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Commentary: A Fitter Statute for the Common Law of Patents

Posted on Thursday 8/1/2019
Shubha Ghosh

By Professor Shubha Ghosh

(Re-published from PatentLYO | Aug. 1, 2019) As a law professor, I am in the camp of those who are critical of the proposed bipartisan, bicameral legislation (“the Coons-Tillis bill”) to amend provisions of the Patent Act dealing with patentable subject. I am also in the camp of those who find the “two-step test” introduced by the Supreme Court in its Mayo v, Prometheus, 566 U.S. 66 (2012), and Alice v CLS Bank, 573 U.S. 208 (2014), decisions unworkable and inconsistent with its own precedent. I am also in the perhaps much smaller camp that is skeptical of the approach adopted by the Court in its Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad, 569 U.S. 576 (2013) decision (even if I agree with the result that identified genetic sequences are not patent eligible). Here are my thoughts about the Coons-Tillis bill and the comments in the letter from the ACLU and the law professors and practitioners organized by Professor Ted Sichelman of University of San Diego Law School.

A proposed provision of the Coons-Tillis legislation states: “No implicit or other judicially created exceptions to subject matter eligibility, including ‘abstract ideas,’ ‘laws of nature,’ or ‘natural phenomena,’ shall be used to determine patent eligibility under section 101, and all cases establishing or interpreting those exceptions to eligibility are hereby abrogated.”

The language expresses frustrations with judge-made exceptions to patentable subject matter based on implications drawn from the language of the Act or from judge made common law reasoning. If enacted, the amendment would not only remove established exceptions to patentable subject matter, but also would limit the power of the federal judiciary to create exceptions based on its own reasoning and interpretation of the Patent Act. Such legislation is in conflict with the long-established relationship between federal courts and Congress. If enacted, it would invite constitutional challenges claiming violation of the separation of powers, under Article III, of the Constitution. The proposed amendment would very likely be found unconstitutional.

Federal courts have as their role the interpretation of statutes. By abrogating the federal court’s power to develop any implications from the statutory language and to engage in common law reasoning in interpreting the statute, Congress invades long-standing judicial power.  Although a full analysis of the separation of powers is beyond the scope of this post, Congressional limitations on judicial power in other realms have failed under judicial scrutiny. At the extreme, Congress is limited in its power to legislate that federal courts cannot hear certain cases or controversies. See Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723 (2009) (suspension of writ of habeas corpus unconstitutional); United States v. Klein, 80 U.S. 128 (1871) (Congress’ limitations on claims relating to confiscated and abandoned property unconstitutional). But see Patchak v. Zinke, 138 S.Ct. 897 (2018) (Congress’ stripping federal court jurisdiction over claims arising from Department of Interior’s taking of land into trust was not unconstitutional).

I am not suggesting that the proposed abrogation goes as far as the suspect legislation in Boumediene and Klein. Federal courts can still adjudicate patent law questions under the Coons-Tillis bill. But the bill does put limitations on how courts can decide cases. This attempt to bind the way federal judges approach a federal question is as problematic as taking away their power to adjudicate in the first place. The Coons-Tillis bill if enacted as drafted will invite substantive litigation which may well lead to the legislation being struck down, in part, as an unconstitutional exercise of Congressional power.

The drafters of the ACLU letter express the concern that the abrogation of the established exceptions will essentially reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling in Myriad that isolated gene sequences are not patentable subject matter. I am not as sure of the specter of genes coming back under patent should Coons-Tillis be enacted. My hesitation stems from what I find to be the opacity in the Supreme Court’s analysis in Myriad. If the Court’s reasoning rested on a constitutional holding that natural occurring substances like genetic sequences are not the “discovery of an inventor” contributing to “progress” in the “useful arts,” as required by Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution, then perhaps the Myriad holding survives a possible enactment of the Coons-Tillis bill ...

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