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2106 Patent Subject Matter Eligibility [R-08.2017]

I. TWO CRITERIA FOR SUBJECT MATTER ELIGIBILITY

First, the claimed invention must be to one of the four statutory categories. 35 U.S.C. 101 defines the four categories of invention that Congress deemed to be the appropriate subject matter of a patent: processes, machines, manufactures and compositions of matter. The latter three categories define “things” or “products” while the first category defines “actions” (i.e., inventions that consist of a series of steps or acts to be performed). See 35 U.S.C. 100(b) (“The term ‘process’ means process, art, or method, and includes a new use of a known process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or material.”). See MPEP § 2106.03 for detailed information on the four categories.

Second, the claimed invention also must qualify as patent-eligible subject matter, i.e., the claim must not be directed to a judicial exception unless the claim as a whole includes additional limitations amounting to significantly more than the exception. The judicial exceptions (also called “judicially recognized exceptions” or simply “exceptions”) are subject matter that the courts have found to be outside of, or exceptions to, the four statutory categories of invention, and are limited to abstract ideas, laws of nature and natural phenomena (including products of nature). Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int'l, 573 U.S. _, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2354, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1980 (2014) (citing Ass'n for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 569 U.S. _, 133 S. Ct. 2107, 2116, 106 USPQ2d 1972, 1979 (2013). See MPEP § 2106.04 for detailed information on the judicial exceptions.

Because abstract ideas, laws of nature, and natural phenomenon "are the basic tools of scientific and technological work", the Supreme Court has expressed concern that monopolizing these tools by granting patent rights may impede innovation rather than promote it. See Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2354, 110 USPQ2d at 1980; Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 71, 101 USPQ2d 1961, 1965 (2012). However, the Court has also emphasized that an invention is not considered to be ineligible for patenting simply because it involves a judicial exception. Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2354, 110 USPQ2d at 1980-81 (citing Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 187, 209 USPQ 1, 8 (1981)). See also Thales Visionix Inc. v. United States, 850 F.3d. 1343, 1349, 121 USPQ2d 1898, 1902 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (“That a mathematical equation is required to complete the claimed method and system does not doom the claims to abstraction.”). Accordingly, the Court has said that an application of an abstract idea, law of nature or natural phenomenon may be eligible for patent protection. Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2354, 110 USPQ2d at 1980 (citing Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 67, 175 USPQ 673, 675 (1972)).

The Supreme Court in Mayo laid out a framework for determining whether an applicant is seeking to patent a judicial exception itself, or a patent-eligible application of the judicial exception. See Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2355, 110 USPQ2d at 1981 (citing Mayo, 566 U.S. 66, 101 USPQ2d 1961). This framework, which is referred to as the Mayo test or the Alice/Mayo test, is discussed in further detail in subsection III, below. The first part of the Mayo test is to determine whether the claims are directed to an abstract idea, a law of nature or a natural phenomenon (i.e., a judicial exception). Id. If the claims are directed to a judicial exception, the second part of the Mayo test is to determine whether the claim recites additional elements that amount to significantly more than the judicial exception. Id. citing Mayo, 566 U.S. at 72-73, 101 USPQ2d at 1966) The Supreme Court has described the second part of the test as the "search for an 'inventive concept'". Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2355, 110 USPQ2d at 1981 (citing Mayo, 566 U.S. at 72-73, 101 USPQ2d at 1966).

The Alice/Mayo two-part test is the only test that should be used to evaluate the eligibility of claims under examination. While the machine-or-transformation test is an important clue to eligibility, it should not be used as a separate test for eligibility, but instead should be considered as part of the "significantly more" determination in the Alice/Mayo test. Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 605, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1007 (2010). See MPEP § 2106.05(b) and MPEP § 2106.05(c) for more information about how the machine-or-transformation test fits into the Alice/Mayo two-part framework. Likewise, eligibility should not be evaluated based on whether the claim recites a "useful, concrete, and tangible result," State Street Bank, 149 F.3d 1368, 1374, 47 USPQ2d 1596, _ (Fed. Cir. 1998) (quoting In re Alappat, 33 F.3d 1526, 1544, 31 USPQ2d 1545, _ (Fed. Cir. 1994)), as this test has been superseded. In re Bilski, 545 F.3d 943, 959-60, 88 USPQ2d 1385, 1394-95 (Fed. Cir. 2008) (en banc), aff'd by Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 95 USPQ2d 1001 (2010). See also TLI Communications LLC v. AV Automotive LLC, 823 F.3d 607, 613, 118 USPQ2d 1744, 1748 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“It is well-settled that mere recitation of concrete, tangible components is insufficient to confer patent eligibility to an otherwise abstract idea”). The programmed computer or “special purpose computer” test of In re Alappat, 33 F.3d 1526, 31 USPQ2d 1545 (Fed. Cir. 1994) (i.e., the rationale that an otherwise ineligible algorithm or software could be made patent-eligible by merely adding a generic computer to the claim for the “special purpose” of executing the algorithm or software) was also superseded by the Supreme Court’s Bilski and Alice Corp. decisions. Eon Corp. IP Holdings LLC v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 785 F.3d 616, 623, 114 USPQ2d 1711, 1715 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (“[W]e note that Alappat has been superseded by Bilski, 561 U.S. at 605–06, and Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347 (2014)”); Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Capital One Bank (USA), N.A., 792 F.3d 1363, 1366, 115 USPQ2d 1636, 1639 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (“An abstract idea does not become nonabstract by limiting the invention to a particular field of use or technological environment, such as the Internet [or] a computer”). Lastly, eligibility should not be evaluated based on whether the claimed invention has utility, because “[u]tility is not the test for patent-eligible subject matter.” Genetic Techs. Ltd. v. Merial LLC, 818 F.3d 1369, 1380, 118 USPQ2d 1541, 1548 (Fed. Cir. 2016).

Examiners are reminded that 35 U.S.C. 101 is not the sole tool for determining patentability; 35 U.S.C. 112 , 35 U.S.C. 102, and 35 U.S.C. 103 will provide additional tools for ensuring that the claim meets the conditions for patentability. As the Supreme Court made clear in Bilski, 561 U.S. at 602, 95 USPQ2d at 1006:

The § 101 patent-eligibility inquiry is only a threshold test. Even if an invention qualifies as a process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, in order to receive the Patent Act’s protection the claimed invention must also satisfy ‘‘the conditions and requirements of this title.’’ § 101. Those requirements include that the invention be novel, see § 102, nonobvious, see § 103, and fully and particularly described, see § 112.

II. ESTABLISH BROADEST REASONABLE INTERPRETATION OF CLAIM AS A WHOLE

It is essential that the broadest reasonable interpretation (BRI) of the claim be established prior to examining a claim for eligibility. The BRI sets the boundaries of the coverage sought by the claim and will influence whether the claim seeks to cover subject matter that is beyond the four statutory categories or encompasses subject matter that falls within the exceptions. Evaluating eligibility based on the BRI also ensures that patent eligibility under 35 U.S.C. 101 does not depend simply on the draftsman’s art. Alice, 134 S. Ct. at 2359, 2360, 110 USPQ2d at 1984, 1985 (citing Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 593, 198 USPQ 193, 198 (1978) and Mayo, 566 U.S. at 72, 101 USPQ2d at 1966). See MPEP § 2111 for more information about determining the BRI.

Claim interpretation affects the evaluation of both criteria for eligibility. For example, in Mentor Graphics v. EVE-USA, Inc., 851 F.3d 1275, 112 USPQ2d 1120 (Fed. Cir. 2017), claim interpretation was crucial to the court’s determination that claims to a “machine-readable medium” were not to a statutory category. In Mentor Graphics, the court interpreted the claims in light of the specification, which expressly defined the medium as encompassing “any data storage device” including random-access memory and carrier waves. Although random-access memory and magnetic tape are statutory media, carrier waves are not because they are signals similar to the transitory, propagating signals held to be non-statutory in Nuijten. 851 F.3d at 1294, 112 USPQ2d at 1133 (citing In re Nuijten, 500 F.3d 1346, 84 USPQ2d 1495 (Fed. Cir. 2007)). Accordingly, because the BRI of the claims covered both subject matter that falls within a statutory category (the random-access memory), as well as subject matter that does not (the carrier waves), the claims as a whole were not to a statutory category and thus failed the first criterion for eligibility.

With regard to the second criterion for eligibility, the Alice/Mayo test, claim interpretation can affect the first part of the test (whether the claims are directed to a judicial exception). For example, the patentee in Synopsys argued that the claimed methods of logic circuit design were intended to be used in conjunction with computer-based design tools, and were thus not mental processes. Synopsys, Inc. v. Mentor Graphics Corp., 839 F.3d 1138, 1147-49, 120 USPQ2d 1473, 1480-81 (Fed. Cir. 2016). The court disagreed, because it interpreted the claims as encompassing nothing other than pure mental steps (and thus an abstract idea) because the claims did not include any limitations requiring computer implementation. In contrast, the patentee in Enfish argued that its claimed self-referential table for a computer database was an improvement in an existing technology and thus not directed to an abstract idea. Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d 1327, 1336-37, 118 USPQ2d 1684, 1689-90 (Fed. Cir. 2016). The court agreed with the patentee, based on its interpretation of the claimed “means for configuring” under 35 U.S.C. 112(f) as requiring a four-step algorithm that achieved the improvements, as opposed to merely any form of storing tabular data. See also McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games America, Inc. 837 F.3d 1299, 1314, 120 USPQ2d 1091, 1102 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (the claim’s construction incorporated rules of a particular type that improved an existing technological process). Claim interpretation can also affect the second part of the Alice/Mayo test (whether the claim recites additional elements that amount to significantly more than the judicial exception). For example, in Amdocs (Israel) Ltd. v. Openet Telecom, Inc., where the court relied on the construction of the term “enhance” (to require application of a number of field enhancements in a distributed fashion) to determine that the claim entails an unconventional technical solution to a technological problem. 841 F.3d 1288, 1300-01, 120 USPQ2d 1527, 1537 (Fed. Cir. 2016).

III. SUMMARY OF ANALYSIS AND FLOWCHART

Examiners should determine whether a claim satisfies the criteria for subject matter eligibility by evaluating the claim in accordance with the following flowchart. The flowchart illustrates the steps of the subject matter eligibility analysis for products and processes that are to be used during examination for evaluating whether a claim is drawn to patent-eligible subject matter. It is recognized that under the controlling legal precedent there may be variations in the precise contours of the analysis for subject matter eligibility that will still achieve the same end result. The analysis set forth herein promotes examination efficiency and consistency across all technologies.

As shown in the flowchart, Step 1 relates to the statutory categories and ensures that the first criterion is met by confirming that the claim falls within one of the four statutory categories of invention. See MPEP § 2106.03 for more information on Step 1. Step 2, which is the Supreme Court’s Alice/Mayo test, is a two-part test to identify claims that are directed to a judicial exception (Step 2A) and to then evaluate what more such claims recite to provide an inventive concept (Step 2B) (also called a practical application) to the judicial exception. See MPEP § 2106.04 for more information on Step 2A, and MPEP § 2106.05 for more information on Step 2B.

The flowchart also shows three pathways (A, B, and C) to eligibility:

  • Pathway A: Claims taken as a whole that fall within a statutory category (Step 1: YES) and, which may or may not recite a judicial exception, but whose eligibility is self-evident can be found eligible at Pathway A using a streamlined analysis. See MPEP § 2106.06 for more information on this pathway and on self-evident eligibility.
  • Pathway B: Claims taken as a whole that fall within a statutory category (Step 1: YES) and are not directed to a judicial exception (Step 2A: NO) are eligible at Pathway B. These claims do not need to go to Step 2B. See MPEP § 2106.04 for more information about this pathway and Step 2A.
  • Pathway C: Claims taken as a whole that fall within a statutory category (Step 1: YES), are directed to a judicial exception (Step 2A: YES), and recite additional elements either individually or in an ordered combination that amount to significantly more than the judicial exception (Step 2B: YES) are eligible at Pathway C. See MPEP § 2106.05 for more information about this pathway and Step 2B.

Claims that could have been found eligible at Pathway A (streamlined analysis), but are subjected to further analysis at Steps 2A or Step 2B, will ultimately be found eligible at Pathways B or C. Thus, if the examiner is uncertain about whether a streamlined analysis is appropriate, the examiner is encouraged to conduct a full eligibility analysis. However, if the claim is not found eligible at any of Pathways A, B or C, the claim is patent ineligible and should be rejected under 35 U.S.C. 101.

Regardless of whether a rejection under 35 U.S.C. 101 is made, a complete examination should be made for every claim under each of the other patentability requirements: 35 U.S.C. 102, 103, 112, and 101 (utility, inventorship and double patenting) and non-statutory double patenting. MPEP § 2103.

Subject Matter Eligibility Flowchart

2106.01 [Reserved]

2106.02 [Reserved]

2106.03 Eligibility Step 1: The Four Categories of Statutory Subject Matter [R-08.2017]

I. THE FOUR CATEGORIES

35 U.S.C. 101 enumerates four categories of subject matter that Congress deemed to be appropriate subject matter for a patent: processes, machines, manufactures and compositions of matter. As explained by the courts, these “four categories together describe the exclusive reach of patentable subject matter. If a claim covers material not found in any of the four statutory categories, that claim falls outside the plainly expressed scope of § 101 even if the subject matter is otherwise new and useful.” In re Nuijten, 500 F.3d 1346, 1354, 84 USPQ2d 1495, 1500 (Fed. Cir. 2007).

A process defines “actions”, i.e., an invention that is claimed as an act or step, or a series of acts or steps. As explained by the Supreme Court, a “process” is “a mode of treatment of certain materials to produce a given result. It is an act, or a series of acts, performed upon the subject-matter to be transformed and reduced to a different state or thing.” Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 70, 175 USPQ 673, 676 (1972) (italics added) (quoting Cochrane v. Deener, 94 U.S. 780, 788, 24 L. Ed. 139, 141 (1876)). Accord Nuijten, 500 F.3d at 1355, 84 USPQ2d at 1501 (“The Supreme Court and this court have consistently interpreted the statutory term ‘process’ to require action”); NTP, Inc. v. Research in Motion, Ltd., 418 F.3d 1282, 1316, 75 USPQ2d 1763, 1791 (Fed. Cir. 2005) (“[A] process is a series of acts.”) (quoting Minton v. Natl. Ass’n. of Securities Dealers, 336 F.3d 1373, 1378, 67 USPQ2d 1614, 1681 (Fed. Cir. 2003)). As defined in 35 U.S.C. 100(b), the term “process” is synonymous with “method.”

The other three categories (machines, manufactures and compositions of matter) define the types of physical or tangible “things” or “products” that Congress deemed appropriate to patent. Digitech Image Techs. v. Electronics for Imaging, 758 F.3d 1344, 1348, 111 USPQ2d 1717, 1719 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (“For all categories except process claims, the eligible subject matter must exist in some physical or tangible form.”). Thus, when determining whether a claimed invention falls within one of these three categories, examiners should verify that the invention is to at least one of the following categories and is claimed in a physical or tangible form.

  • • A machine is a “concrete thing, consisting of parts, or of certain devices and combination of devices.” Digitech, 758 F.3d at 1348-49, 111 USPQ2d at 1719 (quoting Burr v. Duryee, 68 U.S. 531, 570, 17 L. Ed. 650, 657 (1863)). This category “includes every mechanical device or combination of mechanical powers and devices to perform some function and produce a certain effect or result.” Nuijten, 500 F.3d at 1355, 84 USPQ2d at 1501 (quoting Corning v. Burden, 56 U.S. 252, 267, 14 L. Ed. 683, 690 (1854)).
  • • A manufacture is “a tangible article that is given a new form, quality, property, or combination through man-made or artificial means.” Digitech, 758 F.3d at 1349, 111 USPQ2d at 1719-20 (citing Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 308, 206 USPQ 193, 197 (1980)). As the courts have explained, manufactures are articles that result from the process of manufacturing, i.e., they were produced “from raw or prepared materials by giving to these materials new forms, qualities, properties, or combinations, whether by hand-labor or by machinery.” Samsung Electronics Co. v. Apple Inc., 580 U.S. __, 137 S. Ct. 429, 435, 120 USPQ2d 1749, 1752-3 (2016) (quoting Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U. S. 303, 308, 206 USPQ 193, 196-97 (1980)); Nuijten, 500 F.3d at 1356-57, 84 USPQ2d at 1502. Manufactures also include “the parts of a machine considered separately from the machine itself.” Samsung Electronics, 137 S. Ct. at 435, 120 USPQ2d at 1753 (quoting 1 W. Robinson, The Law of Patents for Useful Inventions §183, p. 270 (1890)).
  • • A composition of matter is a “combination of two or more substances and includes all composite articles.” Digitech, 758 F.3d at 1348-49, 111 USPQ2d at 1719 (citation omitted). This category includes all compositions of two or more substances and all composite articles, “'whether they be the results of chemical union or of mechanical mixture, or whether they be gases, fluids, powders or solids.'” Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 308, 206 USPQ at 197 (quoting Shell Dev. Co. v. Watson, 149 F. Supp. 279, 280 (D.D.C. 1957); id. at 310 holding genetically modified microorganism to be a manufacture or composition of matter).

It is not necessary to identify a single category into which a claim falls, so long as it is clear that the claim falls into at least one category. For example, because a microprocessor is generally understood to be a manufacture, a product claim to the microprocessor or a system comprising the microprocessor satisfies Step 1 regardless of whether the claim falls within any other statutory category (such as a machine). It is also not necessary to identify a “correct” category into which the claim falls, because although in many instances it is clear within which category a claimed invention falls, a claim may satisfy the requirements of more than one category. For example, a bicycle satisfies both the machine and manufacture categories, because it is a tangible product that is concrete and consists of parts such as a frame and wheels (thus satisfying the machine category), and it is an article that was produced from raw materials such as aluminum ore and liquid rubber by giving them a new form (thus satisfying the manufacture category). Similarly, a genetically modified bacterium satisfies both the composition of matter and manufacture categories, because it is a tangible product that is a combination of two or more substances such as proteins, carbohydrates and other chemicals (thus satisfying the composition of matter category), and it is an article that was genetically modified by humans to have new properties such as the ability to digest multiple types of hydrocarbons (thus satisfying the manufacture category).

Non-limiting examples of claims that are not directed to any of the statutory categories include:

  • • Products that do not have a physical or tangible form, such as information (often referred to as “data per se”) or a computer program per se (often referred to as “software per se”) when claimed as a product without any structural recitations;
  • • Transitory forms of signal transmission (often referred to as “signals per se”), such as a propagating electrical or electromagnetic signal or carrier wave; and
  • • Subject matter that the statute expressly prohibits from being patented, such as humans per se, which are excluded under The Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA), Public Law 112-29, sec. 33, 125 Stat. 284 (September 16, 2011).

As the courts' definitions of machines, manufactures and compositions of matter indicate, a product must have a physical or tangible form in order to fall within one of these statutory categories. Digitech, 758 F.3d at 1348, 111 USPQ2d at 1719. Thus, the Federal Circuit has held that a product claim to an intangible collection of information, even if created by human effort, does not fall within any statutory category. Digitech, 758 F.3d at 1350, 111 USPQ2d at 1720 (claimed “device profile” comprising two sets of data did not meet any of the categories because it was neither a process nor a tangible product). Similarly, software expressed as code or a set of instructions detached from any medium is an idea without physical embodiment. See Microsoft Corp. v. AT&T Corp., 550 U.S. 437, 449, 82 USPQ2d 1400, 1407 (2007); see also Benson, 409 U.S. 67, 175 USPQ2d 675 (An "idea" is not patent eligible). Thus, a product claim to a software program that does not also contain at least one structural limitation (such as a “means plus function” limitation) has no physical or tangible form, and thus does not fall within any statutory category. Another example of an intangible product that does not fall within a statutory category is a paradigm or business model for a marketing company. In re Ferguson, 558 F.3d 1359, 1364, 90 USPQ2d 1035, 1039-40 (Fed. Cir. 2009).

Even when a product has a physical or tangible form, it may not fall within a statutory category. For instance, a transitory signal, while physical and real, does not possess concrete structure that would qualify as a device or part under the definition of a machine, is not a tangible article or commodity under the definition of a manufacture (even though it is man-made and physical in that it exists in the real world and has tangible causes and effects), and is not composed of matter such that it would qualify as a composition of matter. Nuijten, 500 F.3d at 1356-1357, 84 USPQ2d at 1501-03. As such, a transitory, propagating signal does not fall within any statutory category. Mentor Graphics Corp. v. EVE-USA, Inc., 851 F.3d 1275, 1294, 112 USPQ2d 1120, 1133 (Fed. Cir. 2017); Nuijten, 500 F.3d at 1356-1357, 84 USPQ2d at 1501-03.

II. ELIGIBILITY STEP 1: WHETHER A CLAIM IS TO A STATUTORY CATEGORY

As described in MPEP § 2106, subsection III, Step 1 of the eligibility analysis asks: Is the claim to a process, machine, manufacture or composition of matter? Like the other steps in the eligibility analysis, evaluation of this step should be made after determining what applicant has invented by reviewing the entire application disclosure and construing the claims in accordance with their broadest reasonable interpretation (BRI). See MPEP § 2106, subsection II for more information about the importance of understanding what the applicant has invented, and MPEP § 2111 for more information about the BRI.

In the context of the flowchart in MPEP § 2106, subsection III, Step 1 determines whether:

  • • The claim as a whole does not fall within any statutory category (Step 1: NO) and thus is non-statutory, warranting a rejection for failure to claim statutory subject matter as discussed in MPEP § 706.03(a); or
  • • The claim as a whole falls within one or more statutory categories (Step 1: YES), and thus must be further analyzed to determine whether it qualifies as eligible at Pathway A or requires further analysis at Step 2A to determine if the claim is directed to a judicial exception.

A claim whose BRI covers both statutory and non-statutory embodiments embraces subject matter that is not eligible for patent protection and therefore is directed to non-statutory subject matter. Such claims fail the first step (Step 1: NO) and should be rejected under 35 U.S.C. 101, for at least this reason. In such a case, it is a best practice for the examiner to point out the BRI and recommend an amendment, if possible, that would narrow the claim to those embodiments that fall within a statutory category.

For example, the BRI of machine readable media can encompass non-statutory transitory forms of signal transmission, such as a propagating electrical or electromagnetic signal per se. See In re Nuijten, 500 F.3d 1346, 84 USPQ2d 1495 (Fed. Cir. 2007). When the BRI encompasses transitory forms of signal transmission, a rejection under 35 U.S.C. 101 as failing to claim statutory subject matter would be appropriate. Thus, a claim to a computer readable medium that can be a compact disc or a carrier wave covers a non-statutory embodiment and therefore should be rejected under 35 U.S.C. 101 as being directed to non-statutory subject matter. See, e.g., Mentor Graphics v. EVE-USA, Inc., 851 F.3d at 1294-95, 112 USPQ2d at 1134 (claims to a “machine-readable medium” were non-statutory, because their scope encompassed both statutory random-access memory and non-statutory carrier waves).

If a claim is clearly not within one of the four categories (Step 1: NO), then a rejection under 35 U.S.C. 101 must be made indicating that the claim is directed to non-statutory subject matter. Form paragraphs 7.05 and 7.05.01 should be used; see MPEP § 706.03(a). However, as shown in the flowchart in MPEP § 2106 subsection III, when a claim fails under Step 1 (Step 1: NO), but it appears from applicant’s disclosure that the claim could be amended to fall within a statutory category (Step 1: YES), the analysis should proceed to determine whether such an amended claim would qualify as eligible at Pathway A, B or C. In such a case, it is a best practice for the examiner to recommend an amendment, if possible, that would resolve eligibility of the claim.

2106.04 Eligibility Step 2: Whether a Claim is Directed to a Judicial Exception [R-08.2017]

I. JUDICIAL EXCEPTIONS

Determining that a claim falls within one of the four enumerated categories of patentable subject matter recited in 35 U.S.C. 101 (i.e., process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter) in Step 1 does not end the eligibility analysis, because claims directed to nothing more than abstract ideas (such as mathematical algorithms), natural phenomena, and laws of nature are not eligible for patent protection. Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 185, 209 USPQ 1, 7 (1981). Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int'l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2354, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1980 (2014) (citing Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 133 S. Ct. 2107, 2116, 106 USPQ2d 1972, 1979 (2013)); Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 309, 206 USPQ 193, 197 (1980); Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 589, 198 USPQ 193, 197 (1978); Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 67-68, 175 USPQ 673, 675 (1972). See also Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 601, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1005-06 (2010) (“The Court’s precedents provide three specific exceptions to § 101's broad patent-eligibility principles: ‘laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas’”) (quoting Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 309, 206 USPQ at 197 (1980)).

In addition to the terms “laws of nature,” “natural phenomena,” and “abstract ideas,” judicially recognized exceptions have been described using various other terms, including “physical phenomena,” “products of nature,” “scientific principles,” “systems that depend on human intelligence alone,” “disembodied concepts,” “mental processes,” and “disembodied mathematical algorithms and formulas.” It should be noted that there are no bright lines between the types of exceptions, and that many of the concepts identified by the courts as exceptions can fall under several exceptions. For example, mathematical formulas are considered to be a judicial exception as they express a scientific truth, but have been labelled by the courts as both abstract ideas and laws of nature. Likewise, “products of nature” are considered to be an exception because they tie up the use of naturally occurring things, but have been labelled as both laws of nature and natural phenomena. Thus, it is sufficient for this analysis for the examiner to identify that the claimed concept (the specific claim limitation(s) that the examiner believes may recite an exception) aligns with at least one judicial exception.

The Supreme Court has explained that the judicial exceptions reflect the Court’s view that abstract ideas, laws of nature, and natural phenomena are “the basic tools of scientific and technological work”, and are thus excluded from patentability because “monopolization of those tools through the grant of a patent might tend to impede innovation more than it would tend to promote it.” Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2354, 110 USPQ2d at 1980 (quoting Myriad, 133 S. Ct. at 2116, 106 USPQ2d at 1978 and Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs. Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 71, 101 USPQ2d 1961, 1965 (2012)). The Supreme Court’s concern that drives this “exclusionary principle” is pre-emption. Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2354, 110 USPQ2d at 1980. The Court has held that a claim may not preempt abstract ideas, laws of nature, or natural phenomena; i.e., one may not patent every “substantial practical application” of an abstract idea, law of nature, or natural phenomenon, even if the judicial exception is narrow (e.g., a particular mathematical formula such as the Arrhenius equation). See, e.g., Mayo, 566 U.S. at 79-80, 86-87, 101 USPQ2d at 1968-69, 1971 (claims directed to “narrow laws that may have limited applications” held ineligible); Flook, 437 U.S. at 589-90, 198 USPQ at 197 (claims that did not “wholly preempt the mathematical formula” held ineligible). This is because such a patent would “in practical effect [] be a patent on the [abstract idea, law of nature or natural phenomenon] itself.” Benson, 409 U.S. at 71- 72, 175 USPQ at 676. The concern over preemption was expressed as early as 1852. See Le Roy v. Tatham, 55 U.S. (14 How.) 156, 175 (1852) (“A principle, in the abstract, is a fundamental truth; an original cause; a motive; these cannot be patented, as no one can claim in either of them an exclusive right.”).

While preemption is the concern underlying the judicial exceptions, it is not a standalone test for determining eligibility. Rapid Litig. Mgmt. v. CellzDirect, Inc., 827 F.3d 1042, 1052, 119 USPQ2d 1370, 1376 (Fed. Cir. 2016). Instead, questions of preemption are inherent in and resolved by the two-part framework from Alice Corp. and Mayo (the Alice/Mayo test referred to by the Office as Steps 2A and 2B). Synopsys, Inc. v. Mentor Graphics Corp., 839 F.3d 1138, 1150, 120 USPQ2d 1473, 1483 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, Inc., 788 F.3d 1371, 1379, 115 USPQ2d 1152, 1158 (Fed. Cir. 2015). It is necessary to evaluate eligibility using the Alice/Mayo test, because while a preemptive claim may be ineligible, the absence of complete preemption does not demonstrate that a claim is eligible. Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 191-92 n.14, 209 USPQ 1, 10-11 n.14 (1981) (“We rejected in Flook the argument that because all possible uses of the mathematical formula were not pre-empted, the claim should be eligible for patent protection”). See also Return Mail, Inc. v. U.S. Postal Service, -- F.3d --, -- USPQ2d –, slip op. at 34 (Fed. Cir. August 28, 2017); Synopsys v. Mentor Graphics, 839 F.3d at 1150, 120 USPQ2d at 1483; FairWarning IP, LLC v. Iatric Sys., Inc., 839 F.3d 1089, 1098, 120 USPQ2d 1293, 1299 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Symantec Corp., 838 F.3d 1307, 1320-21, 120 USPQ2d 1353, 1362 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Sequenom, 788 F.3d at 1379, 115 USPQ2d at 1158. Several Federal Circuit decisions, however, have noted the absence of preemption when finding claims eligible under the Alice/Mayo test. McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 1315, 120 USPQ2d 1091, 1102-03 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Rapid Litig. Mgmt. v. CellzDirect, Inc., 827 F.3d 1042, 1052, 119 USPQ2d 1370, 1376 (Fed. Cir. 2016); BASCOM Global Internet v. AT&T Mobility, LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1350-52, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1243-44 (Fed. Cir. 2016).

The Supreme Court’s decisions make it clear that judicial exceptions need not be old or long-prevalent, and that even newly discovered or novel judicial exceptions are still exceptions. For example, the mathematical formula in Flook, the laws of nature in Mayo, and the isolated DNA in Myriad were all novel or newly discovered, but nonetheless were considered by the Supreme Court to be judicial exceptions because they were “‘basic tools of scientific and technological work’ that lie beyond the domain of patent protection.” Myriad, 133 S. Ct. at 2112, 2116, 106 USPQ2d at 1976, 1978 (noting that Myriad discovered the BRCA1 and BRCA1 genes and quoting Mayo, 566 U.S. 71, 101 USPQ2d at 1965); Flook, 437 U.S. at 591-92, 198 USPQ2d at 198 (“the novelty of the mathematical algorithm is not a determining factor at all”); Mayo, 566 U.S. 73-74, 78, 101 USPQ2d 1966, 1968 (noting that the claims embody the researcher's discoveries of laws of nature). The Supreme Court’s cited rationale for considering even “just discovered” judicial exceptions as exceptions stems from the concern that “without this exception, there would be considerable danger that the grant of patents would ‘tie up’ the use of such tools and thereby ‘inhibit future innovation premised upon them.’” Myriad, 133 S. Ct. at 2116, 106 USPQ2d at 1978-79 (quoting Mayo, 566 U.S. at 86, 101 USPQ2d at 1971). See also Myriad, 133 S. Ct. at 2117, 106 USPQ2d at 1979 (“Groundbreaking, innovative, or even brilliant discovery does not by itself satisfy the §101 inquiry.”). The Federal Circuit has also applied this principle, for example, when holding a concept of using advertising as an exchange or currency to be an abstract idea, despite the patentee’s arguments that the concept was “new”. Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709, 714-15, 112 USPQ2d 1750, 1753-54 (Fed. Cir. 2014). Cf. Synopsys, Inc. v. Mentor Graphics Corp., 839 F.3d 1138, 1151, 120 USPQ2d 1473, 1483 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“a new abstract idea is still an abstract idea”) (emphasis in original).

