Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Bilski arguments

The US Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday on the Bilski case, i.e. on the statutory appropriateness of patents for "business methods."

My own view is that the doctrinal development of patent law in the United States some time ago took a wrong turn. There are just too many artificially created "property" rights erected by bureaucratic decree and judicial laxity, and the result has been the development of a lot of intellectual fences, which have broken up the grazing plains of creativity. [Okay, that isn't a great metaphor. But it's mine.]

Consider the meaning of the word "obvious." An advance can not be patented if it was obvious. And that is a simple enough word, of transparent (self-referential!) significance, right? Maybe not. The U.S. Supreme Court wrestled with that one two years ago, in the case of KSR v. Teleflex.

This year's struggle was with the word "process." The relevant statutory language says: "Whoever invents or discovers any new or useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new or useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title." Bilski and an associate have attempted to patent a means of hedging the price of natural gas. This method is obviously not a "machine, manufacture, or composition of matter...." If it is any of the above, it must be a process.

As I noted here back in January, the Court of Appeals upheld the Patent Office. They have both said that the law does not authorize the patenting of an abstract idea, and the "process" Bilski has devised is a dressed-up abstraction. More specifically, the Court of Appeals said that a process becomes patentable only if it is tied to a "particular machine," or if it transforms a particular article into "a different state or thing."

This immediately raised the question: has the Court of Appeals nixed the patenting of software altogether? Any software is designed to run on some hardware, but it is not clear that "any digital computer" would satisfy the Court of Appeals' understanding of the phrase "particular machine." That court punted this question of application in a footnote: "We leave to future cases the elaboration of the precise contours of machine implementation, as well as the answers to particular questions, such as whether or when recitation of a computer suffices to tie a process claim to a particular machine."

I suspect that footnote earned this decision its grant of certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States.

At arguments yesterday, the Justices seemed unhappy with the idea of granting Bilski his patent, but they also seemed unhappy with the reasoning of the court below. Chief Justice Roberts asked Bilski's attorney, "How is that not an abstract idea? You initiate a series of transactions between commodity providers and commodity consumers. You set a fixed price at the consumer end, you set a fixed price at the other end, and that's it."

My own expectation is as follows: (a) the Justices will uphold the court below in its finding that Bilski's 'process' is really an abstract idea and thus not patentable; and (b) they will work harder than the court did below in order to define what is or isn't an abstract idea. After all, digital computers are a pretty integral part of the US economy these days, and pretending to decide such a question while saying "we'll think about computers later" borders on insincerity.

No comments: