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Supreme Skepticism Toward Method Patents

As I mentioned in Radical Patent Reform Is Not on the Way, in in In re Bilski, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) modified previous holdings regarding the patentability of software or business-method patents in upholding the rejection of patent claims involving a method of hedging risks in commodities trading. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court and oral arguments were heard earlier this month. This entire area of patent law is very arcane, but the main issues and the oral arguments are explained very well by the heroic IP-abuse reporter Joe Mullin in Bilski v. Kappos Oral Arguments: Supreme Skepticism Toward Method Patents.

Take a look at Mullins’ discussion of the oral arguments–it’s fascinating seeing the Justices grapple with the absurdity of patent law. A few choice excerpts:

Across the board, the justices indicated a deep skepticism toward the invention described in the patent application at issue, which was rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and describes a method for trading commodities. Some of the justices went even further—expressing both a fair amount of disdain for the idea of granting broad “method” patents and a concern that ruling in favor of the petitioners would lead to patent grants on fundamental ways of conducting business or organizing human behavior. …
Based on the justices’ attitude during the arguments, it not only seems extremely unlikely that Bernard Bilski will ever get the patent at issue, it also seems clear that the court is poised to establish a new, and most likely stricter, test of what is patent eligible.

One after another, the justices prodded Bilski’s lawyer, Michael Jakes of Finnegan Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, in search of some idea about where to draw the line. The thrust of the questions: Does absolutely everything fall within the domain of the U.S. patent system?

“So, an estate plan?” asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “A tax avoidance method? How to resist a corporate takeover? All of these are patentable?”

“They are eligible for patenting under section 101,” replied Jakes, referring to the section of the 1952 patent statute that governs what is patent-eligible subject matter.

… “Your argument is that anything that helps business succeed is patentable,” Breyer said. Would the framers of the Constitution, he asked, really have wanted everyone with a new idea to run to Washington to get a patent, in the process enabling them to “stop the wheels of progress” unless competitors got permission?

“Why not patent a method of speed dating?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked.

There are a few, limited areas, Jakes said, where patent protection isn’t available; he pointed to the fine arts as one example. Otherwise, he argued, patents encourage people to innovate, and it is via the patent system that they disclose their new creations to the public.

… Justice Sotomayor took issue with Jakes’s suggestion that patents are always a manifestation of innovation.

“A patent limits the free flow of information,” she said. “It requires licensing. You can’t argue your position is enhancing the free flow of information.”

Jakes replied: “It does, because of the disclosure requirement.”

“Even though the public can’t use [the patented invention],” noted Scalia.

“That’s our system,” said Jakes. “We do grant exclusive rights in exchange for disclosure.”

Time and again, Jakes refused to draw a line that ruled anything off-limits to the patent regime. His position left the justices questioning whether he was advocating the “ownership” of basic human activities.

“Let’s take training horses,” said Justice Antonin Scalia. “Don’t you think that some people, horse whisperers or others, had some … insights into the best way to train horses? Why didn’t anybody patent those things?”

“I think our economy was based on industrial processes,” responded Jakes.

“It was based on horses, for Pete’s sake!” said Scalia.  “I would really have thought somebody would have patented that.”

… Chief Justice Roberts pushed back on an inconsistency in Stewart’s briefing of the case. On the one hand, he said, the government claims Bilski’s method just describes a way of doing business, and therefore isn’t patentable—but then posits that a computer with an “interactive website” doing the same thing might be. “That’s like saying if you use a typewriter to type out the process, then it’s patentable,” said Roberts.

If the website scheme was part of a computer program, Stewart said, “the computer would be at the heart of the innovation.”

“No, no,” said Roberts. “That’s just saying instead of looking in the Yellow Pages, you look on a computer.”

I suspect the Court will choke back a bit on software and business method patents–but not too much, as I argued in Radical Patent Reform Is Not on the Way. One reason is that although the law is, as the Justices seem to be realizing, completely unjust and absurd, it is the law. Or, as Bilski’s lawyer said, “That’s our system … We do grant exclusive rights in exchange for disclosure.” Yes, we do. And when you implement such an abomination, that’s what you get: absurd, unjust results, such as granting monopolies on “fundamental ways of conducting business or organizing human behavior” (and yes, patents are monopolies, despite the shrill denials by patent shills and other pro-monopolists).

[Mises blog cross-post; Against Monopoly cross-post]

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Adam December 1, 2009, 11:17 am

    Breyer’s comment that Bilski is arguing “that anything that helps business succeed is patentable” would be hilarious when considered for things that do not help business succeed. If Bilski wins, it would be worthwhile to patent the methods of running a business into the ground. That way, every time a company goes under, the owner of the specific patent applicable to the method resulting in the company’s failure could get their name in the hat for the few remaining liquidated assets of the defunct company.

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