Laws of nature and natural phenomena, as identified by the courts, include naturally occurring principles/relations and nature-based products that are naturally occurring or that do not have markedly different characteristics compared to what occurs in nature. The courts have often described these exceptions using other terms, including “physical phenomena,” “scientific principles”, “natural laws,” and “products of nature.”
I. LAWS OF NATURE AND NATURAL PHENOMENA, GENERALLY
The law of nature and natural phenomenon exceptions reflect the Supreme Court’s view that the basic tools of scientific and technological work are not patentable, because the “manifestations of laws of nature” are “part of the storehouse of knowledge,” “free to all men and reserved exclusively to none.” Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., 333 U.S. 127, 130, 76 USPQ 280, 281 (1948). Thus, “a new mineral discovered in the earth or a new plant found in the wild is not patentable subject matter” under Section 101. Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 309, 206 USPQ 193, 197 (1980). “Likewise, Einstein could not patent his celebrated law that E=mc2; nor could Newton have patented the law of gravity.” Id. Nor can one patent “a novel and useful mathematical formula,” Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 585, 198 USPQ 193, 195 (1978); electromagnetism or steam power, O’Reilly v. Morse, 56 U.S. (15 How.) 62, 113-114 (1853); or “[t]he qualities of … bacteria, … the heat of the sun, electricity, or the qualities of metals,” Funk, 333 U.S. at 130, 76 USPQ at 281; see also Le Roy v. Tatham, 55 U.S. (14 How.) 156, 175 (1853).
The courts have identified the following concepts and products as examples of laws of nature or natural phenomena:
- i. isolated DNA, Ass’n for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 133 S. Ct. 2107, 2116-17, 106 USPQ2d 1972, 1978-79 (2013);
- ii. a cloned farm animal such as a sheep, In re Roslin Institute (Edinburgh), 750 F.3d 1333, 1337, 110 USPQ2d 1668, 1671 (Fed. Cir. 2014);
- iii. a correlation between variations in non-coding regions of DNA and allele presence in coding regions of DNA, Genetic Techs. Ltd. v. Merial LLC, 818 F.3d 1369, 1375, 118 USPQ2d 1541, 1545 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
- iv. a correlation that is the consequence of how a certain compound is metabolized by the body, Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., 566 U.S. 66, 75-77, 101 USPQ2d 1961, 1967-68 (2012);
- v. a correlation between the presence of myeloperoxidase in a bodily sample (such as blood or plasma) and cardiovascular disease risk, Cleveland Clinic Foundation v. True Health Diagnostics, LLC, 859 F.3d 1352, 1361, 123 USPQ2d 1081, 1087 (Fed. Cir. 2017);
- vi. electromagnetism to transmit signals, O’Reilly v. Morse, 56 U.S. 62, 113 (1853);
- vii. qualities of bacteria such as their ability to create a state of inhibition or non-inhibition in other bacteria, Funk Bros., 333 U.S. at 130, 76 USPQ at 281;
- viii. single-stranded DNA fragments known as “primers”, University of Utah Research Foundation v. Ambry Genetics Corp., 774 F.3d 755, 761, 113 USPQ2d 1241, 1244 (Fed. Cir. 2014);
- ix. the chemical principle underlying the union between fatty elements and water, Tilghman v. Proctor, 102 U.S. 707, 729 (1880); and
- x. the existence of cell-free fetal DNA (cffDNA) in maternal blood, Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, 788 F.3d 1371, 1373, 115 USPQ2d 1152, 1153 (Fed. Cir. 2015).
The courts have also noted, however, that not every claim describing a natural ability or quality of a product, or describing a natural process, is necessarily “directed to” a law of nature or natural phenomenon. For example, a method of treating cancer with chemotherapy is not directed to the cancer cells’ inability to survive chemotherapy, and a method of treating headaches with aspirin is not directed to the human body’s natural response to aspirin. See Rapid Litig. Mgmt. v. CellzDirect, Inc., 827 F.3d 1042, 1048-49, 119 USPQ2d 1370, 1374 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (claims reciting process steps of fractionating, recovering, and cryopreserving hepatocytes held to be eligible, because they are not focused on merely observing or detecting the ability of hepatocytes to survive multiple freeze-thaw cycles). Similarly, a method of producing a new compound is not directed to the individual components’ ability to combine to form the new compound. Id. See also Tilghman v. Proctor, 102 U.S. 707, 729 (1881) (claims reciting process steps for manufacturing fatty acids and glycerol by hydrolyzing fat at high temperature and pressure were held to be eligible, because they are not focused on the chemical principle that fat can be hydrolyzed into its components).
