MPEP Section 2106, Patent Subject Matter Eligibility
This document contains one section of the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure (the "M.P.E.P."), Eighth Edition, Fifth Revision (August 2006). This page was last updated in July 2007. You may return to the section index to find a particular section. Alternatively, you may search the MPEP use the search box that appears on the bottom of every page of BitLaw--be sure to restrict your search to the MPEP in the pop-up list.
2106 Patent Subject Matter Eligibility [R-6]
These Interim Guidelines for Examination of Patent Applications for Patent Subject Matter Eligibility ("Guidelines") are to assist examiners in determining, on a case-by-case basis, whether a claimed invention is directed to statutory subject matter. These Guidelines are based on the USPTO's current understanding of the law and are believed to be fully consistent with binding precedent of the Supreme Court, the Federal Circuit and the Federal Circuit's predecessor courts.
These Guidelines do not constitute substantive rulemaking and hence do not have the force and effect of law. These Guidelines have been designed to assist USPTO personnel in analyzing claimed subject matter for compliance with substantive law. Rejections will be based upon the substantive law and it is these rejections which are appealable. Consequently, any failure by USPTO personnel to follow the Guidelines is neither appealable nor petitionable.
The Guidelines set forth the procedures USPTO personnel will follow when examining applications. USPTO personnel are to rely on these Guidelines in the event of any inconsistent treatment of issues between these Guidelines and any earlier provided guidance from the USPTO.**
A flow chart of the process USPTO personnel should follow appears at the end of this section.
II. DETERMINE WHAT APPLICANT HAS INVENTED AND IS SEEKING TO PATENT
It is essential that patent applicants obtain a prompt yet complete examination of their applications. Under the principles of compact prosecution, each claim should be reviewed for compliance with every statutory requirement for patentability in the initial review of the application, even if one or more claims are found to be deficient with respect to some statutory requirement. Thus, USPTO personnel should state all reasons and bases for rejecting claims in the first Office action. Deficiencies should be explained clearly, particularly when they serve as a basis for a rejection. Whenever practicable, USPTO personnel should indicate how rejections may be overcome and how problems may be resolved. A failure to follow this approach can lead to unnecessary delays in the prosecution of the application.
Prior to focusing on specific statutory requirements, USPTO personnel must begin examination by determining what, precisely, the applicant has invented and is seeking to patent, and how the claims relate to and define that invention. (As the courts have repeatedly reminded the USPTO: "The goal is to answer the question 'What did applicants invent?'" In re Abele, 684 F.2d 902, 907, 214 USPQ 682, 687 (CCPA 1982). Accord, e.g., Arrhythmia Research Tech. v. Corazonix Corp., 958 F.2d 1053, 1059, 22 USPQ2d 1033, 1038 (Fed. Cir. 1992).) USPTO personnel will review the complete specification, including the detailed description of the invention, any specific embodiments that have been disclosed, the claims and any specific, substantial, and credible utilities that have been asserted for the invention.
After obtaining an understanding of what applicant invented, the examiner will conduct a search of the prior art and determine whether the invention as claimed complies with all statutory requirements.
A. Identify and Understand Any Utility and/or Practical Application Asserted for the Invention
The claimed invention as a whole must be useful and accomplish a practical application. That is, it must produce a "useful, concrete and tangible result." **>State Street Bank & Trust Co. v. Signature Financial Group Inc., 149 F.3d 1368, 1373-74, 47 USPQ2d 1596, 1601-02 (Fed. Cir. 1998).< The purpose of this requirement is to limit patent protection to inventions that possess a certain level of "real world" value, as opposed to subject matter that represents nothing more than an idea or concept, or is simply a starting point for future investigation or research (Brenner v. Manson, 383 U.S. 519, 528-36, 148 USPQ 689, 693-96 (1966); In re Fisher, 421 F.3d 1365, 76 USPQ2d 1225 (Fed. Cir. 2005); In re Ziegler, 992 F.2d 1197, 1200-03, 26 USPQ2d 1600, 1603-06 (Fed. Cir. 1993)).
USPTO personnel should review the application to identify any asserted use. The applicant is in the best position to explain why an invention is believed useful. Accordingly, a complete disclosure should contain some indication of the practical application for the claimed invention, i.e., why the applicant believes the claimed invention is useful. Such a statement will usually explain the purpose of the invention or how the invention may be used (e.g., a compound is believed to be useful in the treatment of a particular disorder). Regardless of the form of statement of utility, it must enable one ordinarily skilled in the art to understand why the applicant believes the claimed invention is useful. See MPEP § 2107 for utility examination guidelines. An applicant may assert more than one utility and practical application, but only one is necessary.
