George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

CPIP Scholars File Amicus Brief Urging Supreme Court to Fix Section 101

dictionary entry for the word "innovate"On December 4, 2017, CPIP Founder Adam Mossoff and CPIP John F. Witherspoon Legal Fellow David Lund filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to grant certiorari in RecogniCorp. v. Nintendo. The amicus brief was joined by several law professors, including Richard Epstein and Michael Risch, as well as CPIP Senior Scholars Chris Holman, Kristen Osenga, Mark Schultz, and Ted Sichelman. Bob Sachs of Robert R. Sachs P.C. served as counsel of record.

The technology at issue involves a method of encoding and decoding composite facial images on a computer. The invention solved the problem of decreased image quality when such images are transmitted digitally. RecogniCorp sued Nintendo for patent infringement, and Nintendo challenged the eligibility of the patent under Section 101. Applying the Mayo-Alice framework, the district court held that invention was ineligible subject matter because it was directed to an abstract idea and lacked an inventive concept. Agreeing with that analysis, the Federal Circuit affirmed.

The amici argue that the Supreme Court should grant certiorari in this case in order to correct the continued misapplication of the Mayo-Alice test by the Federal Circuit, the district courts, and the Patent & Trademark Office. By breaking down claims into individual elements and then generalizing them in broad terms, the lower courts and the PTO are failing to properly consider the claimed invention as a whole.

The Summary of Argument is copied below:


This Court has repeatedly reminded the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, district courts, and the United States Patent & Trademark Office (“PTO”) that § 101 of the Patent Act is a key requirement in assessing the validity of both patent applications and issued patents. In doing so, this Court set forth a two-part test for assessing whether an invention is patentable subject matter (the “Mayo-Alice test”). See Alice Corp. Pty. v. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347 (2014); Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc., 132 S. Ct. 1289 (2012). These cases build upon prior cases such as Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175 (1981), which held that a software-based method for operating a rubber mold is patent eligible under § 101.

Unfortunately, the lower courts and the PTO have misunderstood how to apply the Mayo-Alice test. Specifically, the lower courts and the PTO have adopted an indeterminate and overly restrictive approach, invalidating legitimate patented innovation under § 101 with little predictability for inventors or patent attorneys. This frustrates the constitutional function of the patent system in promoting the “Progress of . . . useful Arts.” U.S. Const. art. 1, § 8, cl. 8.

This case exemplifies both of these fundamental problems—indeterminacy and over-restrictiveness—because the lower courts held that a claim is patent ineligible as an “abstract idea” merely because the process was implemented through the use of computer software. These problems undermine inventors’ ability to use the patent system to protect computer-mediated processes that are exactly the kind of innovation that the patent system is designed to promote.

Petitioner details the substantial confusion in the application of the Mayo-Alice test in this case, as well as at the PTO and in the lower courts. Amici here identify a further key insight: when lower courts and the PTO apply the Mayo-Alice test to only individualized elements of a claim, generalizing these elements into a broad, categorical description and not evaluating the claimed invention as a whole, they are using a methodological approach that conflicts with this Court’s existing precedents on determining patent eligibility under § 101.

In this case, the Federal Circuit held that a software-based method of producing images of faces on a computer screen is an “abstract idea.” RecogniCorp, LLC v Nintendo Co., 855 F.3d 1322, 1327 (Fed. Cir. 2017). It reached this conclusion by dissecting the claim into its separate elements and ignoring other key elements, ultimately finding the claimed invention is ineligible under § 101. By reducing the claim to “encoding and decoding data,” the court ignored the invention as a whole that improves the way computers generate digital representations of faces for display.

This Court can easily remedy this problem by (1) recognizing the role of the patent system in protecting computer-implemented innovation, a key driver of modern technological progress, and (2) providing further instructions to lower courts and to the PTO that they should apply the Mayo-Alice test only to the claimed invention as a whole. This is a predicate legal requirement in assessing novelty under § 102 and in assessing nonobviousness under § 103 of the Patent Act. It is also a fundamental legal requirement for asserting patents for both literal and equivalents infringement under § 271. In all of these other patent doctrines, this Court has maintained the basic requirement of assessing patentability or limiting assertion of patents to the claimed invention as a whole, as this avoids the same policy problems of indeterminacy and over-restrictiveness (or over-inclusiveness, depending on the perspective) in these other patent doctrines. Thus, this Court should grant the petition for certiorari, reverse the Federal Circuit, and provide further instructions for applying the Mayo-Alice test only to the “claimed invention as a whole.”

To read the amicus brief, please click here.