In Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l (2014), the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the one-paragraph per curium opinion of the en banc Federal Circuit, which found all claims of U.S. Patent Nos. 5,970,479, 6,912,510, 7,149,720, and 7,725,375 invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 101 for being directed to an abstract idea.
The Court based its affirmance on an application of a two-step process outlined in Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Labs, 566 U.S. ___ (2012). The first step is the determination of whether the claims are directed to a patent-ineligible concept such as a law of nature, natural phenomenon, or abstract idea. This step implicitly includes the identification of the concept at issue. The second step is to determine if the claims recite “an element or combination of elements that is sufficient to ensure that the patent in practice amounts to significantly more than a patent upon the ineligible concept itself.”
The Court avoided providing “the precise contours of the ‘abstract ideas’ category” by relying on the similarity between Alice’s claims for intermediated settlement and Bilski’s claims for hedging. The Court characterized the Bilski claims as “a method of organizing human activity.” Accordingly, while only three justices signed Justice Sotomayor’s concurrence, stating that “any claim that merely describes a method of doing business does not qualify as a ‘process’ under §101,” the unanimous decision does implicate business methods as likely directed to abstract ideas. At the Federal Circuit, the splintered opinion included a four-judge dissent that argued that the system claims should be patent-eligible even though the method claims were not. The Supreme Court disagreed with this view, finding that if the system claims were treated differently under §101, “an applicant could claim any principle of the physical or social sciences by reciting a computer system configured to implement the relevant concept” which would “make the determination of patent eligibility depend simply on the draftsman’s art.” To convey patent-eligibility, the claims at issue must be “significantly more than an instruction to apply the abstract idea … using some unspecified, generic computer.”
In my previous post regarding the oral argument before the Supreme Court, I noted that the Court seemed to be looking for reasonable and clear rules regarding the limits of the abstract idea exception to patentable subject matter, but did not get such a rule from any party. Perhaps as a result, this case was decided purely on its similarity to Bilski, and without providing much guidance as to the scope of the exception.