B. Review the Detailed Disclosure and Specific Embodiments of the Invention To Understand What the Applicant Has Invented
The written description will provide the clearest explanation of the applicant's invention, by exemplifying the invention, explaining how it relates to the prior art and explaining the relative significance of various features of the invention. Accordingly, USPTO personnel should continue their evaluation by
(A) determining the function of the invention, that is, what the invention does when used as disclosed (e.g., the functionality of the programmed computer) (Arrhythmia, 958 F.2d at 1057, 22 *>USPQ2d< at 1036, "It is of course true that a modern digital computer manipulates data, usually in binary form, by performing mathematical operations, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, or bit shifting, on the data. But this is only how the computer does what it does. Of importance is the significance of the data and their manipulation in the real world, i.e., what the computer is doing."); and
(B) determining the features necessary to accomplish at least one asserted practical application.
Patent applicants can assist the USPTO by preparing applications that clearly set forth these aspects of an invention.
C. Review the Claims
The claims define the property rights provided by a patent, and thus require careful scrutiny. The goal of claim analysis is to identify the boundaries of the protection sought by the applicant and to understand how the claims relate to and define what the applicant has indicated is the invention. USPTO personnel must first determine the scope of a claim by thoroughly analyzing the language of the claim before determining if the claim complies with each statutory requirement for patentability. See In re Hiniker Co., 150 F.3d 1362, 1369, 47 USPQ2d 1523, 1529 (Fed. Cir. 1998) ("[T]he name of the game is the claim.").
USPTO personnel should begin claim analysis by identifying and evaluating each claim limitation. For processes, the claim limitations will define steps or acts to be performed. For products, the claim limitations will define discrete physical structures or materials. Product claims are claims that are directed to either machines, manufactures or compositions of matter.
USPTO personnel are to correlate each claim limitation to all portions of the disclosure that describe the claim limitation. This is to be done in all cases, regardless of whether the claimed invention is defined using means or step plus function language. The correlation step will ensure that USPTO personnel correctly interpret each claim limitation.
The subject matter of a properly construed claim is defined by the terms that limit its scope. It is this subject matter that must be examined. As a general matter, the grammar and intended meaning of terms used in a claim will dictate whether the language limits the claim scope. Language that suggests or makes optional but does not require steps to be performed or does not limit a claim to a particular structure does not limit the scope of a claim or claim limitation. The following are examples of language that may raise a question as to the limiting effect of the language in a claim:
(A) statements of intended use or field of use,
(B) "adapted to" or "adapted for" clauses,
(C) "wherein" clauses, or
(D) "whereby" clauses.
This list of examples is not intended to be exhaustive. See also MPEP § 2111.04.
USPTO personnel are to give claims their broadest reasonable interpretation in light of the supporting disclosure. In re Morris, 127 F.3d 1048, 1054-55, 44 USPQ2d 1023, 1027-28 (Fed. Cir. 1997). Limitations appearing in the specification but not recited in the claim should not be read into the claim. E-Pass Techs., Inc. v. 3Com Corp., 343 F.3d 1364, 1369, 67 USPQ2d 1947, 1950 (Fed. Cir. 2003) (claims must be interpreted "in view of the specification" without importing limitations from the specification into the claims unnecessarily). In re Prater, 415 F.2d 1393, 1404-05, 162 USPQ 541, 550-551 (CCPA 1969). See also In re Zletz, 893 F.2d 319, 321-22, 13 USPQ2d 1320, 1322 (Fed. Cir. 1989) ("During patent examination the pending claims must be interpreted as broadly as their terms reasonably allow.... The reason is simply that during patent prosecution when claims can be amended, ambiguities should be recognized, scope and breadth of language explored, and clarification imposed.... An essential purpose of patent examination is to fashion claims that are precise, clear, correct, and unambiguous. Only in this way can uncertainties of claim scope be removed, as much as possible, during the administrative process.").
Where an explicit definition is provided by the applicant for a term, that definition will control interpretation of the term as it is used in the claim. Toro Co. v. White Consolidated Industries Inc., 199 F.3d 1295, 1301, 53 USPQ2d 1065, 1069 (Fed. Cir. 1999) (meaning of words used in a claim is not construed in a "lexicographic vacuum, but in the context of the specification and drawings."). Any special meaning assigned to a term "must be sufficiently clear in the specification that any departure from common usage would be so understood by a person of experience in the field of the invention." Multiform Desiccants Inc. v. Medzam Ltd., 133 F.3d 1473, 1477, 45 USPQ2d 1429, 1432 (Fed. Cir. 1998). See also MPEP § 2111.01.
If the applicant asserts that a term has a meaning that conflicts with the term's art-accepted meaning, USPTO personnel should encourage the applicant to amend the claim to better reflect what applicant intends to claim as the invention. If the application becomes a patent, it becomes prior art against subsequent applications. Therefore, it is important for later search purposes to have the patentee employ commonly accepted terminology, particularly for searching text-searchable databases.
