While abstract ideas, natural phenomena, and laws of nature are not eligible for patenting by themselves, claims that integrate these exceptions into an inventive concept are thereby transformed into patent-eligible inventions. Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2354, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1981 (2014) (citing Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 71-72, 101 USPQ2d 1961, 1966 (2012)). Thus, the second part of the Alice/Mayo test is often referred to as a search for an inventive concept. Id.
An inventive concept “cannot be furnished by the unpatentable law of nature (or natural phenomenon or abstract idea) itself.” Genetic Techs. v. Merial LLC, 818 F.3d 1369, 1376, 118 USPQ2d 1541, 1546 (Fed. Cir. 2016). See also Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2355, 110 USPQ2d at 1981 (citing Mayo, 566 U.S. at 78, 101 USPQ2d at 1968 (after determining that a claim is directed to a judicial exception, “we then ask, ‘[w]hat else is there in the claims before us?”) (emphasis added)); RecogniCorp, LLC v. Nintendo Co., 855 F.3d 1322, 1327, 122 USPQ2d 1377 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (“Adding one abstract idea (math) to another abstract idea (encoding and decoding) does not render the claim non-abstract”). Instead, an “inventive concept” is furnished by an element or combination of elements that is recited in the claim in addition to (beyond) the judicial exception, and is sufficient to ensure that the claim as a whole amounts to significantly more than the judicial exception itself. Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2355, 110 USPQ2d at 1981 (citing Mayo, 566 U.S. at 72-73, 101 USPQ2d at 1966).
Evaluating additional elements to determine whether they amount to an inventive concept requires considering them both individually and in combination to ensure that they amount to significantly more than the judicial exception itself. Because this approach considers all claim elements, the Supreme Court has noted that “it is consistent with the general rule that patent claims ‘must be considered as a whole.’” Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2355, 110 USPQ2d at 1981 (quoting Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 188, 209 USPQ 1, 8-9 (1981)). Consideration of the elements in combination is particularly important, because even if an additional element does not amount to significantly more on its own, it can still amount to significantly more when considered in combination with the other elements of the claim. See, e.g., Rapid Litig. Mgmt. v. CellzDirect, 827 F.3d 1042, 1051, 119 USPQ2d 1370, 1375 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (process reciting combination of individually well-known freezing and thawing steps was “far from routine and conventional” and thus eligible); BASCOM Global Internet Servs. v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1350, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1242 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (inventive concept may be found in the non-conventional and non-generic arrangement of components that are individually well-known and conventional).
Although the courts often evaluate considerations such as the conventionality of an additional element in the eligibility analysis, the search for an inventive concept should not be confused with a novelty or non-obviousness determination. See Mayo, 566 U.S. at 91, 101 USPQ2d at 1973 (rejecting “the Government’s invitation to substitute §§ 102, 103, and 112 inquiries for the better established inquiry under § 101”). As made clear by the courts, the “‘novelty’ of any element or steps in a process, or even of the process itself, is of no relevance in determining whether the subject matter of a claim falls within the § 101 categories of possibly patentable subject matter.” Intellectual Ventures I v. Symantec Corp., 838 F.3d 1307, 1315, 120 USPQ2d 1353, 1358 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (quoting Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. at 188–89, 209 USPQ at 9). See also Synopsys, Inc. v. Mentor Graphics Corp., 839 F.3d 1138, 1151, 120 USPQ2d 1473, 1483 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“a claim for a new abstract idea is still an abstract idea. The search for a § 101 inventive concept is thus distinct from demonstrating § 102 novelty.”). In addition, the search for an inventive concept is different from an obviousness analysis under 35 U.S.C. 103. See, e.g., BASCOM Global Internet v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1350, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1242 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“The inventive concept inquiry requires more than recognizing that each claim element, by itself, was known in the art. . . . [A]n inventive concept can be found in the non-conventional and non-generic arrangement of known, conventional pieces.”). Specifically, lack of novelty under 35 U.S.C. 102 or obviousness under 35 U.S.C. 103 of a claimed invention does not necessarily indicate that additional elements are well-understood, routine, conventional elements. Because they are separate and distinct requirements from eligibility, patentability of the claimed invention under 35 U.S.C. 102 and 103 with respect to the prior art is neither required for, nor a guarantee of, patent eligibility under 35 U.S.C. 101. The distinction between eligibility (under 35 U.S.C. 101) and patentability over the art (under 35 U.S.C. 102 and/or 103) is further discussed in MPEP § 2106.05(d).
