August 28, 2017

Preemption is “Part and Parcel” of the §101; But Lack of Preemption Does Not Necessarily Establish Patentability

By Bryan K. Wheelock, Principal

In Return Mail, Inc. v. United States Postal Service, [2016-1502] (August 28, 2017), the Federal Circuit affirmed the PTAB’s decision that the US Postal Service had standing to challenge Return Mails patents in an CBMR, and that as a result of that challenge the patents were not patentable subject matter under 35 USC §101.

The Federal Circuit held that it had authority to review the standing issue, concluding that Cuozzo and Achates are distinguishable and do not dictate the availability of judicial review in this case.  The Federal Circuit distinguished Cuozzo, finding that whether a party is statutorily allowed to petition for CBM review does not amount to “little more than a challenge to the [PTO’s] conclusion” about the petition’s likelihood of success on the merits.  The Federal Circuit distinguished Achates based on differences in the statutory framework for IPR and CBM review, CBM review being reserved only to parties who have have been sued for or charged with infringement of the underlying patent.  The Federal Circuit further noted that unlike the IPR time bar at issue in Achates, which is simply a procedural requirement that rights be exercised in a timely manner, § 18(a)(1)(B) relates to a party’s right to seek CBM review in the first instance.  The Federal Circuit held that § 324(e) does not bar judicial review of the Board’s decision that a party satisfies § 18(a)(1)(B)’s requirements to petition for CBM review.

On the standing issue, the Federal Circuit found that Return Mail made several cogent arguments why a §1498(a) suit is not one for “infringement,” but despite the important differences between §1498(a) suits against the government and suits for infringement against private parties, these differences, along with Return Mail’s other arguments, were insufficient to compel a conclusion that Congress intended to exclude a government-related party sued under § 1498(a) from being able to petition for CBM review.

On the patentable subject matter issue under 35 USC 101, Return Mail argued that the claims may involve the abstract idea of “relaying mailing address data” but are not directed to such an abstract idea.  Return Mail first argued that the claims do not preempt other systems for relaying mailing address data; and second, that the claims are directed to a specific improvement to technology for relaying mailing address data.  The Federal Circuit disagreed, finding that the claims were directed to an abstract idea, much like the claims in Content Extraction and FairWarning.  The Federal Circuit further found the argument that the claims were directed to a specific improvement was also unavailing, noting that limiting the abstract idea to a particular environment such as a mail processing system with generic computing technology, “does not make the claims any less abstract for the Alice Step 1 analysis.

On the Alice Step 2 analysis, the Federal Circuit said that the claims at issue were not analogous to claims “directed to a specific implementation of a solution to a problem in the software arts,” which it has held not to be directed to an abstract idea.  The Federal Circuit found that the claims only recite routine, conventional activities such as identifying undeliverable mail items, decoding data on those mail items, and creating output data.

At Return Mail’s instance, the Federal Circuit expounded on the role of preemption in the §101 analysis.  The Federal Circuit noted that preemption is the underlying concern that drives the §101 analysis.  The Federal Circuit said that monopolization of the basic tools of scientific and technological work would thwart the primary object of the patent laws to promote future innovation, concluding that “[p]reemption is therefore part and parcel with the §101 inquiry.”  The Federal Circuit noted that while it has often cited the lack of preemption concerns to support a determination that a claim is patent-eligible under § 101, it has consistently held that claims that are otherwise directed to patent-ineligible subject matter cannot be saved by arguing the absence of complete preemption.