July 16, 2010

Bilski and the Value of Experimentation

Filed under: innovation, patent — wseltzer @ 7:40 am

cross-posted from Freedom to Tinker, where I’m delighted to be joining the crew on a more frequent basis

The Supreme Court’s long-awaited decision in Bilski v. Kappos brought closure to this particular patent prosecution, but not much clarity to the questions surrounding business method patents. The Court upheld the Federal Circuit’s conclusion that the claimed “procedure for instructing buyers and sellers how to protect against the risk of price fluctuations in a discrete section of the economy” was unpatentable, but threw out the “machine-or-transformation” test the lower court had used. In its place, the Court’s majority gave us a set of “clues” which future applicants, Sherlock Holmes-like, must use to discern the boundaries separating patentable processes from unpatentable “abstract ideas.”

The Court missed an opportunity to throw out “business method” patents, where a great many of these abstract ideas are currently claimed, and failed to address the abstraction of many software patents. Instead, Justice Kennedy’s majority seemed to go out of its way to avoid deciding even the questions presented, simultaneously appealing to the new technological demands of the “Information Age”

As numerous amicus briefs argue, the machine-or-transformation test would create uncertainty as to the patentability of software, advanced diagnostic medicine techniques, and inventions based on linear programming, data compression, and the manipulation of digital signals.

and yet re-ups the uncertainty on the same page:

It is important to emphasize that the Court today is not commenting on the patentability of any particular invention, let alone holding that any of the above-mentioned technologies from the Information Age should or should not receive patent protection.

The Court’s opinion dismisses the Federal Circuit’s brighter line test for “machine-or-transformation” in favor of hand-waving standards: a series of “clues,” “tools” and “guideposts” toward the unpatentable “abstract ideas.” While Kennedy notes that “This Age puts the possibility of innovation in the hands of more people,” his opinion leaves all of those people with new burdens of uncertainty — whether they seek patents or reject patent’s exclusivity but risk running into the patents of others. No wonder Justice Stevens, who concurs in the rejection of Bilski’s application but would have thrown business method patents out with it, calls the whole thing “less than pellucid.”

The one thing the meandering makes clear is that while the Supreme Court doesn’t like the Federal Circuit’s test (despite the Federal Circuit’s attempt to derive it from prior Supreme Court precedents), neither do the Supremes want to propose a new test of their own. The decision, like prior patent cases to reach the Supreme Court, points to larger structural problems: the lack of a diverse proving-ground for patent cases.

Since 1982, patent cases, unlike most other cases in our federal system, have all been appealed to one court, United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Thus while copyright appeals, for example, are heard in the circuit court for the district in which they originate (one of twelve regional circuits), all patent appeals are funneled to the Federal Circuit. And while its judges may be persuaded by other circuits’ opinions, one circuit is not bound to follow its fellows, and may “split” on legal questions. Consolidation in the Federal Circuit deprives the Supreme Court of such “circuit splits” in patent law. At most, it may have dissents from the Federal Circuit’s panel or en banc decision. If it doesn’t like the test of the Federal Circuit, the Supreme Court has no other appellate court to which to turn.

Circuit splits are good for judicial decisionmaking. They permit experimentation and dialogue around difficult points of law. (The Supreme Court hears fewer than 5% of the cases appealed to it, but is twice as likely to take cases presenting inter-circuit splits.) Like the states in the federal system, multiple circuits provide a “laboratory [to] try novel social and economic experiments.” Diverse judges examining the same law, as presented in differing circumstances, can analyze it from different angles (and differing policy perspectives). The Supreme Court considering an issue ripened by the analysis of several courts is more likely to find a test it can support, less likely to have to craft one from scratch or abjure the task. At the cost of temporary non-uniformity, we may get empirical evidence toward better interpretation.

At a time when “harmonization” is pushed as justification for treaties(and a uniform ratcheting-up of intellectual property regimes), the Bilski opinion suggests again that uniformity is overrated, especially if it’s uniform murk.

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