New Guidance from the USPTO – a Boon for Patent Applicants

On January 4, 2019, the USPTO announced the issuance of revised guidance relevant to 35 U.S.C. § 101 (Subject Matter Eligibility) rejections. Entitled, 2019 Revised Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance, the document adds a new pathway for patent eligibility, whereby a claim that includes a judicial exception is still subject matter eligible under 35. U.S.C. § 101, if the judicial exception is “integrated into a practical application” of the judicial exception. The guidance was incorporated into the Federal Register on January 7, 2019, and applies to all USPTO personnel, which includes the examiners that review applications for 35 U.S.C. § 101 concerns, and the administrative judges that oversee appeals and disputes on these issues.

Of considerable note, the new procedure, referred to in the guidance and Federal Register as “revised Step 2A,” changes how Step 2A of the Alice/Mayo test is applied.

The old Step 2A asked whether a claim is directed to a judicial exception.   There are three enumerated judicial exceptions: 1) laws of nature; 2) natural phenomena; and 3) abstract ideas. If a claim had no judicial exception, it was patent eligible subject matter.  If a claim did have a judicial exception, the analysis would then move to Step 2B for further review.

The revised Step 2A still looks to see if there is a judicial exception in a claim, and if there is no judicial exception, the claim is considered directed to patent eligible subject matter.  However, the revised Step 2A differs in that if a judicial exception is identified, the claim is still directed to patent eligible subject matter if the judicial exception is “integrated into a practical application” of the judicial exception. For example, if a patent application with claims directed to a software method which incorporated an abstract idea, so long as that abstract idea is integrated into a practical application of that abstract idea, the claim is directed to patent eligible subject matter and may still be entitled to patenting.

 

The Guidance in Action at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board

Now that a little over a month has passed since the new guidance has gone into effect, we are starting to see some opinions from the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB).  While the PTAB has still issued a greater number of affirmed 101 rejections than reversals since the new guidance, the opinions have been positive with respect to those reversals.

One very telling reversal came on application 14/282,015, for claims directed to a software-based system for vehicles that allows users to provide consent for installing optional software updates that add a feature to a vehicle module or adjust a configuration of an existing feature, and, in lack of receipt of such consent, displaying an icon in a gauge cluster in the vehicle.  The examiner had initially rejected the claims under 101 as directed to: i) the abstract idea of updating software; and ii) organizing human activity (i.e., receiving consent to take an action).

The PTAB reversed, noting that there was a “specific practical application” of the abstract ideas in the claims.   The PTAB found that the claims were “directed to a practical application of updating software specifically for a vehicle module, in which user consent is required and in which lack of receipt of user consent is communicated to a user via an icon within the gauge cluster of a vehicle.  The opinion also noted that the claims were “directed to providing in a head unit display of the vehicle an indication of an optional status of the software update and a request for consent to install the optional update and upon receipt of user consent sends an update command over the vehicle bus and installs the update to a memory of the vehicle module.”

Notably, here we have an opinion from the PTAB identifying a quite low bar for application of the “practical application” standard.  In this case, the “practical application” seems to be not much more than having a prompt for approval that you would see on any software update (e.g., “accept the new Terms of Service”) and then displaying an icon on a display when there is an update still pending approval.

The second opinion we find interesting is one involving US Patent Application No. 12/374,372, and the following claim in particular:

A method of surfing the Internet comprising: a. selecting information on a web page; b. clicking on the information as it resides on the web page; and c. in response to the clicking, conducting a web search on the information.

The PTAB’s opinion in this case is less telling on the what constitutes “practical application” standard, as the opinion does not make such an analysis, and merely focuses on the examiner’s failing to adequately assert a valid analysis of the claim as an abstract idea unto itself.  Rather, the opinion simply notes that:

[T]he Examiner’s factual findings regarding the underlying abstract idea to overgeneralize the claimed invention under the patent eligibility guidelines at the time of the rejection in the Final Action and Examiner’s Answer and this same overgeneralized abstract idea similarly does not meet the Examiner’s requisite burden for analysis under the 2019 Revised Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance.

