|Cloudy skies ahead!|
At first instance, ruling on Google's motion for judgment on the pleadings as to invalidity, the District Court for the District of Delaware had held that the asserted claims were ineligible for patent protection under 35 U.S.C. § 101. Discussing the applicability of the machine-or-transformation test (under this test, as articulated in In re Bilski, following the so-called patent-eligibility trilogy, a process claim is eligible for patent protection if (i) it is tied to a particular machine or apparatus, or (ii) it transforms a particular article into a different state or thing), the court had found that, as acknowledged by buySAFE itself, the method could potentially be performed entirely in the human mind, if the transaction was not online, and was thus ineligible for patent protection, despite its taking place online and involving use of a computer (citing CyberSource v Retail Decisions). In this perspective, the judge had observed that 'the '019 patent describes a well-known, and widely-understood concept - a third party guarantee of a sales transaction - and then applies that concept using conventional computer technology and the Internet', concluding that '[m]erely using a computer to perform more efficiently what could otherwise be accomplished manually does not confer patent-eligibility' (especially as the patent claims were not directed to any specific way of using such computer). Evaluating the abstract nature of the claims, the court had found that they were not directed to any specific device or system, nor limited to a concrete application or to any specific industry. Consequently, it had granted Google's motion for judgment on the pleadings, holding the ineligibility of the asserted claims.
On appeal, the Federal Circuit upheld the judgment of the district court, engaging in an interesting review of the interpretative paths taken by the Supreme Court in the recent Alice ruling and in the previous Mayo Collaborative Servs. v Prometheus Labs Inc. judgment. The panel observed that the Supreme Court has always interpreted § 101 as containing an important implicit exception, namely the exclusion of laws of nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas from patent protection. It then retraced the steps taken by the Supreme Court Justices in their analysis of the three types of excluded matter, describing both the underying concern and the framework designed to evaluate patent-eligibility. The former is 'that patent law [should] not inhibit further discovery by improperly tying up the future use of these building blocks of human ingenuity' (Alice, quoting Mayo), regardless of the narrowness of the law of nature, natural phenomenon or abstract idea involved. The latter excludes the patentability of claims that directly read on the three excluded matters, as well as of any claim that 'read[s] on a human-made physical thing ("machine, manufacture, or composition of matter") or a human-controlled series of physical acts ("process") [...] if (a) it is "directed to" matter in one of the three excluded categories and (b) "the additional elements" do not supply an "inventive concept" in the physical realm of things and acts - a "new and useful application" of the ineligible matter in the physical realm - that ensures that the patent is on something "significantly more than" the ineligible matter itself'.
The panel also reviewed the Supreme Court's approach to the category of abstract ideas, particularly relevant in the context of the case. In particular, it looked at two fundamental questions, respectively concerning the matter identified by the Supreme Court as falling within the mentioned category, and the cases in which the invocation of a computer in a claim is sufficient to supply an "inventive concept" that attracts patent protection:
As to the first question: The relevant Supreme Court cases are those which find an abstract idea in certain arrangements involving contractual relations, which are intangible entities. Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593 (2010), involved a method of entering into contracts to hedge risk in commodity prices, and Alice involved methods and systems for "exchanging financial obligations between two parties using a third-party intermediary to mitigate settlement risk,". More narrowly, the Court in both cases relied on the fact that the contractual relations at issue constituted "a fundamental economic practice long prevalent in our system of commerce." In simultaneously rejecting a general business method exception to patent eligibility and finding the hedging claims invalid, moreover, Bilski makes clear that the recognition that the formation or manipulation of economic relations may involve an abstract idea does not amount to creation of a business-method exception. [...] If enough extra is included in a claim, it passes muster under section 101 even if it amounts to a "business method."
As to the second question: The Court in Alice made clear that a claim directed to an abstract idea does not move into section 101 eligibility territory by "merely requir[ing] generic computer implementation." In so holding, the Court in Alice relied on Mayo for the proposition that "[s]imply appending conventional steps, specified at a high level of generality," was not "enough" to supply an "inventive concept.". Neither "attempting to limit the use of [the idea] to a particular technological environment" nor a "wholly generic computer implementation" is sufficient.The Federal Circuit noted that the Supreme Court had found the invocation of the use of a computer in Alice's method claims, and of other components used to 'perform the basic calculation, storage, and transmission' tasks in the system claims, to be insufficient to qualify as an "inventive concept", having a mere functional, unspecified or generic function.
Applying this teaching to the case in hand, the panel concluded that '[t]he claims are squarely about creating a contractual relationship - a "transaction performance guaranty" - that is beyond question of ancient lineage'; as held at first instance, the narrowing of the idea to particular types of relationship, or to a particular technological environment, does not affect patent (in)eligibility. Similarly, the court clarified that 'the invocation of computers adds no inventive concept', as their function remains generic and unspecified, just as in Alice.