The PTAB quietly hit a milestone in June in reversing Alice Section 101 rejections

As we have pointed out in a previous post, for more than a year, reversal rates for abstract idea (Alice) rejections have been extremely low. We are finally seeing an uptick of reversals likely due to Berkheimer and other Federal Circuit case law and recent guidance by the USPTO. As we’ve previously predicted, this reversal rate should continue (and may even go up). But until leadership at the USPTO clarifies its policies, it remains to be seen by how much.

As we’ve previously reported, from August 2016 to April 2017, the PTAB had months where it reversed abstract ideas in the 20 and 30 percentage range. That is, if a month had 100 abstract idea decisions, the Board would reverse the examiner on 20 or 30 of those cases. But May 2017 saw a dismal change in appellant fortunes: the reversal rate for abstract idea rejections tanked. For this period of over a year ago, many months saw only single digit reversal rates. Indeed, no month during this time exceeded a 15% reversal rate. The period was bad for Alice appellants.

abstractideareversals

But all this may be starting to change. Last month (June) saw a high number of abstract idea appeals decided, 176. Of those, 29 were wholly reversed, yielding a complete reversal rate of 16.5%.

It may be premature to characterize June as a watershed moment for patent eligibility at the PTAB. But there are three reasons for such hope.

First, June had a sizable number of reversals. In other words, the PTAB did not exceed a 15% reversal rate through a blip attributable to a small sample size. For some context, the number of reversals for the single month of June (29) was almost double the number of reversals for the six months between July 2016 and December 2016 (19).

Month Jul-16 Aug-16 Sep-16 Oct-16 Nov-16 Dec-16 Jan-17 Feb-17 Mar-17 Apr-17 May-17 Jun-17 Jul-17 Aug-17 Sep-17 Oct-17 Nov-17 Dec-17 Jan-18 Feb-18 Mar-18 Apr-18 May-18 Jun-18
Reversal Rate 33% 33% 27% 33% 29% 14% 28% 39% 20% 3% 11% 14% 15% 8% 15% 11% 14% 11% 14% 11% 10% 12% 9% 16%
Reversed 2 2 3 2 7 3 17 15 16 1 7 13 16 7 10 9 8 2 9 8 21 16 15 29
Total 6 6 11 6 24 22 60 38 81 31 63 94 108 93 68 83 56 19 64 73 203 137 172 176

Second, the number of decisions where the Board partially reverses an abstract idea rejection is increasing as well. In June, two decisions partially affirmed such rejections, pushing up the total rate with at least one claim reversed to 17.6%. March saw seven such decisions. These nine decisions for these months are more than the previous 9 months. The partial reversal rate tells a more complete story about how the Board is treating abstract idea rejections. As seen, the Board’s trend is toward increasing both the number of complete reversals and partial reversals. This means that the Board appears more willing to entertain dependent claims as patent-eligible, giving the appellant some options.

Finally, the Board is recently more holistically relying on both steps for reversing. We are starting to see a return to previous months where the PTAB has been more aggressive in reversing these types of rejections. Part of this is due to case law, which the Board follows. Berkheimer and Vanda guidelines may play a role. We previously noted that Berkheimer temporarily changed the way in which panels reverse. That is, whereas before panels primarily relied on Step 1 to overturn an abstract idea rejection, for a few months it was about even as to whether the Board uses Step 1 or Step 2 of the Alice/Mayo framework to reverse. June saw a return to the disproportionate reliance on Step 1 vs Step 2 reversal rationales (2:1). This goes to show that the Board may not be limiting itself to reversing cases just because of a single Federal Circuit decision (Berkheimer), but is developing a less erratic and more cogent way of deciding such rejections.

Why did the PTAB quietly hit this milestone in June? The PTO’s FOIA website, from which a majority of Anticipat’s data comes, has recently been delaying the time it takes to upload decisions to its page. Before a normal data upload would be a few business days and Anticipat Recap emails would play it safe by waiting until two weeks after a particular date to send a recap of a day’s decisions. So while we typically keep users updated on reversals using Recap emails after two weeks, for many days there have been no decisions to report on. Instead, we accessed this information by using the Research page.