A. Relevant Considerations For Evaluating Whether Additional Elements Amount To An Inventive Concept
The Supreme Court has identified a number of considerations as relevant to the evaluation of whether the claimed additional elements amount to an inventive concept. The list of considerations here is not intended to be exclusive or limiting. Additional elements can often be analyzed based on more than one type of consideration and the type of consideration is of no import to the eligibility analysis. Additional discussion of these considerations, and how they were applied in particular judicial decisions, is provided in in MPEP § 2106.05(a) through (h).
Limitations that the courts have found to qualify as “significantly more” when recited in a claim with a judicial exception include:
- i. Improvements to the functioning of a computer, e.g., a modification of conventional Internet hyperlink protocol to dynamically produce a dual-source hybrid webpage, as discussed in DDR Holdings, LLC v. Hotels.com, L.P., 773 F.3d 1245, 1258-59, 113 USPQ2d 1097, 1106-07 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (see MPEP § 2106.05(a));
- ii. Improvements to any other technology or technical field, e.g., a modification of conventional rubber-molding processes to utilize a thermocouple inside the mold to constantly monitor the temperature and thus reduce under- and over-curing problems common in the art, as discussed in Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 191-92, 209 USPQ 1, 10 (1981) (see MPEP § 2106.05(a));
- iii. Applying the judicial exception with, or by use of, a particular machine, e.g., a Fourdrinier machine (which is understood in the art to have a specific structure comprising a headbox, a paper-making wire, and a series of rolls) that is arranged in a particular way to optimize the speed of the machine while maintaining quality of the formed paper web, as discussed in Eibel Process Co. v. Minn. & Ont. Paper Co., 261 U.S. 45, 64-65 (1923) (see MPEP § 2106.05(b));
- iv. Effecting a transformation or reduction of a particular article to a different state or thing, e.g., a process that transforms raw, uncured synthetic rubber into precision-molded synthetic rubber products, as discussed in Diehr, 450 U.S. at 184, 209 USPQ at 21 (see MPEP § 2106.05(c));
- v. Adding a specific limitation other than what is well-understood, routine, conventional activity in the field, or adding unconventional steps that confine the claim to a particular useful application, e.g., a non-conventional and non-generic arrangement of various computer components for filtering Internet content, as discussed in BASCOM Global Internet v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1350-51, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1243 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (see MPEP § 2106.05(d)); or
- vi. Other meaningful limitations beyond generally linking the use of the judicial exception to a particular technological environment, e.g., an immunization step that integrates an abstract idea of data comparison into a specific process of immunizing that lowers the risk that immunized patients will later develop chronic immune-mediated diseases, as discussed in Classen Immunotherapies Inc. v. Biogen IDEC, 659 F.3d 1057, 1066-68, 100 USPQ2d 1492, 1499-1502 (Fed. Cir. 2011) (see MPEP § 2106.05(e)).
Limitations that the courts have found not to be enough to qualify as “significantly more” when recited in a claim with a judicial exception include:
- i. Adding the words “apply it” (or an equivalent) with the judicial exception, or mere instructions to implement an abstract idea on a computer, e.g., a limitation indicating that a particular function such as creating and maintaining electronic records is performed by a computer, as discussed in Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2360, 110 USPQ2d at 1984 (see MPEP § 2106.05(f));
- ii. Simply appending well-understood, routine, conventional activities previously known to the industry, specified at a high level of generality, to the judicial exception, e.g., a claim to an abstract idea requiring no more than a generic computer to perform generic computer functions that are well-understood, routine and conventional activities previously known to the industry, as discussed in Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2359-60, 110 USPQ2d at 1984 (see MPEP § 2106.05(d));
- iii. Adding insignificant extra-solution activity to the judicial exception, e.g., mere data gathering in conjunction with a law of nature or abstract idea such as a step of obtaining information about credit card transactions so that the information can be analyzed by an abstract mental process, as discussed in CyberSource v. Retail Decisions, Inc., 654 F.3d 1366, 1375, 99 USPQ2d 1690, 1694 (Fed. Cir. 2011) (see MPEP § 2106.05(g)); or
- iv. Generally linking the use of the judicial exception to a particular technological environment or field of use, e.g., a claim describing how the abstract idea of hedging could be used in the commodities and energy markets, as discussed in Bilski v. Kappos, 561 U.S. 593, 595, 95 USPQ2d 1001, 1010 (2010) or a claim limiting the use of a mathematical formula to the petrochemical and oil-refining fields, as discussed in Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 588-90, 198 USPQ 193, 197-98 (1978) (MPEP § 2106.05(h)).
