Abstract Ideas Can’t Be Patented. Or Can They?

The Supreme Court has long held that laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas are not eligible for patent protection. Because these things are discovered rather than invented, they are “free to all men and reserved exclusively to none.” In recent years, however, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which hears most patent appeals, has begun to relax the restriction on such patents. I’ve written before about the problems created by software patents. Software is is ultimately just a sequence of mathematical formulas, and in their pure form they’re not patentable. But in a series of decisions in the 1990s, the Federal Circuit opened the door to patents that cover software when it’s loaded onto a computer, which of course is the only useful thing to do with software. Since then, we’ve seen an avalanche of patents on software, which have started creating serious problems for innovators in the software industry.

The latest example of the problems on patenting abstract concepts comes via Mike Masnick of Techdirt: a company had some problems with a satellite launch, and wanted to use a maneuver called a Lunar flyby to correct it. Unfortunately, Boeing holds a patent covering the maneuver they wanted to use, and they have been unable to negotiate a license of that patent. So they’re planning to let the satellite go down in flames and try to collect the insurance money on it.

Now, as Mike points out, the maneuver in question is just an application of basic physics to spaceflight. The basic principles have been understood since Newton, and NASA has been computing these kinds of orbital trajectories since the 1960s. The patent office should have rejected the patent for trying to patent a straightforward application of basic physics. Unfortunately, thanks to the Federal Circuit’s increasingly permissive standards for patentable subject matter, Boeing was granted the patent, and this company now faces the unappetizing choice of leaving the satellite in the wrong orbit or getting embroiled in litigation with Boeing.

Crucially, the Supreme Court has never endorsed the Federal Circuit’s experiment with allowing patents on abstract ideas, and several justices have voiced concerns about the direction the Federal Circuit has taken the rules for patentability. Apparently, the widespread outrage over the abuse of such patents has gotten the Federal Circuit’s attention, as it has decided to re-hear a case called In Re Bilski that could give it an opportunity to tighten up the rules for patenting abstract concepts. Several public interest groups have filed briefs in the case urging the court to do just that.

The Federal Circuit will be hearing the case en banc next month, and it has already become one of the most closely-watched cases on the Federal Circuit’s docket. Given the Supreme Court’s heightened interest in patent issues in recent years, it’s not hard to imagine the Supreme Court deciding to review the decision as well. Given that Congress has so far ducked the issue of reining in patents on abstract concepts in its pending patent reform legislation, In Re Bilski may be our best chance of reform.