PTAB: Protein modeling software claims are patent-eligible, arguing preemption

It has been over a year since the Federal Circuit decided McRO v. Namco Bandai. In short, McRO decided that software models can be patent-eligible. This long-awaited case sent ripples of hope to many in the patent bar, especially to those reeling from the confusion and unpredictability of Alice decided two years prior. But the McRO message has still not made its way to all examiners, especially in the life sciences. Fortunately, the PTAB sees fit to correct and overturn such examiners, as shown in a recent case Ex parte Ohrn, Appeal No. 2017-003914 (PTAB Nov. 20, 2017).

In Ex parte Ohrn, the Examiner had argued that the claims simply used a computer as a tool, i.e., “converting one form of numerical representation into another by organizing information through mathematical concepts,” and were thus an abstract idea. In addition to holding that this was an overgeneralization of the claims, the Board used three main arguments to counter this assertion.

First, the Board found that the exact manner in which the modeling was implemented was novel, and thus the Examiner failed to provide evidence that the computer was used simply as a tool for generic activity. The Board found that the “claimed method uses a combined order of specific rules that render information into a specific format that is then used and applied to create desired results.”

Second, the specific, claimed features of rules permit the improvement realized by the invention. Claim 1 focused on a specific articulated improvement in protein modeling instead of a result of an abstract idea itself.

Third, the Board found the preemption argument persuasive that the specific method recited in the claims did not improperly monopolize the basic tools of scientific and technological work. It cited fairly specific characterizations made by the appellant of what the claims do not cover.

While the preemption argument can be a strong one, the savvy patent practitioner will tell you that this argument is not without consequence. For purposes of prosecution history estoppel, characterizations made on the record as to what the claimed invention does not cover greatly weakens or even destroys such equivalence coverage in litigation. But a granted patent narrowed by such prosecution history estoppel can be better than an application where the argument was not used, leading to an abandoned application. That being said, the preemption argument can be a double-edged sword.

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