 Given the simplicity and breadth of the claim, it is likely good news for applicants with inventions in the software space that the PTAB is not outright viewing broad claims as inherently abstract under the new guidance.  The opinion does note other likely issues with the application, but it is in the context of the PTAB’s views on 101 with which we are concerned.

Conclusion

It has only been a month since the USPTO issued the latest in subject matter eligibility guidance, and our initial impressions of how the PTAB is using the new guidance is positive and optimistic.  Even though a greater percentage of opinions citing the 2019 Revised Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance affirmed the 101 findings of the examiner, the limited numbers are not truly representative of what we expect to see over the long run.  Further, a closer look at those affirmed 101 findings leads us to believe that the cases were destined to be maintained, regardless of the updated guidance.

Most notably for us is that the current interpretation of what constitutes when claimed subject matter is “integrated into a practical application” of the judicial exception seems to be initially very favorable for applicants, particularly for those with inventions in the software space.

Patenting and Protecting Artificial Intelligence in the United States

Advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI) have been occurring at an ever-increasing rate, impacting almost every field of technology, from medical diagnosis and analysis, to driverless cars, to automated securities trading platforms, all the way to home security[i].  The arms of AI can be felt in every industry, in one way or another. Given the speed of advancement and the very nature of AI itself, it is important to consider the complex landscape around how to protect improvements in the AI space.

At first, it is important to note the types of intellectual property (IP) protection that can apply to inventions in the AI space.  The definition of IP generally comprises the core four – patents, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets.  In the case of AI, each of these may apply, and each has its own particular usefulness and advantages.  Further, each of these types of IP has its own concerns with respect to the timing of obtaining the protection.  For this article, we will primarily be focusing on the two areas of protection that generally are of the most concern – patents and copyrights.

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Patenting AI

AI, in almost all cases, exists as a software component.  Depending on what the use case for the AI is, there may also be a hardware component (e.g., vision system, sensors, actuators), but these hardware components are generally peripheral to the core AI, which is software based.  While AI inventions based in combined software and hardware solutions or standalone software-based solutions may both be patentable, the analysis for whether an AI based system constitutes patent eligible subject matter does take into consideration what is actually involved.

Where there is a corresponding hardware component in use with the software-based AI component, the subject matter eligibility analysis is usually relatively simple, favoring eligibility over not.  For instance, if an AI system is used to automatically control a series of vision systems (e.g., security cameras) and detect intruders, the invention is likely eligible for patent protection from a subject matter perspective, assuming the application is drafted appropriately.

Where the AI system solely exists as a software solution, an examiner at the USPTO will likely give the invention more scrutiny under the subject matter eligibility tests.  We have written more on the patentability of software-based inventions in a separate article that you can find here. However, while patent applications directed to software only inventions may receive additional scrutiny, true AI inventions likely are sufficient to overcome these rejections.  In fact, USPTO Director Andrei Iancu has even discussed the patentability of AI, through discussions of “[H]uman-made algorithms”, during a hearing regarding the oversight of the USPTO in April of 2018.   Again, the critical point in securing a patent in a solely software based AI invention is appropriate drafting of the application.

With respect to patenting AI based inventions, particularly as it relates to the software component of the AI, it is important to note that a utility patent covers the functionality of the software, through defining the software in terms of systems and methods.  What patents do not cover is the actual code.  Source code is covered largely by copyright, which can protect direct copying of the code, but not those who write their own code to perform the same functionality.

In defining what an inventor wants to protect with respect to their software-based AI invention, it is important to look at the invention in terms of a method, or a series of steps.  Considering everything a computer does is generally a series of steps involving processing some data, framing the inventive aspects of the software-based AI invention in such a methodological manner is generally straightforward.

What inventors want to avoid is viewing the invention in the abstract, or very high-level depiction.  For instance, you cannot get a patent on the idea of “an AI based dating platform”, but you could potentially get a patent on the methods performed by the AI in order to find compatible matches (e.g., based on training models and predictive analytics).  So, a focus needs to be on what actual occurs in order to make the invention possible, not solely focusing on a conclusory statement about what problem is being solved.

