Last Week in the Federal Circuit (March 22-26): Improving A Technological Process Or Merely Enhancing An Ineligible Concept

Spring seems to have arrived in DC, and cherry blossom trees are starting to bloom all over the region. But the beautiful weather this weekend didn’t stop us from our weekly review of all things Federal Circuit. Below we provide our usual weekly statistics and our case of the week—our highly subjective selection based on whatever case piqued our interest.

Precedential opinions: 3

Non-precedential opinions: 5

Rule 36: 1

Longest pending case from argument: Kimble v. US, No. 19-1590 (381 days)

Shortest pending case from argument (non-Rule 36): RideApp, Inc. v. Lyft, Inc., No. 20-1284 (23 days)

Case of the week: In re Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University, No. 20-1288 (March 25, 2021)

Panel: Chief Judge Prost and Judges Lourie and Reyna, with Judge Reyna writing the opinion

You should read this case if: you have a case involving subject-matter eligibility, especially one involving the line between a patent-eligible improvement in a technological process versus a mere enhancement to an ineligible concept.

In this week’s case of the week, the Federal Circuit provided another data point for distinguishing patentable improvements in a technological process from unpatentable uses, even if novel, of a computer to perform abstract ideas. The Patent Office rejected Stanford’s patent application claiming improved methods for inferring haplotype phase, a statistical estimation in genetics of the likelihood that a combination of alleles were inherited from a common parent. Stanford claimed to have improved on prior-art approaches by using data structured in a new way that increased accuracy and efficiency.

The Federal Circuit held that Stanford’s claims were directed to abstract ideas and lacked an inventive concept. Much of the Court’s analysis focused on Alice step one. Stanford argued its claims were like those in McRO and similar cases because they claimed a practical application in haplotype prediction rather than simply an abstract mathematical or statistical technique. The Court rejected that view—although Stanford’s claims may improve the accuracy of calculating haplotype phase, they “recite[] no application, concrete or otherwise, beyond storing the haplotype phase” on a computer. The claims thus involved “merely an enhancement to the abstract mathematical calculation of haplotype phase itself” rather than any “improvement to a technological process.” “The different use of a mathematical calculation, even one that yields different or better results, does not render” claims patent eligible.

Although the Court viewed Alice step two as a potential “a lifeline” that “can rescue and save a claim,” that lifeline wasn’t enough for Stanford’s application on the facts here. According to the Court, the claimed methods involved performing mathematical calculations on a computer using steps like “receiving, extracting, and storing data,” all of which the Court held were “well-known, routine, and conventional.” Similar to its step-one analysis, the Court rejected the notion that merely achieving “more accurate haplotype predictions” was “enough to transform the abstract idea” into a patent-eligible application. Novelty is not “the touchstone of patent eligibility.”