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No Method to Patent Madness: The Supreme Court’s Bilski Decision

The Supreme Court handed down this term’s final four decisions today: Christian Legal Society Chapter v. Martinez, on public university limitations on a Christian student group’s rights of association; the McDonald v. Chicago case incorporating the Heller gun decision against the states (Huebert’s discusssion); Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Co. Oversight Bd. (a Sarbanes-Oxley decision); and Bilski v. Doll, a much-anticipated patent case.

Patent law is mind numbingly arcane, technical, and boring, so let me simplify as much as possible. This case was about what the legal test should be to determine whether certain processes can be possibly eligible for patent protection. For typical practical technical or industrial processes, it’s not a difficult question. But for “business-related” methods, such as the one here–which had to do a way for commodities buyers and sellers in the energy market to hedge against the risk of price changes by following a certain mathematical formula–the question gets trickier. Courts are leery of opening the door all the way because then we’d be swamped in even more ridiculous patents than we are now (such as the attempt by Dustin Stamper, President Bush’s Top Economist, to secure a patent regarding an application for a System And Method For Multi-State Tax Analysis, which claims “a method, comprising: creating one or more alternate entity structures based on a base entity structure, the base entity structure comprising one or more entities; determining a tax liability for each alternate entity structure and the base entity structure; and generating a result based on comparing each of the determined tax liabilities”).

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) tried to do this by adopting a more rigid test than had been used before. They said that a process could be patented only if it (1) it is tied to a particular machine or apparatus, or (2) it transforms a particular article into a different state or thing–this is the “machine-or-transformation test.” Based on this test, the claimed business method was rejected. The problem is, this test is not in the Patent Act. So the Supremes had to take a crack at it. Now I have mentioned this case before, in The Arbitrariness of Patent Law; Supreme Skepticism Toward Method Patents; and Radical Patent Reform Is Not on the Way. This is one of these cases that had patent lawyers crying crocodile tears, gnashing their teeth, acting as if this was just part of the terrible and radical–radical!–movement to scale back patent rights. Anyway, I predicted:”I suspect the Court will choke back a bit on software and business method patents–but not too much.” It was obvious from the oral arguments that the Court saw how ridiculous it would be to have an open test that allowed a lot more types of processes be eligible for protection. You could have patents on anything. So they want to choke back on this, and so did the CAFC. Unfortunately, the patent law is there. And the judges have to interpret this mess. It’s not their fault, really. I don’t blame them for this impossible task. As I noted in a recent post,

As I noted in Another Problem with Legislation: James Carter v. the Field Codes, there is a fascinating paper published in 1884 by James C. Carter, The Proposed Codification of Our Common Law: A Paper Prepared at the Request of The Committee of the Bar Association of the City of New York, Appointed to Oppose the Measure. This paper was an attack on David Dudley Field’s attempt to (legislatively) codify New York’s common law. Carter opposed replacing case law with centralized legislation. Carter notes that caselaw precedents are flexible and allow the judge to do justice (see also John Hasnas’s classic The Myth of the Rule of Law), while statutes are applied literally, even where injustice is done or the legislator did not contemplate this result. Thus, Carter argues, one of the worst effects of legislatively codifying law–replacing organically developed law with artificial statutes–is that it changes the role of courts and judges from one in which the judge searches for justice into mere squabbles over definitions of words found in statutes. As he said at pp. 86-86:

At present, when any doubt arises in any particular case as to what the true rule of the unwritten [i.e., judge-found, common-law developed] law is, it is at once assumed that the rule most in accordance with justice and sound policy is the one which must be declared to be the law. The search is for that rule. The appeal is squarely made to the highest considerations of morality and justice. These are the rallying points of the struggle. The contention is ennobling and beneficial to the advocates, to the judges, to the parties, to the auditors, and so indirectly to the whole community. The decision then made records another step in the advance of human reason towards that perfection after which it forever aspires. But when the law is conceded to be written down in a statute, and the only question is what the statute means, a contention unspeakably inferior is substituted. The dispute is about words. The question of what is right or wrong, just or unjust, is irrelevant and out of place. The only question is what has been written. What a wretched exchange for the manly encounter upon the elevated plane of principle!

Or, as I note in “Legislation and the Discovery of Law in a Free Society,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 11 (Summer 1995), “Thus, previously, law was thought of as a body of true principles ripe for discovery by judges, not as whatever the legislator decreed. Nowadays, however, legislation has become such a ubiquitous way of making law that ‘the very idea that the law might not be identical with legislation seems odd both to students of law and to laymen.’” [Bruno Leoni, Freedom and the Law]

The point is, the judges here are merely interpreting arbitrary words of an artificial law, a statute–a written down edict of the legislature, a bunch of words that have no inner harmony, no guarantee of consistency, no relationship to justice. So you can’t really criticize the courts too much for how they construe these legal abominations.

Back to Bilski. So the Court rejected the CAFC’s holding that the “machine-or-transformation test” was the sole test for determining patent eligibility. They said that while this test “may be a useful and important clue or investigative tool, it is not the sole test for deciding whether an invention is a patent-eligible ‘process.'”But they had to find a way to strike down this patent, so they did so based on an older test, one that just said you can’t patent “abstract ideas.” So, the Court was able to reject the narrow test of the CAFC, without having to allow this business method patent. But they wanted to encourage the CAFC that they could try to find yet other ways to limit questionable method patents: “In disapproving an exclusive machine-or-transformation test, we by no means foreclose the Federal Circuit’s development of other limiting criteria that further the purposes of the Patent Act and are not inconsistent with its text.” I.e., they punted: you guys figure out a better way to shut the doors a bit more, consistent with this statute.

So what do we have: we have a very slight narrowing of patent eligibility by re-use of an old “abstract idea” test; a rejection of the more bright-line, narrower but unstatutory test of the CAFC; and more legal uncertainty. And while the patent bar will use the slightest modification of patent law to cry that the sky is falling, it’s not. Unfortunately.

(H/t Anita Acavalos for suggestions re the title.)

[Mises; AM]

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