As explained in MPEP § 2106.04, a claim that recites a law of nature or a natural phenomenon is directed to a judicial exception (Step 2A: YES), and requires further analysis in Step 2B to determine whether the claim recites a patent-eligible application of the exception. A claim that does not recite a law of nature or natural phenomenon is eligible (Step 2A: NO) at Pathway B unless the claim recites another exception (such as an abstract idea, or a product of nature).
II. PRODUCTS OF NATURE
When a law of nature or natural phenomenon is claimed as a physical product, the courts have often referred to the exception as a “product of nature”. For example, the isolated DNA of Myriad and the primers of Ambry Genetics were described as products of nature by the courts. Ass’n for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., 133 S. Ct. 2107, 2116-17, 106 USPQ2d 1972, 1979 (2013); University of Utah Research Foundation v. Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d 755, 758-59, 113 USPQ2d 1241, 1243 (Fed. Cir. 2014). As explained in those decisions, products of nature are considered to be an exception because they tie up the use of naturally occurring things, but they have been labeled as both laws of nature and natural phenomena. See Myriad Genetics, Inc., 133 S. Ct. at 2116-17, 106 USPQ2d at 1979 (claims to isolated DNA held ineligible because they “claim naturally occurring phenomena” and are “squarely within the law of nature exception”); Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., 333 U.S. 127, 130, 76 USPQ 280, 281 (1948) (claims to bacterial mixtures held ineligible as “manifestations of laws of nature” and “phenomena of nature”). Step 2A of the Office’s eligibility analysis uses the terms “law of nature” and “natural phenomenon” as inclusive of “products of nature”.
It is important to keep in mind that product of nature exceptions include both naturally occurring products and non-naturally occurring products that lack markedly different characteristics from any naturally occurring counterpart. See, e.g.,Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d at 760, 113 USPQ2d at 1244 (“Contrary to Myriad’s argument, it makes no difference that the identified gene sequences are synthetically replicated. As the Supreme Court made clear, neither naturally occurring compositions of matter, nor synthetically created compositions that are structurally identical to the naturally occurring compositions, are patent eligible.”). Thus, a synthetic, artificial, or non-naturally occurring product such as a cloned organism or a human-made hybrid plant is not automatically eligible because it was created by human ingenuity or intervention. See, e.g.,In re Roslin Institute (Edinburgh), 750 F.3d 1333, 1337, 110 USPQ2d 1668, 1671-72 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (cloned sheep); cf. J.E.M. Ag Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred Int’l, Inc., 534 U.S. 130-132, 60 USPQ2d 1868-69 (2001) (hybrid plant). Instead, the key to the eligibility of all non-naturally occurring products is whether they possess markedly different characteristics from any naturally occurring counterpart.
When a claim recites a nature-based product limitation, examiners should use the markedly different characteristics analysis discussed in MPEP § 2106.04(c) to evaluate the nature-based product limitation and determine the answer to Step 2A. Nature-based products, as used herein, include both eligible and ineligible products and merely refer to the types of products subject to the markedly different characteristics analysis used to identify product of nature exceptions. Examples of nature-based products include the isolated gene and cDNA sequences of Myriad, the cloned farm animals of Roslin, and the bacterium of Chakrabarty. As is evident from these examples, and as further discussed in MPEP § 2105, a nature-based product that is a living organism (e.g., a plant, an animal, a bacterium, etc.) is not excluded from patent protection merely because it is alive, and such a product is eligible for patenting if it satisfies the markedly different characteristics analysis.
It is important to keep in mind that under the broadest reasonable interpretation (BRI) of the claims, a nature-based product limitation may encompass both eligible and ineligible products. For example, a claim to a “cloned giraffe” may have a BRI encompassing cloned giraffes with markedly different characteristics, as well as cloned giraffes that lack markedly different characteristics and thus are products of nature. Cf. Roslin, 750 F.3d at 1338-39, 110 USPQ2d at 1673 (applicant could not rely on unclaimed features to distinguish claimed mammals from donor mammals). Such a claim is directed to a product of nature (Step 2A: YES). If the claim is ultimately rejected as failing to encompass an inventive concept (Step 2B: NO), it is a best practice for the examiner to point out the broadest reasonable interpretation and recommend an amendment, if possible, that would narrow the claim to those embodiments that are not directed to products of nature, or that are otherwise eligible.
For claims that recite a nature-based product limitation (which may or may not be a product of nature exception) but which are directed to inventions that clearly do not seek to tie up any judicial exception, examiners should consider whether the streamlined eligibility analysis discussed in MPEP § 2106.06 is appropriate. In such cases, it would not be necessary to conduct a markedly different characteristics analysis.