Legal Definition: Abstractness

Abstractness: This term constitutes one of the most engaging concepts of patent law and will be at the center of decisions to be issued by The Federal Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming years. It is representative of the challenges presented to our system of intellectual property laws as we more fully explore the Information Age and more fully distance ourselves from the Industrial Age. The Patent Act provides that one is eligible for a patent if one “invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.” As the centuries unfolded following passage of the Patent Act, courts ruled that there were three categories of subject matter that were outside the bounds of the Act, and, accordingly, were not eligible for patent issuance: laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas. Those judge-created exceptions to patent eligibility then led to yet additional judicial discussion. Ultimately, the effort to define the meaning of “abstract ideas” led courts to conclude that—if a “process” or “method” was to be patentable—it would have to meet a “machine-or-transformation” test: if a “process” is to be patent eligible, it must either be “tied to a particular machine or apparatus” or it must transform “a particular article into a different state or thing.” The Federal Circuit—in Bilski v. Kappos—held that the “machine-or-transformation” test was not just an evaluative factor in determining whether a process was patent-eligible. Instead, that court held it was a requirement in determining the patent eligibility of a process. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision and held that the test was not exclusive—just a “useful and important clue, an investigative tool” for determining patentability. Particularly because the concept of “abstractness” is not a statutorily created category of disqualification, courts should be reluctant to impose mechanistic or physical interpretations to that term when so much inventiveness is directed to informational and non-material subjects.

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