Parker v Flook

Posted by Anton Hughes on Thursday, June 30, 2005 with No comments
Per Stevens J

At 585: In Gottschalk v Benson, we held that the discovery of a novel and useful mathematical formula may not be patented. The question in this case is whether the identification of a limited category of useful, though conventional, post-solution applications of such a formula makes respondent's method eligible for patent protection.

At 590: The notion that post-solution activity, no matter how conventional or obvious in itself, can transform an unpatentable principle into a patentable process exalts form over substance. A competent draftsman could attach some form of post-solution activity to almost any mathematical formula; the Pythagorean theorem would not have been patentable, or partially patentable, because a patent application contained a final step indivating that the formula, when solved, could be usefully applied to existing surveying techniques.
Yet it is equally clear that a process is not unpatentable simply because it contains a law of nature or a mathematical algorithm.

At 591: Mackay Radio and Funk Bros point to the proper analysis for this case: The process itself, not merely the mathematical algorithm, must be new and useful. Indeed, the novelty of the mathematical algorithm is not a determining factor at all. Whether the algorithm was in fact known or unknown at the time of the claimed invention, as one of the "basic tools of scientific and technological work" ... it is treated as though it were a familiar part of the prior art.

At 592: The rule that the discovery of a law of nature cannot be patented rests, not on the notion that natural phenomena are not processes, but rather on the more fundamental understanding that they are not the kind of "discoveries" that the statute was enacted to protect.

At 594: Respondent's process is unpatentable under s101, not because it contains a mathematical algorithm as one component, but because once that algorithm is assumed to be within the prior art, the application, considered as a whole, containes no patentable invention.

At 595: To a large extent our conclusion is based on reasoning derived from opinions written before the modern business of developing programs for computers was conceived. The youth of the industry may explain the complete absence of precedent supporting patentability. Neither the dearth of precedent, nor this decision, should therefore be interpreted as reflecting a judgement that patent protection of certain novel and useful computer programs will not promote progress of science and the useful arts, or that such protection is undesirable as a matter of policy. Difficult questions of policy concerning the kinds of programs that may be appropriate for patent protection and the form and duration of such protection can be answered by Congress on the basis of current empirical data not equally available to this tribunal.

At 596: As Mr Justice White explained in writing for the Court in Deepsouth Packing Co v Laitram Corp, 406 US 518.531:
[We] should not expand patent rights by overruling or modifying our prior cases construing the patent statutes, unless the argument for expansion of privilege is based on more than mere inference from ambiguous statutory language. We would require a clear and certain signal from Congress before approving the position of a litigant who, as respondent here, argues that the beachhead of privilege is wider, and the area of public use is narrower, than courts had previously thought. No such signal legitimizes respondent's position in this litigation.