USPTO personnel must always remember to use the perspective of one of ordinary skill in the art. Claims and disclosures are not to be evaluated in a vacuum. If elements of an invention are well known in the art, the applicant does not have to provide a disclosure that describes those elements.
Where means plus function language is used to define the characteristics of a machine or manufacture invention, such language must be interpreted to read on only the structures or materials disclosed in the specification and "equivalents thereof" that correspond to the recited function. Two en banc decisions of the Federal Circuit have made clear that the USPTO is to interpret means plus function language according to 35 U.S.C. § 112, sixth paragraph. In re Donaldson, 16 F.3d 1189, 1193, 29 USPQ2d 1845, 1848 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (en banc); In re Alappat, 33 F.3d 1526, 1540, 31 USPQ2d 1545, 1554 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (en banc).
Disclosure may be express, implicit, or inherent. Thus, at the outset, USPTO personnel must attempt to correlate claimed means to elements set forth in the written description that perform the recited step or function. The written description includes the original specification and the drawings and USPTO personnel are to give the claimed means plus function limitations their broadest reasonable interpretation consistent with all corresponding structures or materials described in the specification and their equivalents including the manner in which the claimed functions are performed. See Kemco Sales, Inc. v. Control Papers Company, Inc., 208 F.3d 1352, 54 USPQ2d 1308 (Fed. Cir. 2000). Further guidance in interpreting the scope of equivalents is provided in MPEP § 2181 through § 2186.
While it is appropriate to use the specification to determine what applicant intends a term to mean, a positive limitation from the specification cannot be read into a claim that does not itself impose that limitation. A broad interpretation of a claim by USPTO personnel will reduce the possibility that the claim, when issued, will be interpreted more broadly than is justified or intended. An applicant can always amend a claim during prosecution to better reflect the intended scope of the claim.
Finally, when evaluating the scope of a claim, every limitation in the claim must be considered. USPTO personnel may not dissect a claimed invention into discrete elements and then evaluate the elements in isolation. Instead, the claim as a whole must be considered. See, e.g., Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 188-89, 209 USPQ 1, 9 (1981) ("In determining the eligibility of respondents' claimed process for patent protection under § 101, their claims must be considered as a whole. It is inappropriate to dissect the claims into old and new elements and then to ignore the presence of the old elements in the analysis. This is particularly true in a process claim because a new combination of steps in a process may be patentable even though all the constituents of the combination were well known and in common use before the combination was made.").
III. CONDUCT A THOROUGH SEARCH OF THE PRIOR ART
Prior to evaluating the claimed invention under 35 U.S.C. 101, USPTO personnel are expected to conduct a thorough search of the prior art. Generally, a thorough search involves reviewing both U.S. and foreign patents and nonpatent literature. In many cases, the result of such a search will contribute to USPTO personnel's understanding of the invention. Both claimed and unclaimed aspects of the invention described in the specification should be searched if there is a reasonable expectation that the unclaimed aspects may be later claimed. A search must take into account any structure or material described in the specification and its equivalents which correspond to the claimed means plus function limitation, in accordance with 35 U.S.C. 112, sixth paragraph and MPEP § 2181 through § 2186.
IV. DETERMINE WHETHER THE CLAIMED INVENTION COMPLIES WITH 35 U.S.C. 101
A. Consider the Breadth of 35 U.S.C. 101 Under Controlling Law
Section 101 of title 35, United States Code, provides:
Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.
As the Supreme Court has recognized, Congress chose the expansive language of 35 U.S.C. 101 so as to include "anything under the sun that is made by man" as statutory subject matter. Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 308-09, 206 USPQ 193, 197 (1980). In Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 308-309, 206 USPQ at 197, the court stated:
In choosing such expansive terms as "manufacture" and "composition of matter," modified by the comprehensive "any," Congress plainly contemplated that the patent laws would be given wide scope. The relevant legislative history also supports a broad construction. The Patent Act of 1793, authored by Thomas Jefferson, defined statutory subject matter as "any new and useful art, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new or useful improvement [thereof]." Act of Feb. 21, 1793, ch. 11, § 1, 1 Stat. 318. The Act embodied Jefferson's philosophy that "ingenuity should receive a liberal encouragement." V Writings of Thomas Jefferson, at 75-76. See Graham v. John Deere Co., 383 U.S. 1, 7-10 (148 USPQ 459, 462-464) (1966). Subsequent patent statutes in 1836, 1870, and 1874 employed this same broad language. In 1952, when the patent laws were recodified, Congress replaced the word "art" with "process," but otherwise left Jefferson's language intact. The Committee Reports accompanying the 1952 Act inform us that Congress intended statutory subject matter to "include anything under the sun that is made by man." S. Rep. No. 1979, 82d Cong., 2d Sess., 5 (1952); H.R. Rep. No. 1923, 82d Cong., 2d Sess., 6 (1952). [Footnote omitted]
This perspective has been embraced by the Federal Circuit:
The plain and unambiguous meaning of section 101 is that any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may be patented if it meets the requirements for patentability set forth in Title 35, such as those found in sections 102, 103, and 112. The use of the expansive term "any" in section 101 represents Congress's intent not to place any restrictions on the subject matter for which a patent may be obtained beyond those specifically recited in section 101 and the other parts of Title 35.... Thus, it is improper to read into section 101 limitations as to the subject matter that may be patented where the legislative history does not indicate that Congress clearly intended such limitations.
