“The Federal Circuit’s focus on an aspect of the Stanford application which no one could (or did) argue was a protectable innovation not only damaged Stanford, it also squandered an opportunity to bring clarity to an area of law that desperately needs it.”
Computer boilerplate – such as including “a processor and a memory” in claims – is commonplace in patent applications. However, the recent case of In re Stanford shows that this can be a double-edged sword, having the potential to both undermine an application and to ruin an opinion that could otherwise have shed light on several of the thorniest open questions in patent eligibility jurisprudence. Skeptical that such a common practice could be so counterproductive? Read on.
Language with No Benefit
From the outset, the invention in Stanford is not one where computer components should have had any particular significance. The invention was not a new type of computer, or a new component, such as an innovative processor or memory. Instead, it was (at least according to Stanford) a significant advance in the field of genomics. Many types of analysis required for genome interpretation are dependent on haplotype phasing – i.e., determining whether a gene was inherited from a person’s father or mother. The Stanford invention used a particular type of model with particular states – a hidden Markov model with inheritance, compression fixed error, and MIE-rich fixed error states – to perform haplotype phasing. This significantly increased the resolution of haplotype phasing, moving from 80% in the prior art to 97.9% for phasing using the Stanford invention.
Despite the fact that the Stanford invention was not, and did not purport to be, an improved or a novel computer, both the claims and description of the Stanford application included computer components. The description explained that “the present invention relates to methods, techniques, and algorithms that are intended to be implemented in a digital computer system” (application 13/445,925, paragraph 56), before saying that “such a digital computer or embedded device is well-known in the art” (id.) and providing a description of a generic computer system that is repeated in a variety of other Stanford patents and applications (e.g., U.S. 8,966,413, U.S. 2013/0073329). The claims included similar generic computer language, with limitations requiring various steps of the innovative haplotype phasing method to be performed “on a computer system comprising a processor and a memory” or “using a computer system comprising a processor and a memory” being added to the claims in response to a rejection under 35 U.S.C. § 101.
From Ineffective to Detrimental
Stanford does not appear to have benefitted from the generic computer language in their application and, to the extent that language had any impact at all, the impact appears to have been negative. The addition of computer language to the claims did not convince the examiner to withdraw the 101 rejections. Instead, the examiner stated that “[t]here is no limitation in the claims that the claimed computer program or computer uses other than a generic computer,” maintained the rejection and made the successive office action final. (Office Action of 7-9-2015 on application 13/445,925). On appeal, the computer language appears to have gone from having no effect to being actively detrimental. The patent trial and appeal board explicitly referenced the application’s generic computer system description when explaining that “the claimed method does not teach a technical improvement in a computer processor, but rather use the computer as a tool to improve data analysis.” (Ex parte Dewey, Appeal No. 2018-005489, on application 13/445,925 (PTAB 2019) at 11). Similarly, the Federal Circuit specifically noted the claims’ recitation of a “processor” and a “memory” in support of its statement that “it is hard to imagine a patent than that recites hardware limitations in more generic terms than the terms employed in claim 1.” (In re Stanford, Case No. 20-1012 (Fed. Cir. 2021) at 11). Unsurprisingly, the attention paid to aspects of its application which were admittedly not innovative did not bode well for Stanford, and its appeals were unsuccessful at both the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) and the Federal Circuit.
A Missed Opportunity for Clarity
The attention paid to the non-innovative aspects of Stanford’s technology also made the Federal Circuit’s opinion much less useful in terms of clarifying the proper application of section 101. Looking purely at the law, it would have been reasonable to expect the Federal Circuit to have found the Stanford claims eligible. In McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games America, Inc., the Federal Circuit had already dealt with the eligibility of a method which used an assertedly innovative computational tool to improve an inherently computerized process, and found that claims which recited the tool with sufficient specificity were not directed to an abstract idea. Additionally, McRO clearly undercut the reasoning used by the PTAB to find the Stanford claims ineligible – i.e., that they recited steps that could be performed in the mind or recited mathematical concepts – since the McRO claims had also recited mathematical concepts (i.e., determining morph weight sets based on phoneme subsequence timing) and improved a process that not only could be, but actually had been performed in the human mind (i.e., synchronizing character and lip models in computer animation). If the Federal Circuit was going to find Stanford’s claims ineligible, it had the opportunity to significantly clarify the rules of subject matter eligibility by clearly distinguishing McRO. It did not. Instead, its only mention of McRO was to note that the PTAB had distinguished that case because the McRO claims “improve ‘the computer animation process itself.’” In re Stanford, at 6. It then stated that “we are not persuaded that claim 1 is not directed to an abstract mathematical calculation” and “we are not persuaded that the process is an improved technological process.” (id. at 10). No explanation whatsoever was provided for why an improved haplotype phasing process was not “an improved technological process” while an improved computer animation process was. Similarly, no explanation was provided for why Stanford was doomed for reciting mathematical calculations while McRO was not. Indeed, it appears that the most important factor for the Federal Circuit was that the claims recited “a processor and a memory” without purporting to improve them, since it saw fit to explicitly state that:
Notably, claim 1 neither requires nor results in, a specialized computer or a computer with a specialized memory or processor. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a patent claim that recites hardware limitations in more generic terms than the terms employed by claim 1.
Considerations Going Forward
The Federal Circuit’s focus on an aspect of the Stanford application which no one could (or did) argue was a protectable innovation not only damaged Stanford, it also squandered an opportunity to bring clarity to an area of law that desperately needs it. More ominously, it also raised the question of whether the nigh-ubiquitous practice of including form computer language may need to be rethought, since if the Federal Circuit puts so much weight on “a processor and a memory” in claims which recite those terms, maybe it would be better to omit them all together to avoid falling into the trap of having to assert an improvement to the processor and the memory, rather than being able to focus on the actual invention an application is intended to protect.
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