For a detailed discussion of abstract ideas, see MPEP § 2106.04(a); for a detailed discussion of laws of nature, natural phenomena and products of nature, see MPEP § 2106.04(b).

II. ELIGIBILITY STEP 2A: WHETHER A CLAIM IS DIRECTED TO A JUDICIAL EXCEPTION

As described in MPEP § 2106, subsection III, Step 2A of the Office’s eligibility analysis is the first part of the Alice/Mayo test, i.e., the Supreme Court’s “framework for distinguishing patents that claim laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas from those that claim patent-eligible applications of those concepts.” Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int'l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2355, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1981 (2014) (citing Mayo, 566 U.S. at 77-78, 101 USPQ2d at 1967-68). Like the other steps in the eligibility analysis, evaluation of this step should be made after determining what applicant has invented by reviewing the entire application disclosure and construing the claims in accordance with their broadest reasonable interpretation. See MPEP § 2106, subsection II for more information about the importance of understanding what the applicant has invented, and MPEP § 2111 for more information about the broadest reasonable interpretation.

Step 2A asks: Is the claim directed to a law of nature, a natural phenomenon (product of nature) or an abstract idea? A claim is directed to a judicial exception when a law of nature, a natural phenomenon, or an abstract idea is recited (i.e.,set forth or described) in the claim. While the terms “set forth” and “describe” are thus both equated with “recite”, their different language is intended to indicate that there are different ways in which an exception can be recited in a claim. For instance, the claims in Diehr set forth a mathematical equation in the repetitively calculating step, the claims in Mayo set forth laws of nature in the wherein clause, meaning that the claims in those cases contained discrete claim language that was identifiable as a judicial exception. The claims in Alice Corp., however, described the concept of intermediated settlement without ever explicitly using the words “intermediated” or “settlement.”

In the context of the flowchart in MPEP § 2106, subsection III, Step 2A determines whether:

  • • The claim as a whole is not directed to a judicial exception (Step 2A: NO) and thus is eligible at Pathway B, thereby concluding the eligibility analysis; or
  • • The claim as a whole is directed to a judicial exception (Step 2A: YES) and thus requires further analysis at Step 2B to determine if the claim as a whole amounts to significantly more than the exception itself.

A claim directed to a judicial exception requires closer scrutiny for eligibility because of the risk that it will tie up the excluded subject matter and prevent others from using the law of nature, natural phenomenon, or abstract idea. However, the courts have carefully construed this “exclusionary principle lest it swallow all of patent law” because “all inventions at some level embody, use, reflect, rest upon, or apply laws of nature, natural phenomenon, or abstract ideas.” Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2354, 110 USPQ2d at 1980 (citing Mayo, 566 US at 71, 101 USPQ2d at 1965). See also Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d 1327, 1335, 118 USPQ2d 1684, 1688 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“The ‘directed to’ inquiry, therefore, cannot simply ask whether the claims involve a patent-ineligible concept, because essentially every routinely patent-eligible claim involving physical products and actions involves a law of nature and/or natural phenomenon”). Examiners should accordingly be careful to distinguish claims that recite an exception (which require further eligibility analysis) and claims that merely involve an exception (which are eligible and do not require further eligibility analysis). Further, examiners should consider the claim as a whole when performing the Step 2A analysis.

An example of a claim that recites a judicial exception is “A machine comprising elements that operate in accordance with F=ma.” This claim recites the principle that force equals mass times acceleration (F=ma) and is therefore directed to a law of nature exception. Because F=ma represents a mathematical formula, the claim could alternatively be considered as directed to an abstract idea. Because this claim is directed to a judicial exception (Step 2A: YES), it requires further analysis in Step 2B. An example of a claim that merely involves, or is based on, an exception is a claim to “A teeter-totter comprising an elongated member pivotably attached to a base member, having seats and handles attached at opposing sides of the elongated member.” This claim is based on the concept of a lever pivoting on a fulcrum, which involves the natural principles of mechanical advantage and the law of the lever. However, this claim does not recite these natural principles and therefore is not directed to a judicial exception (Step 2A: NO). Thus, the claim is eligible without further analysis.

Unless it is clear that the claim recites distinct exceptions, such as a law of nature and an abstract idea, care should be taken not to parse a recited exception into multiple exceptions, particularly in claims involving abstract ideas. For example, steps in a claim that recite the manipulation of information through a series of mental steps would be considered a single abstract idea for purposes of analysis rather than a plurality of separate abstract ideas to be analyzed individually. However, a claim reciting multiple exceptions is directed to at least one judicial exception (Step 2A: YES) regardless of whether the multiple exceptions are distinct from each other, and thus must be further analyzed in Step 2B. See, e.g.,RecogniCorp, LLC v. Nintendo Co., 855 F.3d 1322, 1326-27, 122 USPQ2d 1377, 1379-80 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (claim reciting multiple abstract ideas, i.e., the manipulation of information through a series of mental steps and a mathematical calculation, was held directed to an abstract idea and thus subjected to further analysis in part two of the Alice/Mayo test).

2106.04(a) Abstract Ideas [R-08.2017]

The abstract idea exception has deep roots in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. See Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 601-602, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1006 (2010) (citing Le Roy v. Tatham, 55 U.S. (14 How.) 156, 174–175 (1853)). Despite this long history, the courts have declined to define abstract ideas. Instead, they have often identified abstract ideas by referring to earlier precedent, e.g., by comparing a claimed concept to the concepts previously identified as abstract ideas by the courts. Amdocs (Israel), Ltd. v. Openet Telecom, Inc., 841 F.3d 1288, 1294, 120 USPQ2d 1527, 1532 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d. 1327, 1334, 118 USPQ2d 1684, 1688 (Fed. Cir. 2016). For example, in Alice Corp., the Supreme Court identified the claimed systems and methods as describing the concept of intermediated settlement, and then compared this concept to the risk hedging concept identified as an abstract idea in Bilski. Because this comparison revealed "no meaningful distinction between the concept of risk hedging in Bilski and the concept of intermediated settlement at issue here”, the Court concluded that the concept of intermediated settlement was an abstract idea. Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int'l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2356-57, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1982 (2014). Similarly, the Federal Circuit in Amdocs compared the claims at issue with “eligible and ineligible claims of a similar nature from past cases” as part of its eligibility analysis. 841 F.3d at 1295-1300, 120 USPQ2d at 1533-1536.

Although the Supreme Court has not delimited the precise contours of the abstract idea exception, it is clear from the body of judicial precedent that software and business methods are not excluded categories of subject matter. For example, the Supreme Court concluded that business methods are not “categorically outside of § 101's scope,” stating that “a business method is simply one kind of ‘method’ that is, at least in some circumstances, eligible for patenting under § 101.” Bilski, 561 U.S. at 607, 95 USPQ2d at 1008 (2010). See also Content Extraction and Transmission, LLC v. Wells Fargo Bank, 776 F.3d 1343, 1347, 113 USPQ2d 1354, 1357 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (“there is no categorical business-method exception”). Likewise, software is not automatically an abstract idea, even if performance of a software task involves an underlying mathematical calculation or relationship. See, e.g., Thales Visionix, Inc. v. United States, 850 F.3d 1343, 121 USPQ2d 1898, 1902 (“That a mathematical equation is required to complete the claimed method and system does not doom the claims to abstraction.”); McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 1316, 120 USPQ2d 1091, 1103 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (methods of automatic lip synchronization and facial expression animation using computer-implemented rules were not directed to an abstract idea); Enfish, 822 F.3d at 1336, 118 USPQ2d at 1689 (claims to self-referential table for a computer database were not directed to an abstract idea).

Examiners should determine whether a claim recites an abstract idea by (1) identifying the claimed concept (the specific claim limitation(s) in the claim under examination that the examiner believes may be an abstract idea), and (2) comparing the claimed concept to the concepts previously identified as abstract ideas by the courts to determine if it is similar.

  • • If a claimed concept is similar to one or more concepts that were previously identified as abstract ideas by the courts, it is reasonable to conclude that the concept is an abstract idea and find that the claim is directed to an abstract idea exception (Step 2A: YES). The claim then requires further analysis in Step 2B to determine whether any additional elements in the claim add significantly more to the exception.
  • • If the claimed concept(s) is not similar to a concept that was previously identified as an abstract idea by the courts and there is no basis for concluding that the concept is an abstract idea, it is reasonable to find that the claim is not directed to an abstract idea exception. The claim is eligible (Step 2A: NO) at Pathway B unless the claim recites another exception (such as a law of nature or natural phenomenon).
I. CLAIMS THAT ARE DIRECTED TO IMPROVEMENTS IN COMPUTER FUNCTIONALITY OR OTHER TECHNOLOGY ARE NOT ABSTRACT

When making the determination of whether a claim is directed to an abstract idea, examiners should keep in mind that some inventions pertaining to improvements in computer functionality or to improvements in other technologies are not abstract when appropriately claimed, and thus may be eligible at Step 2A. Federal Circuit decisions providing examples of such eligible claims include: Enfish, 822 F.3d at 1339, 118 USPQ2d at 1691-92 (claims to a self-referential table for a computer database were directed to an improvement in computer capabilities and not an abstract idea); McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 1315, 120 USPQ2d 1091, 1102-03 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (claims to automatic lip synchronization and facial expression animation were directed to an improvement in computer-related technology and not an abstract idea); and Visual Memory LLC v. NVIDIA Corp., 867 F.3d 1253,1259-60, 123 USPQ2d 1712, 1717 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (claims to an enhanced computer memory system were directed to an improvement in computer capabilities and not an abstract idea).

  • • In Enfish, the Federal Circuit concluded that claims to a self-referential database were not directed to an abstract idea, but rather an improvement to computer functionality. 822 F.3d at 1336, 118 USPQ2d at 1689. It was the specification’s discussion of the prior art and how the invention improves the way the computer stores and retrieves data in memory in combination with the specific data structure recited in the claims that provided eligibility. 822 F.3d at 1337, 118 USPQ2d at 1690. The claim was not simply the addition of general purpose computers added post-hoc to an abstract idea, but a specific implementation of a solution to a problem in the software arts. 822 F.3d at 1339, 118 USPQ2d at 1691
  • • In McRO, the Federal Circuit concluded that the claimed methods of automatic lip synchronization and facial expression animation using computer-implemented rules were not directed to an abstract idea. McRO, 837 F.3d at 1316, 120 USPQ2d at 1103. The basis for the McRO court's decision was that the claims were directed to an improvement in computer animation and thus did not recite a concept similar to previously identified abstract ideas in Flook, Bilski, and Alice, “where the claimed computer-automated process and the prior [uncomputerized] method were carried out in the same way.” 837 F.3d at 1314-15, 120 USPQ2d at 1102 The court relied on the specification's explanation of how the claimed rules enabled the automation of specific animation tasks that previously could not be automated. 837 F.3d at 1313, 120 USPQ2d at 1101. The McRO court indicated that the incorporation of the particular claimed rules in computer animation "improved [the] existing technological process", rather than merely used the computer a "tool to automate conventional activity". 837 F.3d at 1314, 120 USPQ2d at 1102. The McRO court also noted that the claims at issue described a specific way (use of particular rules to set morph weights and transitions through phonemes) to solve the problem of producing accurate and realistic lip synchronization and facial expressions in animated characters and thus were not directed to an abstract idea. 837 F.3d at 1313, 120 USPQ2d at 1101.
  • • In Visual Memory, LLC v. NVIDIA Corp., 867 F.3d 1253, 1254, 123 USPQ2d 1712, 1713 (Fed. Cir. 2017), the Federal Circuit concluded that claims to an enhanced computer memory system were not directed to an abstract idea. The basis for the court’s decision was that the claims focused on a specific asserted improvement in computer capabilities (the use of programmable operational characteristics that are configurable based on the type of processor) and thus were not directed to the abstract idea of categorical data storage. 867 F.2d at 1259-60, 123 USPQ2d at 1717. The court also relied on the specification’s explanation of the multiple benefits flowing from the claimed memory system, such as the claimed system’s outperformance of prior art memory systems and the disclosure of how the claimed system can be used with different types of processors without a tradeoff in processor performance. 867 F.2d at 1259, 123 USPQ2d at 1717.

When finding that a claim is directed to such an improvement, it is critical that examiners give the claim its broadest reasonable interpretation (BRI) and evaluate both the specification and the claim. The specification should disclose sufficient details such that one of ordinary skill in the art would recognize the claimed invention as providing an improvement, and the claim itself must reflect the improvement in technology. Other important considerations are the extent to which the claim covers a particular solution to a problem or a particular way to achieve a desired outcome, as opposed to merely claiming the idea of a solution or outcome, and whether the BRI is limited to computer implementation. See MPEP § 2106.05(a) for more information about these principles, and how to determine whether a claim improves the functioning of a computer or any other technology or technical field.

Examiners should also consult MPEP § 2106.05(a) for a discussion of cases in which the Federal Circuit determined that the claims did not reflect an improvement to computer-functionality or other technology. For instance, if a claimed process can be performed without a computer, the Federal Circuit has indicated that it cannot improve computer technology. Synopsys, Inc. v. Mentor Graphics Corp., 839 F.3d 1138, 1139, 120 USPQ2d 1473 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (a method of translating a logic circuit into a hardware component description of a logic circuit “cannot be characterized as an improvement in a computer” because the method did not employ a computer and a skilled artisan could perform all the steps mentally). The Federal Circuit has also indicated that mere automation of manual processes or increasing the speed of a process where these purported improvements come solely from the capabilities of a general-purpose computer are not sufficient to show an improvement in computer-functionality. FairWarning IP, LLC v. Iatric Sys., 839 F.3d 1089, 1095, 120 USPQ2d 1293, 1296 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Credit Acceptance Corp. v. Westlake Services, 859 F.3d 1044, 1055, 123 USPQ2d 1100, 1108-09 (Fed. Cir. 2017). Similarly, the Federal Circuit has indicated that a claim must include more than conventional implementation on generic components or machinery to qualify as an improvement to an existing technology. See, e.g.,Affinity Labs of Tex. v. DirecTV, LLC, 838 F.3d 1253, 1264-65, 120 USPQ2d 1201, 1208-09 (Fed. Cir. 2016); TLI Communications LLC v. AV Auto. LLC, 823 F.3d 607, 612-13, 118 USPQ2d 1744, 1747-48 (Fed. Cir. 2016). See MPEP § 2106.05(a) for further discussion of these cases, and additional examples of what the courts have indicated does and does not show an improvement to computer-functionality or other technology.

Although the question of whether a claim improves computer-functionality or other technology may be considered in either step of the Alice/Mayo test (Step 2A or 2B), examiners are encouraged to resolve this question as early as possible in the eligibility analysis. For instance, a claim that is directed to a clear improvement in computer-related technology like Enfish could be found eligible at Pathway A under the streamlined analysis discussed in MPEP § 2106.06(b) or at Pathway B as not being directed to an abstract idea. Other claims may require the full eligibility analysis, for example a claim that is directed to an abstract idea rather than an improvement should be evaluated in Step 2B to determine whether it amounts to significantly more than the abstract idea. Examiners are reminded that even if an improvement is not clear enough to demonstrate eligibility in Step 2A, it may still contribute to the eligibility of a claim in the Step 2B analysis. Cf. Amdocs (Israel), Ltd. v. Openet Telecom, Inc., 841 F.3d 1288, 1300-01, 120 USPQ2d 1527, 1536-37 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (explaining that even if the claims were considered to be directed to abstract ideas and not improvements, the claims were eligible in Step 2B because the claimed improvement of a distributed network architecture operating in an unconventional fashion to reduce network congestion while generating networking accounting data records amounted to an inventive concept).

II. MORE INFORMATION ON CLAIMS THAT ARE, AND ARE NOT, DIRECTED TO ABSTRACT IDEAS

MPEP § 2106.04(a)(1) provides more information about claims that are not directed to abstract ideas (or other judicial exceptions) and thus are eligible at Step 2A. These claims include claims that do not recite abstract ideas, as well as claims that recite abstract ideas but that are, when viewed as a whole, directed to an improvement of a technological process or the functioning of a computer and not to an abstract idea. See, e.g.,McRO, 837 F.3d at 1315, 120 USPQ2d at 1102-103 (claims to automatic lip synchronization and facial expression animation were directed to an improvement in computer-related technology); Enfish, 822 F.3d at 1336, 118 USPQ2d at 1689 (claims to self-referential table for a computer database were directed to a specific improvement to the way computers operate and not an abstract idea). Thus, examiners should consider the principles discussed in MPEP § 2106.04(a)(1) and MPEP § 2106.05(a) before making a conclusion as to whether a claim is directed to an abstract idea.

MPEP § 2106.04(a)(2) provides more information about the types of concepts the courts have considered to be abstract ideas by associating concepts discussed in exemplary Supreme Court and Federal Circuit eligibility decisions with judicial descriptors (e.g., “fundamental economic practices”) based on common characteristics. (e.g., “fundamental economic practices”) described in exemplary Supreme Court and Federal Circuit eligibility decisions. It should be noted that these associations are not mutually exclusive, i.e., some concepts may be associated with more than one judicial descriptor. For example, the concept of hedging claimed in Bilski was described by the Supreme Court as both a method of organizing human activity and a fundamental economic practice. Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2356-57, 110 USPQ2d at 1982. Similarly, in Ultramercial, the Federal Circuit called the claimed steps of displaying an advertisement in exchange for access to copyrighted media an “idea,” but this concept could also be considered organizing human activity because the claim describes advertising. Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709, 715, 112 USPQ2d 1750, 1754 (Fed. Cir. 2014). Accordingly, examiners should rely on the concepts identified in the cases, not the judicial descriptors themselves, when determining whether a claimed concept is similar to a concept that the courts have identified as an abstract idea.

2106.04(a)(1) Examples of Claims That Are Not Directed To Abstract Ideas [R-08.2017]

When evaluating a claim to determine whether it recites an abstract idea, examiners should keep in mind that while “all inventions at some level embody, use, reflect, rest upon, or apply laws of nature, natural phenomenon, or abstract ideas”, not all claims are directed to an abstract idea. Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2354-55, 110 USPQ2d at 1980-81 (citing Mayo, 566 US at 71, 101 USPQ2d at 1965). The Step 2A analysis articulated in MPEP § 2106.04 accounts for this cautionary principle by requiring a claim to recite (i.e., set forth or describe) an abstract idea in order to be directed to that idea, thereby separating claims reciting abstract ideas from those that are merely based on or involve an abstract idea.

Before concluding that a claim is directed to an abstract idea, examiners should consider the following principles, which are discussed with reference to non-limiting hypothetical examples of claims that are not directed to abstract ideas.

I. IF A CLAIM IS BASED ON OR INVOLVES AN ABSTRACT IDEA, BUT DOES NOT RECITE IT, THEN THE CLAIM IS NOT DIRECTED TO AN ABSTRACT IDEA

Some claims are not directed to an abstract idea because they do not recite anything similar to a judicially-identified abstract idea, although it may be apparent that at some level they are based on or involve an abstract idea.

Judicial decisions discussing such claims include Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d 1327, 1336, 118 USPQ2d 1684, 1689 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (claims to self-referential table for a computer database were based on, but not directed to, the concept of organizing information using tabular formats), DDR Holdings, LLC v. Hotels.com, L.P., 773 F.3d 1245, 1258-59, 113 USPQ2d 1097, 1106-07 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (claim to system that is programmed to modify conventional Internet hyperlink protocol to dynamically produce a dual-source hybrid webpage is not directed to an abstract idea because it does not recite an idea similar to those previously found by the courts to be abstract), and Trading Techs. Int’l, Inc. v. CQG, Inc., 675 Fed. App'x 1001 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (non-precedential) (claimed graphical user interface that improves the accuracy of trader transactions by displaying bid and asked prices in a particular manner that prevents order entry at a changed price is not directed to an abstract idea).

Non-limiting hypothetical examples of claims that do not set forth or describe an abstract idea include:

  • i. a printer comprising a belt, a roller, a printhead and at least one ink cartridge;
  • ii. a washing machine comprising a tub, a drive motor operatively connected to the tub, a controller for controlling the drive motor, and a housing for containing the tub, drive motor, and controller;
  • iii. an earring comprising a sensor for taking periodic blood glucose measurements and a memory for storing measurement data from the sensor;
  • iv. a method for sequencing BRCA1 gene sequences comprising: amplifying by a polymerization chain reaction technique all or part of a BRCA1 gene from a tissue sample from a human subject using a set of primers to produce amplified nucleic acids; and sequencing the amplified nucleic acids; and
  • v. a method for loading BIOS into a local computer system which has a system processor and volatile memory and non-volatile memory, the method comprising the steps of: responding to powering up of the local computer system by requesting from a memory location remote from the local computer system the transfer to and storage in the volatile memory of the local computer system of BIOS configured for effective use of the local computer system, transferring and storing such BIOS, and transferring control of the local computer system to such BIOS.
II. IF A CLAIM RECITES AN ABSTRACT IDEA, BUT THE CLAIM AS A WHOLE IS DIRECTED TO AN IMPROVEMENT OR OTHERWISE CLEARLY DOES NOT SEEK TO TIE UP THE ABSTRACT IDEA, THEN THE CLAIM IS NOT DIRECTED TO AN ABSTRACT IDEA

Some claims reciting an abstract idea are not directed to the abstract idea because they also recite additional elements (such as an improvement) demonstrating that the claims as a whole clearly do not seek to tie up the abstract idea. In such claims, the improvement, or other additional elements, shifts the focus of the claimed invention from the abstract idea that is incidentally recited. The types of improvements that the courts have identified as indicative of eligibility in the first step of the Alice/Mayo test (Step 2A) are discussed in MPEP § 2106.05(a) and MPEP § 2106.06(b).

Judicial decisions discussing such claims include McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games America Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 1315, 120 USPQ2d 1091, 1102-103 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (claims to automatic lip synchronization and facial expression animation are directed to an improvement in computer-related technology and not to an abstract idea), and Enfish, 822 F.3d at 1336, 118 USPQ2d at 1689 (claims to self-referential table for a computer database were directed to a specific improvement to the way computers operate and not an abstract idea). Another relevant case is Research Corporation Technologies Inc. v. Microsoft Corp., 627 F.3d 859, 97 USPQ2d 1274 (Fed. Cir. 2010), which discussed claims to halftone rendering of a gray scale image using a blue noise mask. While the claims in Research Corportation Technologies recited a step of generating the blue noise mask (an iterative mathematical operation that is an abstract idea), they also recited additional steps that clearly improved the functioning of the claimed computer. 627 F.3d at 865, 868-69, 97 USPQ2d at 1278, 1280-81. Thus viewed in light of McRO and Enfish the claims are directed to the recited improvement and not to the abstract idea.

Non-limiting hypothetical examples of claims that are not directed to an abstract idea because of an improvement or other limitation that renders the eligibility of the claim self-evident include:

  • i. a method of cutting a blood vessel with surgical shears having a surgical blade, an arm having a cutting surface, and a pressure regulator that is designed to limit the force applied on the cutting surface to less than 45 psi, comprising: positioning a blood vessel between the surgical blade and the cutting surface, and applying pressure to the arm so that it closes toward the blade, whereby the pressure regulator limits the applied force so that the blood vessel is cut cleanly;
  • ii. a robotic arm assembly comprising: a robotic arm having an end effector that is capable of movement along a predetermined motion path, a sensor that obtains movement information about the end effector, and a control system that uses the movement information from the sensor to adjust the velocity of the end effector in order to achieve a smooth motion along the predetermined motion path;
  • iii. an autofocus camera system comprising a lens that forms an image, an image sensor for capturing data from the formed image, a processor that analyzes the captured data using an autofocus algorithm to determine an optimal position for the lens, and a drive mechanism that moves the lens into the optimal position; and
  • iv. an internal combustion engine providing exhaust gas recirculation comprising: an air intake manifold; an exhaust manifold; a combustion chamber to receive air from the air intake manifold, combust a combination of the received air and fuel to turn a drive shaft, and output resulting exhaust gas to the exhaust manifold; a throttle position sensor to detect the position of an engine throttle; an exhaust gas recirculation valve to regulate the flow of exhaust gas from the exhaust manifold to the air intake manifold; and a control system, comprising a processor and memory, to receive the engine throttle position from the throttle position sensor, calculate a position of the exhaust gas recirculation valve based upon the rate of change of the engine throttle position and change the position of the exhaust gas recirculation valve to the calculated position.

2106.04(a)(2) Examples of Concepts The Courts Have Identified As Abstract Ideas [R-08.2017]

I. "FUNDAMENTAL ECONOMIC PRACTICES"

The courts have used the phrases “fundamental economic practices” or “fundamental economic concepts” to describe concepts relating to the economy and commerce, such as agreements between people in the form of contracts, legal obligations, and business relations. The term “fundamental” is used in the sense of being foundational or basic, and not in the sense of necessarily being “old” or “well-known.” See, e.g., In re Smith, 815 F.3d 816, 818-19, 118 USPQ2d 1245, 1247 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (describing a new set of rules for conducting a wagering game as a “fundamental economic practice”).

A. Concepts relating to agreements between people or performance of financial transactions

An example of a case identifying a concept relating to performance of a financial transaction as abstract is buySAFE, Inc. v. Google, Inc., 765 F.3d. 1350, 112 USPQ2d 1093 (Fed. Cir. 2014). The patentee in buySAFE claimed a method in which a computer operated by the provider of a safe transaction service receives a request for a performance guarantee for an online commercial transaction, the computer processes the request by underwriting the requesting party in order to provide the transaction guarantee service, and the computer offers, via a computer network, a transaction guaranty that binds to the transaction upon the closing of the transaction. 765 F.3d at 1351-52, 112 USPQ2d at 1094. The Federal Circuit described the claims as directed to an abstract idea because they were “squarely about creating a contractual relationship--a ‘transaction performance guaranty’.” 765 F.3d at 1355, 112 USPQ2d at 1096.

Another example is OIP Techs., Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc., 788 F.3d 1359, 115 USPQ2d 1090 (Fed. Cir. 2015). The patentee in OIP Techs. claimed methods of pricing a product for sale comprising testing a plurality of prices, gathering statistics generated about how customers reacted to the offers testing the prices, using that data to estimate outcomes (i.e., mapping the demand curve over time for a given product), and automatically selecting and offering a new price based on the estimated outcome. 788 F.3d at 1362, 115 USPQ2d at 1092. Citing Alice,Bilski,Ultramercial, and several other decisions, the Federal Circuit determined that these claims were directed to the concept of “offer-based price optimization, which was similar to other ‘fundamental economic concepts’ found to be abstract ideas by the Supreme Court and this court.” 788 F.3d at 1363, USPQ2d at 1092-93.

Other examples of this type of concept include:

  • i. hedging, Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 609, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1009 (2010);
  • ii. processing an application for financing a purchase, Credit Acceptance Corp. v. Westlake Services, 859 F.3d 1044, 1054, 123 USPQ2d 1100, 1108 (Fed. Cir. 2017); and
  • iii. rules for conducting a wagering game, In re Smith, 815 F.3d 816, 818-19, 118 USPQ2d 1245, 1247 (Fed. Cir. 2016).
B. Concepts relating to mitigating risks

An example of a case identifying a concept relating to mitigating risk as abstract is Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 110 USPQ2d 1976 (2014). The patentee in Alice Corp. claimed a computerized scheme for mitigating “settlement risk”, i.e., the risk that only one party to an agreed-upon financial exchange will satisfy its obligation. 134 S. Ct. at 2351-52, 110 USPQ2d at 1978-79. A computer system is used as a third-party intermediary between the parties to the exchange. The intermediary creates “shadow” credit and debit records (i.e., account ledgers) that mirror the balances in the parties’ real-world accounts at “exchange institutions” (e.g., banks). The intermediary updates the shadow records in real time as transactions are entered, allowing only those transactions for which the parties’ updated shadow records indicate sufficient resources to satisfy their mutual obligations. At the end of the day, the intermediary instructs the relevant financial institutions to carry out the “permitted” transactions in accordance with the updated shadow records, thus mitigating the risk that only one party will perform the agreed-upon exchange. 134 S. Ct. at 2356, 110 USPQ2d at 1979. The Supreme Court determined that these claims were directed to the “abstract idea of intermediated settlement”, which is “a building block of the modern economy” and a “fundamental economic practice long prevalent in our system of commerce” like the risk hedging in Bilski. 134 S. Ct. at 2355-56, 110 USPQ2d at 1982.

Other examples of this type of concept include:

  • i. hedging, Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 609, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1009 (2010); and
  • ii. financial instruments that are designed to protect against the risk of investing in financial instruments, In re Chorna, 656 Fed. App'x 1016, 1021 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (non-precedential).
II. "CERTAIN METHODS OF ORGANIZING HUMAN ACTIVITY"

The court have used the phrase “methods of organizing human activity” to describe concepts relating to interpersonal and intrapersonal activities, such as managing relationships or transactions between people, social activities, and human behavior; satisfying or avoiding a legal obligation; advertising, marketing, and sales activities or behaviors; and managing human mental activity. The term “certain” qualifies this category description as a reminder that (1) not all methods of organizing human activity are abstract ideas, and (2) this category description does not cover human operation of machines.

A. Concepts relating to managing relationships or transactions between people, or satisfying or avoiding a legal obligation

An example of a case identifying a concept relating to managing relationships or transactions between people, or satisfying or avoiding a legal obligation as abstract is buySAFE, Inc. v. Google, Inc., 765 F.3d. 1350, 112 USPQ2d 1093 (Fed. Cir. 2014). The patentee in buySAFE claimed a method in which a computer operated by the provider of a safe transaction service receives a request for a performance guarantee for an online commercial transaction, the computer processes the request by underwriting the requesting party in order to provide the transaction guarantee service, and the computer offers, via a computer network, a transaction guaranty that binds to the transaction upon the closing of the transaction. 765 F.3d at 1351-52, 112 USPQ2d at 1094. The Federal Circuit described the claims as directed to an abstract idea because they were “squarely about creating a contractual relationship--a ‘transaction performance guaranty’”. 765 F.3d at 1355, 112 USPQ2d at 1096.

Another example is Dealertrack v. Huber, 674 F.3d 1315, 101 USPQ2d 1325 (Fed. Cir. 2012). The patentee in Dealertrack claimed processes of managing a credit application, comprising receiving credit application data from a first source, selectively forwarding the credit application data to remote funding sources, and then forwarding funding decision data from a remote funding source back to the first source. 674 F.3d at 1331, 101 USPQ2d at 1338. The Federal Circuit described the claims as directed to an abstract idea or “basic concept” of processing information through a clearing-house” like the hedging concept of Bilski. 674 F.3d at 1333, 101 USPQ2d at 1339.

And another example is Bancorp Services., L.L.C. v. Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada (U.S.), 687 F.3d 1266, 103 USPQ2d 1425 (Fed. Cir. 2012). The patentee in Bancorp claimed methods and systems for managing a life insurance policy on behalf of a policy holder, which comprised steps including generating a life insurance policy including a stable value protected investment with an initial value based on a value of underlying securities, calculating surrender value protected investment credits for the life insurance policy; determining an investment value and a value of the underlying securities for the current day; and calculating a policy value and a policy unit value for the current day. 687 F.3d at 1270-71, 103 USPQ2d at 1427. The court described the claims as an “attempt to patent the use of the abstract idea of [managing a stable value protected life insurance policy] and then instruct the use of well-known [calculations] to help establish some of the inputs into the equation.” 687 F.3d at 1278, 103 USPQ2d at 1433 (alterations in original) (citing Bilski).

Other examples of this type of concept include:

  • i. arbitration, In re Comiskey, 554 F.3d 967, 981, 89 USPQ2d 1655, 1665 (Fed. Cir. 2009);
  • ii. generating menus on a computer, Apple, Inc. v. Ameranth, Inc., 842 F.3d 1229, 1234, 120 USPQ2d 1844, 1848 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • iii. generating rule-based tasks for processing an insurance claim, Accenture Global Services v. Guidewire Software, Inc., 728 F.3d 1336, 1338-39, 108 USPQ2d 1173, 1175-76 (Fed. Cir. 2013);
  • iv. hedging, Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 595, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1004 (2010);
  • v. mitigating settlement risk, Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int'l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2352, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1979 (2014); and
  • vi. tax-free investing, Fort Props., Inc. v. Am. Master Lease, LLC, 671 F.3d 1317, 1322, 101 USPQ2d 1785, 1788-89 (Fed. Cir. 2012).
B. Concepts relating to advertising, marketing, and sales activities or behaviors

An example of a case identifying a concept relating to advertising, marketing, and sales activities or behaviors as abstract is Apple, Inc. v. Ameranth, Inc., 842 F.3d 1229, 120 USPQ2d 1844 (Fed. Cir. 2016). The patentee in Ameranth claimed a system for generating and transmitting menus, e.g., a system comprising a central processing unit, data storage device on which several menus are stored, an operating system including a graphical user interface, and application software for generating a second menu from the first menu, and transmitting the second menu to a wireless device or webpage. 842 F.3d. at 1234, 120 USPQ2d at 1848. The Federal Circuit determined that the claims are directed to an abstract idea, which could be described as “generating menus …, or generating a second menu from a first menu and sending the second menu to another location [, or] taking orders from restaurant customers.” 842 F.3d. at 1240-41, 120 USPQ2d at 1853. The court also described the claimed invention as adding conventional computer components to well-known business practices, e.g., “a restaurant preparing a device that can be used by a server taking orders from a customer.” 842 F.3d at 1242; 120 USPQ2d at 1855.

Other examples of this type of concept include:

  • i. structuring a sales force or marketing company, In re Ferguson, 558 F.3d 1359, 1364, 90 USPQ2d 1035, 1038 (Fed. Cir. 2009);
  • ii. using advertising as an exchange or currency, Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709, 715, 112 USPQ2d 1750 (Fed. Cir. 2014); and
  • iii. using an algorithm for determining the optimal number of visits by a business representative to a client, In re Maucorps, 609 F.2d 481, 485, 203 USPQ 812, 816 (CCPA 1979).
C. Concepts relating to managing human behavior

An example of a case identifying a concept relating to managing human behavior as abstract is Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Capital One Bank (USA), 792 F.3d 1363, 115 USPQ2d 1636 (Fed. Cir. 2015). The patentee in this case claimed methods comprising storing user-selected pre-set limits on spending in a database, and when one of the limits is reached, communicating a notification to the user via a device. 792 F.3d. at 1367, 115 USPQ2d at 1639-40. The Federal Circuit determined that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of “tracking financial transactions to determine whether they exceed a pre-set spending limit (i.e., budgeting)”, which “is not meaningfully different from the ideas found to be abstract in other cases before the Supreme Court and our court involving methods of organizing human activity.” 792 F.3d. at 1367-68, 115 USPQ2d at 1640.

Another example of this type of concept includes:

  • i. filtering content – BASCOM Global Internet v. AT&T Mobility, LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1345-46, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1239 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (finding that filtering content was an abstract idea under step 2A, but reversing an invalidity judgment of ineligibility due to an inadequate step 2B analysis); and
  • ii. a mental process that a neurologist should follow when testing a patient for nervous system malfunctions, In re Meyer, 688 F.2d 789, 791-93, 215 USPQ 193, 194-96 (CCPA 1982).
D. Concepts relating to tracking or organizing information

An example of a case identifying a concept relating to tracking or organizing information as abstract is BASCOM Global Internet v. AT&T Mobility, LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 119 USPQ2d 1236 (Fed. Cir. 2016). The patentee in BASCOM claimed a system for filtering content retrieved from an Internet computer network, comprising a local client computer and a remote ISP server that implements at least one filtering scheme and a plurality of sets of logical filtering elements. 827 F.3d. at 1346, 119 USPQ2d at 1239. The Federal Circuit described the concept of filtering content as an abstract idea and a “method of organizing human behavior, similar to concepts previously found to be abstract.” 827 F.3d. at 1348, 119 USPQ2d at 1241.

Another example is Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Capital One Bank (USA), 792 F.3d 1363, 115 USPQ2d 1636 (Fed. Cir. 2015). The patentee in this case claimed a system for providing web pages tailored to an individual user, comprising an interactive interface having a display that depicts customized content based on (1) information known about the user and (2) navigation data. 792 F.3d. at 1369, 115 USPQ2d at 1641. The Federal Circuit determined that both types of customization were abstract ideas. The court described the first type of customization (tailoring content based on user information) as similar to how “newspaper inserts had often been tailored based on information known about the customer--for example, a newspaper might advertise based on the customer's location,” and the second type of customization (tailoring information based on the time of day the website was visited) as similar to how “a television channel might choose to present a commercial for children's toys during early morning cartoon programs but beer during an evening sporting event.” 792 F.3d. at 1369-70, 115 USPQ2d at 1641.

Other examples of this type of concept include:

  • i. classifying and storing digital images in an organized manner, TLI Communications, LLC v. AV Auto., LLC, 823 F.3d 607, 611-12, 118 USPQ2d 1744, 1747 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • ii. collecting information, analyzing it, and displaying certain results of the collection and analysis, Electric Power Group, LLC v. Alstom, S.A., 830 F.3d 1350, 1351-52, 119 USPQ2d 1739, 1740 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • iii. encoding and decoding image data – RecogniCorp, LLC v. Nintendo Co., 855 F.3d 1322, 1326, 122 USPQ2d 1377, 1379 (Fed. Cir. 2017);
  • iv. organizing information through mathematical correlations, Digitech Image Techs., LLC v. Electronics for Imaging, Inc., 758 F.3d 1344, 1349, 111 USPQ2d 1717, 1720 (Fed. Cir. 2014); and
  • v. receiving, screening, and distributing email, Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Symantec Corp., 838 F.3d 1307, 1316, 120 USPQ2d 1353, 1359 (Fed. Cir. 2016).
III. "AN IDEA 'OF ITSELF'"

The courts have used the phrase “an idea ‘of itself’” to describe an idea standing alone such as an uninstantiated concept, plan or scheme, as well as a mental process (thinking) that “can be performed in the human mind, or by a human using a pen and paper.” CyberSource Corp. v. Retail Decisions, Inc., 654 F.3d 1366, 1372, 99 USPQ2d 1690, 1695 (Fed. Cir. 2011). As the Federal Circuit explained, “methods which can be performed mentally, or which are the equivalent of human mental work, are unpatentable abstract ideas--the ‘basic tools of scientific and technological work’ that are open to all.’” 654 F.3d at 1371, 99 USPQ2d at 1694 (citing Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 175 USPQ 673 (1972)). “Courts have examined claims that required the use of a computer and still found that the underlying, patent-ineligible invention could be performed via pen and paper or in a person’s mind.” Versata Dev. Group v. SAP Am., Inc., 793 F.3d 1306, 1335, 115 USPQ2d 1681, 1702 (Fed. Cir. 2015).

In Electric Power Group, the Federal Circuit explained that concepts of collecting and analyzing information fall within the “realm of abstract ideas” because information is intangible:

Information as such is an intangible. See Microsoft Corp. v. AT & T Corp., 550 U.S. 437, 451 n.12 (2007); Bayer AG v. Housey Pharm., Inc., 340 F.3d 1367, 1372 (Fed. Cir. 2003). Accordingly, we have treated collecting information, including when limited to particular content (which does not change its character as information), as within the realm of abstract ideas. See, e.g., Internet Patents, 790 F.3d at 1349; OIP Techs., Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc., 788 F.3d 1359, 1363 (Fed. Cir. 2015); Content Extraction & Transmission LLC v. Wells Fargo Bank, Nat’l Ass’n, 776 F.3d 1343, 1347 (Fed. Cir. 2014); Digitech Image Techs., LLC v. Elecs. for Imaging, Inc., 758 F.3d 1344, 1351 (Fed. Cir. 2014); CyberSource Corp. v. Retail Decisions, Inc., 654 F.3d 1366, 1370 (Fed. Cir. 2011). In a similar vein, we have treated analyzing information by steps people go through in their minds, or by mathematical algorithms, without more, as essentially mental processes within the abstract-idea category. See, e.g., TLI Commc’ns, 823 F.3d at 613; Digitech, 758 F.3d at 1351; SmartGene, Inc. v. Advanced Biological Labs., SA, 555 F. App’x 950, 955 (Fed. Cir. 2014); Bancorp Servs., L.L.C. v. Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada (U.S.), 687 F.3d 1266, 1278 (Fed. Cir. 2012); CyberSource Corp. v. Retail Decisions, Inc., 654 F.3d 1366, 1372 (Fed. Cir. 2011); SiRF Tech., Inc. v. Int’l Trade Comm’n, 601 F.3d 1319, 1333 (Fed. Cir. 2010); see also Mayo, 132 S. Ct. at 1301; Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 589–90 (1978); Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 67 (1972). And we have recognized that merely presenting the results of abstract processes of collecting and analyzing information, without more (such as identifying a particular tool for presentation), is abstract as an ancillary part of such collection and analysis. See, e.g., Content Extraction, 776 F.3d at 1347; Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709, 715 (Fed. Cir. 2014).

Electric Power Group, LLC v. Alstom, S.A., 830 F.3d 1350, 1353-54, 119 USPQ2d 1739, 1741-42 (Fed. Cir. 2016).

A. Concepts relating to data comparisons that can be performed mentally or are analogous to human mental work

An example of a case identifying a concept relating to a data comparison that can be performed mentally as abstract is CyberSource Corp. v. Retail Decisions, 654 F.3d 1366, 99 USPQ2d 1690 (Fed. Cir. 2011). The patentee in CyberSource claimed a method for verifying the validity of a credit card transaction over the Internet, and a computer-readable medium comprising program instructions for performing the method. The method comprised obtaining information about other transactions that have utilized an Internet address identified with the credit card transaction to be verified, constructing a map of credit card numbers based on the other transactions, and utilizing the map to determine if the credit card transaction is valid. 654 F.3d at 1367-68, 99 USPQ2d at 1692. Although the patentee argued that the method could not be performed without the Internet, nothing in the claim required use of the Internet to obtain the data (as opposed to obtaining the data from a pre-compiled database). 654 F.3d at 1370, 99 USPQ2d at 1693. The court therefore concluded that the method could be performed in the human mind, or by a human using a pen and paper, and that the claim was therefore directed to a mental process of “obtain[ing] and compar[ing] intangible data pertinent to business risks.” 654 F.3d at 1370 and 1372, 99 USPQ2d at 1694 and 1695.

Another example is University of Utah Research Foundation v. Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d 755, 113 USPQ2d 1241 (Fed. Cir. 2014). The patentee in Ambry Genetics claimed methods of screening a human’s genome for an altered BRCA gene, comprising comparing the sequence of the human’s BRCA gene with the sequence of the wild-type gene, and identifying any differences that arise. 774 F.3d at 763-764, 113 USPQ2d at 1246. The Federal Circuit determined that these claims were directed to the concept of “comparing BRCA sequences and determining the existence of alterations”, which was an “abstract mental process”. Id.

An example of a case identifying a concept relating to a data comparison that is analogous to human mental work as abstract is Mortgage Grader, Inc. v. First Choice Loan Servs., 811 F.3d. 1314, 1324, 117 USPQ2d 1693, 1699 (Fed. Cir. 2015). The patentee in Mortgage Grader claimed a computer-implemented system for enabling borrowers to anonymously shop for loan packages offered by a plurality of lenders, comprising a database that stores loan package data from the lenders, and a computer system providing an interface and a grading module. The interface prompts a borrower to enter personal information, which the grading module uses to calculate the borrower’s credit grading, and allows the borrower to identify and compare loan packages in the database using the credit grading. 811 F.3d. at 1318, 117 USPQ2d at 1695. The Federal Circuit determined that these claims were directed to the concept of “anonymous loan shopping”, which was a concept that could be “performed by humans without a computer.” 811 F.3d. at 1324, 117 USPQ2d at 1699.

Other examples of this type of concept include:

  • i. collecting and comparing known information, Classen Immunotherapies, Inc. v. Biogen IDEC, 659 F.3d 1057, 1067, 100 USPQ2d 1492, 1500 (Fed. Cir. 2011); and
  • ii. diagnosing an abnormal condition by performing clinical tests and analyzing the results, In re Grams, 888 F.2d 835, 840, 12 USPQ2d 1824, 1828 (Fed. Cir. 1989); see CyberSource, 654 F.3d at 1372 n.2, 99 USPQ2d at 1695 n.2 (describing the abstract idea in Grams).
B. Concepts relating to organizing or analyzing information in a way that can be performed mentally or is analogous to human mental work

An example of a case identifying a concept relating to organizing or analyzing information in a way that can be performed mentally as abstract is Synopsys, Inc. v. Mentor Graphics Corp., 839 F.3d 1138, 120 USPQ2d 1473 (Fed. Cir. 2016). In Synopsys, the patentee claimed methods of logic circuit design, comprising converting a functional description of a level sensitive latch into a hardware component description of the latch. 839 F.3d at 1140; 120 USPQ2d at 1475. Although the patentee argued that the claims were intended to be used in conjunction with computer-based design tools, the claims did not include any limitations requiring computer implementation of the methods and thus do not involve the use of a computer in any way. 839 F.3d at 1145; 120 USPQ2d at 1478-79. The court therefore concluded that the claims “read on an individual performing the claimed steps mentally or with pencil and paper,” and were directed to a mental process of “translating a functional description of a logic circuit into a hardware component description of the logic circuit.” 839 F.3d at 1149-50; 120 USPQ2d at 1482-83.

An example of a case identifying a concept relating to organizing or analyzing information in a way that is analogous to human mental work as abstract is Content Extraction and Transmission LLC v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 776 F.3d 1343, 113 USPQ2d 1354 (Fed. Cir. 2014). In Content Extraction, the patentee claimed an application program interface comprising a scanner that extracted data from hard copy documents, a processor that recognized specific information from the extracted data, and a memory that stored the recognized information. 776 F.3d at 1345, 113 USPQ2d at 1356. The court determined that these claims were directed to the basic concept of “data collection, recognition and storage”, stating that humans have always performed these functions and that banks have for some time reviewed checks, recognized relevant data such as the amount, account number, and identity of the account holder, and stored that information in their records. 776 F.3d at 1347, 113 USPQ2d at 1358. The patentee argued that “its claims are not drawn to an abstract idea because human minds are unable to process and recognize the stream of bits output by a scanner”, but the court was unpersuaded, stating that “the claims in Alice also required a computer that processed streams of bits, but nonetheless were found to be abstract.” Id. (citing Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2358, 110 USPQ2d at 1983).

Another example is FairWarning IP, LLC v. Iatric Sys., Inc., 839 F.3d 1089, 120 USPQ2d 1293 (Fed. Cir. 2016). The patentee in FairWarning claimed a system and method of detecting fraud and/or misuse in a computer environment, comprising collecting information regarding accesses of a patient’s personal health information, analyzing the information according to one of several rules (i.e., related to accesses in excess of a specific volume, accesses during a pre-determined time interval, or accesses by a specific user) to determine if the activity indicates improper access, and providing notification if it determines that improper access has occurred. 839 F.3d. at 1092, 120 USPQ2d at 1294. The court determined that these claims were directed to the concept of “collecting and analyzing information to detect misuse and notifying a user when misuse is detected”. The court also noted that the claimed rules here were unlike those in McRO because they “are the same questions (though perhaps phrased with different words) that humans in analogous situations detecting fraud have asked for decades, if not centuries.” 839 F.3d. at 1094-95, 120 USPQ2d at 1296.

Other examples of this type of concept include:

  • i. collecting, displaying, and manipulating data, Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Capital One Fin. Corp., 850 F.3d 1332, 1340, 121 USPQ2d 1940, 1946 (Fed. Cir. 2017);
  • ii. collecting information, analyzing it, and displaying certain results of the collection and analysis, Electric Power Group, LLC v. Alstom, S.A., 830 F.3d 1350, 1351, 119 USPQ2d 1739, 1739 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • iii. creating an index, and using that index to search for and retrieve data, Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Erie Indem. Co., 850 F.3d 1315, 1327, 121 USPQ2d 1928, 1936 (Fed. Cir. 2017);
  • iv. determining a price, using organizational and product group hierarchies, Versata Dev. Group v. SAP Am., Inc., 793 F.3d 1306, 1312-13, 115 USPQ2d 1681, 1685 (Fed. Cir. 2015);
  • v. encoding and decoding image data, RecogniCorp, LLC v. Nintendo Co., 855 F.3d 1322, 1326, 122 USPQ2d 1377, 1379 (Fed. Cir. 2017);
  • vi. organizing information through mathematical correlations, Digitech Image Techs., LLC v. Electronics for Imaging, Inc., 758 F.3d 1344, 1350-51, 111 USPQ2d 1717, 1721 (Fed. Cir. 2014);
  • vii. relaying mailing address data – Return Mail, Inc. v. U.S. Postal Service, -- F.3d --, -- USPQ2d –, slip op. at 30-31 (Fed. Cir. August 28, 2017); and
  • viii. retaining information in the navigation of online forms, Internet Patents Corp. v. Active Network, Inc., 790 F.3d 1343, 1348, 115 USPQ2d 1414, 1417-18 (Fed. Cir. 2015).
C. Concepts described as ideas having no particular concrete or tangible form

An example of a case identifying a concept as an idea having no particular concrete or tangible form as abstract is Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709, 112 USPQ2d 1750 (Fed. Cir. 2014). The patentee in Ultramercial claimed an eleven-step method for displaying an advertisement (ad) in exchange for access to copyrighted media, comprising steps of receiving copyrighted media, selecting an ad, offering the media in exchange for watching the selected ad, displaying the ad, allowing the consumer access to the media, and receiving payment from the sponsor of the ad. 772 F.3d. at 715, 112 USPQ2d at 1754. The Federal Circuit determined that the “combination of steps recites an abstraction—an idea, having no particular concrete or tangible form” and thus was directed to an abstract idea, which the court described as “using advertising as an exchange or currency.” Id.

Another example is Versata Dev. Group v. SAP America, Inc., 793 F.3d 1306, 115 USPQ2d 1681 (Fed. Cir. 2015). The patentee in Versata claimed a system and method for determining a price of a product offered to a purchasing organization, comprising arranging a hierarchy of organizational groups and a hierarchy of product groups, storing pricing information associated with the organizational and product groups, retrieving and sorting applicable pricing information, and determining the product price using the sorted pricing information. 793 F.3d at 1312-13, 115 USPQ2d at 1685. The Federal Circuit described the claims as “directed to the abstract idea of determining a price, using organizational and product group hierarchies, in the same way that the claims in Alice were directed to the abstract idea of intermediated settlement, and the claims in Bilski were directed to the abstract idea of risk hedging.” 793 F.3d at 1333; 115 USPQ2d at 1700. The court also stated that that “[u]sing organizational and product group hierarchies to determine a price is an abstract idea that has no particular concrete or tangible form or application. It is a building block, a basic conceptual framework for organizing information”. 793 F.3d at 1333-34; 115 USPQ2d at 1701.

Another example of this type of concept is In re Brown, 645 Fed. App'x 1014, 1017 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (non-precedential). The applicant in Brown claimed a method of cutting hair that effectively allocates hair weight in opposition to head shape, comprising identifying a head shape, designating the head into at least three partial zones, identifying at least three hair patterns, assigning at least one of the hair patterns to each partial zone to either build weight or remove weight, and using scissors to cut hair according to the assigned hair pattern. Id. at 1015. The Federal Circuit described the claims as directed to “the abstract idea of assigning hair designs to balance head shape”, because “[i]dentifying head shape and applying hair designs accordingly is an abstract idea capable, as the Board notes, of being performed entirely in one’s mind.” Id. at 1016-17.

IV. “MATHEMATICAL RELATIONSHIPS/FORMULAS”

The phrase “mathematical relationships/formulas” is used to describe mathematical concepts such as mathematical algorithms, mathematical relationships, mathematical formulas, and calculations. The courts have used the term “algorithm” to refer to both mathematical procedures and mathematical formulas, including: a procedure for converting binary-coded decimal numerals into pure binary form, Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 65, 175 USPQ2d 673, 674 (1972); a mathematical formula for calculating an alarm limit, Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 588-89, 198 USPQ2d 193, 195 (1978); and a series of steps for analyzing clinical data to ascertain the existence and identity of an medical abnormality, and possible causes thereof. In re Grams, 888 F.2d 835, 837 and n.1, 12 USPQ2d 1824, 1826 and n.1 (Fed. Cir. 1989) (“It is of no moment that the algorithm is not expressed in terms of a mathematical formula. Words used in a claim operating on data to solve a problem can serve the same purpose as a formula.”).

In the past, the Supreme Court sometimes described mathematical concepts as laws of nature, and at other times described these concepts as judicial exceptions without specifying a particular type of exception. See, e.g., Benson, 409 U.S. at 65, 175 USPQ2d at 674; Flook, 437 U.S. at 589, 198 USPQ2d at 197. More recent opinions of the Supreme Court, however, have affirmatively characterized mathematical relationships and formulas as abstract ideas. See, e.g., Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. V. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2355, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1981 (describing Flook as holding “that a mathematical formula for computing ‘alarm limits’ in a catalytic conversion process was also a patent-ineligible abstract idea.”); Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 611-12, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1010 (noting that the claimed “concept of hedging, described in claim 1 and reduced to a mathematical formula in claim 4, is an unpatentable abstract idea, just like the algorithms at issue in Benson and Flook.”).

A. Concepts relating to a mathematical relationship or formula

An example of a case identifying a concept relating to a mathematical relationship or formula as a judicial exception is Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 209 USPQ 1 (1981). The applicant in Diehr claimed a method of operating a rubber-molding press, comprising providing an activation energy constant (C) unique to a particular batch of rubber to be molded and a constant (x) that is dependent on the geometry of the mold being used, constantly determining the temperature (Z) of the mold once it has closed, repetitively calculating the total cure time (v) using the Arrhenius equation (ln(v) = CZ+x) and comparing the total cure time with the elapsed time, and opening the press automatically when the comparison indicates equivalence. 450 U.S. at 178 n. 2 and 179 n.5; 209 USPQ at 1052 n. 2 and 1053 n.5. The Supreme Court noted that a mathematical formula such as the claimed Arrhenius equation is an exception like a scientific principle or natural phenomenon, is non-statutory subject matter (an exception). 450 U.S. at 191-92 and n.14; 209 USPQ at 1059 and n. 14. See also Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 71, 101 USPQ2d 1961, 1965 (2012) (noting that Diehr “pointed out that the basic mathematical equation, like a law of nature, was not patentable”).

Other examples of this type of concept include:

  • i. an algorithm for converting binary coded decimal to pure binary, Benson, 409 U.S. at 64, 175 USPQ at 674;
  • ii. a formula for computing an alarm limit, Flook, 437 U.S. at 585, 198 USPQ at 195;
  • iii. a formula describing certain electromagnetic standing wave phenomena, Mackay Radio & Tel. Co. v. Radio Corp. of America, 306 U.S. 86, 91, 40 USPQ 199, 201 (1939); and
  • iv. a mathematical formula for hedging, Bilski, 561 U.S. at 599, 95 USPQ2d at 1004-05.
B. Concepts relating to performing mathematical calculations

An example of a case identifying a concept relating to performing mathematical calculations as abstract is Bancorp Servs., LLC v. Sun Life Assur. Co. of Canada (U.S.), 687 F.3d 1266, 103 USPQ2d 1425 (Fed. Cir. 2012). The patentee in Bancorp claimed methods and systems for managing a life insurance policy on behalf of a policy holder, which comprised steps including generating a life insurance policy including a stable value protected investment with an initial value based on a value of underlying securities, calculating surrender value protected investment credits for the life insurance policy; determining an investment value and a value of the underlying securities for the current day; and calculating a policy value and a policy unit value for the current day. 687 F.3d at 1270-71, 103 USPQ2d at 1427. The court looked to the specification to understand the claims, and noted that “[a]s the formulae in the specification indicate, the determination of [the claimed] values, and their subsequent manipulation, is a matter of mere mathematical computation.” Accordingly, the court determined that the claim was directed to “the abstract idea of managing a stable value protected life insurance policy by performing calculations and manipulating the results.” 687 F.3d at 1280, 103 USPQ2d at 1434.

Another example is Digitech Image Techs., LLC v. Electronics for Imaging, Inc., 758 F.3d 1344, 111 USPQ2d 1717 (Fed. Cir. 2014). The patentee in Digitech claimed methods of generating first and second data by taking existing information, manipulating the data using mathematical formulas, and organizing this information into a new form. The court explained that such claims were directed to an abstract idea because they described a process of organizing information through mathematical correlations, like Flook's method of calculating using a mathematical formula. 758 F.3d at 1350, 111 USPQ2d at 1721.

Other examples of this type of concept include:

  • i. an algorithm for determining the optimal number of visits by a business representative to a client, In re Maucorps, 609 F.2d 481, 482, 203 USPQ 812, 813 (CCPA 1979);
  • ii. an algorithm for calculating parameters indicating an abnormal condition, In re Grams, 888 F.2d 835, 836, 12 USPQ2d 1824, 1825 (Fed. Cir. 1989); and
  • iii. calculating the difference between local and average data values, In re Abele, 684 F.2d 902, 903, 214 USPQ 682, 683-84 (CCPA 1982).

2106.04(b) Laws of Nature, Natural Phenomena & Products of Nature [R-08.2017]

Laws of nature and natural phenomena, as identified by the courts, include naturally occurring principles/relations and nature-based products that are naturally occurring or that do not have markedly different characteristics compared to what occurs in nature. The courts have often described these exceptions using other terms, including “physical phenomena,” “scientific principles”, “natural laws,” and “products of nature.”

I. LAWS OF NATURE AND NATURAL PHENOMENA, GENERALLY

The law of nature and natural phenomenon exceptions reflect the Supreme Court's view that the basic tools of scientific and technological work are not patentable, because the “manifestations of laws of nature” are “part of the storehouse of knowledge,” “free to all men and reserved exclusively to none.” Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., 333 U.S. 127, 130, 76 USPQ 280, 281 (1948). Thus, “a new mineral discovered in the earth or a new plant found in the wild is not patentable subject matter” under Section 101. Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 309, 206 USPQ 193, 197 (1980). “Likewise, Einstein could not patent his celebrated law that E=mc2; nor could Newton have patented the law of gravity.” Id. Nor can one patent “a novel and useful mathematical formula,” Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 585, 198 USPQ 193, 195 (1978); electromagnetism or steam power, O’Reilly v. Morse, 56 U.S. (15 How.) 62, 113-114 (1853); or “[t]he qualities of ... bacteria, ... the heat of the sun, electricity, or the qualities of metals,” Funk, 333 U.S. at 130, 76 USPQ at 281; see also Le Roy v. Tatham, 55 U.S. (14 How.) 156, 175 (1853).

The courts have identified the following concepts and products as examples of laws of nature or natural phenomena:

  • i. isolated DNA, Ass’n for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 133 S. Ct. 2107, 2116-17, 106 USPQ2d 1972, 1978-79 (2013);
  • ii. a cloned farm animal such as a sheep, In re Roslin Institute (Edinburgh), 750 F.3d 1333, 1337, 110 USPQ2d 1668, 1671 (Fed. Cir. 2014);
  • iii. a correlation between variations in non-coding regions of DNA and allele presence in coding regions of DNA, Genetic Techs. Ltd. v. Merial LLC, 818 F.3d 1369, 1375, 118 USPQ2d 1541, 1545 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • iv. a correlation that is the consequence of how a certain compound is metabolized by the body, Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., 566 U.S. 66, 75-77, 101 USPQ2d 1961, 1967-68 (2012);
  • v. a correlation between the presence of myeloperoxidase in a bodily sample (such as blood or plasma) and cardiovascular disease risk, Cleveland Clinic Foundation v. True Health Diagnostics, LLC, 859 F.3d 1352, 1361, 123 USPQ2d 1081, 1087 (Fed. Cir. 2017);
  • vi. electromagnetism to transmit signals, O’Reilly v. Morse, 56 U.S. 62, 113 (1853);
  • vii. qualities of bacteria such as their ability to create a state of inhibition or non-inhibition in other bacteria, Funk Bros., 333 U.S. at 130, 76 USPQ at 281;
  • viii. single-stranded DNA fragments known as “primers”, University of Utah Research Foundation v. Ambry Genetics Corp., 774 F.3d 755, 761, 113 USPQ2d 1241, 1244 (Fed. Cir. 2014);
  • ix. the chemical principle underlying the union between fatty elements and water, Tilghman v. Proctor, 102 U.S. 707, 729 (1880); and
  • x. the existence of cell-free fetal DNA (cffDNA) in maternal blood, Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, 788 F.3d 1371, 1373, 115 USPQ2d 1152, 1153 (Fed. Cir. 2015).

The courts have also noted, however, that not every claim describing a natural ability or quality of a product, or describing a natural process, is necessarily “directed to” a law of nature or natural phenomenon. For example, a method of treating cancer with chemotherapy is not directed to the cancer cells’ inability to survive chemotherapy, and a method of treating headaches with aspirin is not directed to the human body’s natural response to aspirin. See Rapid Litig. Mgmt. v. CellzDirect, Inc., 827 F.3d 1042, 1048-49, 119 USPQ2d 1370, 1374 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (claims reciting process steps of fractionating, recovering, and cryopreserving hepatocytes held to be eligible, because they are not focused on merely observing or detecting the ability of hepatocytes to survive multiple freeze-thaw cycles). Similarly, a method of producing a new compound is not directed to the individual components’ ability to combine to form the new compound. Id. See also Tilghman v. Proctor, 102 U.S. 707, 729 (1881) (claims reciting process steps for manufacturing fatty acids and glycerol by hydrolyzing fat at high temperature and pressure were held to be eligible, because they are not focused on the chemical principle that fat can be hydrolyzed into its components).

As explained in MPEP § 2106.04, a claim that recites a law of nature or a natural phenomenon is directed to a judicial exception (Step 2A: YES), and requires further analysis in Step 2B to determine whether the claim recites a patent-eligible application of the exception. A claim that does not recite a law of nature or natural phenomenon is eligible (Step 2A: NO) at Pathway B unless the claim recites another exception (such as an abstract idea, or a product of nature).

II. PRODUCTS OF NATURE

When a law of nature or natural phenomenon is claimed as a physical product, the courts have often referred to the exception as a “product of nature”. For example, the isolated DNA of Myriad and the primers of Ambry Genetics were described as products of nature by the courts. Ass’n for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 133 S. Ct. 2107, 2116-17, 106 USPQ2d 1972, 1979 (2013); University of Utah Research Foundation v. Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d 755, 758-59, 113 USPQ2d 1241, 1243 (Fed. Cir. 2014). As explained in those decisions, products of nature are considered to be an exception because they tie up the use of naturally occurring things, but they have been labeled as both laws of nature and natural phenomena. See Myriad Genetics, Inc., 133 S. Ct. at 2116-17, 106 USPQ2d at 1979 (claims to isolated DNA held ineligible because they “claim naturally occurring phenomena” and are “squarely within the law of nature exception”); Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., 333 U.S. 127, 130, 76 USPQ 280, 281 (1948) (claims to bacterial mixtures held ineligible as “manifestations of laws of nature” and “phenomena of nature”). Step 2A of the Office’s eligibility analysis uses the terms “law of nature” and “natural phenomenon” as inclusive of “products of nature”.

It is important to keep in mind that product of nature exceptions include both naturally occurring products and non-naturally occurring products that lack markedly different characteristics from any naturally occurring counterpart. See, e.g.,Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d at 760, 113 USPQ2d at 1244 (“Contrary to Myriad's argument, it makes no difference that the identified gene sequences are synthetically replicated. As the Supreme Court made clear, neither naturally occurring compositions of matter, nor synthetically created compositions that are structurally identical to the naturally occurring compositions, are patent eligible.”). Thus, a synthetic, artificial, or non-naturally occurring product such as a cloned organism or a human-made hybrid plant is not automatically eligible because it was created by human ingenuity or intervention. See, e.g.,In re Roslin Institute (Edinburgh), 750 F.3d 1333, 1337, 110 USPQ2d 1668, 1671-72 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (cloned sheep); cf. J.E.M. Ag Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred Int’l, Inc., 534 U.S. 130-132, 60 USPQ2d 1868-69 (2001) (hybrid plant). Instead, the key to the eligibility of all non-naturally occurring products is whether they possess markedly different characteristics from any naturally occurring counterpart.

When a claim recites a nature-based product limitation, examiners should use the markedly different characteristics analysis discussed in MPEP § 2106.04(c) to evaluate the nature-based product limitation and determine the answer to Step 2A. Nature-based products, as used herein, include both eligible and ineligible products and merely refer to the types of products subject to the markedly different characteristics analysis used to identify product of nature exceptions. Examples of nature-based products include the isolated gene and cDNA sequences of Myriad, the cloned farm animals of Roslin, and the bacterium of Chakrabarty. As is evident from these examples, and as further discussed in MPEP § 2105, a nature-based product that is a living organism (e.g., a plant, an animal, a bacterium, etc.) is not excluded from patent protection merely because it is alive, and such a product is eligible for patenting if it satisfies the markedly different characteristics analysis.

It is important to keep in mind that under the broadest reasonable interpretation (BRI) of the claims, a nature-based product limitation may encompass both eligible and ineligible products. For example, a claim to a “cloned giraffe” may have a BRI encompassing cloned giraffes with markedly different characteristics, as well as cloned giraffes that lack markedly different characteristics and thus are products of nature. Cf. Roslin, 750 F.3d at 1338-39, 110 USPQ2d at 1673 (applicant could not rely on unclaimed features to distinguish claimed mammals from donor mammals). Such a claim is directed to a product of nature (Step 2A: YES). If the claim is ultimately rejected as failing to encompass an inventive concept (Step 2B: NO), it is a best practice for the examiner to point out the broadest reasonable interpretation and recommend an amendment, if possible, that would narrow the claim to those embodiments that are not directed to products of nature, or that are otherwise eligible.

For claims that recite a nature-based product limitation (which may or may not be a product of nature exception) but which are directed to inventions that clearly do not seek to tie up any judicial exception, examiners should consider whether the streamlined eligibility analysis discussed in MPEP § 2106.06 is appropriate. In such cases, it would not be necessary to conduct a markedly different characteristics analysis.

2106.04(c) The Markedly Different Characteristics Analysis [R-08.2017]

The markedly different characteristics analysis is part of Step 2A, because the courts use this analysis to identify product of nature exceptions. For example, Chakrabarty relied on a comparison of the claimed bacterium to naturally occurring bacteria when determining that the claimed bacterium was not a product of nature because it had “markedly different characteristics from any found in nature”. Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 310, 206 USPQ 193, 197 (1980). Similarly, Roslin relied on a comparison of the claimed sheep to naturally occurring sheep when determining that the claimed sheep was a product of nature because it “does not possess ‘markedly different characteristics from any [farm animals] found in nature.’” In re Roslin Institute (Edinburgh), 750 F.3d 1333, 1337, 110 USPQ2d 1668, 1671-72 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (quoting Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 310, 206 USPQ at 197 (alterations in original)).

This section sets forth guidelines for performing the markedly different characteristics analysis, including information on when to perform the analysis, and how to perform the analysis. Examiners should consult these guidelines when performing an eligibility analysis of a claim that recites a nature-based product limitation. Nature-based products, as used herein, include both eligible and ineligible products and merely refer to the types of products subject to the markedly different characteristics analysis used to identify product of nature exceptions.

If the claim includes a nature-based product that has markedly different characteristics, then the claim does not recite a product of nature exception and is eligible (Step 2A: NO) at Pathway B unless the claim recites another exception (such as a law of nature or abstract idea, or a different natural phenomenon). For claims where the entire claim is a single nature-based product (e.g., a claim to “a Lactobacillus bacterium”), once a markedly different characteristic in that product is shown, no further analysis would be necessary for eligibility because no product of nature exception is recited (i.e., Step 2B is not necessary because the answer to Step 2A is NO). For claims including limitations in addition to the nature-based product, examiners should consider whether the claim recites another exception and thus requires further eligibility analysis.

If the claim includes a nature-based product that does not exhibit markedly different characteristics from its naturally occurring counterpart in its natural state, then the claim is directed to a “product of nature” exception (Step 2A: YES), and requires further analysis in Step 2B to determine whether any additional elements in the claim add significantly more to the exception.

I. WHEN TO PERFORM THE MARKEDLY DIFFERENT CHARACTERISTICS ANALYSIS

Because a nature-based product can be claimed by itself (e.g., “a Lactobacillus bacterium”) or as one or more limitations of a claim (e.g., “a probiotic composition comprising a mixture of Lactobacillus and milk in a container”), care should be taken not to overly extend the markedly different characteristics analysis to products that when viewed as a whole are not nature-based. Instead, the markedly different characteristics analysis should be applied only to the nature-based product limitations in the claim to determine whether the nature-based products are “product of nature” exceptions.

A. Product Claims

Where the claim is to a nature-based product by itself (e.g., a claim to “a Lactobacillus bacterium”), the markedly different characteristics analysis should be applied to the entire product. See, e.g., Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 305, 309-10, 206 USPQ at 195, 197-98 (applying analysis to entire claimed “bacterium from the genus Pseudomonas containing therein at least two stable energy-generating plasmids, each of said plasmids providing a separate hydrocarbon degradative pathway”).

Where the claim is to a nature-based product produced by combining multiple components (e.g., a claim to “a probiotic composition comprising a mixture of Lactobacillus and milk”), the markedly different characteristics analysis should be applied to the resultant nature-based combination, rather than its component parts. For instance, for the probiotic composition example, the mixture of Lactobacillus and milk should be analyzed for markedly different characteristics, rather than the Lactobacillus separately and the milk separately. See MPEP § 2106.04(c), subsection II, below, for further guidance on the markedly different characteristic analysis.

Where the claim is to a nature-based product in combination with non-nature based elements (e.g., a claim to “a yogurt starter kit comprising Lactobacillus in a container with instructions for culturing Lactobacillus with milk to produce yogurt”), the markedly different characteristics analysis should be applied only to the nature-based product limitation. For instance, for the yogurt starter kit example, the Lactobacillus would be analyzed for markedly different characteristics. The container and instructions would not be subject to the markedly different characteristics analysis as they are not nature-based products, but would be evaluated as additional elements in Step 2B if it is determined that the Lactobacillus does not have markedly different characteristics from any naturally occurring counterpart and thus is a product of nature exception. See, e.g., Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., 333 U.S. 127, 130, 76 USPQ 280, 281 (1948) (although claims 7, 8, 13 and 14 recited an inoculant comprising a bacterial mixture and a powder base, only the bacterial mixture was analyzed).

B. Product-by-Process Claims

For a product-by-process claim (e.g., a claim to a cloned farm animal produced by a nuclear transfer cloning method), the analysis turns on whether the nature-based product in the claim has markedly different characteristics from its naturally occurring counterpart. See MPEP § 2113 for more information on product-by-process claims.

C. Process Claims

For a process claim, the general rule is that the claim is not subject to the markedly different analysis for nature-based products used in the process. This is because the analysis of a process claim should focus on the active steps of the process rather than the products used in those steps. For example, when evaluating a claimed process of cryopreserving hepatocyte cells comprising performing density gradient fractionation to separate viable and non-viable hepatocytes, recovering the viable hepatocytes, and cryopreserving the recovered viable hepatocytes, the court did not subject the claim to the markedly different characteristics analysis for the nature-based products (the hepatocytes) used in the process. Rapid Litig. Mgmt. v. CellzDirect, Inc., 827 F.3d 1042, 1049, 119 USPQ2d 1370, 1374 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (claims are directed to a process of creating a preparation of multi-cryopreserved hepatocytes, not to the preparation itself).

However, in the limited situation where a process claim reciting a nature-based product is drafted in such a way that there is no difference in substance from a product claim, the claim is subject to the markedly different analysis for the recited nature-based product. These types of claims are drafted in a way that focuses on the product rather than the process steps. For example, consider a claim that recites, in its entirety, “a method of providing an apple.” Under the broadest reasonable interpretation, this claim is focused on the apple fruit itself, which is a nature-based product. Similarly, claims to detecting naturally occurring cell-free fetal DNA (cffDNA) in maternal blood were held to be directed to the cffDNA, because the “existence and location of cffDNA is a natural phenomenon [and thus] identifying its presence was merely claiming the natural phenomena itself.” Rapid Litig. Mgmt., 827 F.3d at 1048, 119 USPQ2d at 1374, (explaining the holding in Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, 788 F.3d 1371, 115 USPQ2d 1152 (Fed. Cir. 2015)).

II. HOW TO PERFORM THE MARKEDLY DIFFERENT CHARACTERISTICS ANALYSIS

The markedly different characteristics analysis compares the nature-based product limitation to its naturally occurring counterpart in its natural state. Markedly different characteristics can be expressed as the product’s structure, function, and/or other properties, and are evaluated based on what is recited in the claim on a case-by-case basis. If the analysis indicates that a nature-based product limitation does not exhibit markedly different characteristics, then that limitation is a product of nature exception. If the analysis indicates that a nature-based product limitation does have markedly different characteristics, then that limitation is not a product of nature exception.

Examiners should keep in mind that if the nature-based product limitation is naturally occurring, there is no need to perform the markedly different characteristics analysis because the limitation is by definition directed to a naturally occurring product and thus falls under the product of nature exception. However, if the nature-based product limitation is not naturally occurring, for example due to some human intervention, then the markedly different characteristics analysis must be performed to determine whether the claimed product limitation is a product of nature exception.

This section sets forth guidelines for performing the markedly different characteristics analysis, including information on (a) selecting the appropriate naturally occurring counterpart(s) to the nature-based product limitation, (b) identifying appropriate characteristics for analysis, and (c) evaluating characteristics to determine whether they are “markedly different”.

A. Selecting The Appropriate Counterpart(s)

Because the markedly different characteristics analysis compares the nature-based product limitation to its naturally occurring counterpart in its natural state, the first step in the analysis is to select the appropriate counterpart(s) to the nature-based product.

When the nature-based product is derived from a naturally occurring thing, then the naturally occurring thing is the counterpart. For example, assume that applicant claims deoxyacid A, which is a chemical derivative of a naturally occurring chemical called acid A. Because applicant created the claimed nature-based product (deoxyacid A) by modifying the naturally occurring acid A, the closest natural counterpart for deoxyacid A would be the natural product from which it was derived, i.e., acid A. See, e.g.,Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 305 and n.1, 206 USPQ at 195 and n.1 (counterpart to genetically modified Pseudomonas bacterium containing multiple plasmids is the naturally occurring unmodified Pseudomonas bacterium from which the claimed bacterium was created); Roslin, 750 F.3d at 1337, 110 USPQ2d at 1671-72 (counterparts to cloned sheep are naturally occurring sheep such as the donor ewe from which the clone was created).

Although the selected counterpart should be in its natural state, examiners should take care not to confuse the counterpart with other material that may occur naturally with, or adjacent to, the counterpart. For example, assume that applicant claims a nucleic acid having a nucleotide sequence derived from naturally occurring gene B. Although gene B occurs in nature as part of a chromosome, the closest natural counterpart for the claimed nucleic acid is gene B, and not the whole chromosome. See, e.g., Ass’n for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 133 S. Ct. 2107, 2117-19, 106 USPQ2d 1972, 1979-81 (2013) (comparing isolated BRCA1 genes and BRCA1 cDNA molecules to naturally occurring BRCA1 gene). Similarly, assume that applicant claims a single-stranded piece of DNA (a primer) having a nucleotide sequence derived from the sense strand of naturally occurring nucleic acid C. Although nucleic acid C occurs in nature as a double-stranded molecule having a sense and an antisense strand, the closest natural counterpart for the claimed nucleic acid is the sense strand of C only. See, e.g., University of Utah Research Foundation v. Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d 755, 760, 113 USPQ2d 1241, 1241 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (comparing single-stranded nucleic acid to the same strand found in nature, even though “single-stranded DNA cannot be found in the human body”).

When there are multiple counterparts to the nature-based product, the comparison should be made to the closest naturally occurring counterpart. For example, assume that applicant creates a cloned sheep D by transferring nuclear DNA from a Finn-Dorset sheep into an egg cell (which contains mitochondrial DNA) from a Scottish Blackface sheep. Applicant then claims sheep D. Here, because sheep D was created via combining DNA from two different naturally occurring sheep of different breeds, there is no single closest natural counterpart. The examiner should therefore select the counterpart most closely related to sheep D based on the examiner’s expertise in the particular art. For the example discussed here, the closest counterparts might be naturally occurring Finn-Dorset or Scottish Blackface sheep, as opposed to sheep of a different breed such as Bighorn sheep. Cf. Roslin, 750 F.3d at 1337, 110 USPQ2d at 1671-72 (claimed sheep produced by nuclear transfer into an oocyte and subsequent manipulation of natural embryonic development processes was compared to naturally occurring sheep such as the donor ewe from which the nuclear material was obtained). When the nature-based product is a combination produced from multiple components, the closest counterpart may be the individual nature-based components of the combination. For example, assume that applicant claims an inoculant comprising a mixture of bacteria from different species, e.g., some bacteria of species E and some bacteria of species F. Because there is no counterpart mixture in nature, the closest counterparts to the claimed mixture are the individual components of the mixture, i.e., each naturally occurring species by itself. See, e.g., Funk Bros., 333 U.S. at 130, 76 USPQ at 281 (comparing claimed mixture of bacterial species to each species as it occurs in nature); Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d at 760, 113 USPQ2d at 1244 (although claimed as a pair, individual primer molecules were compared to corresponding segments of naturally occurring gene sequence). See MPEP § 2106.04(c), subsection II. C.

If the claim is rejected as ineligible, it is a “best practice” for the examiner to identify the selected counterpart in the Office action if the record is not already clear. This practice assists the applicant in responding, and clarifies the record as to how the examiner is interpreting the claim.

B. Identifying Appropriate Characteristics For Analysis

Because the markedly different characteristics analysis is based on comparing the characteristics of the claimed nature-based product and its counterpart, the second step in the analysis is to identify appropriate characteristics to compare.

Appropriate characteristics must be possessed by the claimed product, because it is the claim that must define the invention to be patented. Cf. Roslin, 750 F.3d at 1338, 110 USPQ2d at 1673 (unclaimed characteristics could not contribute to eligibility). Examiners can identify the characteristics possessed by the claimed product by looking at what is recited in the claim language and encompassed within the broadest reasonable interpretation of the nature-based product. In some claims, a characteristic may be explicitly recited. For example, in a claim to “deoxyribose”, the recited chemical name informs those in the art of the structural characteristics of the product (i.e., the “deoxy” prefix indicates that a hydroxyl group has been removed as compared to ribose). In other claims, the characteristic may be apparent from the broadest reasonable interpretation even though it is not explicitly recited in the claim. For example, in a claim to “isolated gene B,” the examiner would need to rely on the broadest reasonable interpretation of “isolated gene B” to determine what characteristics the isolated gene has, e.g., what its nucleotide sequence is, and what, if any, protein it encodes.

Appropriate characteristics can be expressed as the nature-based product’s structure, function, and/or other properties, and are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Non-limiting examples of the types of characteristics considered by the courts when determining whether there is a marked difference include:

  • • Biological or pharmacological functions or activities;
  • • Chemical and physical properties;
  • • Phenotype, including functional and structural characteristics; and
  • • Structure and form, whether chemical, genetic or physical.

Examples of biological or pharmacological functions or activities include, but are not limited to:

  • i. the protein-encoding information of a nucleic acid, Myriad, 133 S. Ct. at 2111, 2116-17, 106 USPQ2d at 1979);
  • ii. or the ability of complementary nucleotide sequences to bind to each other, Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d at 760-61, 113 USPQ2d at 1244);
  • iii. the properties and functions of bacteria such as the ability to infect certain leguminous plants, Funk Bros., 333 U.S. at 130-31, 76 USPQ2d at 281-82;
  • iv. the ability to degrade certain hydrocarbons, Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 310, 206 USPQ2d at 195; and
  • v. the ability of vitamin C to prevent and treat scurvy, In re King, 107 F.2d 618, 27 CCPA 754, 756-57, 43 USPQ 400, 401-402 (CCPA 1939).

Examples of chemical and physical properties include, but are not limited to:

  • i. the alkalinity of a chemical compound, Parke-Davis & Co. v. H.K. Mulford Co., 189 F. 95, 103-04 (S.D.N.Y. 1911); and
  • ii. the ductility or malleability of metals, In re Marden, 47 F.2d 958, 959, 18 CCPA 1057, 1059, 8 USPQ 347, 349 (CCPA 1931).

Examples of phenotypic characteristics include, but are not limited to:

  • i. functional and structural characteristics such as the shape, size, color, and behavior of an organism, Roslin, 750 F.3d at 1338, 110 USPQ2d at 1672.

Examples of structure and form include, but are not limited to:

  • i. physical structure or form such as the physical presence of plasmids in a bacterial cell, Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. at 305 and n.1, 206 USPQ2d at 195 and n.1;
  • ii. chemical structure and form such as a chemical being a “nonsalt” and a “crystalline substance”, Parke-Davis, 189 F. at 100, 103;
  • iii. genetic structure such as the nucleotide sequence of DNA, Myriad, 133 S. Ct. at 2116, 2119, 106 USPQ2d at 1979; and
  • iv. the genetic makeup (genotype) of a cell or organism, Roslin, 750 F.3d at 1338-39, 110 USPQ2d at 1672-73.
C. Evaluating Characteristics To Determine Whether They Are “Markedly Different”

The final step in the markedly different characteristics analysis is to compare the characteristics of the claimed nature-based product to its naturally occurring counterpart in its natural state, in order to determine whether the characteristics of the claimed product are markedly different. The courts have emphasized that to show a marked difference, a characteristic must be changed as compared to nature, and cannot be an inherent or innate characteristic of the naturally occurring counterpart or an incidental change in a characteristic of the naturally occurring counterpart. Myriad, 133 S. Ct. at 2111, 106 USPQ2d at 1974-75. Thus, in order to be markedly different, applicant must have caused the claimed product to possess at least one characteristic that is different from that of the counterpart.

If there is no change in any characteristic, the claimed product lacks markedly different characteristics, and is a product of nature exception. If there is a change in at least one characteristic as compared to the counterpart, and the change came about or was produced by applicant’s efforts or influences, then the change will generally be considered a markedly different characteristic such that the claimed product is not a product of nature exception.

(1) Examples of Products Having Markedly Different Characteristics

In Chakrabarty, the Supreme Court identified a claimed bacterium as a nature-based product having markedly different characteristics. This bacterium had a changed functional characteristic, i.e., it was able to degrade at least two different hydrocarbons as compared to naturally occurring Pseudomonas bacteria that can only degrade a single hydrocarbon. The claimed bacterium also had a different structural characteristic, i.e., it was genetically modified to include more plasmids than are found in a single naturally occurring Pseudomonas bacterium. The Supreme Court considered these changed characteristics to be “markedly different characteristics from any found in nature” due to the additional plasmids and resultant capacity for degrading multiple hydrocarbon components of oil. Therefore, the bacterium was eligible. Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 310, 206 USPQ 193, 197 (1980).

In Myriad, the Supreme Court identified a claimed full-length complementary DNA (cDNA) of the BRCA1 gene as a nature-based product having markedly different characteristics. This claimed cDNA had the same functional characteristics (i.e., it encoded the same protein) as the naturally occurring gene, but had a changed structural characteristic, i.e., a different nucleotide sequence containing only exons, as compared to the naturally occurring sequence containing both exons and introns. The Supreme Court concluded that the “cDNA retains the naturally occurring exons of DNA, but it is distinct from the DNA from which it was derived. As a result, [this] cDNA is not a ‘product of nature’” and is eligible. Myriad, 133 S. Ct. at 2119, 106 USPQ2d at 1981.

(2) Examples of Products Lacking Markedly Different Characteristics

In Myriad, the Supreme Court made clear that not all changes in characteristics will rise to the level of a marked difference, e.g., the incidental changes resulting from isolation of a gene sequence are not enough to make the isolated gene markedly different. Myriad, 133 S. Ct. at 2111, 106 USPQ2d at 1974-75. The patentee in Myriad had discovered the location of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in the human genome, and isolated them, i.e., separated those specific genes from the rest of the chromosome on which they exist in nature. As a result of their isolation, the isolated genes had a different structural characteristic than the natural genes, i.e., the natural genes had covalent bonds on their ends that connected them to the rest of the chromosome, but the isolated genes lacked these bonds. However, the claimed genes were otherwise structurally identical to the natural genes, e.g., they had the same genetic structure and nucleotide sequence as the BRCA genes in nature. The Supreme Court concluded that these isolated but otherwise unchanged genes were not eligible, because they were not different enough from what exists in nature to avoid improperly tying up the future use and study of the naturally occurring BRCA genes. See, e.g., Myriad, 133 S. Ct. at 2113-14, 106 USPQ2d at 1977 (“Myriad's patents would, if valid, give it the exclusive right to isolate an individual’s BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes … But isolation is necessary to conduct genetic testing”) and 133 S. Ct. at 2118, 106 USPQ2d at 1980 (describing how would-be infringers could not avoid the scope of Myriad’s claims). In sum, the claimed genes were different, but not markedly different, from their naturally occurring counterparts (the BRCA genes), and thus were product of nature exceptions.

In Ambry Genetics, the court identified claimed DNA fragments known as “primers” as products of nature, because they lacked markedly different characteristics. University of Utah Research Foundation v. Ambry Genetics Corp., 774 F.3d 755, 113 USPQ2d 1241 (Fed. Cir. 2014). The claimed primers were single-stranded pieces of DNA, each of which corresponded to a naturally occurring double-stranded DNA sequence in or near the BRCA genes. The patentee argued that these primers had markedly different structural characteristics from the natural DNA, because the primers were synthetically created and because “single-stranded DNA cannot be found in the human body”. The court disagreed, concluding that the primers’ structural characteristics were not markedly different than the corresponding strands of DNA in nature, because the primers and their counterparts had the same genetic structure and nucleotide sequence. 774 F.3d at 760, 113 USPQ2d at 1243-44. The patentee also argued that the primers had a different function than when they are part of the DNA strand because when isolated as a primer, a primer can be used as a starting material for a DNA polymerization process. The court disagreed, because this ability to serve as a starting material is innate to DNA itself, and was not created or altered by the patentee:

In fact, the naturally occurring genetic sequences at issue here do not perform a significantly new function. Rather, the naturally occurring material is used to form the first step in a chain reaction--a function that is performed because the primer maintains the exact same nucleotide sequence as the relevant portion of the naturally occurring sequence. One of the primary functions of DNA’s structure in nature is that complementary nucleotide sequences bind to each other. It is this same function that is exploited here--the primer binds to its complementary nucleotide sequence. Thus, just as in nature, primers utilize the innate ability of DNA to bind to itself.

Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d at 760-61, 113 USPQ2d at 1244. In sum, because the characteristics of the claimed primers were innate to naturally occurring DNA, they lacked markedly different characteristics from nature and were thus product of nature exceptions. A similar result was reached in Marden, where the court held a claim to ductile vanadium ineligible, because the “ductility or malleability of vanadium is . . . one of its inherent characteristics and not a characteristic given to it by virtue of a new combination with other materials or which characteristic is brought about by some chemical reaction or agency which changes its inherent characteristics”. In re Marden, 47 F.2d 958, 959, 18 CCPA 1057, 1060, 8 USPQ 347, 349 (CCPA 1931).

In Roslin, the court concluded that claimed clones of farm animals were products of nature, because they lacked markedly different characteristics from the counterpart farm animals found in nature. In re Roslin Institute (Edinburgh), 750 F.3d 1333, 1337, 110 USPQ2d 1668, 1671 (Fed. Cir. 2014). Applicant created its clones (which included the famous cloned sheep named Dolly) by transferring the genetic material of a donor into an oocyte (egg cell), letting the oocyte develop into an embryo, and then implanting the embryo into a surrogate animal where it developed into a baby animal. The applicant argued that the clones, including Dolly, were eligible because they were created via human ingenuity, and had phenotypic differences such as shape, size and behavior compared to their donors. The court was unpersuaded, explaining that the clones were exact genetic replicas of the donors and thus did not possess markedly different characteristics. 750 F.3d at 1337, 110 USPQ2d at 1671-72 (“Roslin’s chief innovation was the preservation of the donor DNA such that the clone is an exact copy of the mammal from which the somatic cell was taken. Such a copy is not eligible for patent protection.”). The court noted that the alleged phenotypic differences (e.g., the fact that Dolly may have been taller or heavier than her donor) could not make the clones markedly different because these differences were not claimed. 750 F.3d at 1338, 110 USPQ2d at 1672.

2106.05 Eligibility Step 2B: Whether a Claim Amounts to Significantly More [R-08.2017]

I. THE SEARCH FOR AN INVENTIVE CONCEPT

While abstract ideas, natural phenomena, and laws of nature are not eligible for patenting by themselves, claims that integrate these exceptions into an inventive concept are thereby transformed into patent-eligible inventions. Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int'l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2354, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1981 (2014) (citing Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 71-72, 101 USPQ2d 1961, 1966 (2012)). Thus, the second part of the Alice/Mayo test is often referred to as a search for an inventive concept. Id.

An inventive concept “cannot be furnished by the unpatentable law of nature (or natural phenomenon or abstract idea) itself.” Genetic Techs. v. Merial LLC, 818 F.3d 1369, 1376, 118 USPQ2d 1541, 1546 (Fed. Cir. 2016). See also Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2355, 110 USPQ2d at 1981 (citing Mayo, 566 U.S. at 78, 101 USPQ2d at 1968 (after determining that a claim is directed to a judicial exception, “we then ask, ‘[w]hat else is there in the claims before us?”) (emphasis added)); RecogniCorp, LLC v. Nintendo Co., 855 F.3d 1322, 1327, 122 USPQ2d 1377 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (“Adding one abstract idea (math) to another abstract idea (encoding and decoding) does not render the claim non-abstract”). Instead, an “inventive concept” is furnished by an element or combination of elements that is recited in the claim in addition to (beyond) the judicial exception, and is sufficient to ensure that the claim as a whole amounts to significantly more than the judicial exception itself. Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2355, 110 USPQ2d at 1981 (citing Mayo, 566 U.S. at 72-73, 101 USPQ2d at 1966).

Evaluating additional elements to determine whether they amount to an inventive concept requires considering them both individually and in combination to ensure that they amount to significantly more than the judicial exception itself. Because this approach considers all claim elements, the Supreme Court has noted that “it is consistent with the general rule that patent claims ‘must be considered as a whole.’” Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2355, 110 USPQ2d at 1981 (quoting Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 188, 209 USPQ 1, 8-9 (1981)). Consideration of the elements in combination is particularly important, because even if an additional element does not amount to significantly more on its own, it can still amount to significantly more when considered in combination with the other elements of the claim. See, e.g., Rapid Litig. Mgmt. v. CellzDirect, 827 F.3d 1042, 1051, 119 USPQ2d 1370, 1375 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (process reciting combination of individually well-known freezing and thawing steps was “far from routine and conventional” and thus eligible); BASCOM Global Internet Servs. v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1350, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1242 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (inventive concept may be found in the non-conventional and non-generic arrangement of components that are individually well-known and conventional).

Although the courts often evaluate considerations such as the conventionality of an additional element in the eligibility analysis, the search for an inventive concept should not be confused with a novelty or non-obviousness determination. See Mayo, 566 U.S. at 91, 101 USPQ2d at 1973 (rejecting “the Government’s invitation to substitute §§ 102, 103, and 112 inquiries for the better established inquiry under § 101”). As made clear by the courts, the “‘novelty’ of any element or steps in a process, or even of the process itself, is of no relevance in determining whether the subject matter of a claim falls within the § 101 categories of possibly patentable subject matter.” Intellectual Ventures I v. Symantec Corp., 838 F.3d 1307, 1315, 120 USPQ2d 1353, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (quoting Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. at 188–89, 209 USPQ at 9). See also Synopsys, Inc. v. Mentor Graphics Corp., 839 F.3d 1138, 1151, 120 USPQ2d 1473, 1483 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“a claim for a new abstract idea is still an abstract idea. The search for a § 101 inventive concept is thus distinct from demonstrating § 102 novelty.”). In addition, the search for an inventive concept is different from an obviousness analysis under 35 U.S.C. 103. See, e.g., BASCOM Global Internet v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1350, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1242 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“The inventive concept inquiry requires more than recognizing that each claim element, by itself, was known in the art. . . . [A]n inventive concept can be found in the non-conventional and non-generic arrangement of known, conventional pieces.”). Specifically, lack of novelty under 35 U.S.C. 102 or obviousness under 35 U.S.C. 103 of a claimed invention does not necessarily indicate that additional elements are well-understood, routine, conventional elements. Because they are separate and distinct requirements from eligibility, patentability of the claimed invention under 35 U.S.C. 102 and 103 with respect to the prior art is neither required for, nor a guarantee of, patent eligibility under 35 U.S.C. 101. The distinction between eligibility (under 35 U.S.C. 101) and patentability over the art (under 35 U.S.C. 102 and/or 103) is further discussed in MPEP § 2106.05(d).

A. Relevant Considerations For Evaluating Whether Additional Elements Amount To An Inventive Concept

The Supreme Court has identified a number of considerations as relevant to the evaluation of whether the claimed additional elements amount to an inventive concept. The list of considerations here is not intended to be exclusive or limiting. Additional elements can often be analyzed based on more than one type of consideration and the type of consideration is of no import to the eligibility analysis. Additional discussion of these considerations, and how they were applied in particular judicial decisions, is provided in in MPEP § 2106.05(a) through (h).

Limitations that the courts have found to qualify as “significantly more” when recited in a claim with a judicial exception include:

  • i. Improvements to the functioning of a computer, e.g., a modification of conventional Internet hyperlink protocol to dynamically produce a dual-source hybrid webpage, as discussed in DDR Holdings, LLC v. Hotels.com, L.P., 773 F.3d 1245, 1258-59, 113 USPQ2d 1097, 1106-07 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (see MPEP § 2106.05(a));
  • ii. Improvements to any other technology or technical field, e.g., a modification of conventional rubber-molding processes to utilize a thermocouple inside the mold to constantly monitor the temperature and thus reduce under- and over-curing problems common in the art, as discussed in Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 191-92, 209 USPQ 1, 10 (1981) (see MPEP § 2106.05(a));
  • iii. Applying the judicial exception with, or by use of, a particular machine, e.g., a Fourdrinier machine (which is understood in the art to have a specific structure comprising a headbox, a paper-making wire, and a series of rolls) that is arranged in a particular way to optimize the speed of the machine while maintaining quality of the formed paper web, as discussed in Eibel Process Co. v. Minn. & Ont. Paper Co., 261 U.S. 45, 64-65 (1923) (see MPEP § 2106.05(b));
  • iv. Effecting a transformation or reduction of a particular article to a different state or thing, e.g., a process that transforms raw, uncured synthetic rubber into precision-molded synthetic rubber products, as discussed in Diehr, 450 U.S. at 184, 209 USPQ at 21 (see MPEP § 2106.05(c));
  • v. Adding a specific limitation other than what is well-understood, routine, conventional activity in the field, or adding unconventional steps that confine the claim to a particular useful application, e.g., a non-conventional and non-generic arrangement of various computer components for filtering Internet content, as discussed in BASCOM Global Internet v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1350-51, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1243 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (see MPEP § 2106.05(d)); or
  • vi. Other meaningful limitations beyond generally linking the use of the judicial exception to a particular technological environment, e.g., an immunization step that integrates an abstract idea of data comparison into a specific process of immunizing that lowers the risk that immunized patients will later develop chronic immune-mediated diseases, as discussed in Classen Immunotherapies Inc. v. Biogen IDEC, 659 F.3d 1057, 1066-68, 100 USPQ2d 1492, 1499-1502 (Fed. Cir. 2011) (see MPEP § 2106.05(e)).

Limitations that the courts have found not to be enough to qualify as “significantly more” when recited in a claim with a judicial exception include:

  • i. Adding the words “apply it” (or an equivalent) with the judicial exception, or mere instructions to implement an abstract idea on a computer, e.g., a limitation indicating that a particular function such as creating and maintaining electronic records is performed by a computer, as discussed in Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2360, 110 USPQ2d at 1984 (see MPEP § 2106.05(f));
  • ii. Simply appending well-understood, routine, conventional activities previously known to the industry, specified at a high level of generality, to the judicial exception, e.g., a claim to an abstract idea requiring no more than a generic computer to perform generic computer functions that are well-understood, routine and conventional activities previously known to the industry, as discussed in Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2359-60, 110 USPQ2d at 1984 (see MPEP § 2106.05(d));
  • iii. Adding insignificant extra-solution activity to the judicial exception, e.g., mere data gathering in conjunction with a law of nature or abstract idea such as a step of obtaining information about credit card transactions so that the information can be analyzed by an abstract mental process, as discussed in CyberSource v. Retail Decisions, Inc., 654 F.3d 1366, 1375, 99 USPQ2d 1690, 1694 (Fed. Cir. 2011) (see MPEP § 2106.05(g)); or
  • iv. Generally linking the use of the judicial exception to a particular technological environment or field of use, e.g., a claim describing how the abstract idea of hedging could be used in the commodities and energy markets, as discussed in Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 595, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1010 (2010) or a claim limiting the use of a mathematical formula to the petrochemical and oil-refining fields, as discussed in Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 588-90, 198 USPQ 193, 197-98 (1978) (MPEP § 2106.05(h)).

It is notable that mere physicality or tangibility of an additional element or elements is not a relevant consideration in Step 2B. As the Supreme Court explained in Alice Corp., mere physical or tangible implementation of an exception is not in itself an inventive concept and does not guarantee eligibility:

The fact that a computer “necessarily exist[s] in the physical, rather than purely conceptual, realm,” is beside the point. There is no dispute that a computer is a tangible system (in § 101 terms, a “machine”), or that many computer-implemented claims are formally addressed to patent-eligible subject matter. But if that were the end of the § 101 inquiry, an applicant could claim any principle of the physical or social sciences by reciting a computer system configured to implement the relevant concept. Such a result would make the determination of patent eligibility “depend simply on the draftsman’s art,” Flook, supra, at 593, 98 S. Ct. 2522, 57 L. Ed. 2d 451, thereby eviscerating the rule that “‘[l]aws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas are not patentable,’” Myriad, 133 S. Ct. 1289, 186 L. Ed. 2d 124, 133).

Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2358-59, 110 USPQ2d at 1983-84 (alterations in original). See also Genetic Technologies Ltd. v. Merial LLC, 818 F.3d 1369, 1377, 118 USPQ2d 1541, 1547 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (steps of DNA amplification and analysis “do not, individually or in combination, provide sufficient inventive concept to render claim 1 patent eligible” merely because they are physical steps). Conversely, the presence of a non-physical or intangible additional element does not doom the claims, because tangibility is not necessary for eligibility under the Alice/Mayo test. Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d 1327, 118 USPQ2d 1684 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“that the improvement is not defined by reference to ‘physical’ components does not doom the claims”). See also McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 1315, 120 USPQ2d 1091, 1102 (Fed. Cir. 2016), (holding that a process producing an intangible result (a sequence of synchronized, animated characters was eligible because it improved an existing technological process).

B. Examples Of How Courts Conduct The Search For An Inventive Concept

Alice Corp. provides an example of how courts conduct the significantly more analysis. In this case, the Supreme Court analyzed claims to computer systems, computer readable media, and computer-implemented methods, all of which described a scheme for mitigating “settlement risk,” which is the risk that only one party to an agreed-upon financial exchange will satisfy its obligation. In part one of the Alice/Mayo test, the Court determined that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of mitigating settlement risk. Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2357, 110 USPQ2d at 1982. The Court then walked through part two of the Alice/Mayo test, in which:

  • • The Court identified the additional elements in the claim, e.g., by noting that the method claims recited steps of using a computer to “create electronic records, track multiple transactions, and issue simultaneous instructions”, and that the product claims recited hardware such as a “data processing system” with a “communications controller” and a “data storage unit” (134 S. Ct. at 2359-2360, 110 USPQ2d at 1984-85);
  • • The Court considered the additional elements individually, noting that all the computer functions were “‘well-understood, routine, conventional activit[ies]’ previously known to the industry," each step “does no more than require a generic computer to perform generic computer functions”, and the recited hardware was “purely functional and generic” (134 S. Ct. at 2359-60, 110 USPQ2d at 1984-85); and
  • • The Court considered the additional elements “as an ordered combination,” and determined that “the computer components … ‘[a]dd nothing … that is not already present when the steps are considered separately’” and simply recite intermediated settlement as performed by a generic computer.” Id. (citing Mayo, 566 U.S. at 79, 101 USPQ2d at 1972).

Based on this analysis, the Court concluded that the claims amounted to “‘nothing significantly more’ than an instruction to apply the abstract idea of intermediated settlement using some unspecified, generic computer”, and therefore held the claims ineligible because they were directed to a judicial exception and failed the second part of the Alice/Mayo test. Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2360, 110 USPQ2d at 1984.

BASCOM provides another example of how courts conduct the significantly more analysis, and of the critical importance of considering the additional elements in combination. In this case, the Federal Circuit vacated a judgment of ineligibility because the district court failed to properly perform the second step of the Alice/Mayo test when analyzing a claimed system for filtering content retrieved from an Internet computer network. BASCOM Global Internet v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 119 USPQ2d 1236 (Fed. Cir. 2016). The Federal Circuit agreed with the district court that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of filtering Internet content, and then walked through the district court’s analysis in part two of the Alice/Mayo test, noting that:

  • • The district court properly identified the additional elements in the claims, such as a “local client computer,” “remote ISP server,” “Internet computer network,” and “controlled access network accounts” (827 F.3d at 1349, 119 USPQ2d at 1242);
  • • The district court properly considered the additional elements individually, for example by consulting the specification, which described each of the additional elements as “well-known generic computer components” (827 F.3d at 1349, 119 USPQ2d at 1242); and
  • • The district court should have considered the additional elements in combination, because the “inventive concept inquiry requires more than recognizing that each claim element, by itself, was known in the art” (827 F.3d at 1350, 119 USPQ2d at 1242).

Based on this analysis, the Federal Circuit concluded that the district court erred by failing to recognize that when combined, an inventive concept may be found in the non-conventional and non-generic arrangement of the additional elements, i.e., the installation of a filtering tool at a specific location, remote from the end-users, with customizable filtering features specific to each end user. 827 F.3d at 1350, 119 USPQ2d at 1242.

II. ELIGIBILITY STEP 2B: WHETHER THE ADDITIONAL ELEMENTS CONTRIBUTE AN “INVENTIVE CONCEPT”

As described in MPEP § 2106, subsection III, Step 2B of the Office’s eligibility analysis is the second part of the Alice/Mayo test, i.e., the Supreme Court’s “framework for distinguishing patents that claim laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas from those that claim patent-eligible applications of those concepts.” Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int'l, 573 U.S. _, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2355, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1981 (2014) (citing Mayo, 566 U.S. 66, 101 USPQ2d 1961 (2012)). Like the other steps in the eligibility analysis, evaluation of this step should be made after determining what applicant has invented by reviewing the entire application disclosure and construing the claims in accordance with their broadest reasonable interpretation. See MPEP § 2106, subsection II for more information about the importance of understanding what the applicant has invented, and MPEP § 2111 for more information about the broadest reasonable interpretation.

Step 2B asks: Does the claim recite additional elements that amount to significantly more than the judicial exception? Examiners should answer this question by first identifying whether there are any additional elements (features/limitations/steps) recited in the claim beyond the judicial exception(s), and then evaluating those additional elements individually and in combination to determine whether they contribute an inventive concept (i.e., amount to significantly more than the judicial exception(s)).

This evaluation is made with respect to the considerations that the Supreme Court has identified as relevant to the eligibility analysis, which are introduced generally in Part I.A of this section, and discussed in detail in MPEP § 2106.05(a) through (h). Many of these considerations overlap, and often more than one consideration is relevant to analysis of an additional element. Not all considerations will be relevant to every element, or every claim. Because the evaluation in Step 2B is not a weighing test, it is not important how the elements are characterized or how many considerations apply from this list. It is important to evaluate the significance of the additional elements relative to applicant’s invention, and to keep in mind the ultimate question of whether the additional elements encompass an inventive concept.

In the context of the flowchart in MPEP § 2106, subsection III, Step 2B determines whether:

  • • The claim as a whole does not amount to significantly more than the exception itself (there is no inventive concept in the claim) (Step 2B: NO) and thus is not eligible, warranting a rejection for lack of subject matter eligibility and concluding the eligibility analysis; or
  • • The claim as a whole does amount to significantly more than the exception (there is an inventive concept in the claim) (Step 2B: YES), and thus is eligible at Pathway C, thereby concluding the eligibility analysis.

Examiners should examine each claim for eligibility separately, based on the particular elements recited therein. Claims should not be judged to automatically stand or fall with similar claims in an application. For instance, one claim may be ineligible because it is directed to a judicial exception without amounting to significantly more, but another claim dependent on the first may be eligible because it recites additional elements that do amount to significantly more.

Unless it is clear that the claim recites distinct exceptions, such as a law of nature and an abstract idea, care should be taken not to parse the claim into multiple exceptions, particularly in claims involving abstract ideas. Accordingly, if possible examiners should treat the claim for Step 2B purposes as containing a single judicial exception. If, however, the claim clearly recites a plurality of discrete exceptions, then for purposes of examination efficiency, examiners should select one of the exceptions and conduct the eligibility analysis for that selected exception. If the analysis indicates that the claim recites an additional element or combination of elements that amount to significantly more than the selected exception, then the claim should be considered patent eligible. On the other hand, if the claim does not recite any additional element or combination of elements that amounts to significantly more than the selected exception, then the claim should be considered ineligible. University of Utah Research Foundation v. Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d 755, 762, 113 USPQ2d 1241, 1246 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (because claims did not amount to significantly more than the recited abstract idea, court “need not decide” if claims also recited a law of nature).

If the claim as a whole does recite significantly more than the exception itself, the claim is eligible (Step 2B: YES) at Pathway C, and the eligibility analysis is complete. If there are no meaningful limitations in the claim that transform the exception into a patent-eligible application, such that the claim does not amount to significantly more than the exception itself, the claim is not patent-eligible (Step 2B: NO) and should be rejected under 35 U.S.C. 101. See MPEP § 2106.07 for information on how to formulate an ineligibility rejection.

2106.05(a) Improvements to the Functioning of a Computer or To Any Other Technology or Technical Field [R-08.2017]

In determining patent eligibility, examiners should consider whether the claim “purport(s) to improve the functioning of the computer itself” or “any other technology or technical field.” Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2359, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1984 (2014). This consideration has also been referred to as the search for a technological solution to a technological problem. See e.g., DDR Holdings, LLC. v. Hotels.com, L.P., 773 F.3d 1245, 1257, 113 USPQ2d 1097, 1105 (Fed. Cir. 2014); Amdocs (Israel), Ltd. v. Openet Telecom, Inc., 841 F.3d 1288, 1300-01, 120 USPQ2d 1527, 1537 (Fed. Cir. 2016).

While improvements were evaluated in Alice Corp. as relevant to the search for an inventive concept (Step 2B), several decisions of the Federal Circuit have also evaluated this consideration when determining whether a claim was directed to an abstract idea (Step 2A). See, e.g., Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d 1327, 1335-36, 118 USPQ2d 1684, 1689 (Fed. Cir. 2016); McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 1314-16, 120 USPQ2d 1091, 1102-03 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Visual Memory, LLC v. NVIDIA Corp., 867 F.3d 1253, 1259-60, 123 USPQ2d 1712, 1717 (Fed. Cir. 2017). Thus, an examiner may evaluate whether a claim contains an improvement to the functioning of a computer or to any other technology or technical field at Step 2A or Step 2B, as well as when considering whether the claim has such self-evident eligibility that it qualifies for the streamlined analysis. See MPEP § 2106.04(a) and MPEP § 2106.04(a)(1) for more information about improvements in the Step 2A context, and MPEP § 2106.07(b) for more information about improvements in the streamlined analysis context.

In finding that a claim is directed to such an improvement, the Federal Circuit has relied on the focus of the claimed invention. E.g.,Enfish, 822 F.3d at 1335-36, 118 USPQ2d at 1689; McRO, 837 F.3d at 1314-15, 120 USPQ2d at 1101-02. As such, it is critical that the claim be accorded its broadest reasonable interpretation (BRI) to determine the focus of the claim as a whole. In accordance with principles of claim construction, the specification should be consulted in determining the claim’s broadest reasonable interpretation (see MPEP § 2111) and whether a claimed invention purports to improve computer-functionality or existing technology.

If it is asserted that the invention improves upon conventional functioning of a computer, or upon conventional technology or technological processes, a technical explanation as to how to implement the invention should be present in the specification. That is, the disclosure must provide sufficient details such that one of ordinary skill in the art would recognize the claimed invention as providing an improvement. An indication that the claimed invention provides an improvement can include a discussion in the specification that identifies a technical problem and explains the details of an unconventional technical solution expressed in the claim, or identifies technical improvements realized by the claim over the prior art. For example, in McRO, the court relied on the specification’s explanation of how the particular rules recited in the claim enabled the automation of specific animation tasks that previously could only be performed subjectively by humans, when determining that the claims were directed to improvements in computer animation instead of an abstract idea. McRO, 837 F.3d at 1313-14, 120 USPQ2d at 1100-01. In contrast, the court in Affinity Labs of Tex. v. DirecTV, LLC relied on the specification’s failure to provide details regarding the manner in which the invention accomplished the alleged improvement when holding the claimed methods of delivering broadcast content to cellphones ineligible. 838 F.3d 1253, 1263-64, 120 USPQ2d 1201, 1207-08 (Fed. Cir. 2016).

After the examiner has consulted the specification and determined that the disclosed invention improves technology, the claim must be evaluated to ensure the claim itself reflects the improvement in technology. Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Symantec Corp., 838 F.3d 1307, 1316, 120 USPQ2d 1353, 1359 (patent owner argued that the claimed email filtering system improved technology by shrinking the protection gap and mooting the volume problem, but the court disagreed because the claims themselves did not have any limitations that addressed these issues). The full scope of the claim under the BRI should be considered to determine if the claim reflects an improvement in technology (e.g., the improvement described in the specification). In making this determination, it is critical that examiners look at the claim “as a whole,” in other words, the claim should be evaluated “as an ordered combination, without ignoring the requirements of the individual steps.” When performing this evaluation, examiners should be “careful to avoid oversimplifying the claims” by looking at them generally and failing to account for the specific requirements of the claims. McRO, 837 F.3d at 1313, 120 USPQ2d at 1100.

An important consideration in determining whether a claim is directed to an improvement in technology is the extent to which the claim covers a particular solution to a problem or a particular way to achieve a desired outcome, as opposed to merely claiming the idea of a solution or outcome. McRO, 837 F.3d at 1314-15, 120 USPQ2d at 1102-03; DDR Holdings, 773 F.3d at 1259, 113 USPQ2d at 1107. In this respect, the improvement consideration overlaps with other Step 2B considerations, specifically the particular machine consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(b)), and the mere instructions to apply an exception consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(f)). Thus, evaluation of those other considerations may assist examiners in making a determination of whether a claim satisfies the improvement consideration.

I. IMPROVEMENTS TO COMPUTER FUNCTIONALITY

In computer-related technologies, the examiner should determine whether the claim purports to improve computer capabilities or, instead, invokes computers merely as a tool. Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d 1327, 1336, 118 USPQ2d 1684, 1689 (Fed. Cir. 2016). In Enfish, the court evaluated the patent eligibility of claims related to a self-referential database. Id. The court concluded the claims were not directed to an abstract idea, but rather an improvement to computer functionality. Id. It was the specification’s discussion of the prior art and how the invention improved the way the computer stores and retrieves data in memory in combination with the specific data structure recited in the claims that demonstrated eligibility. 822 F.3d at 1339, 118 USPQ2d at 1691. The claim was not simply the addition of general purpose computers added post-hoc to an abstract idea, but a specific implementation of a solution to a problem in the software arts. 822 F.3d at 1339, 118 USPQ2d at 1691.

Examples that the courts have indicated may show an improvement in computer-functionality:

  • i. A modification of conventional Internet hyperlink protocol to dynamically produce a dual-source hybrid webpage, DDR Holdings, 773 F.3d at 1258-59, 113 USPQ2d at 1106-07;
  • ii. Inventive distribution of functionality within a network to filter Internet content, BASCOM Global Internet v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1350-51, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1243 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • iii. A method of rendering a halftone digital image, Research Corp. Techs. v. Microsoft Corp., 627 F.3d 859, 868-69, 97 USPQ2d 1274, 1380 (Fed. Cir. 2010);
  • iv. A distributed network architecture operating in an unconventional fashion to reduce network congestion while generating networking accounting data records, Amdocs (Israel), Ltd. v. Openet Telecom, Inc., 841 F.3d 1288, 1300-01, 120 USPQ2d 1527, 1536-37 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • v. A memory system having programmable operational characteristics that are configurable based on the type of processor, which can be used with different types of processors without a tradeoff in processor performance, Visual Memory, LLC v. NVIDIA Corp., 867 F.3d 1253, 1259-60, 123 USPQ2d 1712, 1717 (Fed. Cir. 2017);
  • vi. Technical details as to how to transmit images over a cellular network or append classification information to digital image data, TLI Communications LLC v. AV Auto. LLC, 823 F.3d 607, 614-15, 118 USPQ2d 1744, 1749-50 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (holding the claims ineligible because they fail to provide requisite technical details necessary to carry out the function);
  • vii. Particular structure of a server that stores organized digital images, TLI Communications, 823 F.3d at 612, 118 USPQ2d at 1747 (finding the use of a generic server insufficient to add inventive concepts to an abstract idea); and
  • viii. A particular way of programming or designing software to create menus, Apple, Inc. v. Ameranth, Inc., 842 F.3d 1229, 1241, 120 USPQ2d 1844, 1854 (Fed. Cir. 2016).

It is important to note that in order for a method claim to improve computer functionality, the broadest reasonable interpretation of the claim must be limited to computer implementation. That is, a claim whose entire scope can be performed mentally, cannot be said to improve computer technology. Synopsys, Inc. v. Mentor Graphics Corp., 839 F.3d 1138, 120 USPQ2d 1473 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (a method of translating a logic circuit into a hardware component description of a logic circuit was found to be ineligible because the method did not employ a computer and a skilled artisan could perform all the steps mentally). Similarly, a claimed process covering embodiments that can be performed on a computer, as well as embodiments that can be practiced verbally or with a telephone, cannot improve computer technology. See RecogniCorp, LLC v. Nintendo Co., 855 F.3d 1322, 1328, 122 USPQ2d 1377, 1381 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (process for encoding/decoding facial data using image codes assigned to particular facial features held ineligible because the process did not require a computer).

Examples that the courts have indicated may not be sufficient to show an improvement in computer-functionality:

  • i. Generating restaurant menus with functionally claimed features, Ameranth, 842 F.3d at 1245, 120 USPQ2d at 1857;
  • ii. Accelerating a process of analyzing audit log data when the increased speed comes solely from the capabilities of a general-purpose computer, FairWarning IP, LLC v. Iatric Sys., 839 F.3d 1089, 1095, 120 USPQ2d 1293, 1296 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • iii. Merely using a computer to perform an abstract idea, e.g., applying the functionality of a computer and bar code system in the context of processing returned mail, Return Mail, Inc. v. U.S. Postal Service, -- F.3d --, --, -- USPQ2d --, -- slip op. at 33 (Fed. Cir. August 28, 2017);
  • iv. Mere automation of manual processes, such as using a generic computer to process an application for financing a purchase, Credit Acceptance Corp. v. Westlake Services, 859 F.3d 1044, 1055, 123 USPQ2d 1100, 1108-09 (Fed. Cir. 2017) or speeding up a loan-application process by enabling borrowers to avoid physically going to or calling each lender and filling out a loan application, LendingTree, LLC v. Zillow, Inc., 656 Fed. App'x 991, 996-97 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (non-precedential); and
  • v. Recording, transmitting, and archiving digital images by use of conventional or generic technology in a nascent but well-known environment, without any assertion that the invention reflects an inventive solution to any problem presented by combining a camera and a cellular telephone, TLI Communications, 823 F.3d at 611-12, 118 USPQ2d at 1747.
II. IMPROVEMENTS TO ANY OTHER TECHNOLOGY OR TECHNICAL FIELD

The courts have also found that improvements in technology beyond computer functionality may demonstrate patent eligibility. In McRO, the Federal Circuit held claimed methods of automatic lip synchronization and facial expression animation using computer-implemented rules to be patent eligible under 35 U.S.C. 101, because they were not directed to an abstract idea. McRO, 837 F.3d at 1316, 120 USPQ2d at 1103. The basis for the McRO court's decision was that the claims were directed to an improvement in computer animation and thus did not recite a concept similar to previously identified abstract ideas. Id. The court relied on the specification's explanation of how the claimed rules enabled the automation of specific animation tasks that previously could not be automated. 837 F.3d at 1313, 120 USPQ2d at 1101. The McRO court indicated that it was the incorporation of the particular claimed rules in computer animation that "improved [the] existing technological process", unlike cases such as Alice where a computer was merely used as a tool to perform an existing process. 837 F.3d at 1314, 120 USPQ2d at 1102. The McRO court also noted that the claims at issue described a specific way (use of particular rules to set morph weights and transitions through phonemes) to solve the problem of producing accurate and realistic lip synchronization and facial expressions in animated characters, rather than merely claiming the idea of a solution or outcome, and thus were not directed to an abstract idea. 837 F.3d at 1313, 120 USPQ2d at 1101.

Examples that the courts have indicated may be sufficient to show an improvement in existing technology include:

  • i. Particular computerized method of operating a rubber molding press, e.g., a modification of conventional rubber-molding processes to utilize a thermocouple inside the mold to constantly monitor the temperature and thus reduce under- and over-curing problems common in the art, Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 187 and 191-92, 209 USPQ 1, 8 and 10 (1981);
  • ii. New telephone, server, or combination thereof, TLI Communications LLC v. AV Auto. LLC, 823 F.3d 607, 612, 118 USPQ2d 1744, 1747 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • iii. An advance in the process of downloading content for streaming, Affinity Labs of Tex. v. DirecTV, LLC, 838 F.3d 1253, 1256, 120 USPQ2d 1201, 1202 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • iv. Improved, particular method of digital data compression, DDR Holdings, LLC. v. Hotels.com, L.P., 773 F.3d 1245, 1259, 113 USPQ2d 1097, 1107 (Fed. Cir. 2014); Intellectual Ventures I v. Symantec Corp., 838 F.3d 1307, 1315, 120 USPQ2d 1353, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • v. Particular method of incorporating virus screening into the Internet, Symantec Corp., 838 F.3d at 1321-22, 120 USPQ2d at 1362-63;
  • vi. Components or methods, such as measurement devices or techniques, that generate new data, Electric Power Group, LLC v. Alstom, S.A., 830 F.3d 1350, 1355, 119 USPQ2d 1739, 1742 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • vii. Particular configuration of inertial sensors and a particular method of using the raw data from the sensors, Thales Visionix, Inc. v. United States, 850 F.3d 1343, 1348-49, 121 USPQ2d 1898, 1902 (Fed. Cir. 2017);
  • viii. A specific, structured graphical user interface that improves the accuracy of trader transactions by displaying bid and asked prices in a particular manner that prevents order entry at a changed price, Trading Techs. Int’l, Inc. v. CQG, Inc., 675 Fed. App'x 1001 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (non-precedential); and
  • ix. Improved process for preserving hepatocytes for later use, Rapid Litig. Mgmt. v. CellzDirect, Inc., 827 F.3d 1042, 1050, 119 USPQ2d 1370, 1375 (Fed. Cir. 2016).

To show that the involvement of a computer assists in improving the technology, the claims must recite the details regarding how a computer aids the method, the extent to which the computer aids the method, or the significance of a computer to the performance of the method. Merely adding generic computer components to perform the method is not sufficient. Thus, the claim must include more than mere instructions to perform the method on a generic component or machinery to qualify as an improvement to an existing technology. See MPEP § 2106.05(f) for more information about mere instructions to apply an exception.

Examples that the courts have indicated may not be sufficient to show an improvement to technology include:

  • i. A commonplace business method being applied on a general purpose computer, Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. 2347, 110 USPQ2d 1976; Versata Dev. Group, Inc. v. SAP Am., Inc., 793 F.3d 1306, 1334, 115 USPQ2d 1681, 1701 (Fed. Cir. 2015);
  • ii. Using well-known standard laboratory techniques to detect enzyme levels in a bodily sample such as blood or plasma, Cleveland Clinic Foundation v. True Health Diagnostics, LLC, 859 F.3d 1352, 1355, 1362, 123 USPQ2d 1081, 1082-83, 1088 (Fed. Cir. 2017);
  • iii. Gathering and analyzing information using conventional techniques and displaying the result, TLI Communications, 823 F.3d at 612-13, 118 USPQ2d at 1747-48;
  • iv. Delivering broadcast content to a portable electronic device such as a cellular telephone, when claimed at a high level of generality, Affinity Labs of Tex. v. Amazon.com, 838 F.3d 1266, 1270, 120 USPQ2d 1210, 1213 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Affinity Labs of Tex. v. DirecTV, LLC, 838 F.3d 1253, 1262, 120 USPQ2d 1201, 1207 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • v. A general method of screening emails on a generic computer, Symantec, 838 F.3d at 1315-16, 120 USPQ2d at 1358-59;
  • vi. An advance in the informational content of a download for streaming, Affinity Labs of Tex. v. DirecTV, LLC, 838 F.3d 1253, 1263, 120 USPQ2d 1201, 1208 (Fed. Cir. 2016); and
  • vii. Selecting one type of content (e.g., FM radio content) from within a range of existing broadcast content types, or selecting a particular generic function for computer hardware to perform (e.g., buffering content) from within a range of well-known, routine, conventional functions performed by the hardware, Affinity Labs of Tex. v. DirecTV, LLC, 838 F.3d 1253, 1264, 120 USPQ2d 1201, 1208 (Fed. Cir. 2016).

2106.05(b) Particular Machine [R-08.2017]

When determining whether a claim recites significantly more than a judicial exception, examiners should consider whether the judicial exception is applied with, or by use of, a particular machine. "The machine-or-transformation test is a useful and important clue, and investigative tool” for determining whether a claim is patent eligible under § 101. Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 604, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1007 (2010).

It is noted that while the application of a judicial exception by or with a particular machine is an important clue, it is not a stand-alone test for eligibility. Id.

All claims must be evaluated for eligibility using the two-part test from Alice/Mayo. If a claim passes the Alice/Mayo test (i.e., is not directed to an exception at Step 2A, or amounts to significantly more than any recited exception in Step 2B), then the claim is eligible even if it fails the machine-or-transformation test ("M-or-T test"). Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 604, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1007 (2010) (explaining that a claim may be eligible even if it does not satisfy the M-or-T test); McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 1315, 120 USPQ2d 1091, 1102 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“[T]here is nothing that requires a method ‘be tied to a machine or transform an article’ to be patentable”). And if a claim fails the Alice/Mayo test (i.e., is directed to an exception at Step 2A and does not amount to significantly more than the exception in Step 2B), then the claim is ineligible even if it passes the M-or-T test. DDR Holdings, LLC v. Hotels.com, L.P., 773 F.3d 1245, 1256, 113 USPQ2d 1097, 1104 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (“[I]n Mayo, the Supreme Court emphasized that satisfying the machine-or-transformation test, by itself, is not sufficient to render a claim patent-eligible, as not all transformations or machine implementations infuse an otherwise ineligible claim with an 'inventive concept.'”).

Examiners may find it helpful to evaluate other Step 2B considerations such as the mere instructions to apply an exception consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(f)), the insignificant extra-solution activity consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(g)), and the field of use and technological environment consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(h)), before making a determination of whether an element (or combination of elements) is a particular machine. For information on the definition of the term “machine,” see MPEP § 2106.03.

When determining whether a machine recited in a claim provides significantly more, the following factors are relevant.

I. THE PARTICULARITY OR GENERALITY OF THE ELEMENTS OF THE MACHINE OR APPARATUS

The particularity or generality of the elements of the machine or apparatus, i.e., the degree to which the machine in the claim can be specifically identified (not any and all machines). One example of applying a judicial exception with a particular machine is Mackay Radio & Tel. Co. v. Radio Corp. of America, 306 U.S. 86, 40 USPQ 199 (1939). In this case, a mathematical formula was employed to use standing wave phenomena in an antenna system. The claim recited the particular type of antenna and included details as to the shape of the antenna and the conductors, particularly the length and angle at which they were arranged. 306 U.S. at 95-96; 40 USPQ at 203. Another example is Eibel Process, in which gravity (a law of nature or natural phenomenon) was applied by a Fourdrinier machine (which was understood in the art to have a specific structure comprising a headbox, a paper-making wire, and a series of rolls) arranged in a particular way to optimize the speed of the machine while maintaining quality of the formed paper web. Eibel Process Co. v. Minn. & Ont. Paper Co., 261 U.S. 45, 64-65 (1923).

It is important to note that a general purpose computer that applies a judicial exception, such as an abstract idea, by use of conventional computer functions does not qualify as a particular machine. Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709, 716-17, 112 USPQ2d 1750, 1755-56 (Fed. Cir. 2014). See also TLI Communications LLC v. AV Automotive LLC, 823 F.3d 607, 613, 118 USPQ2d 1744, 1748 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (mere recitation of concrete or tangible components is not an inventive concept); Eon Corp. IP Holdings LLC v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 785 F.3d 616, 623, 114 USPQ2d 1711, 1715 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (noting that Alappat’s rationale that an otherwise ineligible algorithm or software could be made patent-eligible by merely adding a generic computer to the claim was superseded by the Supreme Court’s Bilski and Alice Corp. decisions). If applicant amends a claim to add a generic computer or generic computer components and asserts that the claim recites significantly more because the generic computer is 'specially programmed' (as in Alappat, now considered superseded) or is a 'particular machine' (as in Bilski), the examiner should look at whether the added elements provide significantly more than the judicial exception. Merely adding a generic computer, generic computer components, or a programmed computer to perform generic computer functions does not automatically overcome an eligibility rejection. Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2358-59, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1983-84 (2014).

II. WHETHER THE MACHINE OR APPARATUS IMPLEMENTS THE STEPS OF THE METHOD

Integral use of a machine to achieve performance of a method may provide significantly more, in contrast to where the machine is merely an object on which the method operates, which does not provide significantly more. See CyberSource v. Retail Decisions, 654 F.3d 1366, 1370, 99 USPQ2d 1690, 1694 (Fed. Cir. 2011) ("We are not persuaded by the appellant's argument that claimed method is tied to a particular machine because it ‘would not be necessary or possible without the Internet.’ . . . Regardless of whether "the Internet" can be viewed as a machine, it is clear that the Internet cannot perform the fraud detection steps of the claimed method"). For example, as described in MPEP § 2106.05(f), additional elements that invoke computers or other machinery merely as a tool to perform an existing process will generally not amount to significantly more than a judicial exception. See, e.g., Versata Development Group v. SAP America, 793 F.3d 1306, 1335, 115 USPQ2d 1681, 1702 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (explaining that in order for a machine to add significantly more, it must “play a significant part in permitting the claimed method to be performed, rather than function solely as an obvious mechanism for permitting a solution to be achieved more quickly”).

III. WHETHER ITS INVOLVEMENT IS EXTRA-SOLUTION ACTIVITY OR A FIELD-OF-USE

Whether its involvement is extra-solution activity or a field-of-use, i.e., the extent to which (or how) the machine or apparatus imposes meaningful limits on the claim. Use of a machine that contributes only nominally or insignificantly to the execution of the claimed method (e.g., in a data gathering step or in a field-of-use limitation) would not provide significantly more. See Bilski, 561 U.S. at 610, 95 USPQ2d at 1009 (citing Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 590, 198 USPQ 193, 197 (1978)), and CyberSource v. Retail Decisions, 654 F.3d 1366, 1370, 99 USPQ2d 1690 (Fed. Cir. 2011) (citations omitted) (“[N]othing in claim 3 requires an infringer to use the Internet to obtain that data. The Internet is merely described as the source of the data. We have held that mere ‘[data-gathering] step[s] cannot make an otherwise nonstatutory claim statutory.’” 654 F.3d at 1375, 99 USPQ2d at 1694 (citation omitted)). See MPEP § 2106.05(g) & (h) for more information on insignificant extra-solution activity and field of use, respectively.

2106.05(c) Particular Transformation [R-08.2017]

Another consideration when determining whether a claim recites significantly more is whether the claim effects a transformation or reduction of a particular article to a different state or thing. "[T]ransformation and reduction of an article ‘to a different state or thing’ is the clue to patentability of a process claim that does not include particular machines." Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 658, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1007 (2010) (quoting Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 70, 175 USPQ 673, 676 (1972)). If such a transformation exists, the claims are likely to be significantly more than any recited judicial exception.

It is noted that while the transformation of an article is an important clue, it is not a stand-alone test for eligibility. Id.

All claims must be evaluated for eligibility using the two-part test from Alice/Mayo. If a claim passes the Alice/Mayo test (i.e., is not directed to an exception at Step 2A, or amounts to significantly more than any recited exception in Step 2B), then the claim is eligible even if it “fails” the M-or-T test. Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 604, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1007 (2010) (explaining that a claim may be eligible even if it does not satisfy the M-or-T test); McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 1315, 120 USPQ2d 1091, 1102 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“[T]here is nothing that requires a method ‘be tied to a machine or transform an article’ to be patentable”). And if a claim fails the Alice/Mayo test (i.e., is directed to an exception at Step 2A and does not amount to significantly more than the exception in Step 2B), then the claim is ineligible even if it passes the M-or-T test. DDR Holdings, LLC v. Hotels.com, L.P., 773 F.3d 1245, 1256, 113 USPQ2d 1097, 1104 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (“[I]n Mayo, the Supreme Court emphasized that satisfying the machine-or-transformation test, by itself, is not sufficient to render a claim patent-eligible, as not all transformations or machine implementations infuse an otherwise ineligible claim with an “inventive concept.”).

Examiners may find it helpful to evaluate other Step 2B considerations such as the mere instructions to apply an exception consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(f)), the insignificant extra-solution activity consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(g)), and the field of use and technological environment consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(h)), before making a determination of whether a claim satisfies the particular transformation consideration.

An “article” includes a physical object or substance. The physical object or substance must be particular, meaning it can be specifically identified. “Transformation” of an article means that the “article” has changed to a different state or thing. Changing to a different state or thing usually means more than simply using an article or changing the location of an article. A new or different function or use can be evidence that an article has been transformed. Purely mental processes in which thoughts or human based actions are “changed” are not considered an eligible transformation. For data, mere “manipulation of basic mathematical constructs [i.e.,] the paradigmatic ‘abstract idea,’” has not been deemed a transformation. CyberSource v. Retail Decisions, 654 F.3d 1366, 1372 n.2, 99 USPQ2d 1690, 1695 n.2 (Fed. Cir. 2011) (quoting In re Warmerdam, 33 F.3d 1354, 1355, 1360 (Fed. Cir. 1994)).

Tilghman v. Proctor, 102 U.S. 707 (1881), provides an example of effecting a transformation of a particular article to a different state or thing. In that case, the claim was directed to a process of subjecting a mixture of fat and water to a high degree of heat and included additional parameters relating to the level of heat, the quantities of fat and water, and the strength of the mixing vessel. The claimed process, which used the natural principle that the elements of neutral fat require that they be severally united with an atomic equivalent of water in order to separate and become free, resulted in the transformation of the fatty bodies into fat acids and glycerine. Id. at 729

Where a transformation is recited in a claim, the following factors are relevant to the significantly more analysis:

  • 1. The particularity or generality of the transformation. According to the Supreme Court, an invention comprising a process of “‘tanning, dyeing, making waterproof cloth, vulcanizing India rubber [or] smelting ores’ . . . are instances . . . where the use of chemical substances or physical acts, such as temperature control, changes articles or materials [in such a manner that is] sufficiently definite to confine the patent monopoly within rather definite bounds.” Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 70, 175 USPQ 673, 676 (1972) (discussing Corning v. Burden, 15 How. (56 U.S.) 252, 267-68 (1854)). Therefore, a more particular transformation would likely provide significantly more.
  • 2. The degree to which the recited article is particular. A transformation applied to a generically recited article or to any and all articles would likely not provide significantly more than the judicial exception. A transformation that can be specifically identified, or that applies to only particular articles, is more likely to provide significantly more.
  • 3. The nature of the transformation in terms of the type or extent of change in state or thing. A transformation resulting in the transformed article having a different function or use, would likely provide significantly more, but a transformation resulting in the transformed article merely having a different location, would likely not provide significantly more. For example, a process that transforms raw, uncured synthetic rubber into precision-molded synthetic rubber products, as discussed in Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 184, 209 USPQ 1, 21 (1981)), provides significantly more.
  • 4. The nature of the article transformed. Transformation of a physical or tangible object or substance is more likely to provide significantly more than the transformation of an intangible concept such as a contractual obligation or mental judgment.
  • 5. Whether the transformation is extra-solution activity or a field-of-use (i.e., the extent to which (or how) the transformation imposes meaningful limits on the execution of the claimed method steps). A transformation that contributes only nominally or insignificantly to the execution of the claimed method (e.g., in a data gathering step or in a field-of-use limitation) would not provide significantly more. For example, in Mayo the Supreme Court found claims regarding calibrating the proper dosage of thiopurine drugs to be patent ineligible subject matter. The Federal Circuit had held that the step of administering the thiopurine drug demonstrated a transformation of the human body and blood. Mayo, 566 U.S. at 76, 101 USPQ2d at 1967. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that this step was only a field-of-use limitation and did not provide significantly more than the judicial exception. Id. See MPEP § 2106.05(g) & (h) for more information on insignificant extra-solution activity and field of use, respectively.

2106.05(d) Well-Understood, Routine, Conventional Activity [R-08.2017]

Another consideration when determining whether a claim recites significantly more than a judicial exception is whether the additional element(s) are well-understood, routine, conventional activities previously known to the industry. If the additional element (or combination of elements) is a specific limitation other than what is well-understood, routine and conventional in the field, for instance because it is an unconventional step that confines the claim to a particular useful application of the judicial exception, then this consideration favors eligibility. If, however, the additional element (or combination of elements) is no more than well-understood, routine, conventional activities previously known to the industry, which is recited at a high level of generality, then this consideration does not favor eligibility.

DDR Holdings, LLC v. Hotels.com, L.P., 773 F.3d 1245, 113 USPQ2d 1097 (Fed. Cir. 2014), provides an example of additional elements that favored eligibility because they were more than well-understood, routine conventional activities in the field. The claims in DDR Holdings were directed to systems and methods of generating a composite webpage that combines certain visual elements of a host website with the content of a third-party merchant. 773 F.3d at 1248, 113 USPQ2d at 1099. The court found that the claim had additional elements that amounted to significantly more than the abstract idea, because they modified conventional Internet hyperlink protocol to dynamically produce a dual-source hybrid webpage, which differed from the conventional operation of Internet hyperlink protocol that transported the user away from the host’s webpage to the third party’s webpage when the hyperlink was activated. 773 F.3d at 1258-59, 113 USPQ2d at 1106-07. Thus, the claims in DDR Holdings were eligible.

On the other hand, Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 67, 101 USPQ2d 1961, 1964 (2010) provides an example of additional elements that were not an inventive concept because they were merely well-understood, routine, conventional activity previously known to the industry, which were not by themselves sufficient to transform a judicial exception into a patent eligible invention. Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 79-80, 101 USPQ2d 1969 (2012) (citing Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 590, 198 USPQ 193, 199 (1978) (the additional elements were “well known” and, thus, did not amount to a patentable application of the mathematical formula)). In Mayo, the claims at issue recited naturally occurring correlations (the relationships between the concentration in the blood of certain thiopurine metabolites and the likelihood that a drug dosage will be ineffective or induce harmful side effects) along with additional elements including telling a doctor to measure thiopurine metabolite levels in the blood using any known process. 566 U.S. at 77-79, 101 USPQ2d at 1967-68. The Court found this additional step of measuring metabolite levels to be well-understood, routine, conventional activity already engaged in by the scientific community because scientists “routinely measured metabolites as part of their investigations into the relationships between metabolite levels and efficacy and toxicity of thiopurine compounds.” 566 U.S. at 79, 101 USPQ2d at 1968. Even when considered in combination with the other additional elements, the step of measuring metabolite levels did not amount to an inventive concept, and thus the claims in Mayo were not eligible. 566 U.S. at 79-80, 101 USPQ2d at 1968-69.

I. EVALUATING WHETHER THE ADDITIONAL ELEMENTS ARE WELL-UNDERSTOOD, ROUTINE, CONVENTIONAL ACTIVITY

When making a determination whether the additional elements in a claim amount to significantly more than a judicial exception, the examiner should evaluate whether the elements define only well-understood, routine, conventional activity. In this respect, the well-understood, routine, conventional consideration overlaps with other Step 2B considerations, particularly the improvement consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(a)), the mere instructions to apply an exception consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(f)), and the insignificant extra-solution activity consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(g)). Thus, evaluation of those other considerations may assist examiners in making a determination of whether a particular element or combination of elements is well-understood, routine, conventional activity.

In addition, examiners should keep in mind the following points when determining whether additional elements define only well-understood, routine, conventional activity.

  • 1. An additional element (or combination of additional elements) that is known in the art can still be unconventional or non-routine. The question of whether a particular claimed invention is novel or obvious is “fully apart” from the question of whether it is eligible. Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 190, 209 USPQ 1, 9 (1981). For example, claims may exhibit an improvement over conventional computer functionality even if the improvement lacks novelty over the prior art. Compare, e.g.,Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d 1327, 118 USPQ2d 1684 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (holding several claims from U.S. Patent Nos. 6,151,604 and 6,163,775 eligible) with Microsoft Corp. v. Enfish, LLC, 662 Fed. App'x. 981 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (holding some of the same claims to be anticipated by prior art). The eligible claims in Enfish recited a self-referential database having two key features: all entity types can be stored in a single table; and the table rows can contain information defining the table columns. Enfish, 822 F.3d at 1332, 118 USPQ2d at 1687. Although these features were taught by a single prior art reference (thus anticipating the claims), Microsoft Corp., 662 F.3d App'x. at 986, the features were not conventional and thus were considered to reflect an improvement to existing technology. In particular, they enabled the claimed table to achieve benefits over conventional databases, such as increased flexibility, faster search times, and smaller memory requirements. Enfish, 822 F.3d at 1337, 118 USPQ2d at 1690.
  • 2. A prior art search should not be necessary to resolve the inquiry as to whether an additional element (or combination of additional elements) is well-understood, routine, conventional activity. Instead, examiners should rely on what the courts have recognized, or those in the art would recognize, as elements that are well-understood, routine, conventional activity in the relevant field. As such, an examiner should only conclude that an element (or combination of elements) is well-understood, routine, conventional activity when the examiner can readily conclude, based on their expertise in the art, that the element is widely prevalent or in common use in the relevant industry. If the element is not widely prevalent or in common use, or is otherwise beyond those elements recognized in the art or by the courts as being well-understood, routine or conventional, then the element will in most cases favor eligibility. For example, even if a particular technique (e.g., measuring blood glucose via an earring worn by a person with diabetes) would have been obvious to one of ordinary skill in the art because it was discussed in several widely-read scientific journals or used by a few scientists, mere knowledge of the particular technique or use of the particular technique by a few scientists is not necessarily sufficient to make the use of the particular technique routine or conventional in the relevant field. The examiner in this situation would already know, based on the examiner's expertise in the field, that blood glucose is routinely and conventionally monitored by other techniques (e.g., via placing a small droplet of blood on a diagnostic test strip, or via an implanted insulin pump with a glucose sensor). Thus, the examiner would not need to perform a prior art search in order to determine that the particular claimed technique using the glucose-sensing earring was not well-understood, routine, conventional activity previously engaged in by scientists in the field.
  • 3. Even if one or more additional elements are well-understood, routine, conventional activity when considered individually, the combination of additional elements may amount to an inventive concept.Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. at 188, 209 USPQ at 9 (1981) (“[A] new combination of steps in a process may be patentable even though all the constituents of the combination were well known and in common use before the combination was made.”). For example, a microprocessor that performs mathematical calculations and a clock that produces time data may individually be generic computer components that perform merely generic computer functions, but when combined may perform functions that are not generic computer functions and thus be an inventive concept. See, e.g. Rapid Litig. Mgmt. v. CellzDirect, Inc., 827 F.3d 1042, 1051, 119 USPQ2d 1370, 1375 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (holding that while the additional steps of freezing and thawing hepatocytes were well known, repeating those steps, contrary to what was taught in the art, was not routine or conventional). For example, in BASCOM, even though the court found that all of the additional elements in the claim recited generic computer network or Internet components, the elements in combination amounted to significantly more because of the non-conventional and non-generic arrangement that provided a technical improvement in the art. BASCOM Global Internet Servs. v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1350-51, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1243-44 (2016).

In many instances, the specification of the application may indicate that additional elements are well-known or conventional. See, e.g., Intellectual Ventures v. Symantec, 838 F.3d at 1317; 120 USPQ2d at 1359 (“The written description is particularly useful in determining what is well-known or conventional”); Internet Patents Corp., 790 F.3d at 1348, 115 USPQ2d at 1418 (relying on specification’s description of additional elements as “well-known”, “common” and “conventional”); TLI Communications LLC v. AV Auto. LLC, 823 F.3d 607, 614, 118 USPQ2d 1744, 1748 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (Specification described additional elements as “either performing basic computer functions such as sending and receiving data, or performing functions ‘known’ in the art.”).

Even if the specification is silent, however, courts have not required evidence to support a finding that additional elements were well‐understood, routine, conventional activities, but instead have treated the issue as a matter appropriate for judicial notice. As such, a rejection should only be made if an examiner relying on the examiner's expertise in the art can readily conclude in the Step 2B inquiry that the additional elements do not amount to significantly more (Step 2B: NO). If the elements or functions are beyond those recognized in the art or by the courts as being well‐understood, routine, conventional activity, then the elements or functions will in most cases amount to significantly more (Step 2B: YES). For more information on formulating a subject matter eligibility rejection involving well-understood, routine, conventional activity, see MPEP § 2106.07(a).

II. ELEMENTS THAT THE COURTS HAVE RECOGNIZED AS WELL-UNDERSTOOD, ROUTINE, CONVENTIONAL ACTIVITY IN PARTICULAR FIELDS

Because examiners should rely on what the courts have recognized, or those of ordinary skill in the art would recognize, as elements that describe well‐understood, routine activities, the following section provides examples of elements that have been recognized by the courts as well-understood, routine, conventional activity in particular fields. It should be noted, however, that many of these examples failed to satisfy other Step 2B considerations (e.g., because they were recited at a high level of generality and thus were mere instructions to apply an exception, or were insignificant extra-solution activity). Thus, examiners should carefully analyze additional elements in a claim with respect to all relevant Step 2B considerations, including this consideration, before making a conclusion as to whether they amount to an inventive concept.

The courts have recognized the following computer functions as well‐understood, routine, and conventional functions when they are claimed in a merely generic manner (e.g., at a high level of generality) or as insignificant extra-solution activity.

  • i. Receiving or transmitting data over a network, e.g., using the Internet to gather data, Symantec, 838 F.3d at 1321, 120 USPQ2d at 1362 (utilizing an intermediary computer to forward information); TLI Communications LLC v. AV Auto. LLC, 823 F.3d 607, 610, 118 USPQ2d 1744, 1745 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (using a telephone for image transmission); OIP Techs., Inc., v. Amazon.com, Inc., 788 F.3d 1359, 1363, 115 USPQ2d 1090, 1093 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (sending messages over a network); buySAFE, Inc. v. Google, Inc., 765 F.3d 1350, 1355, 112 USPQ2d 1093, 1096 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (computer receives and sends information over a network); but see DDR Holdings, LLC v. Hotels.com, L.P., 773 F.3d 1245, 1258, 113 USPQ2d 1097, 1106 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (“Unlike the claims in Ultramercial, the claims at issue here specify how interactions with the Internet are manipulated to yield a desired result‐‐a result that overrides the routine and conventional sequence of events ordinarily triggered by the click of a hyperlink.” (emphasis added));
  • ii. Performing repetitive calculations, Flook, 437 U.S. at 594, 198 USPQ2d at 199 (recomputing or readjusting alarm limit values); Bancorp Services v. Sun Life, 687 F.3d 1266, 1278, 103 USPQ2d 1425, 1433 (Fed. Cir. 2012) (“The computer required by some of Bancorp’s claims is employed only for its most basic function, the performance of repetitive calculations, and as such does not impose meaningful limits on the scope of those claims.”);
  • iii. Electronic recordkeeping, Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2359, 110 USPQ2d at 1984 (creating and maintaining “shadow accounts”); Ultramercial, 772 F.3d at 716, 112 USPQ2d at 1755 (updating an activity log);
  • iv. Storing and retrieving information in memory, Versata Dev. Group, Inc. v. SAP Am., Inc., 793 F.3d 1306, 1334, 115 USPQ2d 1681, 1701 (Fed. Cir. 2015); OIP Techs., 788 F.3d at 1363, 115 USPQ2d at 1092-93;
  • v. Electronically scanning or extracting data from a physical document, Content Extraction and Transmission, LLC v. Wells Fargo Bank, 776 F.3d 1343, 1348, 113 USPQ2d 1354, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (optical character recognition); and
  • vi. A web browser’s back and forward button functionality, Internet Patent Corp. v. Active Network, Inc., 790 F.3d 1343, 1348, 115 USPQ2d 1414, 1418 (Fed. Cir. 2015).

This listing is not meant to imply that all computer functions are well‐understood, routine, conventional activities, or that a claim reciting a generic computer component performing a generic computer function is necessarily ineligible. See e.g. Amdocs (Israel), Ltd. v. Openet Telecom, Inc., 841 F.3d 1288, 1316, 120 USPQ2d 1527, 1549 (Fed. Cir. 2016), BASCOM Global Internet Servs. v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1348, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1241 (Fed. Cir. 2016). Courts have held computer‐implemented processes not to be significantly more than an abstract idea (and thus ineligible) where the claim as a whole amounts to nothing more than generic computer functions merely used to implement an abstract idea, such as an idea that could be done by a human analog (i.e., by hand or by merely thinking). On the other hand, courts have held computer-implemented processes to be significantly more than an abstract idea (and thus eligible), where generic computer components are able in combination to perform functions that are not merely generic. DDR Holdings, LLC v. Hotels.com, L.P., 773 F.3d 1245, 1257-59, 113 USPQ2d 1097, 1105-07 (Fed. Cir. 2014).

The courts have recognized the following laboratory techniques as well-understood, routine, conventional activity in the life science arts when they are claimed in a merely generic manner (e.g., at a high level of generality) or as insignificant extra-solution activity.

  • i. Determining the level of a biomarker in blood by any means, Mayo, 566 U.S. at 79, 101 USPQ2d at 1968; Cleveland Clinic Foundation v. True Health Diagnostics, LLC, 859 F.3d 1352, 1362, 123 USPQ2d 1081, 1088 (Fed. Cir. 2017);
  • ii. Using polymerase chain reaction to amplify and detect DNA, Genetic Techs. v. Merial LLC, 818 F.3d 1369, 1376, 118 USPQ2d 1541, 1546 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, Inc., 788 F.3d 1371, 1377, 115 USPQ2d 1152, 1157 (Fed. Cir. 2015);
  • iii. Detecting DNA or enzymes in a sample, Sequenom, 788 F.3d at 1377-78, 115 USPQ2d at 1157); Cleveland Clinic Foundation 859 F.3d at 1362, 123 USPQ2d at 1088 (Fed. Cir. 2017);
  • iv. Immunizing a patient against a disease, Classen Immunotherapies, Inc. v. Biogen IDEC, 659 F.3d 1057, 1063, 100 USPQ2d 1492, 1497 (Fed. Cir. 2011);
  • v. Analyzing DNA to provide sequence information or detect allelic variants, Genetic Techs., 818 F.3d at 1377; 118 USPQ2d at 1546;
  • vi. Freezing and thawing cells, Rapid Litig. Mgmt. 827 F.3d at 1051, 119 USPQ2d at 1375;
  • vii. Amplifying and sequencing nucleic acid sequences, University of Utah Research Foundation v. Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d 755, 764, 113 USPQ2d 1241, 1247 (Fed. Cir. 2014); and
  • viii. Hybridizing a gene probe, Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d at 764, 113 USPQ2d at 1247.

Below are examples of other types of activity that the courts have found to be well-understood, routine, conventional activity when they are claimed in a merely generic manner (e.g., at a high level of generality) or as insignificant extra-solution activity.

  • i. Recording a customer’s order, Apple, Inc. v. Ameranth, Inc., 842 F.3d 1229, 1244, 120 USPQ2d 1844, 1856 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • ii. Shuffling and dealing a standard deck of cards, In re Smith, 815 F.3d 816, 819, 118 USPQ2d 1245, 1247 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • iii. Restricting public access to media by requiring a consumer to view an advertisement, Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709, 716-17, 112 USPQ2d 1750, 1755-56 (Fed. Cir. 2014);
  • iv. Identifying undeliverable mail items, decoding data on those mail items, and creating output data, Return Mail, Inc. v. U.S. Postal Service, -- F.3d --, -- USPQ2d --, slip op. at 32 (Fed. Cir. August 28, 2017);
  • v. Presenting offers and gathering statistics, OIP Techs., 788 F.3d at 1362-63, 115 USPQ2d at 1092-93;
  • vi. Determining an estimated outcome and setting a price, OIP Techs., 788 F.3d at 1362-63, 115 USPQ2d at 1092-93; and
  • vii. Arranging a hierarchy of groups, sorting information, eliminating less restrictive pricing information and determining the price, Versata Dev. Group, Inc. v. SAP Am., Inc., 793 F.3d 1306, 1331, 115 USPQ2d 1681, 1699 (Fed. Cir. 2015).

2106.05(e) Other Meaningful Limitations [R-08.2017]

For a claim that is directed to a judicial exception to be patent-eligible, it must include additional features to ensure that the claim describes a process or product that applies the exception in a meaningful way, such that it is more than a drafting effort designed to monopolize the exception. The claim should add meaningful limitations beyond generally linking the use of the judicial exception to a particular technological environment to transform the judicial exception into patent-eligible subject matter. The phrase “meaningful limitations” has been used by the courts even before Alice and Mayo in various contexts to describe additional elements that provide an inventive concept to the claim as a whole. The considerations described in MPEP § 2106.05(a)-(d) are meaningful limitations when they amount to significantly more than the judicial exception. This broad label signals that there can be other considerations besides those described in MPEP § 2106.05(a)-(d) that when added to a judicial exception amount to meaningful limitations that can transform a claim into patent-eligible subject matter.

Diamond v. Diehr provides an example of a claim that recited meaningful limitations beyond generally linking the use of the judicial exception to a particular technological environment. 450 U.S. 175, 209 USPQ 1 (1981). In Diehr, the claim was directed to the use of the Arrhenius equation (an abstract idea or law of nature) in an automated process for operating a rubber-molding press. 450 U.S. at 177-78, 209 USPQ at 4. The Court evaluated additional elements such as the steps of installing rubber in a press, closing the mold, constantly measuring the temperature in the mold, and automatically opening the press at the proper time, and found them to be meaningful because they sufficiently limited the use of the mathematical equation to the practical application of molding rubber products. 450 U.S. at 184, 187, 209 USPQ at 7, 8. In contrast, the claims in Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International did not meaningfully limit the abstract idea of mitigating settlement risk. 573 U.S. __, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 110 USPQ2d 1976 (2014). In particular, the Court concluded that the additional elements such as the data processing system and communications controllers recited in the system claims did not meaningfully limit the abstract idea because they merely linked the use of the abstract idea to a particular technological environment (i.e., “implementation via computers”) or were well-understood, routine, conventional activity recited at a high level of generality. 134 S. Ct. at 2360, 110 USPQ2d at 1984-85.

Classen Immunotherapies Inc. v. Biogen IDEC provides another example of claims that recited meaningful limitations. 659 F.3d 1057, 100 USPQ2d 1492 (Fed. Cir. 2011) (decision on remand from the Supreme Court, which had vacated the lower court’s prior holding of ineligibility in view of Bilski v. Kappos). In Classen, the claims recited methods that gathered and analyzed the effects of particular immunization schedules on the later development of chronic immune-mediated disorders in mammals in order to identify a lower risk immunization schedule, and then immunized mammalian subjects in accordance with the identified lower risk schedule (thereby lowering the risk that the immunized subject would later develop chronic immune-mediated diseases). 659 F.3d at 1060-61; 100 USPQ2d at 1495-6. Although the analysis step was an abstract mental process that collected and compared known information, the immunization step was meaningful because it integrated the results of the analysis into a specific and tangible method that resulted in the method “moving from abstract scientific principle to specific application.” 659 F.3d at 1066-68; 100 USPQ2d at 1500-1. In contrast, in OIP Technologies, Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc., the court determined that the additional steps to “test prices and collect data based on the customer reactions” did not meaningfully limit the abstract idea of offer-based price optimization, because the steps were well-understood, routine, conventional data-gathering activities. 788 F.3d 1359, 1363-64, 115 USPQ2d 1090, 1093 (Fed. Cir. 2015).

