This week, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property held the first two of a three-part series of hearings on “The State of Patent Eligibility in America.”  The hearings are part of an ongoing bipartisan congressional effort to reform section 101 of the Patent Act to address confusion over patent eligibility wrought by more than a decade of Supreme Court decisions. Each hearing includes three panels of five witnesses, for an impressive total of 45 witnesses over three days.

The first hearing, held on June 4th, featured former government officials and academics, including former Federal Circuit Chief Judge Paul Michel, former USPTO directors Q. Todd Dickinson and David Kappos, and Mark Lemley of Stanford University.  The second hearing, held on June 5th, included testimony from a number of trade associations and coalitions, such as AIPLA, IPO, Innovation Alliance, and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). A third hearing is scheduled for June 11th.

For the past decade, there has been a rising chorus of stakeholders concerned with the Supreme Court’s decade-long narrowing of patent eligible subject matter under section 101, and the resulting unpredictability and confusion.  The scope of judicially created exceptions to patent eligible subject matter has grown, causing uncertainty as to what inventions are, and are not, eligible for patent protections.

Five years after the Court’s Alice v. CLS Bank decision, a bipartisan, bicameral group of senators and representatives recently unveiled a draft bill to reform section 101.

Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Chris Coons (D-DE), Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate IP Subcommittee, along with Representatives Doug Collins (R-GA), Hank Johnson (D-GA), and Steve Stivers (R-OH), released the draft bill this spring in an effort to “restore predictability and stability to the patent eligible subject matter inquiry.”  This draft legislation comes after months of roundtable discussions and feedback from dozens of stakeholders, including industry representatives, inventors, and academics.

The draft text creates a presumption in favor of patent eligibility,  by providing that “provisions of section 101 shall be construed in favor of eligibility.”  It maintains the current categories of patent eligible subject matter (“any useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter”) and eliminates all judicially created exceptions, including abstract ideas, laws of nature, or natural phenomena.  It also explicitly requires that patent eligible subject matter have utility through human intervention.

The draft bill specifically addresses a number of challenges with the way section 101 is currently applied, clarifying that (1) the claimed invention should be considered as a whole, not as discrete pieces, and (2) subject matter eligibility under section 101 is a distinct inquiry that should not be conflated with the other requirements for patentability under the Patent Act, including sections 102 (novelty), 103 (non-obviousness), and 112 (written description, enablement, and definiteness), all which of must be met for a valid patent.  Finally, the draft bill proposes an amendment to a different statutory provision—section 112(f)—that would broaden the scope of the application of section 112(f), which governs when structural limitations from the patent specification may be imported to the claimed invention.

The IP Subcommittee plans to hold a third hearing next Tuesday, June 11.  That hearing will feature company representatives.

Chairman Tillis and Ranking Member Coons have clarified that the proposal is subject to additional discussion and revision.  However, the bipartisan group of members has devoted significant time engaging stakeholders in an attempt to restore predictability and clarity to patent eligibility law.  How, and if, Congress reforms section 101 in this Congress remains to be seen, and Covington will continue to monitor the deliberations on this issue.