MPEP 2106.04(a)(2)
Abstract Idea Groupings

Ninth Edition of the MPEP, Revision 10.2019, Last Revised in June 2020

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2106.04(a)(2)    Abstract Idea Groupings [R-10.2019]

I.    MATHEMATICAL CONCEPTS

The mathematical concepts grouping is defined as mathematical relationships, mathematical formulas or equations, and mathematical calculations. The Supreme Court has identified a number of concepts falling within this grouping as abstract ideas including: a procedure for converting binary-coded decimal numerals into pure binary form, Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 65, 175 USPQ2d 673, 674 (1972); a mathematical formula for calculating an alarm limit, Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 588-89, 198 USPQ2d 193, 195 (1978); the Arrhenius equation, Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 191, 209 USPQ 1, 15 (1981); and a mathematical formula for hedging, Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 611, 95 USPQ 2d 1001, 1004 (2010).

The Court’s rationale for identifying these "mathematical concepts" as judicial exceptions is that a ‘‘mathematical formula as such is not accorded the protection of our patent laws,’’ Diehr, 450 U.S. at 191, 209 USPQ at 15 (citing Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 175 USPQ 673), and thus ‘‘the discovery of [a mathematical formula] cannot support a patent unless there is some other inventive concept in its application.’’ Flook, 437 U.S. at 594, 198 USPQ at 199. In the past, the Supreme Court sometimes described mathematical concepts as laws of nature, and at other times described these concepts as judicial exceptions without specifying a particular type of exception. See, e.g., Benson, 409 U.S. at 65, 175 USPQ2d at 674; Flook, 437 U.S. at 589, 198 USPQ2d at 197; Mackay Radio & Telegraph Co. v. Radio Corp. of Am., 306 U.S. 86, 94, 40 USPQ 199, 202 (1939) (‘‘[A] scientific truth, or the mathematical expression of it, is not patentable invention[.]’’). More recent opinions of the Supreme Court, however, have affirmatively characterized mathematical relationships and formulas as abstract ideas. See, e.g., Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 573 U.S. 208, 218, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1981 (describing Flook as holding "that a mathematical formula for computing ‘alarm limits’ in a catalytic conversion process was also a patent-ineligible abstract idea."); Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 611-12, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1010 (noting that the claimed "concept of hedging, described in claim 1 and reduced to a mathematical formula in claim 4, is an unpatentable abstract idea,").

When determining whether a claim recites a mathematical concept (i.e., mathematical relationships, mathematical formulas or equations, and mathematical calculations), examiners should consider whether the claim recites a mathematical concept or merely limitations that are based on or involve a mathematical concept. A claim does not recite a mathematical concept (i.e., the claim limitations do not fall within the mathematical concept grouping), if it is only based on or involves a mathematical concept. See, e.g., Thales Visionix, Inc. v. United States, 850 F.3d 1343, 1348-49, 121 USPQ2d 1898, 1902-03 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (determining that the claims to a particular configuration of inertial sensors and a particular method of using the raw data from the sensors in order to more accurately calculate the position and orientation of an object on a moving platform did not merely recite "the abstract idea of using ‘mathematical equations for determining the relative position of a moving object to a moving reference frame’."). For example, a limitation that is merely based on or involves a mathematical concept described in the specification may not be sufficient to fall into this grouping, provided the mathematical concept itself is not recited in the claim.

It is important to note that a mathematical concept need not be expressed in mathematical symbols, because "[w]ords used in a claim operating on data to solve a problem can serve the same purpose as a formula." In re Grams, 888 F.2d 835, 837 and n.1, 12 USPQ2d 1824, 1826 and n.1 (Fed. Cir. 1989). See, e.g., SAP America, Inc. v. InvestPic, LLC, 898 F.3d 1161, 1163, 127 USPQ2d 1597, 1599 (Fed. Cir. 2018) (holding that claims to a ‘‘series of mathematical calculations based on selected information’’ are directed to abstract ideas); Digitech Image Techs., LLC v. Elecs. for Imaging, Inc., 758 F.3d 1344, 1350, 111 USPQ2d 1717, 1721 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (holding that claims to a ‘‘process of organizing information through mathematical correlations’’ are directed to an abstract idea); and Bancorp Servs., LLC v. Sun Life Assurance Co. of Can. (U.S.), 687 F.3d 1266, 1280, 103 USPQ2d 1425, 1434 (Fed. Cir. 2012) (identifying the concept of ‘‘managing a stable value protected life insurance policy by performing calculations and manipulating the results’’ as an abstract idea).

A.    Mathematical Relationships

A mathematical relationship is a relationship between variables or numbers. A mathematical relationship may be expressed in words or using mathematical symbols. For example, pressure (p) can be described as the ratio between the magnitude of the normal force (F) and area of the surface on contact (A), or it can be set forth in the form of an equation such as p = F/A.

