Trent Ostler did a deep dive on abstract idea developments at the PTAB yesterday at the AIPLA Joint Committee Hot Topics Presentation (Patent Law Committee and ECLC). He used data from Anticipat.com for all his results. In case you missed it, here it is:
I’m going to talk about Section 101 developments at the PTAB of ex parte appeal decisions. As many are aware, ex parte appeal decisions involve those applications that have been twice rejected, appealed, and gone all the way to a written decision by a panel of judges at the PTAB.
Now, the umbrella of Section 101 nonstatutory subject matter includes a variety of rejections. But as Theresa indicated, the most activity is in the abstract idea space. So here, we’re going to exclusively focus on developments of abstract ideas at the Board.
Before we get in too deep, I’m going to lay a foundation for an important point on appeals.
Typically when we think about outcomes for these decisions, we think of the following pie chart put out by the PTO. This pie chart shows that most of the time, the Examiner gets upheld (called here as affirmed at 56%). The pie chart indicates that a much smaller percentage of the time the Examiner gets overturned (called reversed at 29%), and the remaining chunk is a mix between the two (called affirmed-in-part).
A big problem with this chart is that this treats every appealed application the same. In reality, some grounds of rejection are much more likely to be overturned by the PTAB than others, as has been shown by the ex parte PTAB subcommittee of AIPLA.
Here is an illustration of rates of rejection for the past year and a half taken from Anticipat.com, a relatively new website that keeps track of all grounds of rejection and outcomes for ex parte appeals. Plus, it offers free academic use and steeply discounted Examiner use. The graphs show reversal rates with the blue being a rejection wholly reversed and the orange being reversed in part.
Some of these results are surprising. Section 102 anticipation rejections and Section 112 rejections are entirely reversed about 50% of the time. We’ve found these rates to be remarkably consistent even with multiple grounds of rejection being decided.
101 rejections are reversed about 21%. If we drill down into abstract ideas, the rate is even lower: about 17%. This is one of the lowest reversed ground of rejection. But at the same time, this also goes to show that it is not a completely futile endeavor. Almost a fifth of the time the Examiner’s abstract idea rejection gets overturned.
Within the past year and a half, abstract ideas rejections have been reversed throughout each tech center. Some tech centers have higher reversal rates than others. The rate is especially low in the business method art units. In the biotech tech center 1600, the rate is higher.
Over the course of the last year and a half, there have been about 100 reversed abstract idea rejections. Some time periods are reversed at a higher rate than others. This may be due to the board perhaps correcting an overreaction of abstract ideas directly after Alice. It may also be as a result of Federal Circuit decisions that are either favorable to patent-eligibility or unfavorable depending on the time.
These PTAB decisions follow three different general arguments for reversals. Each of these arguments can stand alone in reversing a rejection and can be used in combination.
- Prima Facie Case (17 decisions) – The Examiner did not provide sufficient articulation
- Step 1 (76 decisions) – Not “Directed To” Abstract Idea
- Step 2 (44 decisions) – Claim Elements Alone or in Combination Transform Abstract Idea into Something More
We’ll briefly step through what these different abstract idea arguments look like in practice.
First, the prima facie case.
(see https://anticipat.com/research?id=86526) Many of us practitioners, especially who work in the computer arts, have seen this: a rejection that doesn’t meet the minimum threshold required for a prima facie case. This decision shows the Board overturn the Examiner’s rejection for not making that case. Can’t be conclusory, has to analogize to a case with an abstract idea, has to explain why it’s not more than the asserted abstract idea. If the Examiner doesn’t do this, reversed.
Next, step 1.
(https://anticipat.com/research?id=92479) This is the most frequent category for overturning abstract ideas. This is in part due to recent decisions that hold that technological improvements are relevant in step 1, even if the guidelines suggest otherwise. Here, the Board breaks down the Examiner’s asserted analogous abstract idea. The Board then recharacterizes the claimed invention as an improved device rather than an abstract idea. Importantly, the Board supports its conclusion using the specification of the application including the background.
Finally, step 2.
(https://anticipat.com/research?id=91985) This is often times used, as is shown in the following example, in conjunction with step 1. Here, the Board deconstructs the difference or delta between the Examiner’s asserted abstract idea and what is actually in the claims. As is often the case, there’s more to the claim than how the Examiner characterizes them. Here the Board recognizes that the examiner failed to show that the claim elements do not amount to significantly more or add meaningful limitations. This step here can bleed somewhat in to the prima facie analysis. The Board can either disagree with the Examiner’s assertion or rule that the examiner’s assertion does not provide the necessary analysis.
Anticipat has a lookup tool where you can put in the specific argument (e.g., step 1, step 2, prima facie case) and you can retrieve all the relevant decisions, mapped to your particular art unit or Examiner. Having relevant decisions can guide your strategy in responding to Office Actions or in your appeal brief strategy for including the most successful arguments.
Next, which are the best legal authority for each type of argument? Here we discuss what judges rely on in reversing the various steps under the abstract idea rejection. These are not just legal authorities that appear in the decision somewhere, but rather these are cases where the PTAB either explicitly analogized to these cases or cited the authority in deriving its holding. Anticipat Analytics allows for looking up the legal authority for each type of argument used.
For step 1, the clear leading cases cited when reversing are DDR Holdings and Enfish.
For step 2, the clear leading legal authority used in reversing rejections is Bascom.
The PTAB decisions show similar volatility as the courts in deciding abstract idea rejections. Here are some of the more contentious areas that are being decided both in reversing and in affirming.
First, what is a technological improvement? To what extent does the Examiner need to provide evidence of assertions of routine/conventional activity? How close does the Examiner need to analogize to a similar case for showing the claim “directed” to an abstract idea? To what extent must the Examiner look to the specification to interpret the abstractness of the claims? These questions do not have clear answers, but the PTAB at least has more answers than the Federal Circuit – just out of sheer volume of decisions.
Another consideration is that when considering appealing an application, even if the application currently does not have an abstract idea rejection, the judges may introduce one sua sponte.
It is relatively rare, but it does happen.
It can happen in one of three ways:
First, the panel formally introduces a previously unapplied abstract idea rejection. Second, the panel can strengthen an existing rejection with additional analysis and designating the rejection as new. Third, the Board sometimes suggests that the Examiner consider 101 without issuing a formal, new 101 rejection. Keep this in mind as you consider an appeal. You don’t want to open up a can of worms if you don’t have to.
In sum, you can see the reversal rates for 101 rejection directly related to your area of interest. You can see the arguments used in overcoming other rejections (including the legal authorities relied upon) and incorporate it into your own practice.