After speaking with the USPTO’s webmaster, we were assured that the decisions will be more quickly uploaded going forward. This did not entirely assuage our concerns. So in the meantime, we are updating our Recap email functionality so that a user can modify the email settings to be sent in whatever way is most helpful to one’s practice. Stay tuned for updates very soon.

Berkheimer’s biggest effect on PTAB outcomes

After Federal Circuit decisions Berkheimer and Aatrix held that abstract idea inquiries required a factual finding, this blog predicted that the number of abstract idea rejection reversals at the Board would dramatically increase. The logic being that many examiners did not perform the rigorous analysis seemingly required for Step 2 of the Alice/Mayo framework in light of these Federal Circuit decisions. It has now been over 4 months since Berkheimer was decided and we can safely say that this dramatic change has not yet happened.

In fact, take the decisions involving abstract idea rejections in the year leading up to Berkheimer (March 1, 2017-March 1, 2018, accounting for some lag time after Berkheimer was decided). In this year, the 107 reversals over the 901 total decisions yields a reversal rate of 11.9%. Post Berkheimer (from March 1, 2018 to present), there have been 54 reversals over 525 total decisions. This reversal rate is 10.3%–lower than the pre-Berkheimer range. (All these decisions can be found using the Anticipat Research page)

But there has been something that has changed: the way that the Board performs its analysis. Historically, the Board has favored relying on step 1 of the Alice/Mayo framework by almost a 3:2 ratio. That is, for every three decisions where the panel reversed because the claims were not directed to an abstract idea under step 1, there were two decisions where the panel reversed because the claims recited something more than the asserted abstract idea under step 2. From March 1, 2017 to March 1, 2018, there were 63 step 1 analyses versus 35 step 2 analyses.

An important piece of the step 2 analysis is whether the claims recite an element or combination of elements that are more than well-understood, routine, or conventional elements. As the Federal Circuit has made clear, this inquiry is an element of fact. And Examiners have been charged in the recent Berkheimer memo to carefully apply factual bases to this step. So it would make sense that the Board, in light of Berkheimer, is reversing under this step more frequently than before.

And that is exactly what is happening. Recently, the two steps are equally used in reversing abstract idea rejections. From March 30, 2018 to present, the Board has used step 1 analysis to reverse 16 times while using step 2 an almost equal 15 times. This means that the Board has become much more receptive to arguments of step 2 in light of Berkheimer–even if the reversal rates have not noticeably increased.

The lower post-Berkheimer reversal rate is not easy to explain. It may stem from a confluence of factors. Perhaps applicants are getting more aggressive and appealing claims that are less patent-eligible. It could be that some applications that would otherwise be reversed if appealed all the way to a final decision are getting allowed at the appeal conference stage or earlier.

Regardless of the success rates of appealing abstract idea rejections, the change in the way that the board reversed these decisions highlights a good practice tip. Focus appeal argumentation on step 2 where appropriate. For those appeals that have long since been forwarded to the appeal, it is not too late to bring this up to the panel by way of an oral hearing. During the oral hearing, explaining the step 2 piece could be helpful to the panel, assuming that some sort of step 2 argument has been made. And of course when interviewing and otherwise responding to Office Actions in response to abstract idea rejections, step 2 has become a powerful step.

Board panel citing Berkheimer to reverse judicial exception rejection to diagnostics claims: no evidence

Since the two weeks since we predicted that the PTAB would start to dramatically change its outcomes of rejections under Section 101, we have seen no such change. Since then, recap emails have mostly shown affirmances (only 7 reversals of 86 total Section 101 decisions = 8% reversal rate). But a decision in yesterday’s recap email shows precisely the kind of rejection analysis that is expected to become more mainstream at the PTAB.

Ex Parte Galloway et al (PTAB May 22, 2018) reversed the judicial exception rejection under Section 101 because of a lack of evidence. The panel, consisting of Donald E. Adams, Demetra J. Mills, and Ulrike W. Jenks, found that the Examiner had not provided evidence to support a prima facie case of patent ineligible subject matter.

The panel cited to Berkheimer in support of an apparent defective step 2 analysis: “The Examiner has not established with appropriate factual evidence that the claimed method uses conventional cell counting methods.”

