Section 2111.05 Functional and Nonfunctional Descriptive Material

USPTO personnel must consider all claim limitations when determining patentability of an invention over the prior art. In re Gulack, 703 F.2d 1381, 1385, 217 USPQ 401, 403-04 (Fed. Cir. 1983). Since a claim must be read as a whole, USPTO personnel may not disregard claim limitations comprised of printed matter. See Id. at 1384, 217 USPQ at 403; see also Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 191, 209 USPQ 1, 10 (1981). The first step of the printed matter analysis is the determination that the limitation in question is in fact directed toward printed matter. Once it is determined that the limitation is directed to printed matter, the examiner must then determine if the matter is functionally or structurally related to the associated physical substrate. See In re DiStefano, 808 F.3d 845, 117 USPQ2d 1267-1268 (Fed. Cir. 2015). If a new and unobvious functional relationship between the printed matter and the substrate does not exist. USPTO personnel need not give patentable weight to printed matter. See In re Lowry, 32 F.3d 1579, 1583-84, 32 USPQ2d 1031, 1035 (Fed. Cir. 1994); In re Ngai, 367 F.3d 1336, 70 USPQ2d 1862 (Fed. Cir. 2004). The rationale behind the printed matter cases, in which, for example, written instructions are added to a known product, has been extended to method claims in which an instructional limitation is added to a method known in the art. Similar to the inquiry for products with printed matter thereon, in such method cases the relevant inquiry is whether a new and unobvious functional relationship with the known method exists. See In re Kao, 639 F.3d 1057, 1072-73, 98 USPQ2d 1799, 1811-12 (Fed. Cir. 2011); King Pharmaceuticals Inc. v. Eon Labs Inc., 616 F.3d 1267, 1279, 95 USPQ2d 1833, 1842 (Fed. Cir. 2010).


A.Evidence Supporting a Functional Relationship

To be given patentable weight, the printed matter and associated product must be in a functional relationship. A functional relationship can be found where the printed matter performs some function with respect to the product to which it is associated. See Lowry, 32 F.3d at 1584, 32 USPQ2d at 1035 (citing Gulack, 703 F.2d at 1386, 217 USPQ at 404). For instance, indicia on a measuring cup perform the function of indicating volume within that measuring cup. See In re Miller, 418 F.2d 1392, 1396, 164 USPQ 46, 49 (CCPA 1969). A functional relationship can also be found where the product performs some function with respect to the printed matter to which it is associated. For instance, where a hatband places a string of numbers in a certain physical relationship to each other such that a claimed algorithm is satisfied due to the physical structure of the hatband, the hatband performs a function with respect to the string of numbers. See Gulack, 703 F.2d at 1386-87, 217 USPQ at 405.

B.Evidence Against a Functional Relationship

Where a product merely serves as a support for printed matter, no functional relationship exists. These situations may arise where the claim as a whole is directed towards conveying a message or meaning to a human reader independent of the supporting product. For example a hatband with images displayed on the hatband but not arranged in any particular sequence. See Gulack, 703 F.2d at 1386, 217 USPQ at 404. Another example in which a product merely serves as a support would occur for a deck of playing cards having images on each card. See In re Bryan, 323 Fed. App’x 898 (Fed. Cir. 2009) (unpublished). In Bryan the applicant asserted that the printed matter allowed the cards to be “collected, traded, and drawn”; “identify and distinguish one deck of cards from another”; and “enable[] the card to be traded and blind drawn”. However, the court found that these functions do not pertain to the structure of the apparatus and where instead drawn to the method or process of playing a game. See also Ex parte Gwinn, 112 USPQ 439, 446-47 (Bd. Pat. App. & Int. 1955), in which the invention was directed to a set of dice by means of which a game may be played. The claims differed from the prior art solely by the printed matter in the dice. The claims were properly rejected on prior art because there was no new feature of physical structure and no new relation of printed matter to physical structure. For example, a claimed measuring tape having electrical wiring information thereon, or a generically claimed substrate having a picture of a golf ball thereupon, would lack a functional relationship as the claims as a whole are directed towards conveying wiring information (unrelated to the measuring tape) or an aesthetically pleasing image (unrelated to the substrate) to the reader. Additionally, where the printed matter and product do not depend upon each other, no functional relationship exists. For example, in a kit containing a set of chemicals and a printed set of instructions for using the chemicals, the instructions are not related to that particular set of chemicals. In re Ngai, 367 F.3d at 1339, 70 USPQ2d at 1864.


Once a functional relationship between the product and associated printed matter is found, the investigation shifts to the determination of whether the relationship is new and unobvious. For example, a claim to a color-coded indicia on a container in which the color indicates the expiration date of the container may give rise to a functional relationship. The claim may, however, be anticipated by prior art that reads on the claimed invention, or by a combination of prior art that teaches the claimed invention.


When determining the scope of a claim directed to a computer-readable medium containing certain programming, the examiner should first look to the relationship between the programming and the intended computer system. Where the programming performs some function with respect to the computer with which it is associated, a functional relationship will be found. For instance, a claim to computer-readable medium programmed with attribute data objects that perform the function of facilitating retrieval, addition, and removal of information in the intended computer system, establishes a functional relationship such that the claimed attribute data objects are given patentable weight. See Lowry, 32 F.3d at 1583-84, 32 USPQ2d at 1035.

However, where the claim as a whole is directed to conveying a message or meaning to a human reader independent of the intended computer system, and/or the computer-readable medium merely serves as a support for information or data, no functional relationship exists. For example, a claim to a memory stick containing tables of batting averages, or tracks of recorded music, utilizes the intended computer system merely as a support for the information. Such claims are directed toward conveying meaning to the human reader rather than towards establishing a functional relationship between recorded data and the computer.

A claim directed to a computer readable medium storing instructions or executable code that recites an abstract idea must be evaluated for eligibility under 35 U.S.C. 101. See MPEP § 2106.