In a recent IPWatchdog panel discussion, Harness IP’s new CEO Ray Millien posited that the only obstacle to autonomous cars is software. Given the present state of §101 jurisprudence, however, “once someone solves that problem, it’s an abstract idea.”
Considering the technologies §101 is currently holding back, and imagining the technologies §101 will hold back if this problem is not corrected, patent lawyers of the future might one day read something like this:
In In re Erickson,* (Fed. Cir. 2124), the Federal Circuit issued a Rule 36 affirmance of the decision of the PTAB affirming the Examiner’s rejection of all of the pending claims of Emory Erickson’s application 31/239484 entitled “Teleportation System and Methods.” The PTAB opinion explained that the claimed invention, which Mr. Erickson calls a “Transporter,” is directed to a teleportation apparatus and a method for “nearly instantaneously” moving an object from one location to another. Mr. Erickson apparently provided a practical demonstration of his invention during a recent outage of the USPTO’s EFS system, delivering his Applicant’s Brief on Appeal to the USPTO via his “Transporter,” together with the $50,000 fee (37 CFR 1.17(zz)) for non-electronic filings.
Transporting Goods is an Abstract Idea
The Board began its analysis with the familiar two-step test from the classic Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2354 (2014), which requires at step one a determination whether the claims are directed to an abstract idea, and if so, at step two to a determination whether the claim is directed to “something more.”
The Board noted that the Examiner found that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of “transporting goods,” and the Board agreed, citing GT Nexus, Inc. v. Inttra, Inc., 2015 WL 6747142 (N.D.Cal. 2015) (“the shipping of goods is a conventional business practice ‘long prevalent in our system of commerce.’”)
Operation in the Real World Does not Make Idea Less Abstract
While Erickson argued that the Transporter would “result in life altering consequences,” the Board said that while laudable, it does not render the system or method any less abstract, citing University of Florida Research Foundation, Inc. v. General Electric Company, 916 F.3d 1363 (Fed. Cir. 2019). The Board considered the case to be similar to Smart Systems Innovations, LLC v. Chicago Transit Authority, 873 F.3d 1364, 124 U.S.P.Q.2d 1441 (Fed. Cir. 2017), where the patent owner’s arguments that the invention operated “in the tangible world” and satisfied “a public demand for more convenient travel that did not exist in the prior art” did not save the claims from being directed to an abstract idea.
Novelty of Components Does Not Make Idea Less Abstract
The Board also rejected the arguments that the Transporter, and in particular its Heisenberg compensator, had never before existed, citing Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (“We do not agree with Ultramercial that the addition of merely novel or non-routine components to the claimed idea necessarily turns an abstraction into something concrete. In any event, any novelty in implementation of the idea is a factor to be considered only in the second step of the Alice analysis.”). “It is well-settled that mere recitation of concrete, tangible components is insufficient to confer patent eligibility to an otherwise abstract idea.” TLI Communications LLC v. AV Automotive, L.L.C., 823 F.3d 607, 118 U.S.P.Q.2d 1744 (Fed. Cir. 2016).
Lack of Preemtion Does not Make Idea Less Abstract
The Board also dismissed Erickson’s argument that the claimed invention did not preempt all methods of transporting goods, citing buySAFE, Inc. v. Google, Inc., 765 F.3d 1350, 1355 (Fed.Cir.2014) (collecting cases). A narrow claim directed to an abstract idea, however, is not necessarily patent eligible, for “[w]hile preemption may signal patent ineligible subject matter, the absence of complete preemption does not demonstrate patent eligibility.” Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, Inc., 788 F.3d 1371, 1379 (Fed. Cir. 2015).
The Groundbreaking, Innovative, and Brilliant Can Still Be Abstract
While the Board found Erickson’s practical demonstrations of teleportation were “impressive,” it said that even accepting that the techniques claimed are “[g]roundbreaking, innovative, or even brilliant,” that is not enough for eligibility. Ass’n for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 569 U.S. 576, 591, 133 S.Ct. 2107, 186 L.Ed.2d 124 (2013); accord buySAFE, Inc. v. Google, Inc., 765 F.3d 1350, 1352 (Fed. Cir. 2014). Nor was it enough for subject-matter eligibility that claimed techniques be novel and nonobvious in light of prior art, passing muster under 35 U.S.C. §§ 102 and 103. See Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 89–90, 132 S.Ct. 1289, 182 L.Ed.2d 321 (2012); Synopsys, Inc. v. Mentor Graphics Corp., 839 F.3d 1138, 1151 (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.”); Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Symantec Corp., 838 F.3d 1307, 1315 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (same for obviousness).
The Board concluded that no matter how much of an advance in the field the claims recite, the advance lies entirely in the realm of abstract ideas, with no plausibly alleged innovation in the non-abstract application realm. An advance of that nature is ineligible for patenting. SAP America, Inc. v. Investpic, LLC, 890 F.3d 1016, 126 U.S.P.Q.2d 1638 (Fed. Cir. 2018).
At Alice Step II, the Board found that most of the components were conventional off-the-shelf electronic and computer components, and thus there was no “something more” to save the claims.
* In the Star Trek universe, the transporter was invented in the early 22nd century by Dr. Emory Erickson, who also became the first human to be successfully transported.
Given Millien’s prediction that the solution to autonomous vehicles may turn out to be an unpatentable abstract idea, we should all be concerned about what technologies may be overlooked or at least delayed because the current application of §101 is interfering with the incentives the patent system is supposed to provide to encourage their development and disclosure. While the transporter example above may be too far fetched, the threat to the progress of science and the useful arts is not, as Millien points out.