The Supreme Court has long distinguished between principles themselves (which are not patent eligible) and the integration of those principles into practical applications (which are patent eligible). See, e.g., Mayo Collaborative Servs. v. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 80, 84, 101 USPQ2d 1961, 1968-69, 1970 (2012) (noting that the Court in Diamond v. Diehr found ‘‘the overall process patent eligible because of the way the additional steps of the process integrated the equation into the process as a whole,’’ but the Court in Gottschalk v. Benson ‘‘held that simply implementing a mathematical principle on a physical machine, namely a computer, was not a patentable application of that principle’’). Similarly, in a growing body of decisions, the Federal Circuit has distinguished between claims that are ‘‘directed to’’ a judicial exception (which require further analysis to determine their eligibility) and those that are not (which are therefore patent eligible), e.g., claims that improve the functioning of a computer or other technology or technological field. See Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 209 USPQ 1 (1981); Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 175 USPQ 673 (1972). See, e.g., MPEP § 2106.06(b) (summarizing Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d 1327, 118 USPQ2d 1684 (Fed. Cir. 2016), McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 120 USPQ2d 1091 (Fed. Cir. 2016), and other cases that were eligible as improvements to technology or computer functionality instead of being directed to abstract ideas).
Accordingly, after determining that a claim recites a judicial exception in Step 2A Prong One, examiners should evaluate whether the claim as a whole integrates the recited judicial exception into a practical application of the exception in Step 2A Prong Two. A claim that integrates a judicial exception into a practical application will apply, rely on, or use the judicial exception in a manner that imposes a meaningful limit on the judicial exception, such that the claim is more than a drafting effort designed to monopolize the judicial exception. Whether or not a claim integrates a judicial exception into a practical application is evaluated using the considerations set forth in subsection I below, in accordance with the procedure described below in subsection II.
In the context of the flowchart in MPEP § 2106, subsection III, Step 2A Prong Two determines whether:
- • The claim as a whole integrates the judicial exception into a practical application, in which case the claim is not directed to a judicial exception (Step 2A: NO) and is eligible at Pathway B. This concludes the eligibility analysis.
- • The claim as a whole does not integrate the exception into a practical application, in which case the claim is directed to the judicial exception (Step 2A: YES), and requires further analysis under Step 2B (where it may still be eligible if it amounts to an inventive concept). See MPEP § 2106.05 for discussion of Step 2B.
I. RELEVANT CONSIDERATIONS FOR EVALUATING WHETHER ADDITIONAL ELEMENTS INTEGRATE A JUDICIAL EXCEPTION INTO A PRACTICAL APPLICATION
The Supreme Court and Federal Circuit have identified a number of considerations as relevant to the evaluation of whether the claimed additional elements demonstrate that a claim is directed to patent-eligible subject matter. 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 MPEP § 2106.05(a) through (c) and MPEP § 2106.05(e) through (h).
Limitations the courts have found indicative that an additional element (or combination of elements) may have integrated the exception into a practical application include:
- • An improvement in the functioning of a computer, or an improvement to other technology or technical field, as discussed in MPEP §§ 2106.04(d)(1) and 2106.05(a);
- • Applying or using a judicial exception to effect a particular treatment or prophylaxis for a disease or medical condition, as discussed in MPEP § 2106.04(d)(2);
- • Implementing a judicial exception with, or using a judicial exception in conjunction with, a particular machine or manufacture that is integral to the claim, as discussed in MPEP § 2106.05(b);
- • Effecting a transformation or reduction of a particular article to a different state or thing, as discussed in MPEP § 2106.05(c); and
- • Applying or using the judicial exception in some other meaningful way beyond generally linking the use of the judicial exception to a particular technological environment, such that the claim as a whole is more than a drafting effort designed to monopolize the exception, as discussed in MPEP § 2106.05(e).
