One of the sexiest topics in all of patent law has become §101, specifically, patent-eligible subject matter. Part of the recent appeal stems from high volatility and uncertainty in the law. But not all categories of patent-eligibility grounds are in such flux. Some §101 nonstatutory grounds of rejection (e.g., reciting a propagated signal) are relatively predictable and stable while the so-called judicial exceptions are more unpredictable. So we drilled deeper into the types of §101 rejection to get a more complete picture of reversal rates. We found a big difference in the observed reversal rates of particular categories.
The following chart shows a breakdown of the past seven months of decisions on grounds of §101 – nonstatutory subject matter. Data for this chart was pulled from the past seven months using Anticipat’s research database. Anticipat keeps track of issue-specific tags to allow for better identification of sub-issues within issues. So while the Examiner and PTAB may decide a particular issue on §101 – nonstatutory subject matter grounds, Anticipat goes a step further to delineate the specific type of §101 – nonstatutory subject matter ground.
- Statutory Classes
Section 101 nonstatutory rejections include the statutory class variety (e.g., does the claimed invention fall within the statutory classes? recite more than one class? claim a human?). This is otherwise known as step 1 of the Mayo/Alice framework. Of the 186 substantively decided §101 decisions since July 25, 2016, these step 1 types accounted for 38 or 25%. Twelve were wholly reversed, a reverse rate of 32%.
This higher reversal rate for classes makes intuitive sense. Administrative patent judges must understand that statutorily, patent-eligibility is broad. A process, machine, manufacture, and composition of matter originally allowed almost any human innovation at that time of the enactment of the 1952 Patent Act to be patent-eligible. As technology has since changed, not all inventions fit into this framework, such as propagated signals and software per se. But for the most part, the courts have fit inventions into these categories—from non-transitory computer readable media to engineered bacteria. The observed reversal rate indicates that judges may reverse the Examiners in an attempt to be more faithful to the statute and to case law than the Examiners are.
- Judicial Exceptions
The judicial exceptions to patent-eligibility, such as abstract ideas, law of natures, and natural phenomena, have surged in popularity in recent years. And the appealed decisions show it. Of the 186 decisions within the past seven months, 146 have been judicial exceptions. The most popular of the exceptions is the abstract idea.
Of the 119 abstract idea cases, 30 were wholly reversed and two were reversed in part, or a complete reversal rate of 25% and an at least partial reversal rate of 27%. This falls squarely within the overall §101 rates that we previously reported. Natural phenomena/product of nature types are slightly higher at 31% while the law of nature ground reversal rate is markedly lower at 7%.
The number of decisions for some of these categories should be more reliable as the number of decisions increase, but some take-home lessons are clear. A judicial exception rejection has a lower chance of getting reversed than the statutory rejections. The PTAB judges are likely averse to overruling an Examiner’s finding of a judicial exception, especially when there is a great deal of uncertainty in the courts.
Furthermore, law of nature rejections are very infrequently reversed. Part of this may be a lack of positive case law to specifically support law of nature rejections being erroneous. By contrast, several Federal Circuit decisions have been decided within the past year that are positive for the patentee/applicant in showing that the claims are not an abstract idea. Because of this, the judges have more material to work with in finding a particular claimed invention passes the Alice framework.