Response by Knowledge Commons

by Pranesh Prakash last modified Sep 30, 2008 03:07 PM
Arguments on why section 4.11 of the Patents Manual needs to be modified.

 

1.      A patent is a state granted monopoly on an invention. As with any other monopoly, a patent must be treated with great discretion, especially since this particular monopoly is bestowed by the state itself. The original intent of the patent system was to encourage disclosure by the inventor, in exchange for exclusive rights to the invention. This ensured that inventors did not take their inventions to the grave and that society could build on existing knowledge rather than re-invent the wheel. As with any other policy instrument, we need to examine whether patents meet their intended objectives.

 

2.      In this context, the degree of patent protection in India should be seen with the following in mind:

 

The desirable form of IPR protection is very much a function of development. Currently, the developed economies feel they should protect their IPR and restrict their dissemination. But these same countries have historically had much more lax IPR regimes that have allowed imitation to promote more rapid industrialization. For example, the US actively encouraged copying of European innovation in the 19th century and even “nationalised” wireless patents - claiming national interest. Even late 20th century rapid developers such as Japan and South Korea benefited greatly from relatively lax patent regimes. So there is a strong case for providing less IPR protection in the development phase, especially in those areas where domestic innovation is less advanced.

 

There is no clear correlation between high IPR protection and innovation[1], and much historical evidence to the contrary. A significant number of studies have shown that patents are important primarily in chemicals, chemical materials and pharmaceuticals, where patents can protect specific molecules or well defined but small slices of technology. In other areas, patents tend to be relatively less important in promoting innovation.

 

This means that India should first identify what are its national interests and then calibrate the IPR protection accordingly. For example, in pharmaceuticals, the current national interest lies clearly in restricting patents. This is also why the Indian Parliament has taken advantage of the flexibility of TRIPs to raise the bar of what is patentable. Indeed, other countries including the US are now copying some of these measures.[2]

 

An important example is in the area of software where India has a major interest, and where patents are being opposed by all Small and Medium sized companies. In Europe, this opposition led to the proposed directive on software patents to be defeated overwhelmingly in the European Parliament.

 

3.      There are now attempts being made in India to bring in software patents using either the EPO or the USPTO practice. This attempt is being supported by a small number of large international software companies, who had earlier benefited from software being free from patents and are now trying to obstruct others who are entering the field. It is not in the interest of India's software industry to have restrictive patent regime, particularly as they switch from being service providers to product developers.

 

4.      The EPO in fact has followed much of the USPTO practice, the only area that it differs with USPTO being in the business method patenting. However, as a number of observers have pointed out, this means drafting a business method patent as a technical application: it is the form of the patent rather than its content that changes with the EPO approach. Therefore, both EPO and USPTO have erred in accepting patents that are either algorithms or methods, dressed up as software patents.

 

5.      The crisis of the US Patent Office is well known and many critics have pointed out that the US is facing effectively a broken patent system. They have pointed out that granting patents to objects that have existed for years, or patents that are patently ridiculous, does not serve any purpose whatsoever. A case in point is US Patent 20060071122, granted for a ‘full body teleportation system’. The abstract for this reads, ‘A pulsed gravitational wave wormhole generator system that teleports a human being through hyperspace from one location to another.’ Of course, there is no functional version of this. There are innumerable examples of this kind of patent being granted. Another kind of patent that serves no useful purpose is where the patented product or process is something that has been used for years and years, and is known to the whole world, such as the wheel, or swinging on a swing.[3] This undermines the entire basis of the patent system and has the potential to cause havoc. The rapid dilution of the tripartite test of novelty, non-obviousness and utility that led to such patents being granted is finally being halted in the USA, with the US Supreme Court ruling recently that obviousness cannot be constrained by a legal formulation, and the use of common sense is necessary in determining whether a patent be granted or not.[4]

 

6.      Courts in all parts of the world have held that subject matter which would have the practical effect of pre-empting laws of nature, abstract ideas or mathematical algorithms is ineligible for patent protection. This age-old and time-tested precedent effectively establishes the ineligibility for patent protection to laws of nature, abstract ideas and mathematical algorithms. If these could be patented, then in effect one would be patenting the tools of scientific enquiry itself, something no patent law allows as it would lead to halting scientific progress.

 

7.      In the past, the courts have also held that regarding patentable subject that the inquiry into whether subject matter is eligible for patenting is one of substance, not form. This requires that the patent office look, not simply at the language of the patent claim to see if it recites a structure of multiple steps or components, but also at the practical effect of the claim to see if it in fact covers -- or otherwise would restrict the public’s access to -- a principle, law of nature, abstract idea, mathematical formula, mental process, algorithm or other abstract intellectual concept. Otherwise, it would make the determination of patentable subject matter depend simply on the draftsman’s art and would ill serve the principles underlying the prohibition against patents for 'ideas' or phenomena of nature. By skilled patent drafting, one should not be able to start patenting essentially abstract ideas, mental processes and newly discovered laws of nature or mathematical algorithms.