When evaluating whether additional elements meaningfully limit the judicial exception, it is particularly critical that examiners consider the additional elements both individually and as a combination. When an additional element is considered individually by an examiner, the additional element may be enough to qualify as “significantly more” if it meaningfully limits the judicial exception. However, even in the situation where the individually-viewed elements do not add significantly more, those additional elements when viewed in combination may amount to significantly more than the judicial exception by meaningfully limiting the exception. See Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 188, 209 USPQ2d 1, 9 (1981) (“a new combination of steps in a process may be patentable even though all the constituents of the combination were well known and in common use before the combination was made”); BASCOM Global Internet Servs. V. AT&T Mobility LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1349, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1242 (Fed. Cir. 2016). It is important to note that, when appropriate, an examiner may explain on the record why the additional elements meaningfully limit the judicial exception.

2106.05(f) Mere Instructions To Apply An Exception [R-08.2017]

Another consideration when determining whether a claim recites significantly more than a judicial exception is whether the additional elements amount to more than a recitation of the words “apply it” (or an equivalent) or are more than mere instructions to implement an abstract idea or other exception on a computer. As explained by the Supreme Court, in order to transform a judicial exception into a patent-eligible application, the additional element or combination of elements must do “‘more than simply stat[e] the [judicial exception] while adding the words ‘apply it’”. Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank, 573 U.S. __, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2357, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1982-83 (2014) (quoting Mayo Collaborative Servs. V. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 72, 101 USPQ2d 1961, 1965). Thus, for example, claims that amount to nothing more than an instruction to apply the abstract idea using a generic computer do not render an abstract idea eligible. Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2358, 110 USPQ2d at 1983. See also 134 S. Ct. at 2389, 110 USPQ2d at 1984 (warning against a § 101 analysis that turns on “the draftsman’s art”).

The Supreme Court has identified additional elements as mere instructions to apply an exception in several cases. For instance, in Mayo, the Supreme Court concluded that a step of determining thiopurine metabolite levels in patients’ blood did not amount to significantly more than the recited laws of nature, because this additional element simply instructed doctors to apply the laws by measuring the metabolites in any way the doctors (or medical laboratories) chose to use. 566 U.S. at 79, 101 USPQ2d at 1968. In Alice Corp., the claim recited the concept of intermediated settlement as performed by a generic computer. The Court found that the recitation of the computer in the claim amounted to mere instructions to apply the abstract idea on a generic computer. 134 S. Ct. at 2359-60, 110 USPQ2d at 1984. The Supreme Court also discussed this concept in an earlier case, Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 70, 175 USPQ 673, 676 (1972), where the claim recited a process for converting binary-coded-decimal (BCD) numerals into pure binary numbers. The Court found that the claimed process had no substantial practical application except in connection with a computer. Benson, 409 U.S. at 71-72, 175 USPQ at 676. The claim simply stated a judicial exception (e.g., law of nature or abstract idea) while effectively adding words that “apply it” in a computer. Id.

Requiring more than mere instructions to apply an exception does not mean that the claim must be narrow in order to be eligible. The courts have identified some broad claims as eligible see, e.g.,McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 120 USPQ2d 1091 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Thales Visionix Inc. v. United States, 850 F.3d. 1343, 121 USPQ2d 1898 (Fed. Cir. 2017), and some narrow claims as ineligible see e.g.,Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709, 112 USPQ2d 1750 (Fed. Cir. 2014); Electric Power Group, LLC v. Alstom, S.A., 830 F.3d 1350, 119 USPQ2d 1739 (Fed. Cir. 2016)). Thus, examiners should carefully consider each claim on its own merits, as well as evaluate all other relevant Step 2B considerations, before making a determination of whether an element (or combination of elements) is more than mere instructions to apply an exception. For example, because this consideration often overlaps with the improvement consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(a)), the particular machine and particular transformation considerations (see MPEP § 2106.05(b) and (c), respectively), and the well-understood, routine, conventional consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(d)), evaluation of those other considerations may assist examiners in making a determination of whether an element (or combination of elements) is more than mere instructions to apply an exception.

For claim limitations that do not amount to more than a recitation of the words “apply it” (or an equivalent), such as mere instructions to implement an abstract idea on a computer, examiners should explain why they do not meaningfully limit the claim in an eligibility rejection. For example, an examiner could explain that implementing an abstract idea on a generic computer, does not add significantly more, similar to how the recitation of the computer in the claim in Alice amounted to mere instructions to apply the abstract idea of intermediated settlement on a generic computer. For more information on formulating a subject matter eligibility rejection involving well-understood, routine, conventional activity see MPEP § 2106.07(a).

When determining whether a claim simply recites a judicial exception with the words “apply it” (or an equivalent), such as mere instructions to implement an abstract idea on a computer, examiners may consider the following.

(1) Whether the claim recites only the idea of a solution or outcome i.e., the claim fails to recite details of how a solution to a problem is accomplished. The recitation of claim limitations that attempt to cover any solution to an identified problem with no restriction on how the result is accomplished and no description of the mechanism for accomplishing the result, does not provide significantly more because this type of recitation is equivalent to the words “apply it”. See Electric Power Group, LLC v. Alstom, S.A., 830 F.3d 1350, 1356, 119 USPQ2d 1739, 1743-44 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Intellectual Ventures I v. Symantec, 838 F.3d 1307, 1327, 120 USPQ2d 1353, 1366 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Internet Patents Corp. v. Active Network, Inc., 790 F.3d 1343, 1348, 115 USPQ2d 1414, 1417 (Fed. Cir. 2015). In contrast, claiming a particular solution to a problem or a particular way to achieve a desired outcome may provide significantly more. See Electric Power, 830 F.3d at 1356, 119 USPQ2d at 1743.

By way of example, in Intellectual Ventures I v. Capital One Fin. Corp., 850 F.3d 1332, 121 USPQ2d 1940 (Fed. Cir. 2017), the steps in the claims described “the creation of a dynamic document based upon ‘management record types’ and ‘primary record types.’” 850 F.3d at 1339-40; 121 USPQ2d at 1945-46. The claims were found to be directed to the abstract idea of “collecting, displaying, and manipulating data.” 850 F.3d at 1340; 121 USPQ2d at 1946. In addition to the abstract idea, the claims also recited the additional element of modifying the underlying XML document in response to modifications made in the dynamic document. 850 F.3d at 1342; 121 USPQ2d at 1947-48. Although the claims purported to modify the underlying XML document in response to modifications made in the dynamic document, nothing in the claims indicated what specific steps were undertaken other than merely using the abstract idea in the context of XML documents. The court thus held the claims ineligible, because the additional limitations provided only a result-oriented solution and lacked details as to how the computer performed the modifications, which was equivalent to the words “apply it”. 850 F.3d at 1341-42; 121 USPQ2d at 1947-48 (citing Electric Power Group., 830 F.3d at 1356, 1356, USPQ2d at 1743-44 (cautioning against claims “so result focused, so functional, as to effectively cover any solution to an identified problem”)).

Other examples where the courts have found the additional elements to be mere instructions to apply an exception, because they recite no more than an idea of a solution or outcome include:

  • i. Remotely accessing user-specific information through a mobile interface and pointers to retrieve the information without any description of how the mobile interface and pointers accomplish the result of retrieving previously inaccessible information, Intellectual Ventures v. Erie Indem. Co., 850 F.3d 1315, 1331, 121 USPQ2d 1928, 1939 (Fed. Cir. 2017);
  • ii. A general method of screening emails on a generic computer without any limitations that addressed the issues of shrinking the protection gap and mooting the volume problem, Intellectual Ventures I v. Symantec Corp., 838 F.3d 1307, 1319, 120 USPQ2d 1353, 1361 (Fed. Cir. 2016); and
  • iii. Wireless delivery of out-of-region broadcasting content to a cellular telephone via a network without any details of how the delivery is accomplished, Affinity Labs of Texas v. DirecTV, LLC, 838 F.3d 1253, 1262-63, 120 USPQ2d 1201, 1207 (Fed. Cir. 2016).

In contrast, recent cases have found that additional elements are more than “apply it” or are not “mere instructions” when the claim recites a technological solution to a technological problem. In DDR Holdings, the court found that the additional elements did amount to more than merely instructing that the abstract idea should be applied on the Internet. DDR Holdings, LLC v. Hotels.com, L.P., 773 F.3d 1245, 1259, 113 USPQ2d 1097, 1107 (Fed. Cir. 2014). The claims at issue specified how interactions with the Internet were manipulated to yield a desired result—a result that overrode the routine and conventional sequence of events ordinarily triggered by the click of a hyperlink. 773 F.3d at 1258; 113 USPQ2d at 1106. In BASCOM, the court determined that the claimed combination of limitations did not simply recite an instruction to apply the abstract idea of filtering content on the Internet. BASCOM Global Internet Servs. v. AT&T Mobility, LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1350, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1243 (Fed. Cir. 2016). Instead, the claim recited a “technology based solution” of filtering content on the Internet that overcome the disadvantages of prior art filtering systems. 827 F.3d at 1350-51, 119 USPQ2d at 1243. Finally, in Thales Visionix, the particular configuration of inertial sensors and the particular method of using the raw data from the sensors was more than simply applying a law of nature. Thales Visionix, Inc. v. United States, 850 F.3d 1343, 1348-49, 121 USPQ2d 1898, 1902 (Fed. Cir. 2017). The court found that the claims provided a system and method that “eliminate[d] many ‘complications’ inherent in previous solutions for determining position and orientation of an object on a moving platform.” In other words, the claim recited a technological solution to a technological problem. Id.

(2) Whether the claim invokes computers or other machinery merely as a tool to perform an existing process. Use of a computer or other machinery in its ordinary capacity for economic or other tasks (e.g., to receive, store, or transmit data) or simply adding a general purpose computer or computer components after the fact to an abstract idea (e.g., a fundamental economic practice or mathematical equation) does not provide significantly more. See Affinity Labs v. DirecTV, 838 F.3d 1253, 1262, 120 USPQ2d 1201, 1207 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (cellular telephone); TLI Communications LLC v. AV Auto, LLC, 823 F.3d 607, 613, 118 USPQ2d 1744, 1748 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (computer server and telephone unit). Similarly, “claiming the improved speed or efficiency inherent with applying the abstract idea on a computer” does not provide an inventive concept. Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Capital One Bank (USA), 792 F.3d 1363, 1367, 115 USPQ2d 1636, 1639 (Fed. Cir. 2015). In contrast, a claim that purports to improve computer capabilities or to improve an existing technology may provide significantly more. McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 1314-15, 120 USPQ2d 1091, 1101-02 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d 1327, 1335-36, 118 USPQ2d 1684, 1688-89 (Fed. Cir. 2016). See MPEP § 2106.05(a) for a discussion of improvements to the functioning of a computer or to another technology or technical field.

TLI Communications provides an example of a claim invoking computers and other machinery merely as a tool to perform an existing process. The court stated that the claims describe steps of recording, administration and archiving of digital images, and found them to be directed to the abstract idea of classifying and storing digital images in an organized manner. 823 F.3d at 612, 118 USPQ2d at 1747. The court then turned to the additional elements of performing these functions using a telephone unit and a server and noted that these elements were being used in their ordinary capacity (i.e., the telephone unit is used to make calls and operate as a digital camera including compressing images and transmitting those images, and the server simply receives data, extracts classification information from the received data, and stores the digital images based on the extracted information). 823 F.3d at 612-13, 118 USPQ2d at 1747-48. In other words, the claims invoked the telephone unit and server merely as tools to execute the abstract idea. Thus, the court found that the additional elements did not add significantly more to the abstract idea because they were simply applying the abstract idea on a telephone network without any recitation of details of how to carry out the abstract idea.

Other examples where the courts have found the additional elements to be mere instructions to apply an exception, because they do no more than merely invoke computers or machinery as a tool to perform an existing process include:

  • i. A commonplace business method or mathematical algorithm being applied on a general purpose computer, Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. V. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 1357, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1983 (2014); Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 64, 175 USPQ 673, 674 (1972); Versata Dev. Group, Inc. v. SAP Am., Inc., 793 F.3d 1306, 1334, 115 USPQ2d 1681, 1701 (Fed. Cir. 2015);
  • ii. Generating a second menu from a first menu and sending the second menu to another location as performed by generic computer components, Apple, Inc. v. Ameranth, Inc., 842 F.3d 1229, 1243-44, 120 USPQ2d 1844, 1855-57 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • iii. A process for monitoring audit log data that is executed on a general-purpose computer where the increased speed in the process comes solely from the capabilities of the general-purpose computer, FairWarning IP, LLC v. Iatric Sys., 839 F.3d 1089, 1095, 120 USPQ2d 1293, 1296 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • iv. A method of using advertising as an exchange or currency being applied or implemented on the Internet, Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709, 715, 112 USPQ2d 1750, 1754 (Fed. Cir. 2014);
  • v. Requiring the use of software to tailor information and provide it to the user on a generic computer, Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Capital One Bank (USA), 792 F.3d 1363, 1370-71, 115 USPQ2d 1636, 1642 (Fed. Cir. 2015); and
  • vi. A method of assigning hair designs to balance head shape with a final step of using a tool (scissors) to cut the hair, In re Brown, 645 Fed. App'x 1014, 1017 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (non-precedential).

(3) The particularity or generality of the application of the judicial exception. A claim having broad applicability across many fields of endeavor may not provide meaningful limitations that amount to significantly more. For instance, a claim that generically recites an effect of the judicial exception or claims every mode of accomplishing that effect, amounts to a claim that is merely adding the words “apply it” to the judicial exception. See Internet Patents Corporation v. Active Network, Inc., 790 F.3d 1343, 1348, 115 USPQ2d 1414, 1418 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (The recitation of maintaining the state of data in an online form without restriction on how the state is maintained and with no description of the mechanism for maintaining the state describes “the effect or result dissociated from any method by which maintaining the state is accomplished” and does not provide a meaningful limitation because it merely states that the abstract idea should be applied to achieve a desired result). See also O’Reilly v. Morse, 56 U.S. 62 (1854) (finding ineligible a claim for “the use of electromagnetism for transmitting signals at a distance”); The Telephone Cases, 126 U.S. 1, 209 (1888) (finding a method of “transmitting vocal or other sound telegraphically ... by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sounds,” to be ineligible, because it “monopolize[d] a natural force” and “the right to avail of that law by any means whatever.”).

In contrast, limitations that confine the judicial exception to a particular, practical application of the judicial exception may amount to significantly more. For example, in BASCOM, the combination of additional elements, and specifically “the installation of a filtering tool at a specific location, remote from the end‐users, with customizable filtering features specific to each end user” where the filtering tool at the ISP was able to “identify individual accounts that communicate with the ISP server, and to associate a request for Internet content with a specific individual account,” were held to be meaningful limitations because they confined the abstract idea of content filtering to a particular, practical application of the abstract idea. 827 F.3d at 1350-51, 119 USPQ2d at 1243.

2106.05(g) Insignificant Extra-Solution Activity [R-08.2017]

Another consideration when determining whether a claim recites significantly more is whether the additional elements add more than insignificant extra-solution activity to the judicial exception. The term “extra-solution activity” can be understood as activities incidental to the primary process or product that are merely a nominal or tangential addition to the claim. Extra-solution activity includes both pre-solution and post-solution activity. An example of pre-solution activity is a step of gathering data for use in a claimed process, e.g., a step of obtaining information about credit card transactions, which is recited as part of a claimed process of analyzing and manipulating the gathered information by a series of steps in order to detect whether the transactions were fraudulent. An example of post-solution activity is an element that is not integrated into the claim as a whole, e.g., a printer that is used to output a report of fraudulent transactions, which is recited in a claim to a computer programmed to analyze and manipulate information about credit card transactions in order to detect whether the transactions were fraudulent.

As explained by the Supreme Court, the addition of insignificant extra-solution activity does not amount to an inventive concept, particularly when the activity is well-understood or conventional. Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 588-89, 198 USPQ 193, 196 (1978). In Flook, the Court reasoned that “[t]he notion that post-solution activity, no matter how conventional or obvious in itself, can transform an unpatentable principle into a patentable process exalts form over substance. A competent draftsman could attach some form of post-solution activity to almost any mathematical formula”. 437 U.S. at 590; 198 USPQ at 197; Id. (holding that step of adjusting an alarm limit variable to a figure computed according to a mathematical formula was “post-solution activity”). See also Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs. Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 79, 101 USPQ2d 1961, 1968 (2012) (additional element of measuring metabolites of a drug administered to a patient was insignificant extra-solution activity). Examiners should carefully consider each claim on its own merits, as well as evaluate all other relevant Step 2B considerations, before making a determination of whether an element (or combination of elements) is insignificant extra-solution activity. In particular, evaluation of the particular machine and particular transformation considerations (see MPEP § 2106.05(b) and (c), respectively), the well-understood, routine, conventional consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(d)), and the field of use and technological environment consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(h)) may assist examiners in making a determination of whether an element (or combination of elements) is insignificant extra-solution activity.

This consideration is similar to factors used in past Office guidance (for example, the now superseded Bilski and Mayo analyses) that were described as mere data gathering in conjunction with a law of nature or abstract idea. When determining whether an additional element is insignificant extra-solution activity, examiners may consider the following:

(1) Whether the extra-solution limitation is well known. See Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 611-12, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1010 (2010) (well-known random analysis techniques to establish the inputs of an equation were token extra-solution activity); Flook, 437 U.S. at 593-95, 198 USPQ at 197 (a formula would not be patentable by only indicating that is could be usefully applied to existing surveying techniques); Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Erie Indem. Co., 850 F.3d 1315, 1328-29, 121 USPQ2d 1928, 1937 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (the use of a well-known XML tag to form an index was deemed token extra-solution activity).

(2) Whether the limitation is significant (i.e. it imposes meaningful limits on the claim such that it is not nominally or tangentially related to the invention). See Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709, 715-16, 112 USPQ2d 1750, 1755 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (restricting public access to media was found to be insignificant extra-solution activity); Apple, Inc. v. Ameranth, Inc., 842 F.3d 1229, 1242, 120 USPQ2d 1844, 1855 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (in patents regarding electronic menus, features related to types of ordering were found to be insignificant extra-solution activity).

(3) Whether the limitation amounts to necessary data gathering and outputting, (i.e., all uses of the recited judicial exception require such data gathering or data output). See Mayo, 566 U.S. at 79, 101 USPQ2d at 1968; OIP Techs., Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc., 788 F.3d 1359, 1363, 115 USPQ2d 1090, 1092-93 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (presenting offers and gathering statistics amounted to mere data gathering).

Below are examples of activities that the courts have found to be insignificant extra-solution activity.

  • • Mere Data Gathering:
    • i. Performing clinical tests on individuals to obtain input for an equation, In re Grams, 888 F.2d 835, 839-40; 12 USPQ2d 1824, 1827-28 (Fed. Cir. 1989);
    • ii. Testing a system for a response, the response being used to determine system malfunction, In re Meyers, 688 F.2d 789, 794; 215 USPQ 193, 196-97 (CCPA 1982);
    • iii. Presenting offers to potential customers and gathering statistics generated based on the testing about how potential customers responded to the offers; the statistics are then used to calculate an optimized price, OIP Technologies, 788 F.3d at 1363, 115 USPQ2d at 1092-93;
    • iv. Obtaining information about transactions using the Internet to verify credit card transactions, CyberSource v. Retail Decisions, Inc., 654 F.3d 1366, 1375, 99 USPQ2d 1690, 1694 (Fed. Cir. 2011);
    • v. Consulting and updating an activity log, Ultramercial, 772 F.3d at 715, 112 USPQ2d at 1754; and
    • vi. Determining the level of a biomarker in blood, Mayo, 566 U.S. at 79, 101 USPQ2d at 1968. See also PerkinElmer, Inc. v. Intema Ltd., 496 Fed. App'x 65, 73, 105 USPQ2d 1960, 1966 (Fed. Cir. 2012) (assessing or measuring data derived from an ultrasound scan, to be used in a diagnosis).
  • • Selecting a particular data source or type of data to be manipulated:
    • i. Limiting a database index to XML tags, Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Erie Indem. Co., 850 F.3d at 1328-29, 121 USPQ2d at 1937;
    • ii. Taking food orders from only table-based customers or drive-through customers, Ameranth, 842 F.3d at 1241-43, 120 USPQ2d at 1854-55;
    • iii. Selecting information, based on types of information and availability of information in a power-grid environment, for collection, analysis and display, Electric Power Group, LLC v. Alstom S.A., 830 F.3d 1350, 1354-55, 119 USPQ2d 1739, 1742 (Fed. Cir. 2016); and
    • iv. Requiring a request from a user to view an advertisement and restricting public access, Ultramercial, 772 F.3d at 715-16, 112 USPQ2d at 1754.
  • • Insignificant application:
    • i. Cutting hair after first determining the hair style, In re Brown, 645 Fed. App'x 1014, 1016-1017 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (non-precedential); and
    • ii. Printing or downloading generated menus, Ameranth, 842 F.3d at 1241-42, 120 USPQ2d at 1854-55.

Some cases have identified insignificant computer implementation as an example of insignificant extra-solution activity. See e.g., Fort Props., Inc. v. Am. Master Lease LLC, 671 F.3d 1317, 1323-24, 101 USPQ2d 1785, 1789-90 (Fed. Cir. 2012); Bancorp Servs., LLC v. Sun Life Assur. Co. of Canada, 687 F.3d 1266, 1280-81, 103 USPQ2d 1425, 1434-35 (Fed. Cir. 2012). Other cases have considered these types of limitations as mere instructions to apply a judicial exception. See MPEP § 2106.05(f) for more information about insignificant computer implementation.

For claim limitations that add insignificant extra-solution activity to the judicial exception (e.g., mere data gathering in conjunction with a law of nature or abstract idea), examiners should explain in an eligibility rejection why they do not meaningfully limit the claim. For example, an examiner could explain that adding a final step of storing data to a process that only recites computing the area of a space (a mathematical relationship) does not add a meaningful limitation to the process of computing the area. For more information on formulating a subject matter eligibility rejection, see MPEP § 2106.07(a).

2106.05(h) Field of Use and Technological Environment [R-08.2017]

Another consideration when determining whether a claim recites significantly more than a judicial exception is whether the additional elements amount to more than generally linking the use of a judicial exception to a particular technological environment or field of use. As explained by the Supreme Court, a claim directed to a judicial exception cannot be made eligible “simply by having the applicant acquiesce to limiting the reach of the patent for the formula to a particular technological use.” Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 192 n.14, 209 USPQ 1, 10 n. 14 (1981). Thus, limitations that amount to merely indicating a field of use or technological environment in which to apply a judicial exception do not amount to significantly more than the exception itself.

The courts often cite to Parker v. Flook as providing a classic example of a field of use limitation. See, e.g., Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 612, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1010 (2010) (“Flook established that limiting an abstract idea to one field of use or adding token postsolution components did not make the concept patentable”) (citing Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 198 USPQ 193 (1978)). In Flook, the claim recited steps of calculating an updated value for an alarm limit (a numerical limit on a process variable such as temperature, pressure or flow rate) according to a mathematical formula “in a process comprising the catalytic chemical conversion of hydrocarbons.” 437 U.S. at 586, 198 USPQ at 196. Processes for the catalytic chemical conversion of hydrocarbons were used in the petrochemical and oil-refining fields. Id. Although the applicant argued that limiting the use of the formula to the petrochemical and oil-refining fields should make the claim eligible because this limitation ensured that the claim did not preempt all uses of the formula, the Supreme Court disagreed and found that this limitation did not amount to an inventive concept. 437 U.S. at 588-90, 198 USPQ at 197-98. The Court reasoned that to hold otherwise would “exalt[] form over substance”, because a competent claim drafter could attach a similar type of limitation to almost any mathematical formula. 437 U.S. at 590, 198 USPQ at 197.

A more recent example of a limitation that does no more than generally link a judicial exception to a particular technological environment is Affinity Labs of Texas v. DirecTV, LLC, 838 F.3d 1253, 120 USPQ2d 1201 (Fed. Cir. 2016). In Affinity Labs, the claim recited a broadcast system in which a cellular telephone located outside the range of a regional broadcaster (1) requests and receives network-based content from the broadcaster via a streaming signal, (2) is configured to wirelessly download an application for performing those functions, and (3) contains a display that allows the user to select particular content. 838 F.3d at 1255-56, 120 USPQ2d at 1202. The court identified the claimed concept of providing out-of-region access to regional broadcast content as an abstract idea, and noted that the additional elements limited the wireless delivery of regional broadcast content to cellular telephones (as opposed to any and all electronic devices such as televisions, cable boxes, computers, or the like). 838 F.3d at 1258-59, 120 USPQ2d at 1204. Although the additional elements did limit the use of the abstract idea, the court explained that this type of limitation merely confines the use of the abstract idea to a particular technological environment (cellular telephones) and thus fails to add an inventive concept to the claims. 838 F.3d at 1259, 120 USPQ2d at 1204.

There are no definitive tests for determining whether a particular claim limitation is a mere field of use or an attempt to generally link the use of a judicial exception to a particular technological environment. However, a common feature of many field of use limitations (as well as other types of non-meaningful claim limitations) is an absence of integration into the claim as a whole. For example, the additional element in Flook regarding the catalytic chemical conversion of hydrocarbons was not integrated into the claim, because it was merely an incidental or token addition to the claim that did not alter or affect how the process steps of calculating the alarm limit value were performed. In contrast, the additional elements in Diamond v. Diehr were integrated into the claim as a whole and did not merely recite calculating a cure time using the Arrhenius equation “in a rubber molding process”. Instead, the claim in Diehr recited specific limitations such as monitoring the elapsed time since the mold was closed, constantly measuring the temperature in the mold cavity, repetitively calculating a cure time by inputting the measured temperature into the Arrhenius equation, and opening the press automatically when the calculated cure time and the elapsed time are equivalent. 450 U.S. at 179, 209 USPQ at 5, n. 5. These specific limitations act in concert to transform raw, uncured rubber into cured molded rubber, and thus integrate the Arrhenius equation into an improved rubber molding process. 450 U.S. at 177-78, 209 USPQ at 4.

Examples of limitations that the courts have described as merely indicating a field of use or technological environment in which to apply a judicial exception include:

  • i. A step of administering a drug providing 6-thioguanine to patients with an immune-mediated gastrointestinal disorder, because limiting drug administration to this patient population did no more than simply refer to the relevant pre-existing audience of doctors who used thiopurine drugs to treat patients suffering from autoimmune disorders, Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs. Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 78, 101 USPQ2d 1961, 1968 (2012);
  • ii. Identifying the participants in a process for hedging risk as commodity providers and commodity consumers, because limiting the use of the process to these participants did no more than describe how the abstract idea of hedging risk could be used in the commodities and energy markets, Bilski, 561 U.S. at 595, 95 USPQ2d at 1010;
  • iii. Limiting the use of the formula C = 2 (pi) r to determining the circumference of a wheel as opposed to other circular objects, because this limitation represents a mere token acquiescence to limiting the reach of the claim, Flook, 437 U.S. at 595, 198 USPQ at 199;
  • iv. Specifying that the abstract idea of monitoring audit log data relates to transactions or activities that are executed in a computer environment, because this requirement merely limits the claims to the computer field, i.e., to execution on a generic computer, FairWarning v. Iatric Sys., 839 F.3d 1089, 1094-95, 120 USPQ2d 1293, 1295 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • v. Language specifying that the process steps of virus screening were used within a telephone network or the Internet, because limiting the use of the process to these technological environments did not provide meaningful limits on the claim, Intellectual Ventures I v. Symantec Corp., 838 F.3d 1307, 1319-20, 120 USPQ2d 1353, 1361 (2016);
  • vi. Limiting the abstract idea of collecting information, analyzing it, and displaying certain results of the collection and analysis to data related to the electric power grid, because limiting application of the abstract idea to power-grid monitoring is simply an attempt to limit the use of the abstract idea to a particular technological environment, Electric Power Group, LLC v. Alstom S.A., 830 F.3d 1350, 1354, 119 USPQ2d 1739, 1742 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • vii. Language informing doctors to apply a law of nature (linkage disequilibrium) for purposes of detecting a genetic polymorphism, because this language merely informs the relevant audience that the law of nature can be used in this manner, Genetic Techs. Ltd. v. Merial LLC, 818 F.3d 1369, 1379, 118 USPQ2d 1541, 1549 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
  • viii. Language specifying that the abstract idea of budgeting was to be implemented using a “communication medium” that broadly included the Internet and telephone networks, because this limitation merely limited the use of the exception to a particular technological environment, Intellectual Ventures I v. Capital One Bank, 792 F.3d 1363, 1367, 115 USPQ2d 1636, 1640 (Fed. Cir. 2015);
  • ix. Specifying that the abstract idea of using advertising as currency is used on the Internet, because this narrowing limitation is merely an attempt to limit the use of the abstract idea to a particular technological environment, Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709, 716, 112 USPQ2d 1750, 1755 (Fed. Cir. 2014); and
  • x. Requiring that the abstract idea of creating a contractual relationship that guarantees performance of a transaction (a) be performed using a computer that receives and sends information over a network, or (b) be limited to guaranteeing online transactions, because these limitations simply attempted to limit the use of the abstract idea to computer environments, buySAFE Inc. v. Google, Inc., 765 F.3d 1350, 1354, 112 USPQ2d 1093, 1095-96 (Fed. Cir. 2014).

Examiners should be aware that the courts often use the terms “technological environment” and “field of use” interchangeably, and thus for purposes of the eligibility analysis examiners should consider these terms interchangeable. Examiners should also keep in mind that this consideration overlaps with other Step 2B considerations, particularly insignificant extra-solution activity (see MPEP § 2106.05(g)). For instance, a data gathering step that is limited to a particular data source (such as the Internet) or a particular type of data (such as power grid data or XML tags) could be considered to be both insignificant extra-solution activity and a field of use limitation. See, e.g., Ultramercial, 772 F.3d at 716, 112 USPQ2d at 1755 (limiting use of abstract idea to the Internet); Electric Power, 830 F.3d at 1354, 119 USPQ2d at 1742 (limiting application of abstract idea to power grid data); Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Erie Indem. Co., 850 F.3d 1315, 1328-29, 121 USPQ2d 1928, 1939 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (limiting use of abstract idea to use with XML tags). Thus, examiners should carefully consider each claim on its own merits, as well as evaluate all other relevant Step 2B considerations, before making a determination on this consideration.