Alappat, 33 F.3d at 1542, 31 USPQ2d at 1556.
35 U.S.C. 101 defines four categories of inventions that Congress deemed to be the appropriate subject matter of a patent: processes, machines, manufactures and compositions of matter. The latter three categories define "things" or "products" while the first category defines "actions" (i.e., inventions that consist of a series of steps or acts to be performed). See 35 U.S.C. 100(b) ("The term 'process' means process, art, or method, and includes a new use of a known process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or material.").
Federal courts have held that 35 U.S.C. 101 does have certain limits. First, the phrase "anything under the sun that is made by man" is limited by the text of 35 U.S.C. 101, meaning that one may only patent something that is a machine, manufacture, composition of matter or a process. See, e.g., Alappat, 33 F.3d at 1542, 31 USPQ2d at 1556; >In re< Warmerdam, 33 F.3d *>1354,< 1358, 31 USPQ2d *>1754,< 1757 (Fed. Cir. 1994). Second, 35 U.S.C. 101 requires that the subject matter sought to be patented be a new and useful" invention. Accordingly, a complete definition of the scope of 35 U.S.C. 101, reflecting Congressional intent, is that any new and useful process, machine, manufacture or composition of matter under the sun that is made by man is the proper subject matter of a patent.
The subject matter courts have found to be outside of, or exceptions to, the four statutory categories of invention is limited to abstract ideas, laws of nature and natural phenomena. While this is easily stated, determining whether an applicant is seeking to patent an abstract idea, a law of nature or a natural phenomenon has proven to be challenging. These three exclusions recognize that subject matter that is not a practical application or use of an idea, a law of nature or a natural phenomenon is not patentable. See, e.g., Rubber-Tip Pencil Co. v. Howard, 87 U.S. (20 Wall.) 498, 507 (1874) ("idea of itself is not patentable, but a new device by which it may be made practically useful is"); Mackay Radio & Telegraph Co. v. Radio Corp. of America, 306 U.S. 86, 94, 40 USPQ 199, 202 (1939) ("While a scientific truth, or the mathematical expression of it, is not patentable invention, a novel and useful structure created with the aid of knowledge of scientific truth may be."); Warmerdam, 33 F.3d at 1360, 31 USPQ2d at 1759 ("steps of 'locating' a medial axis, and 'creating' a bubble hierarchy. .. describe nothing more than the manipulation of basic mathematical constructs, the paradigmatic 'abstract idea'").
The courts have also held that a claim may not preempt ideas, laws of nature or natural phenomena. The concern over preemption was expressed as early as 1852. See Le Roy v. Tatham, 55 U.S. 156, 175 (1852) ("A principle, in the abstract, is a fundamental truth; an original cause; a motive; these cannot be patented, as no one can claim in either of them an exclusive right."); Funk Brothers Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., 333 U.S. 127, 132, 76 USPQ 280, 282 (1948) (combination of six species of bacteria held to be nonstatutory subject matter).
Accordingly, one may not patent every "substantial practical application" of an idea, law of nature or natural phenomena because such a patent would "in practical effect be a patent on the [idea, law of nature or natural phenomena] itself." Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 71-72, 175 USPQ 673, 676 (1972).
B. Determine Whether the Claimed Invention Falls Within An Enumerated Statutory Category
To properly determine whether a claimed invention complies with the statutory invention requirements of 35 U.S.C. 101, USPTO personnel must first identify whether the claim falls within at least one of the four enumerated categories of patentable subject matter recited in section 101 (i.e., process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter).
In many instances it is clear within which of the enumerated categories a claimed invention falls. Even if the characterization of the claimed invention is not clear, this is usually not an issue that will preclude making an accurate and correct assessment with respect to the section 101 analysis. The scope of 35 U.S.C. 101 is the same regardless of the form or category of invention in which a particular claim is drafted. AT&T, 172 F.3d at 1357, 50 USPQ2d at 1451. See also State Street, 149 F.3d at 1375, 47 USPQ2d at 1602 wherein the Federal Circuit explained:
The question of whether a claim encompasses statutory subject matter should not focus on which of the four categories of subject matter a claim is directed to -- process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter -- [provided the subject matter falls into at least one category of statutory subject matter] but rather on the essential characteristics of the subject matter, in particular, its practical utility.