It is notable that mere physicality or tangibility of an additional element or elements is not a relevant consideration in Step 2B. As the Supreme Court explained in Alice Corp., mere physical or tangible implementation of an exception is not in itself an inventive concept and does not guarantee eligibility:
The fact that a computer “necessarily exist[s] in the physical, rather than purely conceptual, realm,” is beside the point. There is no dispute that a computer is a tangible system (in § 101 terms, a “machine”), or that many computer-implemented claims are formally addressed to patent-eligible subject matter. But if that were the end of the § 101 inquiry, an applicant could claim any principle of the physical or social sciences by reciting a computer system configured to implement the relevant concept. Such a result would make the determination of patent eligibility “depend simply on the draftsman’s art,” Flook, supra, at 593, 98 S. Ct. 2522, 57 L. Ed. 2d 451, thereby eviscerating the rule that “‘[l]aws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas are not patentable,’” Myriad, 133 S. Ct. 1289, 186 L. Ed. 2d 124, 133).
Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2358-59, 110 USPQ2d at 1983-84 (alterations in original). See also Genetic Technologies Ltd. v. Merial LLC, 818 F.3d 1369, 1377, 118 USPQ2d 1541, 1547 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (steps of DNA amplification and analysis “do not, individually or in combination, provide sufficient inventive concept to render claim 1 patent eligible” merely because they are physical steps). Conversely, the presence of a non-physical or intangible additional element does not doom the claims, because tangibility is not necessary for eligibility under the Alice/Mayo test. Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d 1327, 118 USPQ2d 1684 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (“that the improvement is not defined by reference to ‘physical’ components does not doom the claims”). See also McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 1315, 120 USPQ2d 1091, 1102 (Fed. Cir. 2016), (holding that a process producing an intangible result (a sequence of synchronized, animated characters was eligible because it improved an existing technological process).
B. Examples Of How Courts Conduct The Search For An Inventive Concept
Alice Corp. provides an example of how courts conduct the significantly more analysis. In this case, the Supreme Court analyzed claims to computer systems, computer readable media, and computer-implemented methods, all of which described a scheme for mitigating “settlement risk,” which is the risk that only one party to an agreed-upon financial exchange will satisfy its obligation. In part one of the Alice/Mayo test, the Court determined that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of mitigating settlement risk. Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2357, 110 USPQ2d at 1982. The Court then walked through part two of the Alice/Mayo test, in which:
- • The Court identified the additional elements in the claim, e.g., by noting that the method claims recited steps of using a computer to “create electronic records, track multiple transactions, and issue simultaneous instructions”, and that the product claims recited hardware such as a “data processing system” with a “communications controller” and a “data storage unit” (134 S. Ct. at 2359-2360, 110 USPQ2d at 1984-85);
- • The Court considered the additional elements individually, noting that all the computer functions were “‘well-understood, routine, conventional activit[ies]’ previously known to the industry,” each step “does no more than require a generic computer to perform generic computer functions”, and the recited hardware was “purely functional and generic” (134 S. Ct. at 2359-60, 110 USPQ2d at 1984-85); and
- • The Court considered the additional elements “as an ordered combination,” and determined that “the computer components … ‘[a]dd nothing … that is not already present when the steps are considered separately’” and simply recite intermediated settlement as performed by a generic computer.” Id. (citing Mayo, 566 U.S. at 79, 101 USPQ2d at 1972).
Based on this analysis, the Court concluded that the claims amounted to “‘nothing significantly more’ than an instruction to apply the abstract idea of intermediated settlement using some unspecified, generic computer”, and therefore held the claims ineligible because they were directed to a judicial exception and failed the second part of the Alice/Mayo test. Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2360, 110 USPQ2d at 1984.
BASCOM provides another example of how courts conduct the significantly more analysis, and of the critical importance of considering the additional elements in combination. In this case, the Federal Circuit vacated a judgment of ineligibility because the district court failed to properly perform the second step of the Alice/Mayo test when analyzing a claimed system for filtering content retrieved from an Internet computer network. BASCOM Global Internet v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 119 USPQ2d 1236 (Fed. Cir. 2016). The Federal Circuit agreed with the district court that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of filtering Internet content, and then walked through the district court’s analysis in part two of the Alice/Mayo test, noting that:
- • The district court properly identified the additional elements in the claims, such as a “local client computer,” “remote ISP server,” “Internet computer network,” and “controlled access network accounts” (827 F.3d at 1349, 119 USPQ2d at 1242);
- • The district court properly considered the additional elements individually, for example by consulting the specification, which described each of the additional elements as “well-known generic computer components” (827 F.3d at 1349, 119 USPQ2d at 1242); and
- • The district court should have considered the additional elements in combination, because the “inventive concept inquiry requires more than recognizing that each claim element, by itself, was known in the art” (827 F.3d at 1350, 119 USPQ2d at 1242).
