At last week’s Utah IP Summit (and subsequently published in a post at IPWatchdog), Gene Quinn squarely blamed the Federal Circuit for the “101 crisis”. And his point is hard to ignore as many divided Federal Circuit panels seem unwilling to distinguish Alice and Mayo even in the face of strong dissents that would. As much as Director Iancu would like to move the needle of patent-eligibility in a more straightforward and predictable way, the USPTO is bound by these majority Federal Circuit panels–not strong dissents. But the PTAB seems to be quietly listening to all the buzz, being more willing to reverse abstract idea rejections under Section 101 than ever before.
The new subject-matter eligibility guidelines took effect in early January 2019 and almost immediately Board panels started citing to the guidelines in their analysis. The result on reversals was profound. Of 91 total abstract idea decisions, the Board completely reversed 32. This is an astounding 35% reversal rate, a rate not seen in two years, which saw a significantly lower sample size than January 2019.
While the reversal rate for January 2019 was dramatic, it is too early to tell whether this high of a reversal rate will continue, especially with the lower-than-expected total number of abstract idea decisions. While 91 such total decisions is not paltry, such a low number has not been seen since last February. This is not completely unexpected as the PTAB typically starts out the calendar year slow. But the next couple months will be insightful to see whether the high reversal rate continues even with a higher volume of abstract idea appeals being decided.
The PTAB (previously BPAI) has a rich history in shaping patent-eligibility. The Supreme Court case Diamond v. Diehr moved the 101 needle in finding an algorithm claim to be patent-eligible because of its practical application to curing rubber. This decision originally stemmed from the CCPA (predecessor to the Fed circuit) reversing a Board decision that affirmed the Examiner’s 101 rejection. Another Supreme Court decision, Diamond v. Chakrabarty, paved the way for patenting man-made genetically-modified living organisms. This decision also stemmed from a Board rejection of the claims under 101, with the CCPA again reversing the Board’s affirmance of the examiner’s 101 rejection.
Expect the PTAB to continue to reverse improper Section 101 rejections as it has a tail wind at its back. This could benefit the entire patent bar at least for predictability sake. Just by virtue of the Board deciding a more diverse set of applications than courts, there are more shades of gray to work with. And some of these gray cases can be good candidates for testing the proper boundaries of what is patent-eligible. Even if the Board affirms the rejections as patent-ineligible, appeals that go higher up could help give the Federal Circuit (like its CCPA predecessor) a chance of redeeming itself as the 101 conundrum culprit.