Author(s): Robert P. Merges
Abstract: Now that the Supreme Court has decided Bilski v. Kappos, there is an enormous amount of speculation about the case’s impact on patent applicants, litigants, and other participants in the patent system. Most of the commentary is concerned with the holding in Bilski, how this holding will be applied by courts and the Patent Office, and ultimately, the effect of the holding on inventors, and those who hold and seek patents.
We take a different approach; rather than try to cut through the complexity of Bilski, or predict how it will be applied, we talk about how to avoid it. We are interested in how to minimize the cost and confusion that accompany a review of patents for § 101 subject-matter eligibility. To be specific, we propose that the § 101 issue of Bilski be considered only when doing so is absolutely necessary to determine the validity of a claim or claims in a patent. We believe any claim that can be invalidated under one of the less controversial and less complex requirements for patentability – §§ 102, 103, and 112, for instance – ought to be disposed of without considering subject matter patentability. In other words, the Bilski issue should be avoided wherever it is not strictly necessary. To support this conclusion, we present a set of empirical data that indicates that the vast majority of patent claims challenged on subject matter eligibility grounds were also challenged on other patentability issues.
We set the stage for our proposal in Part II, which briefly reviews the history behind Bilski and explains its open-ended holding and individualized approach. The difficulty of applying the Bilski ruling to different types of patent claims leads us to Part III, in which we call into question an accepted (if largely implicit) principle of patent law – that the lexical priority of statutory provisions in the 1952 Patent Act dictates a necessary logical sequence of invalidity tests. We reject this widespread assumption. There is nothing in the statute that requires this.
Indeed, in Part III we argue that in many ways the very idea of a sequence of discrete patentability requirements is conceptually misleading. Claims can be and often are rejected by the Patent Office for multiple reasons, suggesting that at least certain claims suffer from defects that transcend specific statutory validity requirements. We argue further that the policy underpinnings of various requirements overlap in complex ways, so that in reality patentability doctrine does not test for a series of discrete and independent qualities that are distinct from and mutually exclusive of each other. In the same way, transcendent qualities of an invention can influence multiple doctrines simultaneously, with pioneering inventions (due to both a liberal treatment under enablement, and a broad reach under infringement doctrines) being a prime example. This demonstrates again that there is not and should not be a strong separation between various patent law doctrines. Another argument along these lines recognizes that while patentability doctrines are not discrete entities, neither is “the invention” whose validity is being considered. Patent applicants routinely present multiple, overlapping claims, all of which cover fine-grained variations on a central inventive insight or advance. So it is inaccurate to visualize patentability as a stepwise series of tests applied to a single “invention.” It is not true for example that “invention X” passes § 101 and should thus proceed in logical sequence to be tested under § 102. One claim growing out of inventive insight X might present no § 101 problems at all, yet another claim in the same patent application might raise a difficult issue under this provision. Each claim, being a unique slice of the overall inventive insight, ought to be considered on its own terms, and in whatever order makes the most sense. Put another way, the mental model of a stepwise sequence of patentability determinations overlooks the highly granular nature in which different slices of the inventive concept are presented for validity testing.
This analysis is further developed in Section III.A. When a claim fails to pass muster under any single test of validity, that claim should be invalidated. No further tests should be applied. We describe this as “chain” theory of validity: once one link in the chain is broken, the claim fails, and there is no reason to proceed further. Beyond that point, any expenditure of resources on validity questions is inefficient. Pragmatic considerations enter at this point. Issues of cost, justiciability, and spillover effects are perfectly appropriate in determining the actual sequence in which validity tests are applied with respect to any particular patent claim. The non-linearity of patent validity tests, together with the principle of efficient administration, yields a simple rule: start with chain links that are, in general, easiest and cheapest to test, and when the chain fails, stop the process. That way, the costliest and most complex doctrines – the trickiest “links in the chain” – are often avoided, and in any event are put off until later. Therefore, § 101 should often be avoided, both at the Patent Office and in the courts. We justify this not only on efficiency grounds, but also by analogy to the Supreme Court rules of avoidance.
In Part IV, we apply this simple principle. It leads to several recommendations. First, though the PTO has good reasons for its longstanding practice of rejecting claims for multiple reasons, we recommend that §101 be used only as an exception or last resort even at the PTO. Next, we contend that the courts should proceed in a stepwise fashion, beginning with §§ 102, and 103, and 112, changing the order of doctrines as dictated by pragmatic considerations, and stopping as soon as a claim is conclusively invalidated. In all cases, the complex and costly process of deciding whether a claim presents patentable subject matter under § 101 should be deferred until very late in the process. Therefore, we recommend, courts should in effect hold off on the difficult task of evaluating claims under § 101 – ideally deploying the full § 101 analysis only when that is essential, i.e., when a claim passes muster under the other validity doctrines.
Keywords: Patentable Subject Matter, Patent Law, Avoidance