Examples of mathematical relationships recited in a claim include:

  • i. a relationship between reaction rate and temperature, which relationship can be expressed in the form of a formula called the Arrhenius equation, Diamond v. Diehr; 450 U.S. at 178 n. 2, 179 n.5, 191-92, 209 USPQ at 4-5 (1981);
  • ii. a conversion between binary coded decimal and pure binary, Benson, 409 U.S. at 64, 175 USPQ at 674;
  • iii. a mathematical relationship between enhanced directional radio activity and antenna conductor arrangement (i.e., the length of the conductors with respect to the operating wave length and the angle between the conductors), Mackay Radio & Tel. Co. v. Radio Corp. of America, 306 U.S. 86, 91, 40 USPQ 199, 201 (1939) (while the litigated claims 15 and 16 of U.S. Patent No. 1,974,387 expressed this mathematical relationship using a formula that described the angle between the conductors, other claims in the patent (e.g., claim 1) expressed the mathematical relationship in words); and
  • iv. organizing information and manipulating information through mathematical correlations, Digitech Image Techs., LLC v. Electronics for Imaging, Inc., 758 F.3d 1344, 1350, 111 USPQ2d 1717, 1721 (Fed. Cir. 2014). The patentee in Digitech claimed methods of generating first and second data by taking existing information, manipulating the data using mathematical functions, and organizing this information into a new form. The court explained that such claims were directed to an abstract idea because they described a process of organizing information through mathematical correlations, like Flook's method of calculating using a mathematical formula. 758 F.3d at 1350, 111 USPQ2d at 1721.

B.    Mathematical Formulas or Equations

A claim that recites a numerical formula or equation will be considered as falling within the "mathematical concepts" grouping. In addition, there are instances where a formula or equation is written in text format that should also be considered as falling within this grouping. For example, the phrase "determining a ratio of A to B" is merely using a textual replacement for the particular equation (ratio = A/B). Additionally, the phrase "calculating the force of the object by multiplying its mass by its acceleration" is using a textual replacement for the particular equation (F= ma).

Examples of mathematical equations or formulas recited in a claim include:

  • i. a formula describing certain electromagnetic standing wave phenomena, Mackay Radio & Tel. Co. v. Radio Corp. of America, 306 U.S. 86, 91, 40 USPQ 199, 201 (1939) (50.9(l/lambda<-0.513>);
  • ii. the Arrhenius equation, Diamond v. Diehr; 450 U.S. 175, 178 n. 2, 179 n.5, 191-92, 209 USPQ at 4-5 (1981) (ln v = CZ + x);
  • iii. a formula for computing an alarm limit, Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 585, 198 USPQ 193, 195 (1978) (B1=B0 (1.0–F) + PVL(F)); and
  • iv. a mathematical formula for hedging (claim 4), Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 599, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1004 (2010) (Fixed Bill Price = Fi + [(Ci + Ti + LDi) x (α + βE(Wi))]).

C.   Mathematical calculations

A claim that recites a mathematical calculation, when the claim is given its broadest reasonable interpretation in light of the specification, will be considered as falling within the "mathematical concepts" grouping. A mathematical calculation is a mathematical operation (such as multiplication) or an act of calculating using mathematical methods to determine a variable or number, e.g., performing an arithmetic operation such as exponentiation. There is no particular word or set of words that indicates a claim recites a mathematical calculation. That is, a claim does not have to recite the word "calculating" in order to be considered a mathematical calculation. For example, a step of "determining" a variable or number using mathematical methods or "performing" a mathematical operation may also be considered mathematical calculations when the broadest reasonable interpretation of the claim in light of the specification encompasses a mathematical calculation.

Examples of mathematical calculations recited in a claim include:

  • i. performing a resampled statistical analysis to generate a resampled distribution, SAP America, Inc. v. Investpic, LLC, 898 F.3d 1161, 1163-65, 127 USPQ2d 1597, 1598-1600 (Fed. Cir. 2018), modifying SAP America, Inc. v. Investpic, LLC, 890 F.3d 1016, 126 USPQ2d 1638 (Fed. Cir. 2018);
  • ii. calculating a number representing an alarm limit value using the mathematical formula ‘‘B1=B0 (1.0–F) + PVL(F)’’, Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 585, 198 USPQ 193, 195 (1978);
  • iii. using a formula to convert geospatial coordinates into natural numbers, Burnett v. Panasonic Corp., 741 Fed. Appx. 777, 780 (Fed. Cir. 2018) (non-precedential);
  • iv. managing a stable value protected life insurance policy via performing calculations, Bancorp Servs., LLC v. Sun Life Assur. Co. of Canada (U.S.), 687 F.3d 1266, 1280, 103 USPQ2d 1425, 1434 (Fed. Cir. 2012);
  • v. using an algorithm for determining the optimal number of visits by a business representative to a client, In re Maucorps, 609 F.2d 481, 482, 203 USPQ 812, 813 (CCPA 1979); and
  • vi. calculating the difference between local and average data values, In re Abele, 684 F.2d 902, 903, 214 USPQ 682, 683-84 (CCPA 1982).

II.    CERTAIN METHODS OF ORGANIZING HUMAN ACTIVITY

The phrase "methods of organizing human activity" is used to describe concepts relating to:

  • • fundamental economic principles or practices (including hedging, insurance, mitigating risk);
  • • commercial or legal interactions (including agreements in the form of contracts, legal obligations, advertising, marketing or sales activities or behaviors, and business relations); and
  • • managing personal behavior or relationships or interactions between people, (including social activities, teaching, and following rules or instructions).

The Supreme Court has identified a number of concepts falling within the "certain methods of organizing human activity" grouping as abstract ideas. In particular, in Alice, the Court concluded that the use of a third party to mediate settlement risk is a ‘‘fundamental economic practice’’ and thus an abstract idea. 573 U.S. at 219–20, 110 USPQ2d at 1982. In addition, the Court in Alice described the concept of risk hedging identified as an abstract idea in Bilski as ‘‘a method of organizing human activity’’. Id. Previously, in Bilski, the Court concluded that hedging is a ‘‘fundamental economic practice’’ and therefore an abstract idea. 561 U.S. at 611–612, 95 USPQ2d at 1010.