For example, a claimed invention may be a combination of devices that appear to be directed to a machine and one or more steps of the functions performed by the machine. Such instances of mixed attributes, although potentially confusing as to which category of patentable subject matter the claim belongs, does not affect the analysis to be performed by USPTO personnel. Note that an apparatus claim with process steps is not classified as a "hybrid" claim; instead, it is simply an apparatus claim including functional limitations. See, e.g., R.A.C.C. Indus. v. Stun-Tech, Inc., 178 F.3d 1309 (Fed. Cir. 1998) (unpublished).
The burden is on the USPTO to set forth a prima facie case of unpatentability. Therefore if USPTO personnel determine that it is more likely than not that the claimed subject matter falls outside all of the statutory categories, they must provide an explanation. For example, a claim reciting only a musical composition, literary work, compilation of data, >signal,< or legal document (e.g., an insurance policy) per se does not appear to be a process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter. >See, e.g., In re Nuitjen, Docket no. 2006-1371 (Fed. Cir. Sept. 20, 2007)(slip. op. at 18)("A transitory, propagating signal like Nuitjen's is not a 'process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter.'. Thus, such a signal cannot be patentable subject matter.").< If USPTO personnel can establish a prima facie case that a claim does not fall into a statutory category, the patentability analysis does not end there. USPTO personnel must further continue with the statutory subject matter analysis as set forth below. Also, USPTO personnel must still examine the claims for compliance with 35 U.S.C. 102, 103, and 112.
If the invention as set forth in the written description is statutory, but the claims define subject matter that is not, the deficiency can be corrected by an appropriate amendment of the claims. In such a case, USPTO personnel should reject the claims drawn to nonstatutory subject matter under 35 U.S.C. 101, but identify the features of the invention that would render the claimed subject matter statutory if recited in the claim.
C. Determine Whether the Claimed Invention Falls Within 35 U.S.C. 101 Judicial Exceptions - Laws of Nature, Natural Phenomena and Abstract Ideas
Determining whether the claim falls within one of the four enumerated categories of patentable subject matter recited in 35 U.S.C. 101 (i.e., process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter) does not end the analysis because claims directed to nothing more than abstract ideas (such as mathematical algorithms), natural phenomena, and laws of nature are not eligible for patent protection. Diehr, 450 U.S. at 185, 209 USPQ at 7; accord, e.g., Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 309, 206 USPQ at 197; Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 589, 198 USPQ 193, 197 (1978); Benson, 409 U.S. at 67-68, 175 USPQ at 675; Funk, 333 U.S. at 130, 76 USPQ at 281. "A principle, in the abstract, is a fundamental truth; an original cause; a motive; these cannot be patented, as no one can claim in either of them an exclusive right." Le Roy, 55 U.S. (14 How.) at 175. Instead, such "manifestations of laws of nature" are "part of the storehouse of knowledge," "free to all men and reserved exclusively to none." Funk, 333 U.S. at 130, 76 USPQ at 281.
Thus, "a new mineral discovered in the earth or a new plant found in the wild is not patentable subject matter" under Section 101. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 309, 206 USPQ at 197. "Likewise, Einstein could not patent his celebrated law that E=mc2; nor could Newton have patented the law of gravity." Ibid. Nor can one patent "a novel and useful mathematical formula," Flook, 437 U.S. at 585, 198 USPQ at 195; electromagnetism or steam power, O'Reilly v. Morse, 56 U.S. (15 How.) 62, 113-114 (1853); or "[t]he qualities of * * * bacteria, * * * the heat of the sun, electricity, or the qualities of metals," Funk, 333 U.S. at 130, 76 USPQ at 281; see Le Roy, 55 U.S. (14 How.) at 175.
While abstract ideas, natural phenomena, and laws of nature are not eligible for patenting, methods and products employing abstract ideas, natural phenomena, and laws of nature to perform a real-world function may well be. In evaluating whether a claim meets the requirements of section 101, the claim must be considered as a whole to determine whether it is for a particular application of an abstract idea, natural phenomenon, or law of nature, and not for the abstract idea, natural phenomenon, or law of nature itself.