The courts have also identified limitations that did not integrate a judicial exception into a practical application:
- • Merely reciting the words “apply it” (or an equivalent) with the judicial exception, or merely including instructions to implement an abstract idea on a computer, or merely using a computer as a tool to perform an abstract idea, as discussed in MPEP § 2106.05(f);
- • Adding insignificant extra-solution activity to the judicial exception, as discussed in MPEP § 2106.05(g); and
- • Generally linking the use of a judicial exception to a particular technological environment or field of use, as discussed in MPEP § 2106.05(h).
Step 2A Prong Two is similar to Step 2B in that both analyses involve evaluating a set of judicial considerations to determine if the claim is eligible. See MPEP §§ 2106.05(a) through (h) for the list of considerations that are evaluated at Step 2B. Although most of these considerations overlap (i.e., they are evaluated in both Step 2A Prong Two and Step 2B), Step 2A specifically excludes consideration of whether the additional elements represent well-understood, routine, conventional activity. Accordingly, in Step 2A Prong Two, examiners should ensure that they give weight to all additional elements, whether or not they are conventional, when evaluating whether a judicial exception has been integrated into a practical application. Additional elements that represent well-understood, routine, conventional activity may integrate a recited judicial exception into a practical application.
It is notable that mere physicality or tangibility of an additional element or elements is not a relevant consideration in Step 2A Prong Two. As the Supreme Court explained in Alice Corp., mere physical or tangible implementation of an exception does not guarantee eligibility. Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 573 U.S. 208, 224, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1983-84 (2014) (“The fact that a computer ‘necessarily exist[s] in the physical, rather than purely conceptual, realm,’ is beside the point”). 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 are not “sufficient” 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).
In addition, a specific way of achieving a result is not a stand-alone consideration in Step 2A Prong Two. However, the specificity of the claim limitations is relevant to the evaluation of several considerations including the use of a particular machine, particular transformation and whether the limitations are mere instructions to apply an exception. See MPEP §§ 2106.05(b), 2106.05(c), and 2106.05(f). For example, in Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 198 USPQ 193 (1978), the Supreme Court noted that the “patent application does not purport to explain how to select the appropriate margin of safety, the weighting factor, or any of the other variables” in the claimed mathematical formula, “[n]or does it purport to contain any disclosure relating to the chemical processes at work, the monitoring of process variables, or the means of setting off an alarm or adjusting an alarm system.” 437 U.S. at 586, 198 USPQ at 195. The Court found this failure to explain any specifics of how to use the claimed formula informative when deciding that the additional elements in the claim were insignificant post-solution activity and thus not meaningful enough to render the claim eligible. 437 U.S. at 589-90, 198 USPQ at 197.
II. HOW TO EVALUATE WHETHER THE ADDITIONAL ELEMENTS INTEGRATE THE JUDICIAL EXCEPTION INTO A PRACTICAL APPLICATION
The analysis under Step 2A Prong Two is the same for all claims reciting a judicial exception, whether the exception is an abstract idea, a law of nature, or a natural phenomenon (including products of nature). Examiners evaluate integration into a practical application by: (1) identifying whether there are any additional elements recited in the claim beyond the judicial exception(s); and (2) evaluating those additional elements individually and in combination to determine whether they integrate the exception into a practical application, using one or more of the considerations introduced in subsection I supra, and discussed in more detail in MPEP §§ 2106.04(d)(1), 2106.04(d)(2), 2106.05(a) through (c) and 2106.05(e) 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 Prong Two is not a weighing test, it is not important how the elements are characterized or how many considerations apply from the 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 exception is integrated into a practical application. If the claim as a whole integrates the judicial exception into a practical application based upon evaluation of these considerations, the additional limitations impose a meaningful limit on the judicial exception and the claim is eligible at Step 2A.
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, or that integrate the exception into a practical application.
For more information on how to evaluate claims reciting multiple judicial exceptions, see MPEP § 2106.04, subsection II.B.