As a stylistic aside, Section 101 rejections are typically presented in decisions toward the very top of the document. It is unclear how or why (it may stem from examiners or practitioners ordering the statutory rejections), but this practice has gone on in the Board’s decisions for several years. However, a recent trend is for the Board to analyze Section 101 after prior art rejections. Now it makes sense why because a lack of a good prior art rejection can make for a good support that step 2 of a Section 101 rejection is improper.

And that is precisely what happened here. The panel proceeded to support its assertion (that step 2 of the Alice/Mayo framework was defective) by referring to its obviousness reversal. In other words, the Board’s finding of non-obvious claims supported that the claim features were not simply conventional or known in the art.

Another interesting point to note about this case is that it reinforces the much higher reversal rates of Section 101 judicial exceptions. The Board’s practice, as in this case, appears to be helping the patent-eligibility of diagnostics inventions.

As the PTAB becomes more confident in using Berkheimer in their decisions, expect more of the same analysis as Ex Parte Galloway. The appeal backlog has far too many cases where the Examiners did not have the guidance of Berkheimer to establish the proper evidence for Step 2. Thus, the necessary analysis from the Board need only be short and crisp.

Expect the Berkheimer-driven patent-eligibility pendulum to swing at the PTAB

The past few months have seen huge developments in patent-eligibility at the USPTO. In three and a half years after Alice, the most effective way to argue against patent-eligibility for software applications was to focus on Step 1–that the claims are not directed to an abstract idea. But based on these recent developments, Step 2–that additional elements of the claims transform the judicial exception into something more–looks to be the more powerful way. The only problem is that the PTAB has not yet caught on. It will.

These huge developments have taken place in the form of Federal Circuit decisions deciding patent-eligibility favorably to the patentee, especially Berkheimer v. HP Inc., 881 F.3d 1360, 1369 (Fed. Cir. 2018). Such a clear articulation of the need for factual findings for Step 2 should usher in big change in how the Alice/Mayo framework is applied.

Then on top of the decisions came the revised USPTO Berkheimer memo last month. These guidelines emphasized that to establish under Step 2 that an additional element (or combination of elements) is well-understood, routine or conventional, the examiner must find and expressly support a rejection in writing with one of the four:

1. A citation to an express statement in the specification or to a statement made by an applicant during prosecution that demonstrates the well-understood, routine, conventional nature of the additional element(s).

2. A citation to one or more of the court decisions discussed in MPEP § 2106.05(d)(II) as noting the well-understood, routine, conventional nature of the additional element(s).

3. A citation to a publication that demonstrates the well-understood, routine, conventional nature of the additional element(s).

4. A statement that the examiner is taking official notice of the well-understood, routine, conventional nature of the additional element(s).

It should come as no small surprise to any practitioner that Examiners have not been including the above support in their Step 2 analyses for these additional elements of claims. This is no slight to the examining corps; it simply was never a USPTO requirement. So if the PTAB were faithful to the principles set forth in the guidelines, one would expect a dramatic turning of the tide.

While the PTAB is not bound to the USPTO examiner memos, it shouldn’t stray too far from them. Plus, it must comply with the Federal Circuit decisions, which are consistent with the guidelines. So one wouldn’t expect the PTAB to continue its practice of overwhelmingly affirming on Section 101. However, so far the PTAB has not significantly deviated from its previous course of mostly affirming judicial exception rejections.

Since April 19, 2018–the day that the Berkheimer memo was published–there have been 120 decisions that have decided judicial exceptions. Of these, only 13 have reversed, meaning a reversal rate of 11%. This 11% reversal rate is below the recently reported reverse rate for abstract ideas of 14%. It would appear that panels have not yet had the time to incorporate this new Step 2 framework into their decision-making. Or alternatively, they are preoccupied with the arguments raised by the appellant. Expect a greater number of request for rehearings on these.

Sooner or later, these PTAB judges should realize that many Section 101 rejections on appeal do not have the proper support for Step 2. This is not to say that these Examiners, on remand, could reformulate a proper rejection given another opportunity. While theoretically the judges could affirm the 101 rejections with a designation of new, the Board may not be well-equipped for to do so as this new requirement requires factual basis supporting Step 2. That is, the PTAB is a body that decides the propriety of pending rejections, not a body for searching and making such support findings. So expect a greater number of reversals to let the Examiners follow Berkheimer.