 

8.      However, a number of patent offices, particularly the USPTO and the EPO have been granting patents recently for software also. This is without taking into consideration that all software is ultimately the expression of algorithms or mathematical methods.  This has already created a situation which Tim Berners-Lee, one of the founders of the World Wide Web and director of the World Wide Web Consortium that sets global standards for the Internet, calls the biggest threat to software development.

All companies developing emerging technology are threatened by the prospect of patent licensing royalties. You could never find out what patent could possibly apply to what technology. You could never guess what things people might have the gall to say they have patented already. It really is a universal fear.’ (Tim Berners-Lee at Emerging Technologies Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, September 29, 2004.)

 

9.      In the US, recent studies have shown that the only sector of the economy in which royalties are more than legal costs are pharmaceuticals[5]. In their recently published book, Bessen and Meurer have analysed the numbers in terms of revenues generated from patents as against cost of filing, maintaining and defending patents in courts. In their view, the data shows that except in the case of pharmaceuticals, patents generate far more litigation costs than revenue. The numbers are clear: domestic litigation costs --16 billion dollars in 1999 alone -- was about twice the revenue for patents. Even in this, almost two thirds of the revenue was from pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Worse, the more innovative the company, more was the likelihood of it being sued. The software and business method patents fared the worst, with costs far outstripping the benefits of patenting. The sector with the worst royalty to costs record is software, with most high technology firms being opposed now to software patents.

 

10.  Apart from the reasons given above, the software patents have the problem of being ill defined and capable of very broad scope. It is difficult to build around as is possible in other areas of technology, precisely because of the vagueness of the claims. Novelty and inventive step is again much more difficult to disprove unlike pharmaceuticals, where it is the molecule with a clearly defined structure which is being patented. No company in the world can conduct patent searches for software, given the number of such patents being filed and the inability to identify the defining characteristic of the product being patented. Therefore, the provision of copyright is more than adequate for protecting IPR in software.

 

11.  The other problem with software patents is that any large software project uses a large number of software components. Any one of them can be subjected litigation claiming patent violations. This would open the company to costly lawsuits and against the interests of all but the biggest global corporations who have deep pockets.

 

12.  Today, even companies such as IBM, Sun, Texas Instruments, CISCO have joined the growing Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) community opposing software patents. Most of these companies have publicly stated that they are filing patents only for defensive purposes. Indian law also bars software patents. With regards to proprietary versus FOSS, India needs to analyse and define what should be its trajectory. There is enough grounds to believe that if Indian companies want to move from services model to a product model, software patents and proprietary software will not be the route to take instead, India should promote FOSS, as Brazil and China are doing.

 

13.  Apart from the lack of natural reason for granting software patents, there are potential adverse consequences to the Indian economy in other areas should such patents are granted. The current explosion in bio-pharmaceutical development is increasingly dependent on the ability to perform large-scale data mining from huge amounts of genetic-genomic data. Highly specialised software is developed from pre-existing 'generic' software by bio-informatic technologists for this purpose. Allowing the patenting of the generic basic software will increase the costs of data mining substantially, and will have an extremely adverse impact on the competitive ability of small, knowledge-based entrepreneurial ventures of the kind that India excels in.

 

14.  In India, it has been considered patents should be granted only when public good demands granting of such state protected monopolies. This was the practice also in the UK and the US. It is still the basis of the practice in most countries. It is only in the last few decades that the US, followed by the UK, Japan and now the European Patent Office has tried to change the interpretation of their Patents Acts to expand the scope of patentability. This attempt to enlarge the scope is from their national interest as they hold the largest number of patents. Therefore, their belief that strengthening the patent regime internationally will help their companies to build worldwide monopolies.

 

15.  It is not in India’s national interest or in the interests of its people to expand the scope of state protected monopolies through expanding the patent scope. India’s national interest is best served by restricting the scope of such monopolies. Therefore, the patent regime in India should work on the presumption that patents are to be given only when there is a decisive case for patents. This has been the basis of the Indian Patents Act and is in tune with fundamentals of such legislation world over. It is only the deviation in patent interpretation that has produced a scenario where business methods, software and also mathematical methods are also being patented.

 

16.  The US Supreme Court has now been correcting some of the excesses that has occurred in the US patents interpretation by the Court of Appeals of the Federal Circuit (CAFC). We see no reason why India should change it understanding of patentability following in the footsteps of the US and the EPO and subsequently need to correct such excesses.

 

17.  The US Supreme Court had ruled earlier that Supreme Court has held that patent protection may not be granted for “laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas.” Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 185 (1981). The case has frequently been misread as a basis for patenting subject matter that is abstract and intangible. In fact, however, Diehr confirms that intangible subject matter may not be patented, whether directly or indirectly through artful claim drafting.

 

18.  Diehr also re-affirmed its holding in Gottschalk v.Benson, 409 U.S. 63 (1972), that algorithms, or procedures for solving mathematical problems—the building blocks of computer programs—cannot be patented. Likewise, it reaffirmed its holding in Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584 (1984), that an algorithm for computing a number that served as an alarm limit was not patentable by adding insignificant post-solution activity added to a unpatentable principle to a patenable process. Diehr reaffirmed that only tangible processes – in this case vulcanizing rubber-- and not abstract ideas are patentable.

