The latest news from the field of biotechnology patents is in: the Federal Circuit has handed down its opinion (again) in Prometheus v. Mayo (pdf), the closely watched diagnostic method case. The verdict is the same as before: Prometheus’s patents satisfy the § 101 test for patentable subject matter.
On Monday, we wrote about the Federal Circuit’s first post-Bilski method patent decision: Research Corporation Technology v. Microsoft. In analyzing RCT we argued that it was “a good bet that the Prometheus and Myriad patents, and others like them, will survive § 101.” That bet paid off today in Prometheus and, based on the signals the Federal Circuit sent in that opinion, we think it is increasingly likely to pay off again in Myriad in the form of at least a partial reversal (more on this below).
Applying Bilski means Business as Usual. Way back in June, when the Supreme Court decided Bilski, it not only failed to provide lower courts (including the Federal Circuit) with meaningful guidance for biotechnology method patents, it arguably failed to provide meaningful guidance about anything at all. Despite predictions that Bilski might fundamentally reshape the patent landscape, the Court’s fractured opinions produced little in the way of binding law. The clearest statement from the Court was that the machine-or-transformation test for method patentability, which the Federal Circuit had previously deemed an exclusive test, was in fact only a “useful and important tool.” (Other useful and important tools were not, however, enumerated.)
GLR readers will recall that just last summer the Supreme Court passed-up a major opportunity to clarify the status of method or process patents. The patentability of business methods, computer-implemented processes, and diagnostic and other medical methods has long been both controversial and uncertain. In Bilski v. Kappos, the Court confronted a method for hedging against fluctuations in commodities prices. All nine justices thought the method was too abstract to comprise patentable subject matter as defined in section 101 of the Patent Act, but they couldn’t agree on why. The five-member majority held that the machine-or-transformation test (which states that the method must be tied to a particular machine or change something into a different state) propounded by the Federal Circuit in its initial Bilski decision could not be the exclusive test for patentability, but it failed to come up with a test of its own.
The day after issuing its decision in Bilski, the Supreme Court dealt, temporarily, with another closely watched case, Prometheus v. Mayo. In Prometheus, the Federal Circuit used Bilski’s machine-or-transformation test to uphold a method for administering a drug, measuring its level in the body, and then adjusting the dosage. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Prometheus, as well as in a similar biotechnology method case (Classen Immunotherapies v. Biogen IDEC), and then immediately vacated both decisions and remanded the cases to the Federal Circuit for reconsideration in light of Bilski. Neither of those decisions have yet been issued by the Federal Circuit.
Yesterday the Supreme Court issued its decision in the highly anticipated patent case, Bilski v. Kappos. Contrary to some expectations, the Court decided Bilski on narrow grounds, leaving the state of biotechnology patents largely untouched. Here is part of what we wrote yesterday:
Although the Court’s narrow ruling left a direct treatment of the difficult issues surrounding biotechnology patents for another day, those issues continue to loom large. As of this writing, a petition for certiorari in the Prometheus case is currently pending before the Supreme Court. In Prometheus, the Federal Circuit court applied the MoT test in a biotechnology context, upholding a patent on a method for improving administration of a drug. If the court grants review of the Prometheus decision, the biotechnology world will have another Supreme Court nail-biter on its hands, beginning with the oral argument next fall. Even if the Court denies certiorari in Prometheus, a number of alternate channels for biotechnology patent reform remain open, including the ongoing Myriad gene patent litigation (which itself might eventually reach the Supreme Court), the SACGHS gene patent recommendations and even private, industry-driven discussions (of which rumors abound).
The Court wasted no time resolving the will-they-or-won’t-they Prometheus question. In an order issued today (pdf) the Supreme Court granted certiorari and then immediately vacated the decision and remanded the case to the Federal Circuit for consideration in light of Bilski. With Bilski in the rearview, and Prometheus back to the Federal Circuit, speculation will now shift to the question of what, if anything, the Federal Circuit will do differently with Prometheus the second time around. Let the waiting begin anew.
Earlier today the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in what some patent observers have termed “the most highly anticipated patent decision of all time“: Bilski v. Kappos (pdf). The Bilski case was widely watched not for the significance of the particular patent at issue but for the far-reaching effect on patent law that the case might have.
Would the Court treat Bilski as a referendum on the patentability of so-called “business methods”? Would it speak more broadly still, using Bilski as an opportunity to clarify the patentability of a range of emerging technologies, particularly in the areas of software and biotechnology? These questions took on added significance for biotechnology companies, investors, researchers and observers earlier this spring when a federal court in New York used Bilski’s machine-or-transformation test to invalidate several of Myriad Genetics’ diagnostic method claims.
A few tidbits of news for conspiracy theorists and others who are still waiting for the Supreme Court’s Bilski decision:
According to the Court’s case information service, Bilski is still “awaiting decision.” No news there. But in a recent comment, Chief Justice Roberts indicated that the Court would finish its work for the term by the end of June. The Court typically issues opinions on Mondays and Thursdays, and the last one of those in June is next Monday, June 28th. So whatever the Court is going to do with Bilski, it will apparently do it at the start of next week. Still no clue as to what that might be. Except . . .
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There is a two-part question that we are frequently asked these days: “When is Bilski going to be decided and what’s the decision going to be?”
The first part of that question is easy to answer. Bilski will be decided soon. Need something more specific? Bilski will be decided sometime between today and the end of June or beginning of July, when the Supreme Court’s current term ends.
The second part of the question involves predicting the future. We’re happy to take a shot at that, but only after a few caveats. First, these predictions are for entertainment purposes only. Betting on Supreme Court decisions is illegal in most states and several foreign countries, so don’t. Second, pay no attention to alleged inside information about what the Court is going to do or when it’s going to do it. There are no credible Supreme Court leaks—the Court is tighter than Putin’s old KGB (or his new FSB). Third, remember that it takes the votes of four justices for the Court to take a case. So we can presume that at least four justices wanted to say something about Bilski. But we don’t yet know what that might be. With those disclaimers, let’s proceed to the prognostication.