1. Determine Whether the Claimed Invention Covers Either a 35 U.S.C. 101 Judicial Exception or a Practical Application of a 35 U.S.C. 101 Judicial Exception
USPTO personnel must ascertain the scope of the claim to determine whether it covers either a 35 U.S.C. 101 judicial exception or a practical application of a 35 U.S.C. 101 judicial exception. The conclusion that a particular claim includes a 35 U.S.C. 101 judicial exception does not end the inquiry because the practical application of a judicial exception may qualify for patent protection. "It is now commonplace that an application of a law of nature or mathematical formula to a known structure or process may well be deserving of patent protection." Diehr, 450 U.S. at 187, 209 USPQ at 8 (emphasis in original); accord Flook, 437 U.S. at 590, 198 USPQ at 197; Benson, 409 U.S. at 67, 175 USPQ at 675. Thus, "[w]hile a scientific truth, or the mathematical expression of it, is not a patentable invention, a novel and useful structure created with the aid of knowledge of scientific truth may be." Diehr, 450 U.S. at 188, 209 USPQ at 8-9 (quoting Mackay, 306 U.S. at 94); see also Corning v. Burden, 56 U.S. (15 How.) 252, 268, 14 L.Ed. 683 (1854)("It is for the discovery or invention of some practical method or means of producing a beneficial result or effect, that a patent is granted. . .").
2. Determine Whether the Claimed Invention is a Practical Application of an Abstract Idea, Law of Nature, or Natural Phenomenon (35 U.S.C. 101 Judicial Exceptions)
For claims including such excluded subject matter to be eligible for patent protection, the claim must be for a practical application of the abstract idea, law of nature, or natural phenomenon. Diehr, 450 U.S. at 187, 209 USPQ at 8 ("application of a law of nature or mathematical formula to a known structure or process may well be deserving of patent protection."); Benson, 409 U.S. at 71, 175 USPQ at 676 (rejecting formula claim because it "has no substantial practical application").
A claimed invention is directed to a practical application of a 35 U.S.C. 101 judicial exception when it:
(A) "transforms" an article or physical object to a different state or thing; or
(B) otherwise produces a useful, concrete and tangible result, based on the factors discussed below.
(1) Practical Application by Physical Transformation
USPTO personnel first shall review the claim and determine if it provides a transformation or reduction of an article to a different state or thing. If USPTO personnel find such a transformation or reduction, USPTO personnel shall end the inquiry and find that the claim meets the statutory requirement of 35 U.S.C. 101. If USPTO personnel do not find such a transformation or reduction, they must determine whether the claimed invention produces a useful, concrete, and tangible result.
(2) Practical Application That Produces a Useful, Concrete, and Tangible Result
For purposes of an eligibility analysis, a physical transformation "is not an invariable requirement, but merely one example of how a mathematical algorithm [or law of nature] may bring about a useful application." AT&T, 172 F.3d at 1358-59, 50 USPQ2d at 1452. If USPTO personnel determine that the claim does not entail the transformation of an article, then USPTO personnel shall review the claim to determine it produces a useful, tangible, and concrete result. In making this determination, the focus is not on whether the steps taken to achieve a particular result are useful, tangible, and concrete, but rather on whether the final result achieved by the claimed invention is "useful, tangible, and concrete." In other words, the claim must be examined to see if it includes anything more than a 35 U.S.C. 101 judicial exception. If the claim is directed to a practical application of a 35 U.S.C. 101 judicial exception, USPTO personnel must then determine whether the claim preempts the judicial exception. If USPTO personnel do not find such a practical application, then USPTO personnel have determined that the claim is nonstatutory.
In determining whether a claim provides a practical application of a 35 U.S.C. 101 judicial exception that produces a useful, tangible, and concrete result, USPTO personnel should consider and weigh the following factors:
For an invention to be "useful" it must satisfy the utility requirement of section 101. The USPTO's official interpretation of the utility requirement provides that the utility of an invention has to be (i) specific, (ii) substantial and (iii) credible. MPEP § 2107 and Fisher, 421 F.3d at 1372, 76 USPQ2d at 1230 (citing the Utility Guidelines with approval for interpretation of "specific" and "substantial"). In addition, when the examiner has reason to believe that the claim is not for a practical application that produces a useful result, the claim should be rejected, thus requiring the applicant to distinguish the claim from the three 35 U.S.C. 101 judicial exceptions to patentable subject matter by specifically reciting in the claim the practical application. In such cases, statements in the specification describing a practical application may not be sufficient to satisfy the requirements for section 101 with respect to the claimed invention. Likewise, a claim that can be read so broadly as to include statutory and nonstatutory subject matter must be amended to limit the claim to a practical application. In other words, if the specification discloses a practical application of a section 101 judicial exception, but the claim is broader than the disclosure such that it does not require a practical application, then the claim must be rejected.
The tangible requirement does not necessarily mean that a claim must either be tied to a particular machine or apparatus or must operate to change articles or materials to a different state or thing. However, the tangible requirement does require that the claim must recite more than a 35 U.S.C. 101 judicial exception, in that the process claim must set forth a practical application of that judicial exception to produce a real-world result. Benson, 409 U.S. at 71-72, 175 USPQ at 676-77 (invention ineligible because had "no substantial practical application."). "[A]n application of a law of nature or mathematical formula to a. process may well be deserving of patent protection." Diehr, 450 U.S. at 187, 209 USPQ at 8 (emphasis added); see also Corning, 56 U.S. (15 How.) at 268, 14 L.Ed. 683 ("It is for the discovery or invention of some practical method or means of producing a beneficial result or effect, that a patent is granted. . ."). In other words, the opposite meaning of "tangible" is "abstract."
