CPIP Scholars To Federal Circuit: Protect Innovation in the Life Sciences

Last week, a group of CPIP scholars—Chris Holman, David Lund, Adam Mossoff, and Kristen Osenga—filed an amicus brief in Natural Alternatives International v. Creative Compounds, a case currently on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The amici ask the appellate court to correct the district court’s misapplication of the patent-eligibility test under Section 101 of the Patent Act since it threatens innovation in the life sciences.

The plaintiff-patentee, Natural Alternatives International or NAI, provides nutritional products, including proprietary ingredients and customized nutritional supplements, to its clients. NAI owns several patents relating to beta-alanine, a non-essential amino acid that delays the onset of muscle fatigue. The district court held that the claims were ineligible subject matter under the two-step Alice-Mayo test: the claims were directed to a natural phenomenon and lacked an inventive concept containing more than conventional, routine activity.

The amici point out that the district court’s overly-restricted view of patent-eligibility doctrine will dissuade the research and development of natural products that are beneficial for mankind. They note that the district court glossed over several predicate factual questions and failed to properly consider the claims as a whole. They conclude that the continued misapplication of the Section 101 analysis has resulted in legal uncertainty, undermining the innovation industries that rely on stable and effective patent rights.

The Summary of Argument is copied below, and the amicus brief is available here.

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SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT

The district court’s decision in Natural Alternatives International, Inc. v. Creative Compounds, LLC, No. 16-cv-02146-H-AGS, (S.D. Cal. Sept. 5, 2017) and Natural Alternatives International, Inc. v. Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals, Inc., No. 16-cv- 02343-H-AGS, (S.D. Cal. Sept. 5, 2017), represent an improper application of 35 U.S.C. § 101. The parties in their briefs address the relevant innovation covered by Natural Alternatives’ patents, as well as the application of the Supreme Court’s and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s § 101 jurisprudence. Here, amici offer additional insight concerning the legal and policy problems with the trial court’s decision. Specifically, amici contend that Natural Alternatives’ claims represent precisely how the patent system should reward discovery of a therapeutic use of a natural compound, and thus their invention should be eligible for patent protection. The Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that patents claiming new uses of known drugs or new applications of laws of nature are patent eligible, and these teachings properly applied provide patent eligibility for the kinds of claims at issue in this case. Assoc. for Molec. Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 569 U.S. 576, 594 (2013); Mayo Collaborative Servs v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 87 (2012). The district court’s decision to the contrary conflicts with the Patent Act as an integrated statutory framework for promoting and securing innovation in the life sciences, as construed by this court as well as by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has recognized that the plain meaning of the language of § 101 indicates that the scope of patentable subject matter is broad. See Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 315 (1980); Myriad at 577. This is why the Supreme Court consistently has held that “[t]he § 101 patent-eligibility inquiry is only a threshold test.” Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 602 (2010). Accordingly, the “threshold test” of § 101 is necessarily followed by the more exacting statutory requirements of assessing a claim as a whole according to the standard of a person having skill in the art as to whether it is novel, nonobvious, and fully disclosed as required by the quid pro quo offered to inventors by the patent system. Id.

Unfortunately, courts have applied the two-step “Mayo/Alice test” from the Supreme Court’s recent § 101 cases in an unbalanced and legally improper manner. See Alice Corp. Pty. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347 (2014); Mayo, 566 U.S. at 66. These practices of the inferior courts include dissecting claims into particular elements and then construing these elements in highly generalized terms with no evidentiary support. Thus, as happened in this case, a district court all too often merely asserts a conclusory finding that the claim—actually, specific elements dissected out of the claim as a whole—covers ineligible laws of nature or natural products to conclude that a patented invention is ineligible.

The lower courts’ unduly stringent and restrictive patent eligibility test under the Mayo/Alice test produces results such as the district court’s decision in this case. This improper application of the Mayo/Alice test inevitably leads to § 101 rejections of patentable product and method inventions; here, the district court rejected an innovative invention in the biotechnology sector that the patent system is most certainly designed to promote. When a patent describes a discovery made by the inventor, even if that invention relates to a natural product or natural law, it should be possible to describe a particular application of that law or discovery that is patent eligible so as to reward the inventor for their efforts.

Furthermore, the improper treatment of the § 101 inquiry as primarily a question of law requiring no evidentiary findings whatsoever, especially when the parties expressly disagree as to what a person having skill in the art would consider routine or ordinary, allows courts to gloss over both what the claims are directed to and what importance limitations beyond the ineligible material may have. See Berkheimer v. HP Inc., 881 F.3d 1360, 1368-69 (Fed. Cir. 2018). This improper characterization of § 101 has sowed indeterminacy in patent eligibility doctrine, and has left inventors and companies in the innovation industries with little predictability concerning when or how courts will dissect claims and make conclusory assertions that they are patent ineligible under § 101.

The court in this case has an opportunity to more properly instruct the lower courts in the manner in which the § 101 analysis should be made, particularly with regard to the role of factual evidence in determining when a claimed application of a natural law or product is routine, well-understood, or conventional and when it is not and thus that the claimed invention is eligible for patenting.

To read the amicus brief, please click here.