Supreme Court looks at patent decisions
WASHINGTON - Should techniques for training horses be eligible for a patent? What about a system for choosing a jury?
Supreme Court justices raised the questions yesterday as they struggled to decide what types of inventions should qualify for patent protection.
In a case that has put software and bioscience companies on edge, the justices debated whether processes or methods of doing business should be eligible for protection. The dispute has raised serious questions about whether software programs, medical procedures, financial transactions, and other nontangible inventions should be able to obtain patents like those granted to physical devices.
Yesterday’s oral arguments made clear that the justices are skeptical that the business method at the center of the case before them - a process of hedging weather-related risk in energy prices - deserves a patent. Some saw a risk in using the case to set broad precedent on what can and cannot be patented.
In 1997, inventors Bernard Bilski and Rand Warsaw applied for a patent on a process that can be used by residential and commercial customers to lock in fixed energy bills, even during an unusually cold winter. The Patent Office concluded the process was too abstract and denied the application.
The US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld the decision last year and said a process is eligible for a patent only if it is “tied to a particular machine or apparatus’’ or if it “transforms a particular article into a different state or thing.’’
The question before the Supreme Court was whether the “machine-or-transformation’’ test is the right standard.
Michael Jakes, the attorney representing Bilski and Warsaw, told the high court that the test would exclude too many useful innovations in today’s information-based economy.