The term "certain" qualifies the "certain methods of organizing human activity" grouping as a reminder of several important points. First, not all methods of organizing human activity are abstract ideas (e.g., "a defined set of steps for combining particular ingredients to create a drug formulation" is not a certain "method of organizing human activity"), In re Marco Guldenaar Holding B.V., 911 F.3d 1157, 1160-61, 129 USPQ2d 1008, 1011 (Fed. Cir. 2018). Second, this grouping is limited to activity that falls within the enumerated sub-groupings of fundamental economic principles or practices, commercial or legal interactions, and managing personal behavior and relationships or interactions between people, and is not to be expanded beyond these enumerated sub-groupings except in rare circumstances as explained in MPEP § 2106.04(a)(3). Finally, the sub-groupings encompass both activity of a single person (for example, a person following a set of instructions or a person signing a contract online) and activity that involves multiple people (such as a commercial interaction), and thus, certain activity between a person and a computer (for example a method of anonymous loan shopping that a person conducts using a mobile phone) may fall within the "certain methods of organizing human activity" grouping. It is noted that the number of people involved in the activity is not dispositive as to whether a claim limitation falls within this grouping. Instead, the determination should be based on whether the activity itself falls within one of the sub-groupings.

A.    Fundamental Economic Practices or Principles

The courts have used the phrases "fundamental economic practices" or "fundamental economic principles" to describe concepts relating to the economy and commerce. Fundamental economic principles or practices include hedging, insurance, and mitigating risks.

The term "fundamental" is not used in the sense of necessarily being "old" or "well-known." See, e.g., OIP Techs., Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc., 788 F.3d 1359, 1364, 115 U.S.P.Q.2d 1090, 1092 (Fed Cir. 2015) (a new method of price optimization was found to be a fundamental economic concept); In re Smith, 815 F.3d 816, 818-19, 118 USPQ2d 1245, 1247 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (describing a new set of rules for conducting a wagering game as a "fundamental economic practice"); In re Greenstein, 774 Fed. Appx. 661, 664, 2019 USPQ2d 212400 (Fed Cir. 2019) (non-precedential) (claims to a new method of allocating returns to different investors in an investment fund was a fundamental economic concept). However, being old or well-known may indicate that the practice is fundamental. See, e.g., Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 573 U.S. 208, 219-20, 110 USPQ2d 1981-82 (2014) (describing the concept of intermediated settlement, like the risk hedging in Bilski, to be a "‘fundamental economic practice long prevalent in our system of commerce’" and also as "a building block of the modern economy") (citation omitted); Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 611, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1010 (2010) (claims to the concept of hedging are a "fundamental economic practice long prevalent in our system of commerce and taught in any introductory finance class.") (citation omitted); Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Symantec Corp., 838 F.3d 1307, 1313, 120 USPQ2d 1353, 1356 (2016) ("The category of abstract ideas embraces ‘fundamental economic practice[s] long prevalent in our system of commerce,’ … including ‘longstanding commercial practice[s]’").

An example of a case identifying a claim as reciting a fundamental economic practice is Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 609, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1009 (2010). The fundamental economic practice at issue was hedging or protecting against risk. The applicant in Bilski claimed "a series of steps instructing how to hedge risk," i.e., how to protect against risk. 561 U.S. at 599, 95 USPQ2d at 1005. The method allowed energy suppliers and consumers to minimize the risks resulting from fluctuations in market demand for energy. The Supreme Court determined that hedging is "fundamental economic practice" and therefore is an "unpatentable abstract idea." 561 U.S. at 611-12, 95 USPQ2d at 1010.

Another example of a case identifying a claim as reciting a fundamental economic practice is Bancorp Services., L.L.C. v. Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada (U.S.), 687 F.3d 1266, 103 USPQ2d 1425 (Fed. Cir. 2012). The fundamental economic practice at issue in Bancorp pertained to insurance. The patentee in Bancorp claimed methods and systems for managing a life insurance policy on behalf of a policy holder, which comprised steps including generating a life insurance policy including a stable value protected investment with an initial value based on a value of underlying securities, calculating surrender value protected investment credits for the life insurance policy; determining an investment value and a value of the underlying securities for the current day; and calculating a policy value and a policy unit value for the current day. 687 F.3d at 1270-71, 103 USPQ2d at 1427. The court described the claims as an "attempt to patent the use of the abstract idea of [managing a stable value protected life insurance policy] and then instruct the use of well-known [calculations] to help establish some of the inputs into the equation." 687 F.3d at 1278, 103 USPQ2d at 1433 (alterations in original) (citing Bilski).

Other examples of "fundamental economic principles or practices" include:

  • i. mitigating settlement risk, Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank,573 U.S. 208, 218, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1982 (2014);
  • ii. rules for conducting a wagering game, In re Smith, 815 F.3d 816, 818-19, 118 USPQ2d 1245, 1247 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • iii. financial instruments that are designed to protect against the risk of investing in financial instruments, In re Chorna, 656 Fed. App'x 1016, 1021 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (non-precedential);
  • iv. offer-based price optimization, OIP Techs., Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc., 788 F.3d 1359, 1362–63, 115 USPQ2d 1090, 1092-93 (Fed. Cir. 2015);
  • v. local processing of payments for remotely purchased goods, Inventor Holdings, LLC v. Bed Bath Beyond, 876 F.3d 1372, 1378-79, 125 USPQ2d 1019, 1023 (Fed. Cir. 2017);
  • vi. using a marking affixed to the outside of a mail object to communicate information about the mail object, i.e., the sender, recipient, and contents of the mail object, Secured Mail Solutions LLC v. Universal Wilde, Inc., 873 F.3d 905, 911, 124 USPQ2d 1502, 1506 (Fed. Cir. 2017); and
  • vii. placing an order based on displayed market information, Trading Technologies Int’l, Inc. v. IBG LLC, 921 F.3d 1084, 1092, 2019 USPQ2d 138290 (Fed. Cir. 2019).

