When the Federal Circuit issued the landmark Bilski decision, some folks were ready to call it the death of (most) business method patents, or even software patents—that view was a bit premature, because the law was still unsettled. Now, with the nation's top court now looking to take up the Bilski case, it's really unsettled.
Even if Sotomayor joins the court and is a strongly pro-patent judge, for those hoping for stronger limits on what can be patented, there are still ways to count to five. Several justices have, in other cases, dropped hints about what’s on their minds when it comes to the nation’s patent system.
The Court has taken four patent cases in recent years. Every time, the justices voted by a wide margin to limit the power of patents. The Federal Circuit’s Bilski decision [PDF] now at issue got rid of "pure" business method patents (without defining what they are), while signaling that lower courts should rein in patents in related areas such as software. The Federal Circuit did not, however, say how tightly to pull those reins.
The limits set by Bilski are blurry—and whatever they are, they make J. Michael Jakes, the Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner partner who authored the Bilski cert petition, unhappy. He hopes to see the Supreme Court eliminate them, though he realizes that such a decision would, in a sense, reverse the court’s own recent course. Jakes says his argument is based solidly in Supreme Court rulings, although those cases pre-date the Federal Circuit.
"There's uncertainty about whether or not these patents have value, and whether people should continue to invest in R&D and getting patents in this area," Jakes says, noting that software patents are already being knocked down by district court judges citing Bilski. Most recently, a Florida district court held a gift-card patent, asserted against 10 banks, invalid on Bilski grounds.
In believing the Federal Circuit's limits were too hard on patent holders, Jakes makes an argument that squares with a dissenting opinion favored by exactly one judge on that court—Judge Pauline Newman, who has become something of a pro-patent outlier on a pro-patent court.
Jakes wants the court to make clear that software can be protected with patents. But if the Supremes knock down the Federal Circuit's "machine-or-transformation" test, it could be in order to create an even more restrictive test.
And there are plenty of folks that want to not just limit, but eliminate the State Street precedent that allowed software patents. That includes not just advocacy groups, but banks and open-source software companies like Red Hat. [Briefs available at Patently-O].
For the last three years, evidence has been mounting that justices are interested in paring back the patent system, particularly around software and business method patents. Some have also shown concern about "patent trolls," the controversial patent-holding companies that have been heavy litigators, often in the software and business-method areas. (The Bilski patent is exclusively licensed to an operating company, WeatherWise.)
"It's very difficult to believe the Supreme Court will be more welcoming to Bilski than the Federal Circuit was," says Ed Reines, a patent litigator at Weil, Gotshal & Manges with a client list of tech heavyweights. It doesn't help that Bilski's patent is on a complex scheme to hedge commodity prices. "The zeitgeist right now is not sympathetic towards financial hedging schemes," notes Reines.
Mark Lemley, an intellectual property professor at Stanford Law School, says given the Supreme Court's general direction the last few years—setting limits on patents and the patent system—it's surprising that they look set to get rid of a ruling that's actually fairly restrictive, if not crystal clear.
"They either looked at the Bilski legal test and said it's an unworkable test, or they looked at their own precedent and decided they didn’t like that," says Lemley.
The last time patentable subject matter was addressed by the Supreme Court was in a 1981, Diamond v. Diehr—before the era of the personal computer. Whichever direction the Supreme Court moves, recent cases suggest the move could be a dramatic one. "If you look at other Supreme Court patent cases in recent years, they show no compunction about overturning settled wisdom in the Federal Circuit and courts of appeals," says Lemley.
The Court’s decision to hear Bilski shows that the justices are eager to make a ruling on the limits of patentable subject matter. So let’s look at a few examples of Supreme Court justices' comments on patents in recent years.
- LabCorp v. Metabolite, 2007 (Oyez.org)
Metabolite sued LabCorp for infringing its patent on a method for diagnosing illness based on levels of a particular amino acid. The Supreme Court took this case, heard arguments, and then dismissed it as "improvidently granted." They did so because LabCorp, the accused infringer, didn't bring up the limits of patentable subject matter in its argument.
