Federal Circuit Confirms That Abstract Mental Processes Are Not Patentable — CyberSource Corp. v. Retail Decisions, Inc.

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

What constitutes patentable subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101 has been a topic of keen interest, especially since the Supreme Court issued its decision in Bilski v. Kappos, 130 S. Ct. 3218 (2010) that rejected the Federal Circuit’s machine-or-transformation test. On Tuesday, the Federal Circuit further clarified what can be patented, affirming a rejection under § 101 of a claim for detecting fraud in credit card transactions over the internet. Written by Judge Dyk, the unanimous decision in CyberSource Corp. v. Retail Decisions, Inc. (Case No. 2009-1358) found that claims involving mental processes that can performed by the human mind are not patent eligible.

The Underlying Claims

Two claims were at issue in CyberSource. They both involved a method for detecting fraud in credit card transactions over the internet by looking at the customer’s IP address. The claims were very broad with no specific algorithms for identifying fraud claimed.

The first was a method claim with no linkage to any physical structures:

3. A method for verifying the validity of a credit card transaction over the Internet comprising the steps of:

obtaining information about other transactions that have utilized an Internet address that is identified with the [ ] credit card transaction;

constructing a map of credit card numbers based upon the other transactions and;

utilizing the map of credit card numbers to determine if the credit card transaction is valid.

The second was a “Beauregard claim,” which is a claim to a computer readable medium containing programing instructions regarding a particular process:

2. A computer readable medium containing program instructionsfor detecting fraud in a credit card transaction between a consumer and a merchant over the Internet, wherein execution of the program instructions by one or more processors of a computer system causes the one or more processors to carry out the steps of:

obtaining credit card information relating to the transactions from the consumer; and

verifying the credit card information based upon values of plurality of parameters, in combination with information that identifies the consumer, and that may provide an indication whether the credit card transaction is fraudulent,

wherein each value among the plurality of parameters is weighted in the verifying step according to an importance, as determined by the merchant, of that value to the credit card transaction, so as to provide the merchant with a quantifiable indication of whether the credit card transaction is fraudulent,

wherein execution of the program instructions by one or more processors of a computer system causes that one or more processors to carry out the further steps of;

[a] obtaining information about other transactions that have utilized an Internet address that is identified with the credit card transaction;

[b] constructing a map of credit card numbers based upon the other transactions; and

[c] utilizing the map of credit card numbers to determine if the credit card transaction is valid.

Claim 3 Is an Unpatentable Abstract Mental Process

The Federal Circuit found that the method of claim 3 was nothing more than an abstract mental process. While the Supreme Court in Bilski rejected the machine-or-transformation test as the sole test of patentability under § 101, the Federal Circuit began its analysis there. It found that the claim recited no machines and did not perform any transformations. Following Bilski, it considered whether the claim was nonetheless patent eligible. It concluded that it was not because the claim recites a mental process, which is unpatentable under the Supreme Court’s decision in Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 67 (1972). Here, all of the steps of claim 3 could be performed by the human mind using a pen and paper. The Court suggested that if claim 3 had recited a more complex algorithm that could not have been performed easily using pen and paper, the result may have been different.

Thus, claim 3’s steps can all be performed in the human mind. Such a method that can be performed by human thought alone is merely an abstract idea and is not patent-eligible under § 101. Methods which can be performed entirely in the human mind are unpatentable not because there is anything wrong with claiming mental method steps as part of a process containing non-mental steps, but rather because computational methods which can be performed entirely in the human mind are the types of methods that embody the “basic tools of scientific and technological work” that are free to all men and reserved exclusively to none.

Claim 2 Is Also an Unpatentable Abstract Mental Process

Claim 2 required a slightly different analysis. It basically recited the same method as in claim 3, but it tied it to a computer readable medium. The question was whether tying it to this structure created a machine that was patent eligible under § 101. The Federal Circuit concluded that it was not sufficient because the underlying invention was the method, not a manufacture for storing computer-readable information. To be patent eligible, the machine “must impose meaningful limits on the claim’s scope,” so the “the incidental use of a computer to perform the mental process of claim 3 does not impose a sufficiently meaningful limit on the claim’s scope.” Thus, claim 2 (like claim 3) was not patent eligible under § 101.

The Federal Circuit Is Looking Carefully at Software/Method Claims

Inventors seeking to patent computer software or method claims should consider this decision carefully. If the claims simply recite steps that a human could perform with pen and paper, there is a real chance that the claim might not be eligible for patenting. Merely adding a limitation requiring a computer to perform the steps may not be sufficient to overcome this problem. Courts can look behind the words of the claim to determine what the underlying invention is and whether the use of a computer is meaningful. As always, careful claim drafting is very important if an inventor wants to obtain and enforce his or her patent.

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