Another consideration is whether the invention produces a "concrete" result. Usually, this question arises when a result cannot be assured. In other words, the process must have a result that can be substantially repeatable or the process must substantially produce the same result again. In re Swartz, 232 F.3d 862, 864, 56 USPQ2d 1703, 1704 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (where asserted result produced by the claimed invention is "irreproducible" claim should be rejected under section 101). The opposite of "concrete" is unrepeatable or unpredictable. Resolving this question is dependent on the level of skill in the art. For example, if the claimed invention is for a process which requires a particular skill, to determine whether that process is substantially repeatable will necessarily require a determination of the level of skill of the ordinary artisan in that field. An appropriate rejection under 35 U.S.C. 101 should be accompanied by a lack of enablement rejection under 35 U.S.C. 112, paragraph 1, where the invention cannot operate as intended without undue experimentation. See infra.
3. Determine Whether the Claimed Invention Preempts a 35 U.S.C. 101 Judicial Exception (Abstract Idea, Law of Nature, or Natural Phenomenon)
Even when a claim applies a mathematical formula, for example, as part of a seemingly patentable process, USPTO personnel must ensure that it does not in reality "seek patent protection for that formula in the abstract." Diehr, 450 U.S. at 191, 209 USPQ at 10. "Phenomena of nature, though just discovered, mental processes, abstract intellectual concepts are not patentable, as they are the basic tools of scientific and technological work." Benson, 409 U.S. at 67, 175 USPQ at 675. One may not patent a process that comprises every "substantial practical application" of an abstract idea, because such a patent "in practical effect would be a patent on the [abstract idea] itself." Benson, 409 U.S. at 71-72, 175 USPQ at 676; cf. Diehr, 450 U.S. at 187, 209 USPQ at 8 (stressing that the patent applicants in that case did "not seek to pre-empt the use of [an] equation," but instead sought only to "foreclose from others the use of that equation in conjunction with all of the other steps in their claimed process"). "To hold otherwise would allow a competent draftsman to evade the recognized limitations on the type of subject matter eligible for patent protection." Diehr, 450 U.S. at 192, 209 USPQ at 10. Thus, a claim that recites a computer that solely calculates a mathematical formula (see Benson) or a computer disk that solely stores a mathematical formula is not directed to the type of subject matter eligible for patent protection. If USPTO personnel determine that the claimed invention preempts a 35 U.S.C. 101 judicial exception, they must identify the abstraction, law of nature, or natural phenomenon and explain why the claim covers every substantial practical application thereof.
D. Establish on the Record a Prima Facie Case
USPTO personnel should review the totality of the evidence (e.g., the specification, claims, relevant prior art) before reaching a conclusion with regard to whether the claimed invention sets forth patent eligible subject matter. USPTO personnel must weigh the determinations made above to reach a conclusion as to whether it is more likely than not that the claimed invention as a whole either falls outside of one of the enumerated statutory classes or within one of the exceptions to statutory subject matter. "The examiner bears the initial burden. of presenting a prima facie case of unpatentability." In re Oetiker, 977 F.2d 1443, 1445, 24 USPQ2d 1443, 1444 (Fed. Cir. 1992). If the record as a whole suggests that it is more likely than not that the claimed invention would be considered a practical application of an abstract idea, natural phenomenon, or law of nature, then USPTO personnel should not reject the claim.
After USPTO personnel identify and explain in the record the reasons why a claim is for an abstract idea with no practical application, then the burden shifts to the applicant to either amend the claim or make a showing of why the claim is eligible for patent protection. See, e.g., In re Brana, 51 F.3d 1560, 1566, 34 USPQ2d 1436, 1441 (Fed. Cir. 1995); see generally MPEP § 2107 (Utility Guidelines).
For further discussion of case law defining the line between eligible and ineligible subject matter, as well as a summary of improper tests for subject matter eligibility, see Annex II and Annex III of Interim Guidelines for Examination of Patent Applications for Patent Subject Matter Eligibility, 1300 Off. Gaz. Pat. Office 142 (Nov. 22, 2005)(Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Interim Guidelines).
V. EVALUATE APPLICATION FOR COMPLIANCE WITH 35 U.S.C. 112
A. Determine Whether the Claimed Invention Complies with 35 U.S.C. 112, Second Paragraph Requirements (MPEP § 2171)
The second paragraph of 35 U.S.C. 112 contains two separate and distinct requirements: (A) that the claim(s) set forth the subject matter applicants regard as the invention, and (B) that the claim(s) particularly point out and distinctly claim the invention.