Update: These firms overturn abstract idea (Alice) rejections on appeal at PTAB

(Update: Kilpatrick was previously reported as having 4 reversals; in fact, it has 7)

A previous post showcased firms that successfully appeal abstract idea rejections at the PTAB. In that post, two firms stood out as clear leaders in overcoming the most difficult ground of rejection on appeal, Section 101 abstract idea. These firms were Schwegman Lundberg Woessner and Morgan Lewis. Five months later, we update the top firms to now add Kilpatrick Townsend and provide additional context of how many appeals it took to get there, with the aid of a recently introduced Customer Number lookup functionality.

Total Reversals for Abstract Idea Rejections (Numerator)

In an almost 2-year span post-Alice (July 25, 2016-April 30, 2018), there were 189 reversed abstract idea rejections on appeal at the PTAB. Of these, three firms–Schwegman, Morgan Lewis and Kilpatrick Townsend–were responsible for 11% of these reversals, with 7 reversals each. This is far ahead of the rest of firms. For context, the next closest firm had 3 abstract idea reversals on appeal. We discuss each of these three firms in more detail.

Total Abstract Idea Appeals (Denominator)

The first firm, Schwegman, took 42 abstract idea appeals to get its 7 reversals. This means that the reverse rate is 17%. This is a higher rate (more successful) than the average reverse rates for abstract ideas. From a comparison to other big patent firms, Schwegman pursues appeals for abstract idea rejections a lot more by a long shot. For comparison, during this window Knobbe Martens had 6 total abstract idea appeal decisions; and Fish & Richardson and Finnegan each had 19 total abstract idea appeal decisions.

But even with a more aggressive appeal strategy, Schwegman still maintains a higher-than-average reversal rate. And from the 204 total appealed decisions, almost a quarter have an abstract idea rejection. This suggests that a focus of the overall appeals includes in abstract idea rejections. Here is the firm’s information filters on the Anticipat Research page and the link to the Schwegman-filtered page here

schwegman

The second firm, Morgan Lewis, took far fewer appeals to get to its 7 reversals. It only appealed eight cases to get seven reversals. This translates into a reversal rate of 88% for abstract idea rejections. For a firm as big as Morgan Lewis, having only eight abstract idea appealed decisions is low compared to firms that are comparable in number of applications: Schwegman, Finnegan, Fish, Kilpatrick and Knobbe.

The overall number of appeals for Morgan Lewis during this time period is 52. This suggests that Morgan Lewis is conservative in pursuing ex parte appeals–not only for abstract idea rejections but in general. But when Morgan Lewis does proceed to appeal with a case (at least for Section 101 abstract idea rejections), it is very good at overturning such rejections. Again, the Research page and the Morgan Lewis-filtered Research page here.

morganlewis

The third firm, Kilpatrick, took 40 abstract idea rejections to get to its 7 reversals. This reversal rate of 18% is slightly above average, suggesting that Kilpatrick aggressively pursues appeals for this type of rejection. From 170 total appeals during that time period, it shows that abstract ideas make up a sizable part of the appealed rejections.  Kilpatrick Townsend-filtered Research page here.

kilpatrick

Conclusion

Each firm should be commended on the high number of abstract idea reversals. With such a difficult rejection, these firms are showing that one avenue of overcoming the rejection is by going straight to the Board for relief.

Context is extremely important for these statistics. Just because a particular firm has a higher reversal rate than another firm does not necessarily mean that the higher reversal rate firm is better. Perhaps the lower reversal rate firm is taking on more difficult cases. Perhaps the lower reversal rate firm had victories earlier in prosecution (like at the pre-appeal conference or appeal conference or even by responding to an Office Action) that are not counted in these statistics. But these statistics do show that when the Examiner conferees believe that an abstract idea rejection is proper, these firms know how to pursue a favorable outcome for their clients.

With a user account to Anticipat (sign up here for a free trial), you can lookup the above-discussed listing of reversed abstract idea decisions using the following links.

