As attorneys involved in patent litigation, our firm has received several inquiries lately about whether we might take, on contingent fee, a case for infringement of a business method patent. The answer is “maybe!” “A business method is simply one kind of ‘method’ that is, at least in some circumstances, eligible for patenting.” Bilski v. Kappos,130 S.Ct. 3218 (U.S. 2010). Great care must be taken in evaluating such a case, however, because method patents are not broadly patentable.
Bilski made its way to the highest court via an administrative route rather than by private litigation. An applicant tried to patent a method of hedging risk in commodities trading in the energy market. The PTO rejected the patent, which was affirmed by the Board of Patent Appeals and the Federal Circuit (en banc). The Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Methods of doing business are not necessarily non-patentable. In Bilski, the claimed invention was a mathematical formula, an “abstract idea,” and thus not a patentable “process.” Significantly, however, the Court rejected any limitation that a method patent must satisfy a “machine” or “transformation” test. That is, a claimed process is not patent eligible only if: (1) it is tied to a particular machine or apparatus, or (2) it transforms a particular article into a different state or thing. Although a useful tool, the Supreme Court held that the “machine or transformation” test is not the sole test for determining whether a method is patent eligible. While the “machine or transformation” test might have worked well in the Industrial Age, it does not work as well in the Information Age.
In the Supreme Court’s decision, four Justices concurred in one opinion (strongly disagreeing with the Court’s disposition of the case) and two in another (believing that business methods are not patentable). The Federal Circuit’s decision produced five opinions. This led Justice Kennedy to note, “Students of patent law would be well advised to study these scholarly opinions.”
This has led some to suggest reexamination as an alternative to patent litigation or a license and that “defendants and potential licensees are using reexaminations more frequently than in the past to challenge the validity of the claims in issued patents. So what’s the bottom line? Business method patents, while perhaps alive, will be difficult to successfully litigate by a plaintiff. Perhaps the patent owner can best prepare his case for successful litigation by seeking re-examination himself before it is sought by a defendant, potential licensee or other third-party. We would be much more likely to take a business method case on contingency fee after the patent has survived re-examination in light of the substantial, though perhaps somewhat ambiguous, discussion of the higher and highest courts in Bilski.