Based on this analysis, the Federal Circuit concluded that the district court erred by failing to recognize that when combined, an inventive concept may be found in the non-conventional and non-generic arrangement of the additional elements, i.e., the installation of a filtering tool at a specific location, remote from the end-users, with customizable filtering features specific to each end user. 827 F.3d at 1350, 119 USPQ2d at 1242.
II. ELIGIBILITY STEP 2B: WHETHER THE ADDITIONAL ELEMENTS CONTRIBUTE AN “INVENTIVE CONCEPT”
As described in MPEP § 2106, subsection III, Step 2B of the Office’s eligibility analysis is the second part of the Alice/Mayo test, i.e., the Supreme Court’s “framework for distinguishing patents that claim laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas from those that claim patent-eligible applications of those concepts.” Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 573 U.S. _, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2355, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1981 (2014) (citing Mayo, 566 U.S. 66, 101 USPQ2d 1961 (2012)). Like the other steps in the eligibility analysis, evaluation of this step should be made after determining what applicant has invented by reviewing the entire application disclosure and construing the claims in accordance with their broadest reasonable interpretation. See MPEP § 2106, subsection II for more information about the importance of understanding what the applicant has invented, and MPEP § 2111 for more information about the broadest reasonable interpretation.
Step 2B asks: Does the claim recite additional elements that amount to significantly more than the judicial exception? Examiners should answer this question by first identifying whether there are any additional elements (features/limitations/steps) recited in the claim beyond the judicial exception(s), and then evaluating those additional elements individually and in combination to determine whether they contribute an inventive concept (i.e., amount to significantly more than the judicial exception(s)).
This evaluation is made with respect to the considerations that the Supreme Court has identified as relevant to the eligibility analysis, which are introduced generally in Part I.A of this section, and discussed in detail in MPEP § 2106.05(a) through (h). Many of these considerations overlap, and often more than one consideration is relevant to analysis of an additional element. Not all considerations will be relevant to every element, or every claim. Because the evaluation in Step 2B is not a weighing test, it is not important how the elements are characterized or how many considerations apply from this list. It is important to evaluate the significance of the additional elements relative to applicant’s invention, and to keep in mind the ultimate question of whether the additional elements encompass an inventive concept.
In the context of the flowchart in MPEP § 2106, subsection III, Step 2B determines whether:
- • The claim as a whole does not amount to significantly more than the exception itself (there is no inventive concept in the claim) (Step 2B: NO) and thus is not eligible, warranting a rejection for lack of subject matter eligibility and concluding the eligibility analysis; or
- • The claim as a whole does amount to significantly more than the exception (there is an inventive concept in the claim) (Step 2B: YES), and thus is eligible at Pathway C, thereby concluding the eligibility analysis.
Examiners should examine each claim for eligibility separately, based on the particular elements recited therein. Claims should not be judged to automatically stand or fall with similar claims in an application. For instance, one claim may be ineligible because it is directed to a judicial exception without amounting to significantly more, but another claim dependent on the first may be eligible because it recites additional elements that do amount to significantly more.
Unless it is clear that the claim recites distinct exceptions, such as a law of nature and an abstract idea, care should be taken not to parse the claim into multiple exceptions, particularly in claims involving abstract ideas. Accordingly, if possible examiners should treat the claim for Step 2B purposes as containing a single judicial exception. If, however, the claim clearly recites a plurality of discrete exceptions, then for purposes of examination efficiency, examiners should select one of the exceptions and conduct the eligibility analysis for that selected exception. If the analysis indicates that the claim recites an additional element or combination of elements that amount to significantly more than the selected exception, then the claim should be considered patent eligible. On the other hand, if the claim does not recite any additional element or combination of elements that amounts to significantly more than the selected exception, then the claim should be considered ineligible. University of Utah Research Foundation v. Ambry Genetics, 774 F.3d 755, 762, 113 USPQ2d 1241, 1246 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (because claims did not amount to significantly more than the recited abstract idea, court “need not decide” if claims also recited a law of nature).
If the claim as a whole does recite significantly more than the exception itself, the claim is eligible (Step 2B: YES) at Pathway C, and the eligibility analysis is complete. If there are no meaningful limitations in the claim that transform the exception into a patent-eligible application, such that the claim does not amount to significantly more than the exception itself, the claim is not patent-eligible (Step 2B: NO) and should be rejected under 35 U.S.C. 101. See MPEP § 2106.07 for information on how to formulate an ineligibility rejection.