October 31, 2008 | By corynne mcsherry

Federal Circuit Reins In Business Method Patents

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit yesterday issued a decision that imposes firm limits on business method patents. The ruling effectively overturns a key part of the court’s decision in State Street Bank and Trust v. Signature Financial Group, which opened the door to an explosion of patents on "methods" of doing business so long as the methods involved use of a computer and produced a "useful, concrete, and tangible result."

Bilski applied for a patent on a method of managing the risk of bad weather through commodities trading. Upholding the Patent Office’s rejection of Bilski’s application, the Federal Circuit held (in line with Supreme Court precedent) that processes can be patented only if they are implemented by a machine or transformed something into a new or different thing. The court found that Bilski’s method was not patentable because “transformations or manipulations of…business risks, or other such abstractions cannot meet the test because they are not physical objects or substances….” The court affirmed that business methods are still patentable, but explicitly rejected State Street’s “useful, concrete, and tangible result” test, which many believed had cleared the way for improper patents on fundamental principles and everyday activities that had no connection to technological innovation:

[W]hile looking for "a useful, concrete and tangible result" may in many instances provide useful indications of whether a claim is drawn to a fundamental principle or a practical application of such a principle, that inquiry is insufficient to determine whether a claim is patent-eligible under § 101. And it was certainly never intended to supplant the Supreme Court's test. Therefore, we also conclude that the "useful, concrete and tangible result" inquiry is inadequate and reaffirm that the machine-or-transformation test outlined by the Supreme Court is the proper test to apply.

EFF submitted an amicus brief (in conjunction with The Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley Law, Public Knowledge, and Consumers Union) supporting the rejection of Bilski's patent application.

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