to address the “problem with broad functional claiming without adequate structural support in the specification” and address “when a claim is purely functional in nature rather than reciting with any specificity how the claimed function is achieved.”
In the past few months, USPTO Examiners have more frequently issued Section 112 rejections against computer-implemented invention claims, even if the claims do not explicitly use means-plus-function language. The new guidance suggests that this is not appropriate by stating that “a claim limitation that does not use the term ‘means’ will trigger the presumption that 35 U.S.C. §112(f) does not apply.”
However, the guidance notes that certain phrases can be generic placeholders for means-plus-function language, in particular: “module for,” “device for”, “unit for,” “component for,” “element for,” “member for,” “apparatus for,” “machine for” and “system for.” The guidance also cautions against phrases that use the term “module” in connection with the module’s function.
The guidance also states: “for a computer-implemented … claim limitation, the specification must disclose an algorithm for performing the claimed specific computer function, or else the claim is indefinite” (emphasis added). The guidance notes that “the requirement for disclosure of an algorithm cannot be avoided by arguing that one of ordinary skill in the art is capable of writing software … to perform the claimed function.”
The new guidance documents took effect on January 7, 2019, the USPTO is accepting public comments on the new guidance through March 8, 2019.