Another important thing to remember when seeking patent protection for AI inventions, or any invention, is to do so sooner rather than later.  There are two main drivers for this.  First, the USPTO, and most if not all other national patent offices are “first-to-file” for priority on inventions.  What this means is that, even if you get to the market first with your invention, or conceived of the idea before another inventor, if another party’s application gets to the patent office before yours, then the patent rights will be theirs, and you will be prevented from getting a patent on the invention.

The second reason is that your ability to get a patent on an invention, even without worrying about what others are doing, can be jeopardized if you offer for sale or otherwise disclose your invention publicly before filing.  The USPTO gives you one year from making a public disclosure of the invention to file your patent application.  However, the rest of the world is not so nice, with many jurisdictions making it a bar on patentability if you publicly disclose your invention prior to filing a patent application in at least one jurisdiction first.

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Copyrighting AI

With respect to copyrighting all or portions of an invention based in AI, there are certain aspects of these inventions which are protectable and those which are not.  Copyrights cover artistic works, which includes everything from literary works, to graphical/visual works (e.g., paintings, movies, photographs), to musical works and even choreographed dances.

When considering copyrighting portions of an AI based invention, the focus is generally on copyrighting the source code.  Source code is considered a literary work for the purposes of copyrights, and inventors can receive a federal copyright registration in the uncompiled source code.

What is protected by a copyright registration on source code is the copying of the actual code.  It does not prevent others from creating code of their own that performs the same functions.  However, it does restrict the copying of subsets of the whole code, such as the copying of a module, or a series of functions.

One issue when considering copyrighting source code is how frequently the source code is updated.  Rarely is there a piece of software that is static for very long.   Updates in source code, while they may be considered derivative works of the originally copyrighted code, may not be independently covered by the initial registration.  Inventors should consider at what point they want to secure additional copyrights on later versions of a software-based invention.

It is important to note that while a copyright registration can be done at any time, as the works form in the author upon creation, statutory damages and attorneys fees are generally only available if the copyright registration is filed within 3-months of publication of the work[ii].  Filing your registration after that point will limit damages to “actual damages” (e.g., lost profit), which can be harder to prove.

Separately, more and more we see the question about whether it is possible to copyright the output of AI.  Recently there have been numerous instances of AI generating their own artistic works, such as The Next Rembrandt and Bayou.  The law is currently unsettled as to whether these works would be copyrightable.  For instance, in April of 2018, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the Copyright Act only provides standing to humans[iii].  The case, involving copyrights associated with a Monkey Selfie, but the same findings would presumably extend to works authored by AI.

Of course, numerous scholarly and legal minds believe that works would be derivative works of the individuals who wrote the code for the AI, and as such those individuals would be the rightful owners of works generated by the AI.  We ultimately will have to wait to see how this plays out in the future.

 

Conclusion

Overall, it is important to understand and analyze what aspects of an AI based invention can be secured early on in the process.  Timing is crucial for both patents and copyrights with respect to being able to secure the rights and receiving the greatest protection available under the laws.  This area of technology is moving quickly, so delay and lack of planning can be devastating. Devoting at least some time to do the analysis may help with providing a roadmap for how and when to protect various aspects of your AI based invention so that you reap the greatest rewards possible.

[i]Check out our client Deep Sentinel: https://www.deepsentinel.com/

[ii] See, 17 U.S.C., 412 https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/412

[iii] Naruto v. Slater http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2018/04/23/16-15469.pdf

 

5 Things you Need to Know about Software Patentability in 2018

If you are a developer, tech startup or otherwise considered trying to protect your amazing new idea or technology based in software, you probably have already looked into patents as a potential to secure those technologies. (I highlight idea, as we will come back to that very salient point in a minute). Probably one of the first things you run across is everyone talking about Alice!

Who is Alice? When people refer to Alice, they are referring to a Supreme Court decision in the case of Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International, 573 U.S. __, 134 S. Ct. 2347 (2014). In 2014, this was a landmark ruling that shifted the applicability of 35 U.S.C. § 101 to certain types of inventions. One central component of this shift was related to the patent eligibility of inventions that were based in software (or those that were otherwise based on abstract ideas).

We will not dive too deep in the analysis of Alice in this article for two main reasons: 1) it has been covered ad nauseum elsewhere; and 2) the ruling is over 4 years old and while Alice is still the root to most eligibility analyses, there have been numerous rulings since that have broadened, extended and clarified exactly what is and is not patent eligible subject matter.

