Patent Eligibility, Competition, Innovation, Congress, and the Supreme Court
A highly competitive economy is characterized by strong, legally respected property rights. A failure to afford legal protection to certain types of property will reduce individual incentives to participate in market transactions, thereby reducing the effectiveness of market competition. As the great economist Armen Alchian put it, “[w]ell-defined and well-protected property rights replace competition by violence with competition by peaceful means.”
In particular, strong and well-defined intellectual-property rights complement and enhance market competition, thereby promoting innovation. As the U.S. Justice Department’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division put it in 2012: “[t]he successful promotion of innovation and creativity requires a [sic] both competitive markets and strong intellectual property rights.”
In the realm of intellectual property, patent rights are particularly effective in driving innovation by supporting a market for invention in several critical ways, as Northwestern University’s Daniel F. Spulber has explained:
Patents support the establishment of the market [for invention] in several key ways. First, patents provide a system of intellectual property (IP) rights that increases transaction efficiencies and stimulates competition by offering exclusion, transferability, disclosure, certification, standardization, and divisibility. Second, patents provide efficient incentives for invention, innovation, and investment in complementary assets so that the market for inventions is a market for innovative control. Third, patents as intangible real assets promote the financing of invention and innovation.
It thus follows that weak, ill-defined patent rights create confusion, thereby undermining effective competition and innovation.
The Supreme Court’s Undermining of Patentability
Regrettably, the U.S. Supreme Court has, of late, been oblivious to this reality. Over roughly the past decade, several Court decisions have weakened incentives to patent by engendering confusion regarding the core question of what subject matter is patentable. Those decisions represent an abrupt retreat from decades of textually based case law that recognized the broad scope of patentable subject matter.
As I explained in a 2019 Speech to the IP Watchdog Institute Patent Masters Symposium (footnotes omitted):
Confusion about what is patentable lies at the heart of recent discussions of reform to Section 101 of the Patent Act [35 U.S. Code § 101] – the statutory provision that describes patentable subject matter. Section 101 plainly states that “[w]hoever 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 [other] conditions and requirements of this title.” This language basically says that patentable subject matter covers everything new and useful that is invented or discovered. For many years, however, the Supreme Court has recognized three judicially created exceptions to patent eligibility, providing that you cannot patent: (1) laws of nature, (2) natural phenomena, or (3) abstract ideas. Even with these exceptions, the scope for patentability was quite broad from 1952 (when the modern version of the Patent Act was codified) until roughly 2010.
But over the past decade, the Supreme Court has cut back significantly on what it deems patent eligible, particularly in such areas as biotechnology, computer-implemented inventions, and software. As a result, today “there are many other parts of the world that have more expansive views of what can be patented, including Europe, Australia, and even China.” A key feature of the changes has been the engrafting of case law requirements that patentable eligible subject matter meet before a patent is granted, found in other sections of the Patent Act, onto the previously very broad language of Section 101.
As IPWatchdog President and CEO Gene Quinn explained in a 2019 article, “the real mischief” of recent Supreme Court case law (and, in particular, the 2012 Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus decision) is that it reads requirements of other Patent Act provisions (dealing with novelty, obviousness, and description) into Section 101. That approach defies the plain expansive language of Section 101 and is at odds with earlier Supreme Court case law, which had deemed such an approach totally inappropriate. As such, according to Quinn:
Today, thanks to Mayo, decision makers consider whether claims are new, nonobvious and even properly described all under a Section 101 patent eligibility analysis, which makes the remainder of the patentability sections of the statute superfluous. Indeed, with Mayo, the Supreme Court has usurped Congressional authority over patentability; an authority that is explicitly granted to Congress in the Constitution itself. This usurpation of power is not only wreaking havoc on American innovation, but it has wrought havoc on the delicate balance of power between the Supreme Court and Congress.
Another Supreme Court decision on Section 101 deserves mention. In Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank (2014), the Court construed Mayo as establishing a two-part Section 101 test for patentable subject matter, which involved:
- Determining whether the patent claims are directed to a patent-ineligible concept; and
- Determining whether the claim’s elements, considered both individually and as an ordered combination, transform the nature of the claims into a patent-eligible application.
This “test,” which was pulled out of thin air, went far beyond the text of Section 101, and involved considerations properly assigned to other provisions of the Patent Act.
Flash forward to last week. The Supreme Court on June 30 denied certiorari in American Axle & Mfg. Inc. v. Neapco Holdings, a case raising the question whether a patent that claims a process for manufacturing an automobile driveshaft that simultaneously reduces two types of driveshaft vibration is patent-eligible under Section 101. Underlying the uncertainty (one might say vacuity) of the Mayo-Alice “principle,” a divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (with six judges unsuccessfully voting in favor of rehearing en banc) had found the patent claim ineligible, given the Supreme Court’s Mayo and Alice decisions. Amazingly, a classic type of mechanical invention, at the very heart of traditional notions of patenting, somehow had failed the patent-eligibility test, a result no patent-law observer would have dreamed of prior to the Mayo-Alice duet.
Commendably, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar in May 2022 filed a brief in support of the grant of certiorari in American Axle. In short:
The SG’s brief sa[id] that inventions like the one at issue in American Axle have “[h]istorically…long been viewed as paradigmatic examples of the ‘arts’ or ‘processes’ that may receive patent protection if other statutory criteria are satisfied” and that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit “erred in reading this Court’s precedents to dictate a contrary conclusion.”
The brief explain[ed] in no uncertain terms that claim 22 of the patent at issue in the case does not “simply describe or recite” a natural law and ultimately should have been held patent eligible.
In light of Solicitor General Prelogar’s filing, the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari in American Axle can only be read as a clear signal to the bar that it does not intend to back down from or clarify the application of Mayo and Alice. This has serious negative ramifications for the health of the U.S. patent system. As Michael Borella—a computer scientist and chair of the Software and Business Methods Practice Group at McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff LLP—explains:
In denying certiorari in American Axle & Mfg. Inc. v. Neapco Holdings LLC, the Supreme Court has in essence told the patent community to “deal with it.” That operative ‘it’ is the obtuse and uncertain state of patent-eligibility, where even tangible inventions like garage door openers, electric vehicle charging stations, and mobile phones are too abstract for patenting. The Court has created a system that favors large companies over startups and individual inventors by making the fundamental decision of whether even to seek patent protection akin to shaking a Magic 8 Ball for guidance.
The solution, according to former Federal Circuit Chief Judge Paul Michel, is prompt congressional action:
The Supreme Court’s decisions in the last decade have confused and distorted the law of eligibility. … From 1981 to 2012 … the law was stable and yielded good outcomes in specific cases. Then came Mayo and later, Alice. Now, it is a mess: illogical, unpredictable, chaotic. Bad policy for important innovation including for promoting human health. Congress needs to rescue the innovation economy from the courts which have left it a disaster. Let’s hope Congress rises to the need and acts before China and other nations surpass US technology.
It is most unfortunate that the Supreme Court continues to miss the mark on patent rights. Its failure to heed the clearly expressed statutory language on patent eligibility is badly out of synch with the respect for textualism that it has shown in handing down recent landmark decisions on the free exercise of religion, the right to bear arms, and limitations on the administrative state. Given the sad reality that the Court is unlikely to change its tune, Congress should act promptly to amend Section 101 and thereby reaffirm the clear and broad patent-eligibility standard that had stood our country in good stead from the mid-20th century to a decade ago. Such an outcome would strengthen the U.S. patent system, thereby promoting innovation and competition.