Federal Circuit Ruling Cast Shadow Over USPTO Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance
In January of 2019, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issued revised guidance relevant to 35 U.S.C. § 101 (Subject Matter Eligibility) rejections. Entitled, 2019 Revised Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance, the document added a new pathway for patent eligibility, whereby a claim that includes a judicial exception is still subject matter eligible under 35. U.S.C. § 101, if the judicial exception, such as an abstract idea, is “integrated into a practical application” of the judicial exception.
A large portion of the legal community felt that the guidance would cut the number of rejections under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The guidance provided much needed clarity on how to present claims in an application to avoid such rejections, which had become commonplace in several art units at the USPTO.
This updated guidance has been largely welcomed by the legal community. In fact, in its comments to the USPTO on the matter, the American Bar Association stated, “[T]he guidelines are a significant improvement in the examination of patent eligibility by providing a greater degree of certainty and increased predictability in subject matter eligibility determinations at the USPTO.[i]” However, with quite a bit of foreshadowing, the American Bar Association’s letter noted, “We understand that these Guidelines, however, do not constitute substantive rulemaking and thus do not ‘have the force and effect of law.’”
Fast forward to April 1, 2019, the Federal Circuit found two patents owned by Cleveland Clinic invalid for being directed to ineligible subject matter. The patents in question were related to testing for cardiovascular disease, and in the opinion of the court, “invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 101 as directed to an ineligible natural law.[ii]”
Cleveland Clinic had argued that the courts “failed to give the appropriate deference to subject matter eligibility guidelines published by the PTO.” Relying on Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134 (1944), Cleveland Clinic argued that, “Skidmore ‘requires courts to give some deference to informal agency interpretations of ambiguous statutory dictates, with the degree of deference depending on the circumstances.’[iii]”.
However, the Federal Circuit noted, “While we greatly respect the PTO’s expertise on all matters relating to patentability, including patent eligibility, we are not bound by its guidance. And, especially regarding the issue of patent eligibility and the efforts of the courts to determine the distinction between claims directed to natural laws and those directed to patent-eligible applications of those laws, we are mindful of the need for consistent application of our case law.”
So while the USPTO appears to be loosening the reigns on subject matter eligibility, the Federal Circuit does not appear to be following suit. And while the Cleveland Clinic v. True Health case did not specifically address the 2019 Revised Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance, the courts opinion clearly noted that the USPTO’s guidance was not the ultimate arbiter on subject matter eligibility.
Ultimately, from a prosecution perspective, it may be wise to not solely rely on the broader interpretations of subject matter eligibility provided under the latest USPTO guidance, and include at least some claims that would survive more rigorous scrutiny under the tests outlined and applied by the Federal Circuit and the Supreme Court of the United States.