USPTO updates patent examination guidelines for computer-implemented inventions: Less abstract ideas, more specific algorithms

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.

 

 

USPTO is open during federal government shutdown

Is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office still operating during the current federal government shutdown? So long as the shutdown does not extend beyond the first few weeks of January 2019, the answer is yes.

According to the USPTO: “the agency has access to prior-year fee collections, which enables the USPTO to continue normal operations for a few weeks. Should the USPTO exhaust these funds before a partial government shutdown comes to an end, the agency would have to shut down at that time, although a small staff would continue to work to accept new applications and maintain IT infrastructure, among other functions.”

Federal Circuit finds software license verification technology patent-eligible under Section 101

A new Federal Circuit decision found the claims of a patent directed to software license verification to be eligible for patenting under Section 101 of the Patent Act.

In Ancora Technologies, Inc. v. HTC America, Inc., the court reviewed the claims of U.S. patent 6,411,941, which involved methods of restricting software operation on a computer to be within a license for that computer. Representative claim 1 of the patent is:

A method of restricting software operation within a license for use with a computerincluding an erasable, non-volatile memory area of a BIOS of the computer, anda volatile memory area; the method comprising the steps of:

selecting a program residing in the volatile memory,

using an agent to set up a verification structure in the erasable, non-volatile memoryof the BIOS, the verification structure accommodating data that includes atleast one license record,

verifying the program using at least the verification structure from the erasable non-volatile memory of the BIOS, and

acting on the program according to the verification.

Thus, the method required storage of a license record in a “verification structure” created in a portion of the computer’s BIOS memory.

In its decision, the court noted that as in its Enfish, Visual Memory, Finjan, Core Wireless and Data Technologies cases, “[i]mproving security — here, against acomputer’s unauthorized use of a program — can be a non-abstract computer-functionality improvement if done by a specific technique that departs from earlier approaches to solve a specific computer problem.” The court also found that because in the representative claim “a license record is stored in a particular, modifiable, non-volatile portion of the computer’s BIOS … the claim addresses a technological problem with computers:  vulnerability of license-authorization software to hacking.”

Quoting its SAP America, Inc. v. InvestPic, LLC decision, the court also noted that the claim has “the specificity required to transform a claim from one claiming only a result to one claiming away of achieving it.” Therefore the court stated that it did not need to consider step two of the Alice analysis.


[1] ____ USPQ2d____ (Fed. Cir. Nov. 16, 2018).

[2] 127 USPQ2d 1597 (Fed. Cir. 2018).

Federal Circuit: Even the inventor can challenge patent’s validity

Historically, inventors who assign a patent to a company or other entity have been barred from later challenging the patent’s validity under the doctrine of “assignor estoppel.” This common-law doctrine has been in place for years. However, a new Federal Circuit decision scales it back by holding that assignor estoppel cannot stop certain inter partes review (IPR) proceedings filed by inventors with the Patent Trial and Appeals Board (PTAB).

In Arista Networks v. Cisco Systems, Inc. (Fed. Cir. Nov. 9, 2018), the court considered an appeal from the PTAB decision in an IPR proceeding. In the case, a company founded by an inventor (who was a former employee of the patent holder) argued that certain claims of the patent were obvious in view of prior art. While acknowledging that assignor estoppel is a “rule well settled by 45 years of judicial consideration and conclusion,” the court found that in the America Invents Act reveals Congress’ intent for a different rule in IPR proceedings. Specifically, since 35 U.S.C. §311(a) states that any “person who is not an owner of the patent” may file an IPR petition, the court ruled that an inventor who has assigned his or her interest — and who therefore is no longer an owner of the patent — may file an IPR petition that challenges validity of the patent.

What government contractors need to know about the revised disclosure requirements (and patent filing deadlines) for federally-funded inventions

The Bayh-Dole Act and federal regulations implementing the Act permit government contractors to retain ownership of inventions developed with federal government funding. However, to retain ownership the contractor must take certain actions within certain deadlines. If the contractor misses these deadlines, the government agency can take title to the invention.

These deadlines are about to become even more important when a regulatory change takes effect on May 14, 2018. Significant deadlines to keep in mind include:

1.  Disclose the invention to the government agency within two months of discovery, and elect title within two years of the disclosure.

The first required action is disclosure of the invention to the contracting agency. The Bayh-Dole Act (at 35 U.S.C.  § 202(c)(1)) requires any contractor who receives government funding to “disclose each subject invention to the Federal agency within a reasonable time after it becomes known to contractor personnel responsible for administration of patent matters.” Regulations implementing the Act state that the “reasonable time” is “two months after the inventor discloses it in writing to contractor personnel responsible for patent matters.” 37 C.F.R. § 401.14(c)(1).

The second required action is that if the contractor wants to retain ownership of the invention, the contractor must elect to retain title within two years of the disclosure. 37 C.F.R. § 401.14(c)(2).

If the contractor fails to make the required disclosure to the Federal agency within two months, or if the contractor fails to elect to retain title within two years, the Federal agency may take ownership to the invention.

Currently, a time limit also applies to the Federal agency’s right to take title to the invention. However, that is about to change. Continue reading

In Vanda decision, Federal Circuit finds method of treatment claims eligible for patenting

A recent Federal Circuit decision provides patent holders and applicants some guidance as to when patent claims that include methods of treatment may be eligible for patenting.

In Vanda Pharmaceuticals Inc. v. West-Ward Pharmaceuticals Int’l Ltd. (Fed. Cir. Apr. 13 2018), the decision involved U.S. Patent 8,586,610, which is directed to a method of trating a patient who is suffering from schizophrenia with iloperidone. The representative claims included the steps of performing a genotypic assay on the patient, and administering one of multiple dosages of iloperidone to the patient depending on the results of the assay.

The defendant argued that the claims were not patent-eligible “because they are directed to a natural relationship between iloperidone, CYP2D6 metabolism, and QT prolongation, and add nothing inventive to those natural laws and phenomena.” The patent holder argued that while the claims may “touch upon” laws of nature, they are not directed to any law of nature.

The court agreed with the patent holder, nothing that while the “inventors recognized the relationships between iloperidone [and certain natural phenomena,] that is not what they claimed. They claimed an application of that relationship. Unlike the claim at issue in Mayo [v. Prometheus], the claims here require a treating doctor to administer iloperidone in the amount of either (1) 12 mg/day or less or (2) between 12 mg/day to 24 mg/day, depending on the result of a genotyping assay.” Thus, the court found that the “patent claims are ‘a new way of using an existing drug’ that is safer for patients because it reduces the risk of QTc prolongation,” rather than purely a law of nature.

The Vanda decision can be a useful reference point for applicants who seek to claim personalized medicine delivery methods. The court’s discussion of claims that touch on, but are not directed to, laws of nature may be helpful for those who are inventing new and useful methods that rely on laws of nature, but which aren’t inherently laws of nature on their own.

Are invention disclosure documents protected by attorney-client privilege?

A common first step in the patent filing process is the completion of an invention disclosure form. The form asks the inventors to provide basic details about the invention, including who invented it, what problem does the invention solve, and how is the invention different from the prior art.

Many businesses and research institutions with patent filing programs require their inventors to complete invention disclosure forms to help the entity decide whether to file a patent application. The form may be reviewed by an intellectual property manager, by a patent review committee, or by others who decide whether or not to pursue a patent application for the invention.

Are invention disclosures protected by attorney-client privilege?

Recent court decisions indicate that the answer depends on what happens after the inventors complete the form. Continue reading