So let’s start with this, for all you developers and executives at software companies:

1. Software is Patentable
Let us be clear, software is patentable, when done correctly. Even things that are simple processes are still protectable. For instance, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Inc. just received a patent for “DISPLAY OF TEXT INFORMATION ON A HEAD-MOUNTED DISPLAY” on May 29, 2018 (See US Patent 9,984,905), and Zynga recently got a patent for providing in game tutorials for players via a “Show Me” button on May 8, 2018 (See (US Patent No. 9,962,612).

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It is important to note that a utility patent covers the functionality of the software, through defining the software in terms of systems and methods. What patents do not cover is the actual code. Source code is covered largely by copyright, which can protect direct copying of the code, but not those who write their own code to do the same thing. And that is exactly where patents step in.

Now, there is a certain bare minimum that must be reached for a software system and/or method to be patentable. Which brings us back to why I highlighted idea back in the beginning. Ideas are not patentable in and of themselves, as they are abstract and fall squarely into the realm of what is not patent eligible.

2. An Idea is Not Enough

If you are forming the next great startup and you want to be the “Uber for X” or the “Tinder for Y”, that is not, in and of itself, going to get you cross the finish line for patent eligibility. Remember, software patents are directed to covering systems and methods. Software almost always is nothing more than a series of steps (i.e., instructions) that drive a computer to take some action (e.g., process data). Some data goes in, software directs the computer as to what to do with that data, and the output is some generally useful result. Whether it is finding the closest Uber, matching you to your next soulmate, adding two numbers together, or calculating the trajectory of a rocket for sending a payload into space, it all boils down to some data going in, being processed, and a result being output.

When putting together a patent to protect your invention, your invention must be more fully flushed out than simply stating in conclusory terms what your software will do. The abstract idea alone is not protectable, but the steps you use to get to the solution (i.e., method) may be. Develop the flowcharts for how your great idea gets from problem A, to solution B. The road in between is your patentable method. For some help on this topic, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has provided a useful resource in the form of a Quick Reference Sheet for Identifying Abstract Ideas.

Remember, the more flushed out your idea is, the more it becomes a methodology which may be protected.

3. What you Disclose in your Patent is Important

The content you put into your disclosure is king when it comes to your patent filing, especially for software related inventions. The basic requirement for a patent application is that the drawings and specification disclose the invention in enough detail that one of ordinary skill in the art would be able to practice the invention without undue experimentation. While that is the bare minimum, remember, if it is in your application, you can use it later during examination to overcome examiner’s arguments related to novelty, obviousness and even indefiniteness. Conversely, if you do not include detailed descriptions of the various aspects of your invention, you cannot later use them in your arguments.

One thing that should be remembered when preparing a patent application for software methods is that even though you may be filing a patent application for your unreleased software product that will be launched soon as an initial version (e.g., v1, beta), there is no need to limit the patent application disclosure to just the features that are in the software now. In fact, there is no requirement to have a working prototype in order to file a patent application on an invention. This is particularly important with software, where you may be going to market with a minimum viable product (MVP), but have a roadmap that goes through several iterations, versions and include numerous improvements and features not present in the MVP.

Since there is no requirement to have a working prototype, and the enablement requirements only require that you be able to describe the invention in enough detail that one or ordinary skill in the art would be able to practice the invention – something probably already at least partially contained in your roadmap – you should consider putting details of all your future concepts, features and improvements in your application. What this does is secure your priority date for all of the future features and improvements you have planned.

This strategy also allows you to use these features and improvements in arguments and amendments during examination. It generally takes 18-24 months to enter substantive examination at the USPTO. By this time, you will have a greater insight as to what features and improvements became a big hit, and those that did not pan out as planned. This allows you to focus the examination of the application on those key features that were later implemented, without the need to file additional patent applications on an ongoing basis.

Further, by disclosing additional features and improvements in the first application, you can later file one or more continuation applications at a later time to secure patents on the individual features and improvements at a later time. Each of these continuation applications get the benefit of the earlier filing date, even though they may be filed years later.

