The Supreme Court’s Bilski Decision: Business Method Patents Survive (But Bilski’s Risk Management Claims Are Not Patentable Subject Matter)

by Brian Fletcher on June 29, 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court, on June 28, 2010, decided the long-awaited Bilski case, affirming the Federal Circuit’s judgment.  The Court ruled that business methods are eligible subject matter but declined to accept the Federal Circuit’s machine-or-transformation test as the exclusive test for the Section 101 determination.  Most of the Court’s opinion is supported by 5 votes, and other parts are supported by only 4 votes.  All nine justices agreed that Bilski’s risk management method claims related to hedging against weather-related losses in the energy industry were too abstract, and thus not patentable subject matter.  Four justices, led by retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, said that methods of doing business should never be patentable.  They expressed “serious doubt” that business innovators need patents to succeed.

The Court held that the machine-or-transformation offers “a useful and important clue, an investigative tool, for determining whether some claimed inventions are processes under §101. The machine-or-transformation test is not the sole test for deciding whether an invention is a patent-eligible process.”

This decision is a win for financial institutions.  It is also a win for e-commerce and software companies, especially start-ups, who often rely heavily on business method and software patents to attract investors.

The following language is supported by a majority of the Court:

“Today, the Court once again declines to impose limitations on the Patent Act that are inconsistent with the Act’s text. The patent application here can be rejected under our precedents on the unpatentability of abstract ideas. The Court, therefore, need not define further what constitutes a patentable “process,” beyond pointing to the definition of that term provided in §100(b) and looking to the guideposts in Benson, Flook, and Diehr.

“And nothing in today’s opinion should be read as endorsing interpretations of §101 that the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has used in the past.  See, e.g., State Street, 149 F. 3d, at 1373; AT&T Corp., 172 F. 3d, at 1357. It may be that the Court of Appeals thought it needed to make the machine-or-transformation test exclusive precisely because its case law had not adequately identified less extreme means of restricting business method patents, including (but not limited to) application of our opinions in Benson, Flook, and Diehr. In disapproving an exclusive machine-or-transformation test, we by no means foreclose the Federal Circuit’s development of other limiting criteria that further the purposes of the Patent Act and are not inconsistent with its text.”

What’s next?  The Supreme Court left unanswered exactly what would be needed for a business method to be considered patentable subject matter. Also left open are the questions of patentable subject matter for software patents and medical diagnostic methods.  Thus, while business method patents are still alive – or have at least survived – the district courts and Federal Circuit will be using the next several years to develop “other limiting criteria that further the purposes of the Patent Act and are not inconsistent with its text.”

To read the full Bilski v. Kappos opinion, click here.

Previous post:

Next post: