Supreme Court to decide: What kind of innovations get a patent?
The Supreme Court on Monday takes up this fundamental question in patent law. The answer holds billion-dollar implications for the US economy.
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"The term 'process' encompasses all technological and industrial processes, broadly conceived. But it does not extend patent-eligibility beyond those bounds, to methods of organizing human activity that are untethered to technology," writes Solicitor General Elena Kagan in her brief on behalf of the US Patent and Trademark Office. "Because [Bilski's] hedging method relates solely to human conduct, untethered to any technology – any machine or transformation of matter – it falls outside the coverage of [patent law]."Skip to next paragraph
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Bilski's lawyers counter in their brief that the machine-or-transformation test is a step backward. "The fact that manufacturing processes and machines may have dominated the US patent system during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (and even then not completely) is unsurprising and sheds little light on how patents promote progress in the information age of the twenty-first century," writes Washington lawyer J. Michael Jakes. "The patent law fulfills its constitutional mandate by promoting progress in fields yet undiscovered, pushing back the frontiers to reach unforeseen and unforeseeable innovations in all the useful arts."
The patentability question should focus on the underlying substance of the invention, not on ties to a machine or technology, Mr. Jakes says. He warns that the Federal Circuit's decision has cast a pall over tens of thousands of patents.
L.L. Bean was among seven Internet retailers who filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the high court to state unequivocally that business methods are not patentable.
According to the brief, Internet retailers like L.L. Bean have become frequent targets of patent-infringement lawsuits by companies claiming control over some element of e-commerce. "Virtually all Internet retailers agree to settle these types of cases ... not because the allegations of the plaintiff have merit, but because the cost of settlement, although high, is less than the even higher cost of defense," writes Peter Brann in his brief on behalf of L.L. Bean and other Internet retailers.
On the other side of the issue, a consortium of Georgia-based biomedical companies is urging the high court to embrace a broad view of patent eligibility. According to the group, Georgia Biomedical Partnership, the Federal Circuit's decision is already being applied to strike down protections to a broad class of biotechnology and medical inventions.
"Without the limited monopoly provided by patent protection, the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries cannot and will not make the large investments needed to commercialize these inventions for the benefit of the public," writes Atlanta lawyer William Kitchens in a friend-of-the-court brief.
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