III. EXAMPLES OF HOW THE OFFICE EVALUATES WHETHER THE CLAIM AS A WHOLE INTEGRATES THE JUDICIAL EXCEPTION INTO A PRACTICAL APPLICATION
The Prong Two analysis considers the claim as a whole. That is, the limitations containing the judicial exception as well as the additional elements in the claim besides the judicial exception need to be evaluated together to determine whether the claim integrates the judicial exception into a practical application. Because a judicial exception alone is not eligible subject matter, if there are no additional claim elements besides the judicial exception, or if the additional claim elements merely recite another judicial exception, that is insufficient to integrate the judicial exception into a practical application. However, the way in which the additional elements use or interact with the exception may integrate it into a practical application. Accordingly, the additional limitations should not be evaluated in a vacuum, completely separate from the recited judicial exception. Instead, the analysis should take into consideration all the claim limitations and how those limitations interact and impact each other when evaluating whether the exception is integrated into a practical application.
Two examples of how the Office evaluates whether the claim as a whole integrates the recited judicial exception into a practical application are provided. In Solutran, Inc. v. Elavon, Inc., 931 F.3d 1161, 2019 USPQ2d 281076 (Fed. Cir. 2019), the claims were to methods for electronically processing paper checks, all of which contained limitations setting forth receiving merchant transaction data from a merchant, crediting a merchant’s account, and receiving and scanning paper checks after the merchant’s account is credited. In part one of the Alice/Mayo test, the Federal Circuit determined that the claims were directed to the abstract idea of crediting the merchant’s account before the paper check is scanned. The court first determined that the recited limitations of “crediting a merchant’s account as early as possible while electronically processing a check” is a “long-standing commercial practice” like in Alice and Bilski. 931 F.3d at 1167, 2019 USPQ2d 281076, at *5 (Fed. Cir. 2019). The Federal Circuit then continued with its analysis under part one of the Alice/Mayo test finding that the claims are not directed to an improvement in the functioning of a computer or an improvement to another technology. In particular, the court determined that the claims “did not improve the technical capture of information from a check to create a digital file or the technical step of electronically crediting a bank account” nor did the claims “improve how a check is scanned.” Id. This analysis is equivalent to the Office’s analysis of determining that the exception is not integrated into a practical application at Step 2A Prong Two, and thus that the claims are directed to the judicial exception (Step 2A: YES).
In Finjan Inc. v. Blue Coat Systems, Inc., 879 F.3d 1299, 125 USPQ2d 1282 (Fed. Cir. 2018), the claimed invention was a method of virus scanning that scans an application program, generates a security profile identifying any potentially suspicious code in the program, and links the security profile to the application program. 879 F.3d at 1303-04, 125 USPQ2d at 1285-86. The Federal Circuit noted that the recited virus screening was an abstract idea, and that merely performing virus screening on a computer does not render the claim eligible. 879 F.3d at 1304, 125 USPQ2d at 1286. The court then continued with its analysis under part one of the Alice/Mayo test by reviewing the patent’s specification, which described the claimed security profile as identifying both hostile and potentially hostile operations. The court noted that the security profile thus enables the invention to protect the user against both previously unknown viruses and “obfuscated code,” as compared to traditional virus scanning, which only recognized the presence of previously-identified viruses. The security profile also enables more flexible virus filtering and greater user customization. 879 F.3d at 1304, 125 USPQ2d at 1286. The court identified these benefits as improving computer functionality, and verified that the claims recite additional elements (e.g., specific steps of using the security profile in a particular way) that reflect this improvement. Accordingly, the court held the claims eligible as not being directed to the recited abstract idea. 879 F.3d at 1304-05, 125 USPQ2d at 1286-87. This analysis is equivalent to the Office’s analysis of determining that the additional elements integrate the judicial exception into a practical application at Step 2A Prong Two, and thus that the claims were not directed to the judicial exception (Step 2A: NO).