 

19.  In alignment with Benson and Flook, the US Supreme Court in Diehr held that structures or processes must, when considered as a whole, perform functions intended to be covered by patent law in order to be eligible for patent protection. Diehr followed and upheld the core holdings of both Benson and Flook.

 

20.  The US Supreme Court therefore has not pronounced on software patents after Diehr and therefore Diehr still remains the definitive interpretation of software patents in the US.

 

21.  The CAFC deviated from the Supreme Court ruling in Diehr in At&T vs Excel Communications and in State Street Bank. There, CAFC held that though abstract ideas were not patentable, they could be patented if they produced “a useful, concrete and tangible result.” This was inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s earlier rulings on this matter.

 

22.  In a number of recent cases, the US Supreme Court has overruled the CAFC. In all these cases, the US Supreme Court has narrowed the definition of what is patentable. We have already quoted the KSR Vs Teleflex case in this context.

 

23.  It is in this context that the CAFC is revisiting the State Street and AT&T Vs Excel Communications sitting in en banc. Significantly, it has posed the following questions on which it wants to re-examine the two cases. These are:

 

  (1)  Whether claim 1 of the [Bilski] patent application claims patent-eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101?

 

  (2)  What standard should govern in determining whether a process is patent-eligible subject matter under section 101?

 

  (3)  Whether the claimed subject matter is not patent-eligible because it constitutes an abstract idea or mental process; when does a claim that contains both mental and physical steps create patent-eligible subject matter?

 

  (4)   Whether a method or process must result in a physical transformation of an article or be tied to a machine to be patent-eligible subject matter under section 101?

 

  (5) Whether it is appropriate to reconsider State Street Bank & Trust Co. v. Signature Financial Group, Inc., 149 F.3d 1368 (Fed. Cir. 1998), and AT&T Corp. v. Excel Communications, Inc., 172 F.3d 1352 (Fed. Cir. 1999), in this case and, if so, whether those cases should be overruled in any respect?

 

24.  Obviously, the US Courts are re-thinking software patents in the light of its difficulty in establishing clear boundaries and tying all future innovation in a morass of litigation. With patent trolls entering the picture, it has become clear to the industry as well as the larger public in the US that the patent system is not being well served by software patents. The CAFC en banc review is only one such indication. Patent reforms are also being discussed in US Congress to address such issues.

 

25.  Therefore, we would urge the patent office to take cognizance off the above and reconsider the paras in the Draft Patent Manual that allows software patents if they are seen to have technical applications.

 

26.  We believe that the lawmakers have done their job and have defined clearly that software patents per se are not admissible in India. It is now incumbent on the patent office to make this clear and not admit such patents.

 

 

 

----

US CASES

 

Diamond v. Diehr,

450 U.S. 175 (1981)

 

Gottschalk v. Benson,

409 U.S. 63 (1972)

 

Parker v. Flook,

437 U.S. 584 (1984)

 

Alappat,

33 F.3d 1526 (Fed. Cir. 1994)

 

State Street Bank & Trust Co. v. Signature Financial Group, Inc.,

149 F.3d 1368 (Fed. Cir. 1998), 525 U.S. 1093 (1999)

 

AT&T Corp. v. Excel Communications, Inc.,

172 F.3d 1352 (Fed. Cir. 1999),

 

KSR International v. Teleflex

127 US 1727 (2007)

 

----

[1]     Against Intellectual Monopoly, Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine, http://www.dklevine.com/general/intellectual/againstnew.htm)

 

[2]     Thus, while the US Trade Representative calls for Indian Patent Law to conform to US practices, patent reform is now being pushed aggressively within the US by the high tech industries that are complaining of grant opposition and post grant opposition (as exist in Indian Law) are being put forward as patent reforms in the US Congress. The US Supreme Court has now made combining two existing innovations into a “new” one invalid for patenting (again already barred under Indian Law). The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has now ruled in what is not patentable virtually in the same language for what is not patentable a broken patent system. Both pre according to the Indian Patent Act (Section 3 d, challenged by Novartis in Chennai High Court).

 

[3]     US Patent 6368227, “Method for swinging on a swing”, filed by a five year old child; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/1418165.stm, How an Australian lawyer patented the wheel. There are many other examples.

 

[4]     "We build and create by bringing to the tangible and palpable reality around us new works based on instinct, simple logic, ordinary inferences, extraordinary ideas, and sometimes even genius. These advances, once part of our shared knowledge, define a new threshold from which innovation starts once more. And as progress beginning from higher levels of achievement is expected in the normal course, the results of ordinary innovation are not the subject of exclusive rights under the patent laws. Were it otherwise patents might stifle, rather than promote, the progress of useful arts. See U. S. Const., Art. I, §8, cl. 8. These premises led to the bar on patents claiming obvious subject matter established in Hotchkiss and codified in §103. Application of the bar must not be confined within a test or formulation too constrained to serve its purpose." KSR International v Telefax US Supreme Court

 

[5]     James Bessen and Michael J. Meurer, Patent Failure: How Judges, Bureaucrats, and Lawyers

Put Innovators at Risk, Princeton University Press, March 2008.

 

 

 

Document Actions