Despite that technicality, Justice Breyer filed a dissent that showed he was strongly interested in setting more limits on just what was fair game for patenting. In his dissent, which was joined by Stevens and Souter, Breyer noted with distaste that the inventors in the LabCorp were making a patent claim over associations he sees as taking place in the minds of scientists and doctors: "…because the natural relationship between homocysteine and vitamin deficiency was now well known, such 'correlating' would occur automatically in the mind of any competent physician." [LabCorp v. Metabolite dissent, PDF]
Later, Breyer writes:
LabCorp involves a different technology area than the Bilski casea. Still, the dissent is a strong indication that Breyer, Stevens, and Souter would all seem to strongly favor reining in patents.
- eBay v. MercExchange, 2006 (Oyez.org)
The eBay v. MercExchange case was arguably the most important patent case in a half-century, and the only time that the issue of "patent trolls" was addressed directly in oral argument.
MercExchange was an Internet marketplace that failed. It transformed itself into a patent-holding company, and sued the dominant online marketplace, eBay, saying that site's fixed-price sales—the "Buy it Now" button—infringed the patent of Thomas Woolston, a patent lawyer and MercExchange principal.
But Chief Justice John Roberts actually mocked MercExchange's "invention" from the bench during oral arguments:
MR. WAXMAN: The -- the invention is a -- it's -- it's not a business method. It doesn't claim methods. It claims a system, an apparatus for an electric market for the sale of goods via a network.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Electric. I mean, it's not like he invented the, you know, internal combustion engine or anything. It's very vague, I think, and this is one of the considerations the district court mentioned.
WAXMAN: Look, I'm not a software developer and I have reason to
believe that neither is Your Honor, and I -- I can't -- explain specifically what
this claims. It's laid out very carefully in --
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: I may not be a software developer, but as I read the invention, it's displaying pictures of your wares on a computer network and, you know, picking which ones you want and buying them. I -- I might have been able to do that.
(Laughter in the court.)
MR. WAXMAN: Well -- I'll say respectfully that that is not a fair characterization of the innovation here, the actual innovation.
When eBay's lawyer mentioned patentees' strong success rate in the Eastern District of Texas, Justice Scalia chimed in:
MR. PHILLIPS: Well, I hope you do.
JUSTICE SCALIA: But I don't think we should write -- write our patent law because we have some renegade jurisdictions.
The court ruled unanimously for eBay. These two exchanges could mean that Roberts and Scalia are in the restricting-patents camp. At a minimum, it suggests the two are conscious of recent allegations of abusive patent litigation.
Meanwhile, in a concurring opinion written by Justice Kennedy, joined by Souter, Breyer, and Stevens, expressed reservations about patent-trolling:
Again, the Bilski patent is owned by an operating company. But these justices have shown real reservations about a litigation-heavy business model that has been enabled by expansive patent grants.
- Microsoft v. AT&T, 2007 (Oyez.org)
In the patent bar and at the Federal Circuit, software patents are the law of the land. But during oral arguments in the 2007 AT&T v. Microsoft case, which regarded damages for infringing copies of software distributed overseas, it became clear that the at least a few Supreme Court justices haven't made up their minds about whether software should be patentable.
During oral arguments in that case, Justice Breyer went out of his way to make it clear that despite the fact that software patents were issued widely following the Federal Circuit's 1998 State Street Bank decision, he had never gotten the opportunity to weigh in, and as far as he was concerned, it's not a settled issue:
Later, Justice Stevens also asked a government lawyer point-blank whether software is patentable. The answer: "Standing alone in and of itself, no."
He likely said that because as it stands, software has to be tied to a machine to get a patent—not hard to do. But it shows that for Stevens, like Breyer, software patents are up for debate.
So, when you tally it all up, you have Justices Breyer and Stevens authoring the blistering LabCorp dissent, and vocally questioning whether software is patentable; Justice Kennedy concerned about an exploitive business model based on patent litigation; Justice Scalia, taking pot-shots at a court widely perceived as pro-patent rights; and Chief Justice Roberts making a joke about a patent-holding company, despite its lower-court victory. UPDATE: Roberts also seems to think the Federal Circuit has a habit of blowing off Supreme Court precedent, according to a comment he made in February.
Justices Alito, Ginsburg, and Thomas are tougher to read. And then there’s the strong likelihood that retiring Justice David Souter, a patent skeptic, will be replaced by Sonia Sotomayor. While her record is thin on patent issues, she was a trademark litigator at one point in her career, giving her experience on the "enforcement" side of a different kind of IP right.
Regardless of which way Sotomayor may lean, there's still more than one way to get to five votes for those seeking more limits on what can be patented.
Photo: ryan_fors / Flickr