B.    Commercial or Legal Interactions

"Commercial interactions" or "legal interactions" include agreements in the form of contracts, legal obligations, advertising, marketing or sales activities or behaviors, and business relations.

An example of a claim reciting a commercial or legal interaction, where the interaction is an agreement in the form of contracts, is found in buySAFE, Inc. v. Google, Inc., 765 F.3d. 1350, 112 USPQ2d 1093 (Fed. Cir. 2014). The agreement at issue in buySAFE was a transaction performance guaranty, which is a contractual relationship. 765 F.3d at 1355, 112 USPQ2d at 1096. The patentee claimed a method in which a computer operated by the provider of a safe transaction service receives a request for a performance guarantee for an online commercial transaction, the computer processes the request by underwriting the requesting party in order to provide the transaction guarantee service, and the computer offers, via a computer network, a transaction guaranty that binds to the transaction upon the closing of the transaction. 765 F.3d at 1351-52, 112 USPQ2d at 1094. The Federal Circuit described the claims as directed to an abstract idea because they were "squarely about creating a contractual relationship--a ‘transaction performance guaranty’." 765 F.3d at 1355, 112 USPQ2d at 1096.

Other examples of subject matter where the commercial or legal interaction is an agreement in the form of contracts include:

  • i. managing a stable value protected life insurance policy via performing calculations, Bancorp Servs., LLC v. Sun Life Assur. Co. of Canada (U.S.), 687 F.3d 1266, 1280, 103 USPQ2d 1425, 1434 (Fed. Cir. 2012); and
  • ii. processing insurance claims for a covered loss or policy event under an insurance policy (i.e., an agreement in the form of a contract), Accenture Global Services v. Guidewire Software, Inc., 728 F.3d 1336, 1338-39, 108 USPQ2d 1173, 1175-76 (Fed. Cir. 2013).

An example of a claim reciting a commercial or legal interaction in the form of a legal obligation is found in Fort Properties, Inc. v. American Master Lease, LLC, 671 F.3d 1317, 101 USPQ2d 1785 (Fed Cir. 2012). The patentee claimed a method of "aggregating real property into a real estate portfolio, dividing the interests in the portfolio into a number of deedshares, and subjecting those shares to a master agreement." 671 F.3d at 1322, 101 USPQ2d at 1788. The legal obligation at issue was the tax-free exchanges of real estate. The Federal Circuit concluded that the real estate investment tool designed to enable tax-free exchanges was an abstract concept. 671 F.3d at 1323, 101 USPQ2d at 1789.

Other examples of subject matter where the commercial or legal interaction is a legal obligation include:

  • i. hedging, Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 595, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1004 (2010);
  • ii. mitigating settlement risk, Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int'l, 573 U.S. 208, 218, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1979 (2014); and
  • iii. arbitration, In re Comiskey, 554 F.3d 967, 981, 89 USPQ2d 1655, 1665 (Fed. Cir. 2009).

An example of a claim reciting advertising is found in Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709, 714-15, 112 USPQ2d 1750, 1753-54 (Fed. Cir. 2014). The patentee in Ultramercial claimed an eleven-step method for displaying an advertisement (ad) in exchange for access to copyrighted media, comprising steps of receiving copyrighted media, selecting an ad, offering the media in exchange for watching the selected ad, displaying the ad, allowing the consumer access to the media, and receiving payment from the sponsor of the ad. 772 F.3d. at 715, 112 USPQ2d at 1754. The Federal Circuit determined that the "combination of steps recites an abstraction—an idea, having no particular concrete or tangible form" and thus was directed to an abstract idea, which the court described as "using advertising as an exchange or currency." Id.

Other examples of subject matter where the commercial or legal interaction is advertising, marketing or sales activities or behaviors include :

  • i. structuring a sales force or marketing company, which pertains to marketing or sales activities or behaviors, In re Ferguson, 558 F.3d 1359, 1364, 90 USPQ2d 1035, 1038 (Fed. Cir. 2009);
  • ii. using an algorithm for determining the optimal number of visits by a business representative to a client, In re Maucorps, 609 F.2d 481, 485, 203 USPQ 812, 816 (CCPA 1979); and
  • iii. offer-based price optimization, which pertains to marketing, OIP Techs., Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc., 788 F.3d 1359, 1362-63, 115 USPQ2d 1090, 1092 (Fed. Cir. 2015).

An example of a claim reciting business relations is found in Credit Acceptance Corp. v. Westlake Services, 859 F.3d 1044, 123 USPQ2d 1100 (Fed. Cir. 2017). The business relation at issue in Credit Acceptance is the relationship between a customer and dealer when processing a credit application to purchase a vehicle. The patentee claimed a "system for maintaining a database of information about the items in a dealer’s inventory, obtaining financial information about a customer from a user, combining these two sources of information to create a financing package for each of the inventoried items, and presenting the financing packages to the user." 859 F.3d at 1054, 123 USPQ2d at 1108. The Federal Circuit described the claims as directed to the abstract idea of "processing an application for financing a loan" and found "no meaningful distinction between this type of financial industry practice" and the concept of intermediated settlement in Alice or the hedging concept in Bilski. 859 F.3d at 1054, 123 USPQ2d at 1108.

