2106.04(a) Abstract Ideas [R-10.2019]
The abstract idea exception has deep roots in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. See Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 601-602, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1006 (2010) (citing Le Roy v. Tatham, 55 U.S. (14 How.) 156, 174–175 (1853)). Despite this long history, the courts have declined to define abstract ideas. However, it is clear from the body of judicial precedent that software and business methods are not excluded categories of subject matter. For example, the Supreme Court concluded that business methods are not "categorically outside of § 101's scope," stating that "a business method is simply one kind of ‘method’ that is, at least in some circumstances, eligible for patenting under § 101." Bilski, 561 U.S. at 607, 95 USPQ2d at 1008 (2010). See also Content Extraction and Transmission, LLC v. Wells Fargo Bank, 776 F.3d 1343, 1347, 113 USPQ2d 1354, 1357 (Fed. Cir. 2014) ("there is no categorical business-method exception"). Likewise, software is not automatically an abstract idea, even if performance of a software task involves an underlying mathematical calculation or relationship. See, e.g., Thales Visionix, Inc. v. United States, 850 F.3d 1343, 121 USPQ2d 1898, 1902 ("That a mathematical equation is required to complete the claimed method and system does not doom the claims to abstraction."); McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 1316, 120 USPQ2d 1091, 1103 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (methods of automatic lip synchronization and facial expression animation using computer-implemented rules were not directed to an abstract idea); Enfish, 822 F.3d 1327, 1336, 118 USPQ2d 1684, 1689 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (claims to self-referential table for a computer database were not directed to an abstract idea).
To facilitate examination, the Office has set forth an approach to identifying abstract ideas that distills the relevant case law into enumerated groupings of abstract ideas. The enumerated groupings are firmly rooted in Supreme Court precedent as well as Federal Circuit decisions interpreting that precedent, as is explained in MPEP § 2106.04(a)(2). This approach represents a shift from the former case-comparison approach that required examiners to rely on individual judicial cases when determining whether a claim recites an abstract idea. By grouping the abstract ideas, the examiners’ focus has been shifted from relying on individual cases to generally applying the wide body of case law spanning all technologies and claim types.
The enumerated groupings of abstract ideas are defined as:
- 1) Mathematical concepts – mathematical relationships, mathematical formulas or equations, mathematical calculations (see MPEP § 2106.04(a)(2), subsection I);
- 2) Certain methods of organizing human activity – 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; business relations); managing personal behavior or relationships or interactions between people (including social activities, teaching, and following rules or instructions) (see MPEP § 2106.04(a)(2), subsection II); and
- 3) Mental processes – concepts performed in the human mind (including an observation, evaluation, judgment, opinion) (see MPEP § 2106.04(a)(2), subsection III).
Examiners should determine whether a claim recites an abstract idea by (1) identifying the specific limitation(s) in the claim under examination that the examiner believes recites an abstract idea, and (2) determining whether the identified limitations(s) fall within at least one of the groupings of abstract ideas listed above. The groupings of abstract ideas, and their relationship to the body of judicial precedent, are further discussed in MPEP § 2106.04(a)(2).
If the identified limitation(s) falls within at least one of the groupings of abstract ideas, it is reasonable to conclude that the claim recites an abstract idea in Step 2A Prong One. The claim then requires further analysis in Step 2A Prong Two, to determine whether any additional elements in the claim integrate the abstract idea into a practical application, see MPEP § 2106.04(d).
If the identified limitation(s) do not fall within any of the groupings of abstract ideas, it is reasonable to find that the claim does not recite an abstract idea. This concludes the abstract idea judicial exception eligibility analysis, except in the rare circumstance discussed in 2106.04(a)(3), below. The claim is thus eligible at Pathway B unless the claim recites, and is directed to, another exception (such as a law of nature or natural phenomenon).
MPEP § 2106.04(a)(1) provides examples of claims that do not recite abstract ideas (or other judicial exceptions) and thus are eligible at Step 2A Prong One.
MPEP § 2106.04(a)(2) provides further explanation on the abstract idea groupings. It should be noted that these groupings are not mutually exclusive, i.e., some claims recite limitations that fall within more than one grouping or sub-grouping. For example, a claim reciting performing mathematical calculations using a formula that could be practically performed in the human mind may be considered to fall within the mathematical concepts grouping and the mental process grouping. Accordingly, examiners should identify at least one abstract idea grouping, but preferably identify all groupings to the extent possible, if a claim limitation(s) is determined to fall within multiple groupings and proceed with the analysis in Step 2A Prong Two.