Louis Hoffman is the president and founder of the Hoffman Patent Firm and a partner and founder of IP Protection Law Group. He is Chairman of the Board of NAPP. Louis has been an intellectual-property lawyer for more than 30 years. Louis’s law practice focuses on commercialization through sales, licensing and enforcement of valuable patents, patent portfolio development, and patent prosecution. His clients include inventors, operating companies, and start-ups. He has a particular knack at identifying and securing patent claims that can provide added value to patent portfolios. Louis has substantial experience managing litigation and licensing programs of all sizes. Aside from patent matters, Louis sometimes works on copyrights and trademarks (U.S. and foreign), license drafting, and contract matters.
As we await the next Update from the Patent Office on subject matter eligibility, it may be worthwhile to consider further the role of examples given in the past by the PTO. The Patent Office’s July 2015 Update on Subject Matter Eligibility. Although examples of this sort can be helpful and are appreciated, they are not enough! In the Internet and computer arts, the existing examples offer limited use. The PTO has released only a few examples in the computer fields still, and in general they express fairly obvious points, such as the point that improvements to the computer itself remain eligible.
Although categorizing abstract ideas could be helpful, the use of categories expands the risk of overbreadth, especially when the categories have little definition, include sub-categories, and lack negative examples. The PTO should refine the categories of “judicial descriptors,” and do so both negatively and positively, to avoid overbroad application of Alice by examiners. The use of “judicial descriptors” not supported adequately by court decisions has the potential to do great mischief in the area in which I practice frequently, i.e., software and Internet-related patent applications.
Addressing the problem would be responsive to the overwhelming bulk of commenters who expressed opinions on the PTO’s most recent July 2015 Update on Subject Matter Eligibility (Section 101), who have agreed that the PTO has been applying Alice too vigorously and has been making more rejections than warranted, and that the excess rejections are reflected in the statistics. Examiners would welcome such efforts, because they would better know whether and when to make Alice-type abstract idea rejections under Section 101, in contrast with current guidance, which allow them to find reasons to make such rejections in virtually all cases. A more systematic approach to consideration of such rejections might look like this…
It is poor patent policy to have broad areas of technology deemed patent-ineligible entirely, or ineligible without the high cost of attorney time to argue, and likely appeal, amorphous Alice-type rejections. This is particularly so as to technology that is central to the United States economy. Invention is central to U.S. economic might, and as our economy moves away from the “old line” manufacturing strength of the past, the U.S. has become especially strong in fields dependent on software technology and business methods. Strengths of the current U.S. economy include social media, the Internet, and the service economy, especially financial services. We are also strong in biotech. Yet those are precisely the fields most heavily damaged by Section 101 Alice-type rejections.
Despite the improvements that could reopen the door for important patents in important fields, the Guidelines seem far from perfect. But how could they be, given that they seek to harmonize the mushy judicial activism underlying Section 101 in the first place? Few federal statutes have spawned “judicially crafted exceptions” to flat Congressional instructions like the one in Section 101: “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.”