Rethinking § 101: Professor Talha Syed Takes a Different Look at Subject Matter Eligibility

The following post comes from Colin Kreutzer, a 2E at Scalia Law and a Research Assistant at CPIP.

By Colin Kreutzer

When most people think of patentability requirements, they think of whether an invention has been “done before.” Novelty and non-obviousness under 35 U.S.C. §§ 102 and 103 are certainly key hurdles to obtaining a patent. But courts are often tied up over the more fundamental issues presented in § 101. That provision addresses patent eligibility itself—whether an idea, new or not, falls within some class of inventions that qualify for patent protection.

Section 101 of the Patent Act of 1952 says that a patent may be issued to “[w]hoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter.” It seems fairly straightforward. But the common law decisions, both pre- and post-1952, are riddled with exceptions and questions that the statute hasn’t resolved on its own. How do we treat intangible notions, such as scientific principles or other abstract ideas? Is a business method a patentable process? What property rights can be granted to an inventor who discovers a fundamental law of nature? And should we treat the realm of pure mathematics as being fundamental to nature itself? As we move deeper into the information age, these questions aren’t getting any simpler.

In a new paper from CPIP’s Thomas Edison Innovation Fellowship program entitled Owning Knowledge: A Unified Theory of Patent Eligibility, Professor Talha Syed of Berkeley Law argues that the confusion surrounding this issue is two-fold. First, it results from our failure to develop a functionality doctrine that can clearly distinguish technological applications of knowledge from other forms of knowledge. Second, he offers a root cause of this failure. There is a distracting preoccupation in patent law with “physicalism,” that is, the notion that a patent is awarded for a thing (tangible or not) rather than for knowledge of that thing.

In order to move forward, Prof. Syed states that we must first unwind the physicalist assumptions that are tangled up in our § 101 analyses. Only then can we develop a functionality doctrine free of those encumbrances. As he puts it, “[r]econstructing eligibility doctrine requires, then, extricating incipient functionality concerns from the physicalist thicket, developing their independent basis, and properly following through on their doctrinal implications.”

On its face, when someone proposes that we fundamentally rethink a subject, it sounds as if they are calling for some kind of seismic shift. But Prof. Syed argues that his proposal merely provides a clearer perspective on a subject that has long needed clarity. Rather than requiring any major statutory reforms or total abandonment of our jurisprudence, he says that the “dephysicalization” of patent eligibility serves to better integrate our existing statutory and common law frameworks.

How We Got Here

The questions mentioned above are not new. To understand the current state of things, Prof. Syed first details some of the cases that led us here, beginning with Neilson v. Harford, Le Roy v. Tatham, Boulton & Watt v. Bull, among others.

Neilson is instructive. It was an 1841 English case that dealt with an improvement to an industrial process. The applicant’s invention involved pre-heating air before it was injected it into an iron furnace. The Court of Exchequer expressed some doubts as to whether this intangible aspect of an industrial process was truly patentable. In the end, it only granted a patent because the inventive principle—that the pre-heated air provides better ignition efficiency than cold air—was embodied in a physical machine designed for that purpose. The patentee “does not merely claim a principle, but a machine embodying a principle.”

Neilson and the others influenced a number of cases in the 20th century American courts. Prof. Syed points to three variants of the general rationale. While a principle on its own is not patent eligible, it becomes so: (1) in an embodied application of the principle, (2) if it is delimited to a specific zone of industry, or (3) in an “inventive” mode of application.

These variants illustrate a schism already appearing by the end of the 19th century as to why an “abstract” idea may be unpatentable. If “abstract” is taken in the dephysicalized sense, then the problem may only be cured by applying the idea in some physical form. Alternatively, it could be abstract in the sense that it is a pure unapplied principle. In this case, patent eligibility may not require a tangible form, but instead some delimitation to a specific industrial zone of applicability. Prof. Syed attributes what came next at least partly on a failure to recognize and fully develop these distinctions.

Principles, in the abstract, were but one concern. The eligibility problem was compounded by similar questions about patent rights over natural phenomena. In the 1948 case of Funk Brothers Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., the Supreme Court considered whether a set of naturally occurring bacterial strains—unmodified except by their selective combination—was a patentable invention. They answered “no.” Citing Le Roy, the Funk Bros. Court ruled that “patents cannot issue for the discovery of the phenomena of nature. . . . The qualities of these bacteria, like the heat of the sun, . . . are part of the storehouse of knowledge of all men.” Therefore, an invention based on a natural phenomenon must do more than rely upon “the handiwork of nature” in order to become patentable.

Then the waters got even muddier. At the crossroads of abstract principles and natural phenomena lies the fundamental concept of mathematics itself. In Gottschalk v. Benson, the Court addressed an algorithm for converting signals from one numerical form into a computer-friendly binary form. In Parker v. Flook, it was an algorithm for updating threshold alarm limits while monitoring certain chemical processes. In both cases, the Court held that the claimed invention was not a patentable process, but merely a mathematical formula which belonged to the “basic tools of scientific and technological work.”