Another example of subject matter where the commercial or legal interaction is business relations includes:

  • i. processing information through a clearing-house, where the business relation is the relationship between a party submitted a credit application (e.g., a car dealer) and funding sources (e.g., banks) when processing credit applications, Dealertrack v. Huber, 674 F.3d 1315, 1331, 101 USPQ2d 1325, 1339 (Fed. Cir. 2012).

C.    Managing Personal Behavior or Relationships or Interactions Between People

The sub-grouping "managing personal behavior or relationships or interactions between people" include social activities, teaching, and following rules or instructions.

An example of a claim reciting managing personal behavior is Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Capital One Bank (USA), 792 F.3d 1363, 115 USPQ2d 1636 (Fed. Cir. 2015). The patentee in this case claimed methods comprising storing user-selected pre-set limits on spending in a database, and when one of the limits is reached, communicating a notification to the user via a device. 792 F.3d. at 1367, 115 USPQ2d at 1639-40. The Federal Circuit determined that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of "tracking financial transactions to determine whether they exceed a pre-set spending limit (i.e., budgeting)", which "is not meaningfully different from the ideas found to be abstract in other cases before the Supreme Court and our court involving methods of organizing human activity." 792 F.3d. at 1367-68, 115 USPQ2d at 1640.

Other examples of managing personal behavior recited in a claim include:

  • i. filtering content, BASCOM Global Internet v. AT&T Mobility, LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1345-46, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1239 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (finding that filtering content was an abstract idea under step 2A, but reversing an invalidity judgment of ineligibility due to an inadequate step 2B analysis);
  • ii. considering historical usage information while inputting data, BSG Tech. LLC v. Buyseasons, Inc., 899 F.3d 1281, 1286, 127 USPQ2d 1688, 1691; and
  • iii. a mental process that a neurologist should follow when testing a patient for nervous system malfunctions, In re Meyer, 688 F.2d 789, 791-93, 215 USPQ 193, 194-96 (CCPA 1982).

An example of a claim reciting social activities is Voter Verified, Inc. v. Election Systems & Software, LLC, 887 F.3d 1376, 126 USPQ2d 1498 (Fed. Cir. 2018). The social activity at issue in Voter Verified was voting. The patentee claimed "[a] method for voting providing for self-verification of a ballot comprising the steps of" presenting an election ballot for voting, accepting input of the votes, storing the votes, printing out the votes, comparing the printed votes to votes stored in the computer, and determining whether the printed ballot is acceptable. 887 F.3d at 1384-85, 126 USPQ2d at 1503-04. The Federal Circuit found that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of "voting, verifying the vote, and submitting the vote for tabulation", which is a "fundamental activity that forms the basis of our democracy" and has been performed by humans for hundreds of years. 887 F.3d at 1385-86, 126 USPQ2d at 1504-05.

Another example of a claim reciting social activities is Interval Licensing LLC, v. AOL, Inc., 896 F.3d 1335, 127 USPQ2d 1553 (Fed. Cir. 2018). The social activity at issue was the social activity of "’providing information to a person without interfering with the person’s primary activity.’" 896 F.3d at 1344, 127 USPQ2d 1553 (citing Interval Licensing LLC v. AOL, Inc., 193 F. Supp.3d 1184, 1188 (W.D. 2014)). The patentee claimed an attention manager for acquiring content from an information source, controlling the timing of the display of acquired content, displaying the content, and acquiring an updated version of the previously-acquired content when the information source updates its content. 896 F.3d at 1339-40, 127 USPQ2d at 1555. The Federal Circuit concluded that "[s]tanding alone, the act of providing someone an additional set of information without disrupting the ongoing provision of an initial set of information is an abstract idea," observing that the district court "pointed to the nontechnical human activity of passing a note to a person who is in the middle of a meeting or conversation as further illustrating the basic, longstanding practice that is the focus of the [patent ineligible] claimed invention." 896 F.3d at 1344-45, 127 USPQ2d at 1559.

An example of a claim reciting following rules or instructions is In re Marco Guldenaar Holding B.V., 911 F.3d 1157, 1161, 129 USPQ2d 1008, 1011 (Fed. Cir. 2018). The patentee claimed a method of playing a dice game including placing wagers on whether certain die faces will appear face up. 911 F.3d at 1160; 129 USPQ2d at 1011. The Federal Circuit determined that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of "rules for playing games", which the court characterized as a certain method of organizing human activity. 911 F.3d at 1160-61; 129 USPQ2d at 1011.

Other examples of following rules or instructions recited in a claim include:

  • i. assigning hair designs to balance head shape, In re Brown, 645 Fed. Appx. 1014, 1015-16 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (non-precedential); and
  • ii. a series of instructions of how to hedge risk, Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 595, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1004 (2010).

III.    MENTAL PROCESSES

The courts consider a mental process (thinking) that "can be performed in the human mind, or by a human using a pen and paper" to be an abstract idea. CyberSource Corp. v. Retail Decisions, Inc., 654 F.3d 1366, 1372, 99 USPQ2d 1690, 1695 (Fed. Cir. 2011). As the Federal Circuit explained, "methods which can be performed mentally, or which are the equivalent of human mental work, are unpatentable abstract ideas the ‘basic tools of scientific and technological work’ that are open to all.’" 654 F.3d at 1371, 99 USPQ2d at 1694 (citing Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 175 USPQ 673 (1972)). See also Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs. Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 71, 101 USPQ2d 1961, 1965 ("‘[M]ental processes[] and abstract intellectual concepts are not patentable, as they are the basic tools of scientific and technological work’" (quoting Benson, 409 U.S. at 67, 175 USPQ at 675)); Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 589, 198 USPQ 193, 197 (1978) (same).