An application will be deficient under the first requirement of 35 U.S.C. 112, second paragraph when evidence including admissions, other than in the application as filed, shows that an applicant has stated what he or she regards the invention to be different from what is claimed (see MPEP § 2171- § 2172.01).
An application fails to comply with the second requirement of 35 U.S.C. 112, second paragraph when the claims do not set out and define the invention with a reasonable degree of precision and particularity. In this regard, the definiteness of the language must be analyzed, not in a vacuum, but always in light of the teachings of the disclosure as it would be interpreted by one of ordinary skill in the art. Applicant's claims, interpreted in light of the disclosure, must reasonably apprise a person of ordinary skill in the art of the invention.
The scope of a "means" limitation is defined as the corresponding structure or material set forth in the written description and equivalents thereof. See MPEP § 2181 through § 2186. See MPEP § 2173 et seq. for a discussion of a variety of issues pertaining to the 35 U.S.C. 112, second paragraph requirement that the claims particularly point out and distinctly claim the invention.
B. Determine Whether the Claimed Invention Complies with 35 U.S.C. 112, First Paragraph Requirements
The first paragraph of 35 U.S.C. 112 contains three separate and distinct requirements:
(A) adequate written description,
(B) enablement, and
(C) best mode.
1. Adequate Written Description
For the written description requirement, an applicant's specification must reasonably convey to those skilled in the art that the applicant was in possession of the claimed invention as of the date of invention. Regents of the University of California v. Eli Lilly & Co., 119 F.3d 1559, 1566-67, 43 USPQ2d 1398, 1404-05 (Fed. Cir. 1997); Hyatt v. Boone, 146 F.3d 1348, 1354, 47 USPQ2d 1128, 1132 (Fed. Cir. 1998). The claimed invention subject matter need not be described literally, i.e., using the same terms, in order for the disclosure to satisfy the description requirement. Software aspects of inventions, for example, may be described functionally. See Robotic Vision Sys. v. View Eng'g, Inc., 112 F.3d 1163, 1166, 42 USPQ2d 1619, 1622-23 (Fed. Cir. 1997); Fonar Corp. v. General Electric Co., 107 F.3d 1543, 1549, 41 USPQ2d 1801, 1805 (Fed. Cir. 1997); In re Hayes Microcomputer Prods., Inc., 982 F.2d 1527, 1537-38, 25 USPQ2d 1241, 1248-49 (Fed. Cir. 1992). See MPEP § 2163 for further guidance with respect to the evaluation of a patent application for compliance with the written description requirement.
2. Enabling Disclosure
An applicant's specification must enable a person skilled in the art to make and use the claimed invention without undue experimentation. The fact that experimentation is complex, however, will not make it undue if a person of skill in the art typically engages in such complex experimentation.
3. Best Mode (MPEP § 2165)
Determining compliance with the best mode requirement requires a two-prong inquiry:
(1) at the time the application was filed, did the inventor possess a best mode for practicing the invention; and
(2) if the inventor did possess a best mode, does the written description disclose the best mode such that a person skilled in the art could practice it.
See MPEP § 2165 et seq. for additional guidance. Deficiencies related to disclosure of the best mode for carrying out the claimed invention are not usually encountered during examination of an application because evidence to support such a deficiency is seldom in the record. Fonar, 107 F.3d at 1548-49, 41 USPQ2d at 1804-05.
VI. DETERMINE WHETHER THE CLAIMED INVENTION COMPLIES WITH 35 U.S.C. 102 AND 103
Reviewing a claimed invention for compliance with 35 U.S.C. 102 and 103 begins with a comparison of the claimed subject matter to what is known in the prior art. See MPEP § 2131 - § 2146 for specific guidance on patentability determinations under 35 U.S.C. § 102 and 103. If no differences are found between the claimed invention and the prior art, then the claimed invention lacks novelty and is to be rejected by USPTO personnel under 35 U.S.C. 102. Once differences are identified between the claimed invention and the prior art, those differences must be assessed and resolved in light of the knowledge possessed by a person of ordinary skill in the art. Against this backdrop, one must determine whether the invention would have been obvious at the time the invention was made. If not, the claimed invention satisfies 35 U.S.C. 103.
VII. CLEARLY COMMUNICATE FINDINGS, CONCLUSIONS AND THEIR BASES
Once USPTO personnel have concluded the above analyses of the claimed invention under all the statutory provisions, including 35 U.S.C. 101, 112, 102 and 103, they should review all the proposed rejections and their bases to confirm that they are able to set forth a prima facie case of unpatentability. Only then should any rejection be imposed in an Office action. The Office action should clearly communicate the findings, conclusions and reasons which support them.