4. How you Write the Patent is as Important as the Technology

What you disclose in the application is only part of it. How you write the application is critical. The words you use can end up coming back to haunt you, by unnecessarily limiting the breadth and scope of your rights, or otherwise acting as self-sworn statements that you cannot back away from.

For instance, restrictive words, like, “only”, “must”, “always”, and “never” may limit the scope of an invention. If in an application, the disclosure states, “The system always does X before Y”, then you have been committed to a system that either always does X before Y, or never does Y (if you don’t do X, you cannot do Y). These kinds of limitations can poke holes in the breadth of an application, particularly when related to software, where there are frequently dozens if not hundreds of other ways to accomplish a task. Think to yourself when drafting or reviewing an application whether the statements you are making are really requirements, or just simply one way you have chosen to implement the solution.

In another example, statements about what have been done in the past or are done in an industry can act as prior art against your invention. This is known as “Applicant Admitted Prior Art” (AAPA) and can be disastrous in certain cases. Commonly found in the background section of a patent, some applicants (or their patent attorneys or agents) may end up making statements that go beyond what actually IS prior art and inadvertently giving up certain rights by making such statements.

Further, even beyond just admissions of prior art, statements in the application about what is well-understood, routine and conventional in the art can come back to haunt inventors and applicants, as this can give grounds to the examiner to provide a subject matter rejection under 35 U.S.C. § 101. Avoid these statements at all cost, as they are generally unnecessary and add little value to the actual disclosure itself.

However, the recent federal circuit opinion in Berkheimer v. HP, Inc., 881 f.3d1360 (Fed Cir. 2018) also confirmed that the concept of applicant admissions in a patent specification works in the opposite direction as well. In Berkheimer v. HP, Inc., and a later USPTO memo regarding implementation of the ruling as it relates to patent examination practice. In this case, the court found that the applicant’s statement that the novel improvements contained in the application were not convention, and represented an improvement over the art, created a factual dispute that would not permit a finding otherwise under a motion for summary judgment. Simply put, feel free to include statements throughout the specification as to how the disclosed software works or functions differently than conventional software, and how it provides improvements over the conventional or routine functionality of other software.

5. Examiners are Now Put to Task on Eligibility

When it comes to patents on software based systems and methods, Alice’s spectre still haunts us to this day. Examiners are still issuing subject matter eligibility rejections under 35 U.S.C. § 101 on otherwise valid and protectable systems and methods that are based in software. Frequently, these rejections are held up only by loose accusations and conclusory statements about an abstract idea contained in the claims.

The good news is that the examiners have now been put to task on these rejections. Per a recent memo from the Deputy Commissioner for Patent Examination Policy at the USPTO addressing all patent examiners, the examiners are now required to give specific rationale for findings that specific elements of the claims are well-understood, routine and conventional in the art. The avenues for them to do this are: i) point to the specification of the present application where the applicant makes express statements about the element being well-understood, routine and conventional (note: silence is not to be construed as having made any such statement); ii) point to previous court rulings that address specific claim elements in the present application; iii) provide reference(s) that show that the claim element is well-understood, routine and conventional in the art; or (iv) take official notice.

The memo and the CAFC note that when providing one or more specific references to show that the claim is well-understood, routine and conventional in the art, that “merely finding the additional elements in a single patent or published application would not be sufficient to demonstrate that the additional element is well-understood, routine and conventional in the art.”

Further, the memo notes that when an examiner chooses to take official notice, that the examiner be “certain, based on upon his or her personal knowledge, that additional element(s) represent well-understood, routine, or conventional activity engaged in by those in the relevant art, in that the additional elements are widely prevalent or in common use in the relevant field, comparable to the types of activity or elements that are so well-known that they do not need to be described in detail in a patent application to satisfy 35 U.S.C. § 112(a).” However, the memo then states that if challenged on this by the applicant, the examiner must provide items under (i)-(ii) above.

Conclusion

Software system and methods are still very much patentable in 2018, even in light of Alice.  However, it is important to consciously and conspicuously focus on what is it you are trying to protect, and what you say in your disclosures to the USPTO.  Done right, the pathway to obtaining a patent on a software system and method can be paved with a smooth and straightforward surface.  Follow the rules, watch what you write, include everything, and you are on your way.