For Obviousness, Some Things Change but the Board Statistics Remain the Same

The Anticipat research database continues to comprehensively cover all legal grounds of rejection considered by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) for its ex parte appeals decision. This includes the more exotic like statutory subject matter Section 101 cases to the much more common issues like obviousness (Section 103).

Since July 25, 2016 to February 28, 2019, there have been around 24,448 obviousness decisions from the 29,102 total decisions meaning that nearly 84% of all appeals involve obviousness. Our observation is that obviousness is the most common ground of rejection to be decided at the Board. In this post, the data considered excludes decisions where the outcome involved a new ground of rejection based on obviousness as these typically only form a small fraction of the cases.

Of the 24,448 total decisions, 12,369 were affirmed, 8,386 were reversed, and 2354 were affirmed in part. Thus, the wholly reversed rate (for all claims in a case based on obviousness) was about 34%. The at least partially reversed rate (at least one claim in the case was found patentable) is about 44% (43.9%).

What is interesting to note is the breakdown by technology center in the USPTO. The technology centers contain the various art units to which patent cases are assigned based on how the claimed technology in each patent application is classified by the USPTO. Here is the summary of obviousness cases broken down by technology center based on cases decided between July 25, 2016 to February 28, 2019.

TC 1600 (biotech/pharma): Total decisions: 2333; 1907 total obviousness decisions. 1151 affirmed, 132 affirmed in part, 492 reversed. Wholly reversed rate is 25.8% and at least partially reversed rate is 32.7%.

1700 (chemical): Total decisions: 3950; 3633 total obviousness decisions. 2103 affirmed, 280 affirmed in part, 1041 reversed. Wholly reversed rate is 28.7% and at least partially reversed rate is 36%.

2100 (computer/electrical): Total decisions: 2976; 2575 total obviousness decisions. 1467 affirmed, 228 affirmed in part, and 739 reversed. Wholly reversed rate is 28.7% and at least partially reversed rate is 37.6%.

2400(computer/electrical): Total decisions: 3164; 2791 total obviousness decisions. 1531 affirmed, 276 affirmed in part, and 852 reversed. Wholly reversed rate is 30.5% and at least partially reversed rate is 40.4%.

2600(computer/electrical): Total decisions: 2760; 2458 total obviousness decisions. 1420 affirmed, 241 affirmed in part, and 677 reversed. Wholly reversed 27.5% and at least partially reversed rate is 37.3%.

2800(computer/electrical): Total appealed decisions: 1979; 1648 total obviousness decisions. 813 affirmed, 128 affirmed in part, 583 reversed. Wholly reversed 35.4% and at least partially reversed rate is 43%.

3600 (business methods/software): Total appealed decisions: 5941; 4212 total obviousness decisions. 1842 affirmed, 418 affirmed-in-part, 1755 reversed. Wholly reversed rate is 41.7% and at least partially reversed rate is 51.6%.

3700 (medical device/mechanical): Total decisions: 5734. 5022 total obviousness decisions. 1929 affirmed, 625 affirmed-in-part, 2195 reversed. Wholly reversed rate is 43.7%. At least partial reversal rate is 56.1%.

We note that the data has not shifted more than a couple of percentage points from our review of the data as reported in the past despite the increase in number of decisions. This indicates that, with respect to obviousness, by and large the Examiners (and the two supervisory Examiners involved in the Appeal Conferences) are very consistent in 1) picking the same kinds of bad decisions to take on appeal and the Board is 2) agreeing with applicants that this is the case at the same consistent rate. While some things like the particular cases being taken on appeal today have changed, the behavior by the USPTO has stayed markedly the same.

As a general observation, in the private sector a process producing 34% outright defective parts and 44% partially defective parts as determined by its own internal quality control process (the Board) would likely immediately regarded as being a low quality, unpredictable process (and would probably put a company out of business). At Anticipat, we believe that the ex parte appeals statistics are the closest and best end of line quality control indicator of the quality of the USPTO’s patent examination process. However, since these statistics are just an end of line quality control indicator, trying to change Examiner behavior solely using the ex parte appeals statistics will not solve the quality problem—reducing examiner variability will require the USPTO identifying meaningful inline statistical data monitors (pre-appeal) that could be used to reduce the variability in the examination process. The inline data monitors are what the USPTO could use to reduce the current levels of examination variability–and the end of line data (the ex parte appeals statistics) will show the effect too.

Could such a statistics-based process be implemented at the USPTO? Certainly–but it can only begin when the agency acknowledges that statistics like these reflect unmistakably on the quality and predictability of the patents currently granted. Tightening the USPTO’s distribution to result in lower ex parte appeals reversals will inevitably (through the operation of statistics itself) result in more predictable and better quality issued patents.  Until then, the only predictable thing is that USPTO Examiners will continue to be reversed by the PTAB at these double digit rates for obviousness.

Updated February ex parte decisions show Alice-based rejections getting overturned at a dizzying rate

For the past year, the PTAB has increasingly reversed so-called abstract idea rejections (Alice). But in recent months, the pace of these reversals has been nothing short of remarkable. Here, we report updated February numbers, which show the PTAB continuing to overturn abstract ideas at an unprecedented rate. We also look more deeply into how these rejections are getting overturned. It turns out the Board is increasingly relying on step 2A (Step 1 of Alice/Mayo) thanks to new guidance that makes it more difficult for an examiner’s rejection to hold.

As we recently reported on Patexia, the new examination guidance (effective early January) has fueled reversals at the Board. Now, with increased numbers for February 2019, this effect can now be seen much more dramatically.

In February, there were 61 completely reversed decisions from a total 149 such rejections. This yields an astonishing 41% reversal rate. This is of course astonishing by standards of Section 101 judicial exceptions. We have long reported that many grounds of rejection are overturned by the PTAB (such as Section 112 and Section 102) at even higher rates. But even just over a year ago, the PTAB routinely sided with examiners on abstract idea grounds upwards of 90% of the time. Now the climate is completely different.

Notable changes in reversal rates can be seen from the color-coded timeline events in the graph above. Red refers to when Berkheimer and similar Federal Circuit decisions were decided, which put a higher evidentiary standard on showing that claims did not recite an “inventive concept.” With a little lag, the reversal rate ticked up. Then in the fall of 2018, Director Andrei Iancu started more actively promoting better (more consistent) Section 101 examination, eventually resulting in new 101 Examination guidance shown by the yellow line. The PTAB appears to quickly adapt to case law, guidance and internal cultural changes.

And these results do not appear to be from a sample size distortion (because applicants have already given up). while the total number of abstract idea rejections decided did not reach months seen last year, this is likely due to the PTAB picking up the new year on a slow note, which is historically the case. In fact, February 2019 saw the Board decide more abstract idea rejections than February 2018. See below. And even with the total number of decisions deciding abstract idea grounds of rejections being lower than prior months, it still set a record in the total number of such reversals (61) breaking the previous record of December 2018 (58).


How is the PTAB overturning these rejections? Thankfully, the Anticipat research database makes this question easy to answer, cataloging the specific rationale (tag) that is used in overcoming the rejections. As shown from the following graph, Step 1 (which the USPTO refers to as Step 2A) has now separated itself from Step 2.


A good practitioner will tell you that thanks to the new Section 101 guidance and other case law developments, it is now easier to overcome Abstract Idea rejections. These Board decisions directly show this at the final stage, but results can also be felt farther upstream of these decisions. 

Like many USPTO personnel, PTAB judges are quota-motivated. Because of this, end of quarters typically have higher output of decisions. For this reason, expect March 2019 to be a big month in the volume of abstract idea rejections decided and in the total number of reversals. If history is any indication, we could be looking at another record month.