Accordingly, the "mental processes" abstract idea grouping is defined as concepts performed in the human mind, and examples of mental processes include observations, evaluations, judgments, and opinions. A discussion of concepts performed in the human mind, as well as concepts that cannot practically be performed in the human mind and thus are not "mental processes", is provided below with respect to point A.

The courts do not distinguish between mental processes that are performed entirely in the human mind and mental processes that require a human to use a physical aid (e.g., pen and paper or a slide rule) to perform the claim limitation. See, e.g., Benson, 409 U.S. at 67, 65, 175 USPQ at 674-75, 674 (noting that the claimed "conversion of [binary-coded decimal] numerals to pure binary numerals can be done mentally," i.e., "as a person would do it by head and hand."); Synopsys, Inc. v. Mentor Graphics Corp., 839 F.3d 1138, 1139, 120 USPQ2d 1473, 1474 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (holding that claims to a mental process of "translating a functional description of a logic circuit into a hardware component description of the logic circuit" are directed to an abstract idea, because the claims "read on an individual performing the claimed steps mentally or with pencil and paper"). Mental processes performed by humans with the assistance of physical aids such as pens or paper are explained further below with respect to point B.

Nor do the courts distinguish between claims that recite mental processes performed by humans and claims that recite mental processes performed on a computer. As the Federal Circuit has explained, "[c]ourts have examined claims that required the use of a computer and still found that the underlying, patent-ineligible invention could be performed via pen and paper or in a person’s mind." Versata Dev. Group v. SAP Am., Inc., 793 F.3d 1306, 1335, 115 USPQ2d 1681, 1702 (Fed. Cir. 2015). See also Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Symantec Corp., 838 F.3d 1307, 1318, 120 USPQ2d 1353, 1360 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (‘‘[W]ith the exception of generic computer-implemented steps, there is nothing in the claims themselves that foreclose them from being performed by a human, mentally or with pen and paper.’’); Mortgage Grader, Inc. v. First Choice Loan Servs. Inc., 811 F.3d 1314, 1324, 117 USPQ2d 1693, 1699 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (holding that computer-implemented method for "anonymous loan shopping" was an abstract idea because it could be "performed by humans without a computer"). Mental processes recited in claims that require computers are explained further below with respect to point C.

Because both product and process claims may recite a "mental process", the phrase "mental processes" should be understood as referring to the type of abstract idea, and not to the statutory category of the claim. The courts have identified numerous product claims as reciting mental process-type abstract ideas, for instance the product claims to computer systems and computer-readable media in Versata Dev. Group. v. SAP Am., Inc., 793 F.3d 1306, 115 USPQ2d 1681 (Fed. Cir. 2015). This concept is explained further below with respect to point D.

The following discussion is meant to guide examiners and provide more information on how to determine whether a claim recites a mental process. Examiners should keep in mind the following points A, B, C, and D when performing this evaluation.

A.    A Claim With Limitation(s) That Cannot Practically be Performed in the Human Mind Does Not Recite a Mental Process.

Claims do not recite a mental process when they do not contain limitations that can practically be performed in the human mind, for instance when the human mind is not equipped to perform the claim limitations. See SRI Int’l, Inc. v. Cisco Systems, Inc., 930 F.3d 1295, 1304 (Fed. Cir. 2019) (declining to identify the claimed collection and analysis of network data as abstract because "the human mind is not equipped to detect suspicious activity by using network monitors and analyzing network packets as recited by the claims"); CyberSource, 654 F.3d at 1376, 99 USPQ2d at 1699 (distinguishing Research Corp. Techs. v. Microsoft Corp., 627 F.3d 859, 97 USPQ2d 1274 (Fed. Cir. 2010), and SiRF Tech., Inc. v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, 601 F.3d 1319, 94 USPQ2d 1607 (Fed. Cir. 2010), as directed to inventions that ‘‘could not, as a practical matter, be performed entirely in a human’s mind’’).

Examples of claims that do not recite mental processes because they cannot be practically performed in the human mind include:

  • • a claim to a method for calculating an absolute position of a GPS receiver and an absolute time of reception of satellite signals, where the claimed GPS receiver calculated pseudoranges that estimated the distance from the GPS receiver to a plurality of satellites, SiRF Tech., 601 F.3d at 1331-33, 94 USPQ2d at 1616-17;
  • • a claim to detecting suspicious activity by using network monitors and analyzing network packets, SRI Int’l, 930 F.3d at 1304;
  • • a claim to a specific data encryption method for computer communication involving a several-step manipulation of data, Synopsys., 839 F.3d at 1148, 120 USPQ2d at 1481 (distinguishing the claims in TQP Development, LLC v. Intuit Inc., 2014 WL 651935 (E.D. Tex. Feb. 19, 2014)); and
  • • a claim to a method for rendering a halftone image of a digital image by comparing, pixel by pixel, the digital image against a blue noise mask, where the method required the manipulation of computer data structures (e.g., the pixels of a digital image and a two-dimensional array known as a mask) and the output of a modified computer data structure (a halftoned digital image), Research Corp. Techs., 627 F.3d at 868, 97 USPQ2d at 1280.