 

 

 

 

The State of Appealing Abstract Idea Rejections of Business Method Applications post-Alice

As seen from Anticipat’s daily recap emails, last month the PTAB reversed a slew of abstract idea rejections. As already discussed in our blog post, several of these reversals related to business method applications. Using Anticipat’s Research database to look even beyond last month, we see interesting results relating to trends of business method appeals outcomes.

The term “business method” has been broadly defined as “a method of operating any aspect of an economic enterprise”. Tech center 3600 includes broad categories of business methods. For example, three sets of art unit groups are listed below.

Here is a visual representation of the reversals over the course of almost the past two years. These are appeals that make it all the way to a final decision on tech center 3600 (Data from Anticipat Research.)

abstractidea3

The first interesting point is that last month’s 10 abstract idea reversals at first blush seems high. Only two other months in the last couple years have had higher numbers of reversals for business method rejections. From such numbers, one might think that the PTAB might be engaging in business method friendly behavior. But looking at the denominator of how many total abstract idea decisions of business method applications, a different picture is painted. It took 125 decisions to get these 10 reversals, a reversal rate of 8%. This is hardly business method friendly.

The second interesting point is that the number of appeals of abstract idea rejections for business methods is going up even as appeal production is going down. As pointed out by Ryan Alley, the PTAB’s opinion output for ex parte appeals is down from 2017. More concretely, in March of 2017, the PTAB decided a total of about 1650 decisions. In contrast, in March of 2018, the PTAB decided a total of about 930 decisions. Even with monthly variability of output (December 2017 and January 2018 had much lower output), it is telling that with such a dramatic drop for the same month, the number of abstract idea rejections decided increased substantially from 43 to 125. This goes to show that the trend is to appeal business method abstract idea rejections. This is especially apparent when looking at the total number of abstract idea decisions for business methods in months of 2016.

The reversal rate for these business method applications seems to be stabilizing at a low rate, as shown in the following graph. (Data from Anticipat Research.)

reversalratesabstract

For the past year, these abstract idea rejections for business method applications have been consistently reversed at about 10%. This is a very low reversal rate compared with all grounds of rejection. But as applicants choose to appeal rejections of their business method applications, even if the reversal rate stays low, it still means that a large number of such rejections will get reversed. That is, a 10% reversal rate of 120 applications still yields 12 reversals even if it took a lot of applications to get there.

In conclusion, Examiners will likely continue to reject business method applications as patent-ineligible abstract ideas and as applicants opt to pursue an appeal, the Board seems to be overturning the Examiner relatively infrequently. This may change, as case law continues to develop and as a new director of the USPTO Andrei Iancu has promised a new path which could include better application of Section 101. Use Anticipat Research to analyze trends of business methods or of other technology centers. Sign up for a free trial here.

 

PTAB Chief Judge Ruschke at PTAB Bar Association meeting: ex parte PTAB can develop Section 101 jurisprudence

The PTAB Bar Association has a committee called “PTAB Appeals” that scheduled a meeting on April 5, 2018 to discuss various topics with sitting judges at the PTAB. This meeting was set up in part because of interest in Chief Judge Ruschke to meet with practitioners to discuss ex parte appeals. Ex parte appeals is the less-discussed and less-focused on aspect of what PTAB does. The two-hour meeting was at the USPTO in Alexandria, VA and covered a lot of ground including Section 101.

At this meeting, Chief Judge Ruschke was optimistic about newly appointed director Andrew Iancu. According to Ruschke, Iancu has stressed that the USPTO has to do a better job of applying Section 101 in a more consistent, straightforward manner. And Iancu sees the corpus of decisions coming out of the PTAB as an important clue to this.

During the meeting, there was talk about how Examiners at the USPTO largely are not good at applying case law. And part of the challenge of overcoming Section 101 rejections is having the Examiners understand the legal arguments. But the Board comprises judges who are legally trained to entertain and apply case law. And as the judges are overturning Examiners’ 101 rejections, this becomes an additional way for Section 101 jurisprudence to develop (in addition to the federal court decisions). Because there are so many more decisions at the PTAB across more diverse technology centers, the PTAB seems to be an ideal forum for understanding the boundaries of patent-eligibility.

Anticipat.com is committed to tracking all the facets of decisions coming out of the ex parte PTAB. Stay tuned for continued developments as it relates to Section 101 among other areas.