For claim limitations that generally link the use of the judicial exception to a particular technological environment or field of use, examiners should explain in an eligibility rejection why they do not meaningfully limit the claim. For example, an examiner could explain that employing well-known computer functions to execute an abstract idea, even when limiting the use of the idea to one particular environment, does not add significantly more, similar to how limiting the abstract idea in Flook to petrochemical and oil-refining industries was insufficient. For more information on formulating a subject matter eligibility rejection, see MPEP § 2106.07(a).

2106.06 Streamlined Analysis [R-08.2017]

For purposes of efficiency in examination, examiners may use a streamlined eligibility analysis (Pathway A) when the eligibility of the claim is self-evident, e.g., because the claim clearly improves a technology or computer functionality. However, if there is doubt as to whether the applicant is effectively seeking coverage for a judicial exception itself, the full eligibility analysis (the Alice/Mayo test described in MPEP § 2106, subsection III) should be conducted to determine whether the claim recites significantly more than the judicial exception.

The results of the streamlined analysis will always be the same as the full analysis, thus the streamlined analysis is not a means of avoiding a finding of ineligibility that would occur if a claim were to undergo the full eligibility analysis. Similarly, a claim that qualifies as eligible after Step 2A (Pathway B) or Step 2B (Pathway C) of the full analysis would also be eligible if the streamlined analysis (Pathway A) were applied to that claim. It may not be apparent that an examiner employed the streamlined analysis because the result is a conclusion that the claim is eligible, and there will be no rejection of the claim on eligibility grounds. In practice, the record may reflect the conclusion of eligibility simply by the absence of an eligibility rejection or may include clarifying remarks, when appropriate.

In the context of the flowchart in MPEP § 2106, subsection III, if, when viewed as a whole, the eligibility of the claim is self-evident (e.g., because the claim clearly improves a technology or computer functionality), the claim is eligible at Pathway A, thereby concluding the eligibility analysis.

2106.06(a) Eligibility is Self Evident [R-08.2017]

A streamlined eligibility analysis can be used for a claim that may or may not recite a judicial exception but, when viewed as a whole, clearly does not seek to tie up any judicial exception such that others cannot practice it. Such claims do not need to proceed through the full analysis herein as their eligibility will be self-evident. On the other hand, a claim that does not qualify as eligible after Step 2B of the full analysis would not be suitable for the streamlined analysis, because the claim lacks self‐evident eligibility.

For instance, a claim directed to a complex manufactured industrial product or process that recites meaningful limitations along with a judicial exception may sufficiently limit its practical application so that a full eligibility analysis is not needed. As an example, a robotic arm assembly having a control system that operates using certain mathematical relationships is clearly not an attempt to tie up use of the mathematical relationships and would not require a full analysis to determine eligibility. Also, a claim that recites a nature-based product, but clearly does not attempt to tie up the nature-based product, does not require a markedly different characteristics analysis to identify a “product of nature” exception. As an example, a claim directed to an artificial hip prosthesis coated with a naturally occurring mineral is not an attempt to tie up the mineral. Similarly, claimed products that merely include ancillary nature-based components, such as a claim that is directed to a cellphone with an electrical contact made of gold or a plastic chair with wood trim, would not require analysis of the nature-based component to determine whether the claims are directed to a “product of nature” exception because such claims do not attempt to improperly tie up the nature-based product.

2106.06(b) Clear Improvement to a Technology or to Computer Functionality [R-08.2017]

As explained by the Federal Circuit, some improvements to technology or to computer functionality are not abstract when appropriately claimed, and thus claims to such improvements do not always need to undergo the full eligibility analysis. Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d 1327, 1335-36, 118 USPQ2d 1684, 1689 (Fed. Cir. 2016). MPEP § 2106.05(a) provides details regarding improvements to a technology or computer functionality.

For instance, claims directed to clear improvements to computer-related technology do not need the full eligibility analysis. Enfish, 822 F.3d at 1339, 118 USPQ2d at 1691-92 (claims to a self-referential table for a computer database held eligible at step 1 of the Alice/Mayo test as not directed to an abstract idea). Claims directed to improvements to other technologies or technological processes, beyond computer improvements, may also avoid the full eligibility analysis. McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 1316, 120 USPQ2d 1091, 1103 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (claims to automatic lip synchronization and facial expression animation found eligible at Step 1 of the Alice/Mayo test as directed to an improvement in computer-related technology). In these cases, when the claims were viewed as a whole, their eligibility was self-evident based on the clear improvement, so no further analysis was needed. Although the Federal Circuit held these claims eligible at Step 2A as not being directed to abstract ideas, it would be reasonable for an examiner to have found these claims eligible at Pathway A based on the clear improvement, or at Pathway B (Step 2A) as not being directed to an abstract idea.

If the claims are a “close call” such that it is unclear whether the claims improve technology or computer functionality, a full eligibility analysis should be performed to determine eligibility. See BASCOM Global Internet v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1349, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1241 (Fed Cir. 2016). Only when the claims clearly improve technology or computer functionality, or otherwise have self-evident eligibility, should the streamlined analysis be used. For example, because the claims in BASCOM described the concept of filtering content, which is a method of organizing human behavior previously found to be abstract, the Federal Circuit considered them to present a “close call” in the first step of the Alice/Mayo test (Step 2A), and thus proceeded to the second step of the Alice/Mayo test (Step 2B) to determine their eligibility. Id. Although the Federal Circuit held these claims eligible at Step 2B (Pathway C) because they presented a “technology-based solution” of filtering content on the Internet that overcame the disadvantages of prior art filtering systems and that amounted to significantly more than the recited abstract idea, it also would be reasonable for an examiner to have found these claims eligible at Pathway A or B if the examiner had considered the technology-based solution to be an improvement to computer functionality.

2106.07 Formulating and Supporting Rejections For Lack Of Subject Matter Eligibility [R-08.2017]

Eligibility rejections must be based on failure to comply with the substantive law under 35 U.S.C. 101 as interpreted by judicial precedent. The substantive law on eligibility is discussed in MPEP § 2106.03 through 2106.06. Examination guidance, training, and explanatory examples discuss the substantive law and establish the policies and procedures to be followed by examiners in evaluating patent applications for compliance with the substantive law, but do not serve as a basis for a rejection. Accordingly, while it would be acceptable for applicants to cite training materials or examples in support of an argument for finding eligibility in an appropriate factual situation, applicants should not be required to model their claims or responses after the training materials or examples to attain eligibility.

When evaluating a claimed invention for compliance with the substantive law on eligibility, examiners should review the record as a whole (e.g., the specification, claims, the prosecution history, and any relevant case law precedent or prior art) before reaching a conclusion with regard to whether the claimed invention sets forth patent eligible subject matter. The evaluation of whether the claimed invention qualifies as patent-eligible subject matter should be made on a claim-by-claim basis, because claims do not automatically rise or fall with similar claims in an application. For example, even if an independent claim is determined to be ineligible, the dependent claims may be eligible because they add limitations amounting to significantly more than the judicial exception recited in the independent claim. Thus, each claim in an application should be considered separately based on the particular elements recited therein.

If the evaluation of the claimed invention results in a conclusion that it is more likely than not that the claim as a whole does not satisfy both criteria for eligibility (Step 1: NO and/or Step 2B: NO), then examiners should formulate an appropriate rejection of that claim under Step 1 and/or Step 2B. The rejection should set forth a prima facie case of ineligibility under the substantive law. The concept of the prima facie case is a procedural tool of patent examination, which allocates the burdens going forward between the examiner and applicant. In particular, the initial burden is on the examiner to explain why a claim or claims are ineligible for patenting clearly and specifically, so that applicant has sufficient notice and is able to effectively respond.

When an examiner determines a claim does not fall within a statutory category (Step 1: NO), the rejection should provide an explanation of why the claim is not directed to one of the four statutory categories of invention. See MPEP § 706.03(a) for information on making the rejection, and MPEP § 2106.03 for a discussion of Step 1 and the statutory categories of invention.

When an examiner determines that a claim is directed to a judicial exception (Step 2A: YES) and does not provide an inventive concept (Step 2B: NO), the rejection should provide an explanation for each part of the Step 2 analysis. For example, the rejection should identify the judicial exception by referring to what is recited (i.e., set forth or described) in the claim and explain why it is considered an exception, identify any additional elements (specifically point to claim features/limitations/steps) recited in the claim beyond the identified judicial exception, and explain the reason(s) that the additional elements taken individually, and also taken as a combination, do not result in the claim as a whole amounting to significantly more than the judicial exception. See MPEP § 2106.04 for a discussion of Step 2A and the judicial exceptions, MPEP § 2106.05 for a discussion of Step 2B and the search for an inventive concept, and MPEP § 2106.07(a) for more information on formulating an ineligibility rejection.

If the evaluation of the claimed invention results in a conclusion that it is more likely than not that the claimed invention falls within a statutory category (Step 1: YES) and is either not directed to a judicial exception (Step 2A: NO) or is directed to a judicial exception and amounts to significantly more than the judicial exception (Step 2B: YES), then the examiner should not reject the claim. When evaluating a response by applicant to a subject matter eligibility rejection, examiners must carefully consider all of applicant’s arguments and evidence presented to rebut the rejection. If applicant properly challenges the examiner’s findings, the rejection should be withdrawn or, if the examiner deems it appropriate to maintain the rejection, a rebuttal must be provided in the next Office action. This is discussed in greater detail in MPEP § 2106.07(b).

2106.07(a) Formulating a Rejection For Lack of Subject Matter Eligibility [R-08.2017]

After determining what the applicant invented and establishing the broadest reasonable interpretation of the claimed invention (see MPEP § 2111), the eligibility of each claim should be evaluated as a whole using the analysis detailed in MPEP § 2106. If it is determined that the claim does not recite eligible subject matter, a rejection under 35 U.S.C. 101 is appropriate. When making the rejection, the Office action must provide an explanation as to why each claim is unpatentable, which must be sufficiently clear and specific to provide applicant sufficient notice of the reasons for ineligibility and enable the applicant to effectively respond.

Subject matter eligibility rejections under Step 1 are discussed in MPEP § 706.03(a).

A subject matter eligibility rejection under Step 2 should provide an explanation for each part of the Step 2 analysis:

  • • For Step 2A, the rejection should identify the judicial exception by referring to what is recited (i.e., set forth or described) in the claim and explain why it is considered an exception. For example, if the claim is directed to an abstract idea, the rejection should identify the abstract idea as it is recited (i.e., set forth or described) in the claim and explain why it corresponds to a concept that the courts have identified as an abstract idea. Similarly, if the claim is directed to a law of nature or a natural phenomenon, the rejection should identify the law of nature or natural phenomenon as it is recited (i.e., set forth or described) in the claim and explain using a reasoned rationale why it is considered a law of nature or natural phenomenon.
  • • For Step 2B, the rejection should identify any additional elements (specifically point to claim features/limitations/steps) recited in the claim beyond the identified judicial exception; and explain the reason(s) that the additional elements taken individually, and also taken as a combination, do not result in the claim as a whole amounting to significantly more than the judicial exception identified in Step 2A. For instance, when the examiner has concluded that certain claim elements recite well understood, routine, conventional activities in the relevant field of art, the rejection should explain why the courts have recognized, or those in the field would recognize, the additional elements when taken both individually and as a combination to be well-understood, routine, conventional activities.

Under the principles of compact prosecution, regardless of whether a rejection under 35 U.S.C. 101 is made based on lack of subject matter eligibility, a complete examination should be made for every claim under each of the other patentability requirements: 35 U.S.C. 102, 103, 112, and 101 (utility, inventorship and double patenting) and non-statutory double patenting. Thus, examiners should state all non-cumulative reasons and bases for rejecting claims in the first Office action.

I. WHEN MAKING A REJECTION, IDENTIFY AND EXPLAIN THE JUDICIAL EXCEPTION RECITED IN THE CLAIM (STEP 2A)

A subject matter eligibility rejection should point to the specific claim limitation(s) that recites (i.e., sets forth or describes) the judicial exception. The rejection must identify the specific claim limitations and explain why those claim limitations set forth a judicial exception (e.g., an abstract idea). Where the claim describes, but does not expressly set forth, the judicial exception, the rejection must also explain what subject matter those limitations describe, and why the described subject matter is a judicial exception. See MPEP § 2106.04 for more information about Step 2A of the eligibility analysis.

When the examiner has determined the claim recites an abstract idea, the rejection should identify the abstract idea as it is recited (i.e., set forth or described) in the claim, and explain why it corresponds to a concept that the courts have identified as an abstract idea. See, for example, the concepts identified in MPEP § 2106.04(a)(2). Citing to an appropriate court decision that supports the identification of the subject matter recited in the claim language as an abstract idea is a best practice that will advance prosecution. Examiners should be familiar with any cited decision relied upon in making or maintaining a rejection to ensure that the rejection is reasonably tied to the facts of the case and to avoid relying upon language taken out of context. Examiners should not go beyond those concepts that are similar to what the courts have identified as abstract ideas, and should avoid relying upon or citing non-precedential decisions unless the facts of the application under examination uniquely match the facts at issue in the non-precedential decisions. Examiners are reminded that a chart of court decisions is available on the USPTO’s Internet website (www.uspto.gov/patent/laws-and- regulations/examination-policy/subject- matter-eligibility).

Sample explanation: The claim recites the steps of sorting information by X, which is an abstract idea similar to the concepts that have been identified as abstract by the courts, such as organizing information through mathematical correlations in Digitech or data recognition and storage in Content Extraction.

When the examiner has determined the claim recites a law of nature or a natural phenomenon, the rejection should identify the law of nature or natural phenomenon as it is recited (i.e., set forth or described) in the claim and explain using a reasoned rationale why it is considered a law of nature or natural phenomenon. See MPEP § 2106.04(b) for more information about laws of nature and natural phenomena.

Sample explanation: The claim recites the correlation of X, and X is a law of nature because it describes a consequence of natural processes in the human body, e.g., the naturally-occurring relationship between the presence of Y and the manifestation of Z.

Sample explanation: The claim recites X, which is a natural phenomenon because it occurs in nature and exists in principle apart from any human action.

When the examiner has determined the claim recites a product of nature, the rejection should identify the exception as it is recited (i.e., set forth or described) in the claim, and explain using a reasoned rationale why the product does not have markedly different characteristics from its naturally occurring counterpart in its natural state. See MPEP § 2106.04(b) for more information about products of nature, and MPEP § 2106.04(c) for more information about the markedly different characteristics analysis.

Sample explanation: The claim recites X, which as explained in the specification was isolated from naturally occurring Y. X is a nature-based product, so it is compared to its closest naturally occurring counterpart (X in its natural state) to determine if it has markedly different characteristics. Because there is no indication in the record that isolation of X has resulted in a marked difference in structure, function, or other properties as compared to its counterpart, X is a product of nature exception.

II. WHEN MAKING A REJECTION, EXPLAIN WHY THE ADDITIONAL CLAIM ELEMENTS DO NOT RESULT IN THE CLAIM AS A WHOLE AMOUNTING TO SIGNIFICANTLY MORE THAN THE JUDICIAL EXCEPTION (STEP 2B)

After identifying the judicial exception in the rejection, identify any additional elements (features/limitations/steps) recited in the claim beyond the judicial exception and explain why they do not add significantly more to the exception. The explanation should address the additional elements both individually and as a combination when determining whether the claim as whole recites eligible subject matter. It is important to remember that a new combination of steps in a process may be patent eligible even though all the steps of the combination were individually well known and in common use before the combination was made. Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 188, 209 USPQ 1, 9 (1981). Thus, it is particularly critical to address the combination of additional elements, because while individually-viewed elements may not appear to add significantly more, those additional elements when viewed in combination may amount to significantly more than the exception by meaningfully limiting the judicial exception. See MPEP § 2106.05 for more information about Step 2B of the eligibility analysis.

A rejection should be made only if it is readily apparent to an examiner relying on the examiner's expertise in the art in the Step 2B inquiry that the additional elements do not amount to claiming significantly more than the recited judicial exception. When making a rejection, it is important for the examiner to explain the rationale underlying the conclusion so that applicant can effectively respond. On the other hand, when appropriate, the examiner should explain why the additional elements provide an inventive concept by adding a meaningful limitation to the claimed exception. See MPEP § 2106.05 for a listing of considerations that courts have found to qualify, and to not qualify, as significantly more than an exception , and MPEP § 2106.07(c) for more information on clarifying the record when a claim is found eligible.

For example, when the examiner has concluded that particular claim limitations are well understood, routine, conventional activities (or elements) to those in the relevant field, the rejection should explain why the courts have recognized, or those in the relevant field of art would recognize, those claim limitations as being well-understood, routine, conventional activities. That is, the examiner should provide a reasoned explanation that supports that conclusion. See MPEP § 2106.05(d) for more information about well understood, routine, conventional activities and elements.

For claim limitations that recite a generic computer component performing generic computer functions at a high level of generality, such as using the Internet to gather data, examiners can explain why these generic computing functions do not meaningfully limit the claim. MPEP § 2106.05(d) lists some computer functions that the courts have recognized as well-understood, routine, conventional functions when they are claimed in a merely generic manner. This listing is not meant to imply that all computer functions are well-understood, routine, conventional functions, or that a claim reciting a generic computer component performing a generic computer function is necessarily ineligible. Examiners should keep in mind that the courts have held computer-implemented processes to be significantly more than an abstract idea (and thus eligible), where generic computer components are able in combination to perform functions that are not merely generic. DDR Holdings, LLC v. Hotels.com, LP, 773 F.3d 1245, 1258-59, 113 USPQ2d 1097, 1106-07 (Fed. Cir. 2014). See MPEP § 2106.05(d) for more information about well understood, routine, conventional activities and elements, and MPEP § 2106.05(f) for more information about generic computing functions that the courts have found to be mere instructions to implement a judicial exception on a computer.

For claim limitations that add insignificant extra-solution activity to the judicial exception (e.g., mere data gathering in conjunction with a law of nature or abstract idea, or that generally link the use of the judicial exception to a particular technological environment or field of use), examiners can explain why they do not meaningfully limit the claim. For example, adding a final step of storing data to a process that only recites computing the area of a two dimensional space (a mathematical relationship) does not add a meaningful limitation to the process of computing the area. As another example, employing well-known computer functions to execute an abstract idea, even when limiting the use of the idea to one particular environment, does not add significantly more, similar to how limiting the computer implemented abstract idea in Flook to petrochemical and oil-refining industries was insufficient. See Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 588-90, 198 USPQ 193, 197-98 (1978) (limiting use of mathematical formula to use in particular industries did not amount to an inventive concept). See MPEP § 2106.05(g) for more information about insignificant extra-solution activity, and MPEP § 2106.05(h) for more information about generally linking use of a judicial exception to a particular technological environment or field of use.

In the event a rejection is made, it is a best practice for the examiner to consult the specification to determine if there are elements that could be added to the claim to make it eligible. If so, the examiner should identify those elements in the Office action and suggest them as a way to overcome the rejection.

III. EVIDENTIARY REQUIREMENTS IN MAKING A § 101 REJECTION

The courts consider the determination of whether a claim is eligible (which involves identifying whether an exception such as an abstract idea is being claimed) to be a question of law. Rapid Litig. Mgmt. v. CellzDirect, 827 F.3d 1042, 1047, 119 USPQ2d 1370, 1372 (Fed. Cir. 2016); OIP Techs. v. Amazon.com, 788 F.3d 1359, 1362, 115 USPQ2d 1090, 1092 (Fed. Cir. 2015); DDR Holdings v. Hotels.com, 773 F.3d 1245, 1255, 113 USPQ2d 1097, 1104 (Fed. Cir. 2014); In re Roslin Institute (Edinburgh), 750 F.3d 1333, 1335, 110 USPQ2d 1668, 1670 (Fed. Cir. 2014); In re Bilski, 545 F.3d 943, 951, 88 USPQ2d 1385, 1388 (Fed. Cir. 2008) (en banc), aff’d by Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 95 USPQ2d 1001 (2010). Thus, the court does not require “evidence” that a claimed concept is a judicial exception, and generally decides the legal conclusion of eligibility without resolving any factual issues. FairWarning IP, LLC v. Iatric Sys., 839 F.3d 1089, 1097, 120 USPQ2d 1293, 1298 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (citing Genetic Techs. Ltd. v. Merial LLC, 818 F.3d 1369, 1373, 118 USPQ2d 1541, 1544 (Fed. Cir. 2016)); OIP Techs., 788 F.3d at 1362, 115 USPQ2d at 1092; Content Extraction & Transmission LLC v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 776 F.3d 1343, 1349, 113 USPQ2d 1354, 1359 (Fed. Cir. 2014).

When determining whether claimed subject matter is judicially-excepted, the Federal Circuit typically compares the claimed subject matter to subject matter identified as an exception in its prior precedent. Amdocs (Israel) Ltd. v. Openet Telecom, Inc., 841 F.3d 1288, 1294, 120 USPQ2d 1527, 1532 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“[T]he decisional mechanism courts now apply is to examine earlier cases in which a similar or parallel descriptive nature can be seen [and consider] what prior cases were about, and which way they were decided.”) (citation omitted). The court has followed the same approach when reviewing the correctness of the Office’s conclusions that particular claims were directed to abstract ideas. See, e.g., In re Smith, 815 F.3d 816, 818-19, 118 USPQ2d 1245, 1247 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (review of a rejection under 35 U.S.C. 101 in an ex parte appeal); Apple, Inc. v. Ameranth, Inc., 842 F.3d 1229, 1241, 120 USPQ2d 1844, 1854 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (review of a Board determination of unpatentability under 35 U.S.C. 101 in a Covered Business Method review) and Versata Development Group v. SAP America, Inc., 793 F.3d 1306, 1333-34, 115 USPQ2d 1681, 1700-01 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (review of a Board determination of unpatentability under 35 U.S.C. 101 in a Covered Business Method review).

Similarly, the courts do not require any evidence when conducting the significantly more inquiry, even where additional elements were identified as well-understood, routine and conventional in the art. See, e.g., Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2359-60, 110 USPQ2d at 1984-85 (citing prior Supreme Court decisions in support of identifying additional elements as “purely conventional” basic computing functions, and thus well-understood, routine, conventional activity); Smith, 815 F.3d at 819, 118 USPQ2d at 1247 (identifying the steps of shuffling and dealing physical playing cards as “purely conventional” activities, and thus well-understood, routine, conventional activity).

When performing the analysis at Step 2A, it is sufficient for the examiner to provide a reasoned rationale that identifies the judicial exception recited in the claim and explains why it is considered a judicial exception. Therefore, there is no requirement for the examiner to rely on evidence, such as publications, to find that a claim is directed to a judicial exception. Cf. Affinity Labs of Tex., LLC v. Amazon.com Inc., 838 F.3d 1266, 1271-72, 120 USPQ2d 1210, 1214-15 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (affirming district court decision that identified an abstract idea in the claims without relying on evidence); OIP Techs., Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc., 788 F.3d 1359, 1362-64, 115 USPQ2d 1090, 1092-94 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (same); Content Extraction & Transmission LLC v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 776 F.3d 1343, 1347, 113 USPQ2d 1354, 1357-58 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (same).

Similarly, at Step 2B, there is no requirement for evidence to support a finding that the claim does not recite significantly more than the judicial exception (e.g., the additional limitations are well-understood, routine, conventional activities). However, if available, sources of evidence can be provided to support the assertion or, when appropriate, to rebut an argument or evidence from applicant. In situations where the specification identifies certain elements as conventional, that information can be used to provide a basis for asserting that certain additional limitations do not amount to significantly more when making a rejection. When addressing a rebuttal argument, for example, a manual or handbook showing conventional computer components or functions could be used to refute an argument that using a certain additional computer element is not routine. Another source could be a patent that illustrates the state of the art, such as a background discussion of conventional components or actions routinely taken. The evidence would not be used to show a lack of novelty, which is not part of the Step 2B inquiry, but rather to show the state of the art. Another source of evidence is a court decision. As one example, the court in Content Extraction noted that use of a scanner to extract data from a document was well-known at the time of filing. 776 F.3d at 1348, 113 USPQ2d at 1358. As another example, Versata described the steps of arranging, storing, retrieving, sorting, eliminating, and determining information with a computer as “normal, basic functions of a computer.” 793 F.3d at 1335, 115 USPQ2d at 1702. Care should be taken to ensure that the facts of any case law cited in support of a finding of conventionality comport with the facts of the application being examined. In other words, the examiner should be familiar with the facts of the case law before citing it for support in an Office action.

2106.07(b) Evaluating Applicant's Response [R-08.2017]

After examiners identify and explain in the record the reasons why a claim is directed to an abstract idea, natural phenomenon, or law of nature without significantly more, then the burden shifts to the applicant to either amend the claim or make a showing of why the claim is eligible for patent protection.

In response to a rejection based on failure to claim patent-eligible subject matter, applicant may: (i) amend the claim, e.g., to add additional elements or modify existing elements so that the claim as a whole amounts to significantly more than the judicial exception, and/or (ii) present persuasive arguments or evidence based on a good faith belief as to why the rejection is in error. When evaluating a response, examiners must carefully consider all of applicant's arguments and evidence rebutting the subject matter eligibility rejection. If applicant has amended the claim, examiners should determine the amended claim’s broadest reasonable interpretation and again perform the subject matter eligibility analysis.

If applicant's claim amendment(s) and/or argument(s) persuasively establish that the claim is not directed to a judicial exception or is directed to significantly more than a judicial exception, the rejection should be withdrawn. Applicant may argue that a claim is eligible because the claim as a whole amounts to significantly more than the judicial exception when the additional elements are considered both individually and in combination. When an additional element is considered individually by the examiner, the additional element may be enough to qualify as "significantly more" if it meaningfully limits the judicial exception, e.g., it improves another technology or technical field, improves the functioning of a computer itself, adds a specific limitation other than what is well-understood, routine, conventional activity in the field, or adds unconventional steps that confine the claim to a particular useful application.

In addition, even if an element does not amount to significantly more on its own (e.g., because it is merely a generic computer component performing generic computer functions), it can still amount to significantly more when considered in combination with the other elements of the claim. For example, generic computer components that individually perform merely generic computer functions (e.g., a CPU that performs mathematical calculations or a clock that produces time data) in some instances are able in combination to perform functions that are not generic computer functions and therefore amount to significantly more than an abstract idea (and are thus eligible).

If applicant properly challenges the examiner's findings but the examiner deems it appropriate to maintain the rejection, a rebuttal must be provided in the next Office action. Several examples of appropriate examiner responses are provided below.

  • (1) If applicant challenges the identification of an abstract idea that was based on a court case and the challenge is not persuasive, an appropriate response would be an explanation as to why the abstract idea identified in the claim is similar to the concept in the cited case. If the original rejection did not identify a Supreme Court or Federal Circuit decision in which a similar abstract idea was found and applicant challenges identification of the abstract idea, the examiner would need to point to a case in which a similar abstract idea was identified and explain why the abstract idea recited in the claim corresponds to the abstract idea identified in the case to maintain the rejection. Citation to a case that supports the original rationale would not be considered a new ground of rejection, unless there is a change to the basic thrust of the rejection. See MPEP § 706.07(a) for a discussion of new grounds of rejection.
  • (2) If applicant responds to an examiner's assertion that something is well-known, routine, conventional activity with a specific argument or evidence that the additional elements in a claim are not well-understood, routine, conventional activities previously engaged in by those in the relevant art, the examiner should reevaluate whether it is readily apparent that the additional elements are in actuality well-known, routine, conventional activities to those who work in the relevant field. It is especially, for the examiner, necessary to fully reevaluate their position when such additional elements are not discussed in the specification as being known generic functions/components/activities or are not treated by the courts as well-understood, routine, conventional activities. If the rejection is to be maintained, the examiner should consider whether evidence should be provided to further support the rejection and clarify the record for appeal. See MPEP § 2106.05(d) for examples of elements that the courts have found to be well understood, routine and conventional activity.
  • (3) If applicant amends a claim to add a generic computer or generic computer components and asserts that the claim recites significantly more because the generic computer is 'specially programmed' (as in Alappat, now considered superseded) or is a 'particular machine' (as in Bilski), the examiner should look at whether the added elements provide significantly more than the judicial exception. Merely adding a generic computer, generic computer components, or a programmed computer to perform generic computer functions does not automatically overcome an eligibility rejection. Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int'l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2359-60, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1984 (2014). See also OIP Techs. v. Amazon.com, 788 F.3d 1359, 1364, 115 USPQ2d 1090, 1093-94 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (“Just as Diehr could not save the claims in Alice, which were directed to ‘implement[ing] the abstract idea of intermediated settlement on a generic computer’, it cannot save OIP's claims directed to implementing the abstract idea of price optimization on a generic computer.”) (citations omitted).
  • (4) If applicant argues that the claim is specific and does not preempt all applications of the exception, the examiner should reconsider Step 2A of the eligibility analysis, e.g., to determine whether the claim is directed to an improvement to the functioning of a computer or to any other technology or technical field. If an examiner still determines that the claim is directed to a judicial exception, the examiner should then reconsider in Step 2B whether the additional elements in combination (as well as individually) amount to an inventive concept, e.g., because they are more than the non-conventional and non-generic arrangement of known, conventional elements. Such reconsideration is appropriate because, although preemption is not a standalone test for eligibility, it remains the underlying concern that drives the two-part framework from Alice Corp. and Mayo (Steps 2A and 2B). Synopsys, Inc. v. Mentor Graphics Corp., 839 F.3d 1138, 1150, 120 USPQ2d 1473, 1483 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Rapid Litig. Mgmt. v. CellzDirect, Inc., 827 F.3d 1042, 1052, 119 USPQ2d 1370, 1376 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, Inc., 788 F.3d 1371, 1379, 115 USPQ2d 1152, 1158 (Fed. Cir. 2015).

2106.07(c) Clarifying the Record [R-08.2017]

When the claims are deemed patent eligible, the examiner may make clarifying remarks on the record. For example, if a claim is found eligible because it improves upon existing technology, the examiner could reference the portion of the specification that describes the claimed improvement and note the claim elements that produce that improvement. The clarifying remarks may be made at any point during prosecution as well as with a notice of allowance.

Clarifying remarks may be useful in explaining the rationale for a rejection as well. For instance, explaining the broadest reasonable interpretation (BRI) of a claim will assist applicant in understanding and responding to a rejection. As an example, a rejection for failure to recite patent eligible subject matter in a claim to a computer readable medium could include an explanation that the broadest reasonable interpretation of the claim covers a carrier wave, which does not fall within one of the four categories of invention, and a suggestion to overcome the rejection by submitting a narrowing amendment to cover the statutory embodiments.

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