In contrast, claims do recite a mental process when they contain limitations that can practically be performed in the human mind, including for example, observations, evaluations, judgments, and opinions. Examples of claims that recite mental processes include:

  • • a claim to "collecting information, analyzing it, and displaying certain results of the collection and analysis," where the data analysis steps are recited at a high level of generality such that they could practically be performed in the human mind, Electric Power Group v. Alstom, S.A., 830 F.3d 1350, 1353-54, 119 USPQ2d 1739, 1741-42 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • • claims to "comparing BRCA sequences and determining the existence of alterations," where the claims cover any way of comparing BRCA sequences such that the comparison steps can practically be performed in the human mind, University of Utah Research Foundation v. Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d 755, 763, 113 USPQ2d 1241, 1246 (Fed. Cir. 2014);
  • • a claim to collecting and comparing known information (claim 1), which are steps that can be practically performed in the human mind, Classen Immunotherapies, Inc. v. Biogen IDEC, 659 F.3d 1057, 1067, 100 USPQ2d 1492, 1500 (Fed. Cir. 2011); and
  • • a claim to identifying head shape and applying hair designs, which is a process that can be practically performed in the human mind, In re Brown, 645 Fed. App'x 1014, 1016-17 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (non-precedential).

B.    A Claim That Encompasses a Human Performing the Step(s) Mentally With or Without a Physical Aid Recites a Mental Process.

If a claim recites a limitation that can practically be performed in the human mind, with or without the use of a physical aid such as pen and paper, the limitation falls within the mental processes grouping, and the claim recites an abstract idea. See, e.g., Benson, 409 U.S. at 67, 65, 175 USPQ at 674-75, 674 (noting that the claimed "conversion of [binary-coded decimal] numerals to pure binary numerals can be done mentally," i.e., "as a person would do it by head and hand."); Synopsys, 839 F.3d at 1139, 120 USPQ2d at 1474 (holding that claims to the mental process of "translating a functional description of a logic circuit into a hardware component description of the logic circuit" are directed to an abstract idea, because the claims "read on an individual performing the claimed steps mentally or with pencil and paper").

The use of a physical aid (e.g., pencil and paper or a slide rule) to help perform a mental step (e.g., a mathematical calculation) does not negate the mental nature of the limitation, but simply accounts for variations in memory capacity from one person to another. For instance, in CyberSource, the court determined that the step of "constructing a map of credit card numbers" was a limitation that was able to be performed "by writing down a list of credit card transactions made from a particular IP address." In making this determination, the court looked to the specification, which explained that the claimed map was nothing more than a listing of several (e.g., four) credit card transactions. The court concluded that this step was able to be performed mentally with a pen and paper, and therefore, it qualified as a mental process. 654 F.3d at 1372-73, 99 USPQ2d at 1695. See also Flook, 437 U.S. at 586, 198 USPQ at 196 (claimed "computations can be made by pencil and paper calculations"); University of Florida Research Foundation, Inc. v. General Electric Co., 916 F.3d 1363, 1367, 129 USPQ2d 1409, 1411-12 (Fed. Cir. 2019) (relying on specification’s description of the claimed analysis and manipulation of data as being performed mentally "‘using pen and paper methodologies, such as flowsheets and patient charts’"); Symantec, 838 F.3d at 1318, 120 USPQ2d at 1360 (although claimed as computer-implemented, steps of screening messages can be "performed by a human, mentally or with pen and paper").

C.    A Claim That Requires a Computer May Still Recite a Mental Process.

Claims can recite a mental process even if they are claimed as being performed on a computer. The Supreme Court recognized this in Benson, determining that a mathematical algorithm for converting binary coded decimal to pure binary within a computer’s shift register was an abstract idea. The Court concluded that the algorithm could be performed purely mentally even though the claimed procedures "can be carried out in existing computers long in use, no new machinery being necessary." 409 U.S at 67, 175 USPQ at 675. See also Mortgage Grader, 811 F.3d at 1324, 117 USPQ2d at 1699 (concluding that concept of "anonymous loan shopping" recited in a computer system claim is an abstract idea because it could be "performed by humans without a computer").

In evaluating whether a claim that requires a computer recites a mental process, examiners should carefully consider the broadest reasonable interpretation of the claim in light of the specification. For instance, examiners should review the specification to determine if the claimed invention is described as a concept that is performed in the human mind and applicant is merely claiming that concept performed 1) on a generic computer, or 2) in a computer environment, or 3) is merely using a computer as a tool to perform the concept. In these situations, the claim is considered to recite a mental process.