However, both cases offered a different manner of distinguishing these abstract concepts from patentable inventions. Benson mentioned, but did not require, that an eligible process should transform a particular article or require a particular machine (much later, the Federal Circuit imposed the “machine-or-transformation test” as the sole test for eligibility, only to have it demoted to “useful tool” by the Supreme Court). Flook, on the other hand, looked for some “inventive” aspect that went beyond the algorithm itself.

The whole story is too convoluted to do it justice here. The strength of these various eligibility bars has fluctuated over the years. But through these cases and more, we arrived at the modern two-part test under Mayo Collab. Svcs v. Prometheus Labs, Ass’n for Molecular Pathology, Inc. v. Myriad Genetics, and Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank.

Quoting Alice, Prof. Syed lays out the test as:

(1) Step 1: First, we ask “whether the claims at issue are directed to” a law of nature, natural phenomenon, or abstract idea.

(2) Step 2: If so, “we then ask, ‘what else is there in the claims before us,’” considering “the elements of each claim both individually and ‘as an ordered combination’ to determine whether the additional elements ‘transform the nature of the claim’ into a patent-eligible application.” Step two of this analysis is “a search for an ‘inventive concept.’”

Critique of the Modern Test, and a New Proposal

Prof. Syed cites a fundamental disconnect in this test between its “why” and “how,” that is, why an invention is ineligible at all (claiming “basic building blocks” of scientific and technological work) and how it may become eligible (by containing an “inventive concept in application”). He asks, “[i]f the reason certain spaces of knowledge are ineligible is because they are ‘basic,’ then why doesn’t delimiting the claims to a zone of ‘application’ suffice for eligibility?”

Prof. Syed says that at each stage of our § 101 development, courts have touched on proper functionality issues only to leave them obscured by physicalist notions. He moves to recast the three exceptions as “laws of nature, products of nature, and abstract formulas.” More importantly, he insists that when discussing eligible categories or their exceptions, we preface them with the phrase “knowledge of.” So, knowledge of a law of nature can include discovered knowledge of some natural process. To analyze whether that knowledge should be patent-eligible, we should focus on the functional application of that knowledge. The inventor must go from “knowing that” to “knowing how.”

Prof. Syed uses Neilson as an example to distinguish between understanding (having basic knowledge) and intervening (having applied knowledge). A claim to “[k]nowledge of the principle that heated air promotes ignition better than cold” is not patent eligible. But why? Not because it is an abstract idea, but because it claims the sheer knowledge that some process exists rather than knowledge of how to do something with it. This may not seem like a huge difference from the analysis we have now in the Alice/Mayo test. It isn’t. But it might arguably be a clearer way of looking at things.

Prof. Syed’s version of the Alice framework would ask, at step one, whether the claim seeks to cover knowledge of a law of nature, product of nature, or abstract formula. If so, then step two asks whether the claim delimits the ambit of its coverage to a zone of practical application. Finally, he urges (as others have) that the § 101 analysis be kept separate from analyses of substantive issues under §§ 102 and 103: “claims should be truly evaluated ‘as a whole’ so that, for instance, a claim whose delimited application is obvious, but which also involves a nonobvious basic contribution, should pass matter under § 103 just as easily as one whose delimited application is itself nonobvious.”

Conclusion: Reconstructing § 101

Taking these considerations, Prof. Syed reconstructs § 101 into three patentability requirements for “inventions” or “discoveries” in the “useful arts”:

(1) Such “inventions” or “discoveries” must be conceived in a thoroughly dephysicalized way, as spaces of “knowledge of” a “process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter.”

(2) Such spaces of knowledge must be spaces of “useful”—i.e., applied or functional—knowledge.

(3) Finally, such candidate functional spaces of knowledge still need to satisfy the substantive requirements laid out in the rest of the statute to qualify for protection.

Prof. Syed further recasts the statutory categories of subject matter eligibility. Where the “process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter” comprises one intangible process category and three tangible product categories, his version is the opposite. There are three distinct process categories and one category for knowledge of physical things:

(1) “Knowledge of” a way of doing something (so-called “functional” claims)

(2) “Knowledge of” some thing, its structure, and at least one property (“product” claims)

(3) “Knowledge of” a way of making something (method-of-making process patents)

(4) “Knowledge of” a way of using something (method-of-use process patents)

This reconstruction reflects the two fundamental concepts of Prof. Syed’s paper—physicalism and functionality. In order to see the latter clearly, one must abandon the former. But Prof. Syed says that’s easier said than done: “What gives physicalism its lasting power in patents—what makes the spell linger—is, in fact, precisely functionality: it is precisely because patents properly obtain only in spaces of functional knowledge, or knowing how to do something, that it becomes easy to forget that they nevertheless still only obtain in spaces of functional knowledge, or knowing how to do something.” That could help explain why courts have long struggled with this deceptively complicated subject.

To read the paper, please click here.