  • 1. Performing a mental process on a generic computer. An example of a case identifying a mental process performed on a generic computer as an abstract idea is Voter Verified, Inc. v. Election Systems & Software, LLC, 887 F.3d 1376, 1385, 126 USPQ2d 1498, 1504 (Fed. Cir. 2018). In this case, the Federal Circuit relied upon the specification in explaining that the claimed steps of voting, verifying the vote, and submitting the vote for tabulation are "human cognitive actions" that humans have performed for hundreds of years. The claims therefore recited an abstract idea, despite the fact that the claimed voting steps were performed on a computer. 887 F.3d at 1385, 126 USPQ2d at 1504. Another example is Versata, in which the patentee claimed a system and method for determining a price of a product offered to a purchasing organization that was implemented using general purpose computer hardware. 793 F.3d at 1312-13, 1331, 115 USPQ2d at 1685, 1699. The Federal Circuit acknowledged that the claims were performed on a generic computer, but still described the claims as "directed to the abstract idea of determining a price, using organizational and product group hierarchies, in the same way that the claims in Alice were directed to the abstract idea of intermediated settlement, and the claims in Bilski were directed to the abstract idea of risk hedging." 793 F.3d at 1333; 115 USPQ2d at 1700-01.
  • 2. Performing a mental process in a computer environment. An example of a case identifying a mental process performed in a computer environment as an abstract idea is Symantec Corp., 838 F.3d at 1316-18, 120 USPQ2d at 1360. In this case, the Federal Circuit relied upon the specification when explaining that the claimed electronic post office, which recited limitations describing how the system would receive, screen and distribute email on a computer network, was analogous to how a person decides whether to read or dispose of a particular piece of mail and that "with the exception of generic computer-implemented steps, there is nothing in the claims themselves that foreclose them from being performed by a human, mentally or with pen and paper". 838 F.3d at 1318, 120 USPQ2d at 1360. Another example is FairWarning IP, LLC v. Iatric Sys., Inc., 839 F.3d 1089, 120 USPQ2d 1293 (Fed. Cir. 2016). The patentee in FairWarning claimed a system and method of detecting fraud and/or misuse in a computer environment, in which information regarding accesses of a patient’s personal health information was analyzed according to one of several rules (i.e., related to accesses in excess of a specific volume, accesses during a pre-determined time interval, or accesses by a specific user) to determine if the activity indicates improper access. 839 F.3d. at 1092, 120 USPQ2d at 1294. The court determined that these claims were directed to a mental process of detecting misuse, and that the claimed rules here were "the same questions (though perhaps phrased with different words) that humans in analogous situations detecting fraud have asked for decades, if not centuries." 839 F.3d. at 1094-95, 120 USPQ2d at 1296.
  • 3. Using a computer as a tool to perform a mental process. An example of a case in which a computer was used as a tool to perform a mental process is Mortgage Grader, 811 F.3d. at 1324, 117 USPQ2d at 1699. The patentee in Mortgage Grader claimed a computer-implemented system for enabling borrowers to anonymously shop for loan packages offered by a plurality of lenders, comprising a database that stores loan package data from the lenders, and a computer system providing an interface and a grading module. The interface prompts a borrower to enter personal information, which the grading module uses to calculate the borrower’s credit grading, and allows the borrower to identify and compare loan packages in the database using the credit grading. 811 F.3d. at 1318, 117 USPQ2d at 1695. The Federal Circuit determined that these claims were directed to the concept of "anonymous loan shopping", which was a concept that could be "performed by humans without a computer." 811 F.3d. at 1324, 117 USPQ2d at 1699. Another example is Berkheimer v. HP, Inc., 881 F.3d 1360, 125 USPQ2d 1649 (Fed. Cir. 2018), in which the patentee claimed methods for parsing and evaluating data using a computer processing system. The Federal Circuit determined that these claims were directed to mental processes of parsing and comparing data, because the steps were recited at a high level of generality and merely used computers as a tool to perform the processes. 881 F.3d at 1366, 125 USPQ2d at 1652-53.

D.    Both Product and Process Claims May Recite a Mental Process.

Examiners should keep in mind that both product claims (e.g., computer system, computer-readable medium, etc.) and process claims may recite mental processes. For example, in Mortgage Grader, the patentee claimed a computer-implemented system and a method for enabling borrowers to anonymously shop for loan packages offered by a plurality of lenders, comprising a database that stores loan package data from the lenders, and a computer system providing an interface and a grading module. The Federal Circuit determined that both the computer-implemented system and method claims were directed to "anonymous loan shopping", which was an abstract idea because it could be "performed by humans without a computer." 811 F.3d. at 1318, 1324-25, 117 USPQ2d at 1695, 1699-1700. See also FairWarning IP, 839 F.3d at 1092, 120 USPQ2d at 1294 (identifying both system and process claims for detecting improper access of a patient's protected health information in a health-care system computer environment as directed to abstract idea of detecting fraud); Content Extraction & Transmission LLC v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 776 F.3d 1343, 1345, 113 USPQ2d 1354, 1356 (system and method claims of inputting information from a hard copy document into a computer program). Accordingly, the phrase "mental processes" should be understood as referring to the type of abstract idea, and not to the statutory category of the claim.

Examples of product claims reciting mental processes include:

  • • An application program interface for extracting and processing information from a diversity of types of hard copy documents – Content Extraction, 776 F.3d at 1345, 113 USPQ2d at 1356;
  • • A computer-implemented system for enabling anonymous loan shopping – Mortgage Grader, 811 F.3d at 1318, 117 USPQ2d at 1695;
  • • A computer readable medium containing program instructions for detecting fraud – CyberSource, 654 F.3d at 1368 n. 1, 99 USPQ2d at 1692 n.1;
  • • A post office for receiving and redistributing email messages on a computer network – Symantec, 838 F.3d at 1316, 120 USPQ2d at 1359;
  • • A self-verifying voting system – Voter Verified, 887 F.3d at 1384-85, 126 USPQ2d at 1504;
  • • A wide-area real-time performance monitoring system for monitoring and assessing dynamic stability of an electric power grid – Electric Power Group, 830 F.3d at 1351 and n.1, 119 USPQ2d at 1740 and n.1; and
  • • Computer readable storage media comprising computer instructions to implement a method for determining a price of a product offered to a purchasing organization – Versata, 793 F.3d at 1312-13, 115 USPQ2d at 1685.

Examples of process claims reciting mental process-type abstract ideas are discussed in the preceding subsections (A) through (C). See, for example, the discussion of Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 198 USPQ 193; Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 175 USPQ 673; Berkheimer, 881 F.3d 1360, 125 USPQ2d 1649; Synopsys, 839 F.3d 1138, 120 USPQ2d 1473; and Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d 755, 113 USPQ2d 1241, supra.