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A Burkean Perspective on Patent Eligibility, Part II: Reflections on the (Counter)Revolution in Patent Law


Thomas F. Cotter


University of Minnesota Law School

January 21, 2010

Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Forthcoming
Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-05

Abstract:     
In 2007, I published an essay in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, titled A Burkean Perspective on Patent Eligibility, in which I discussed how the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the United States Patent and Trademark Office had discarded various doctrines relating to patent eligibility - among them, rules that all patentable inventions must pertain to the technological arts, that they may not read on mental steps, and that patentable processes must effect a physical transformation - in favor of an approach that asked only whether an invention had practical utility and was predictable in its effects. Taking a cue from the (admittedly non-patent related) writings of the Anglo-Irish statesmen and political theorist Edmund Burke, I argued that some aspects of the older approach to patentable subject matter may have embodied an underappreciated wisdom, to the extent these older doctrines prevented patent law from intruding upon both laws of nature and human liberty interests, including freedom of speech and personal autonomy. At the same time, I recognized that, as times change, the law too must change, and I contended that it would be inadvisable to exclude computer and business-related art from the scope of patentable subject matter altogether. I nevertheless argued that, properly reformed and refined, the older doctrines could still play a useful role in preventing patent law from unduly extending its reach into every nook and cranny of human endeavor.

Three years later, as we await the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Bilski v. Kappos, the legal landscape appears to have changed substantially. From a time just prior to the publication of my Burkean paper and continuing to the present day, the Court has actively scaled back some of the Federal Circuit’s more expansive readings of patent doctrine in cases such as eBay Inc., MedImmune, KSR, Microsoft, and Quanta. Both the Federal Circuit and the Patent Office have applied more restrictive standards for patent eligibility as well, and the Supreme Court may go farther yet. Perhaps the greater risk now is that courts and other policymakers will settle on a formalistic approach that blindly adheres to the form of traditional doctrines while ignoring those doctrines’ underlying rationales. I will argue that a workable standard for patent eligibility should reflect the wisdom embodied in tradition, while being flexible enough to accommodate advances in relatively new useful arts such as information technology and biotechnology. In particular, I will argue that three screens derived from traditional patent doctrine - a “technological arts” screen, a “minimal physicality” screen, and a “noninvasiveness” screen, as I will define them - should suffice to ensure that patent law continues to encourage technological progress, without precluding access to the public domain building blocks from which such progress arises.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 18

Keywords: Patents, Patentable Subject Matter, Patent Eligibility, Bilski

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Date posted: January 25, 2010 ; Last revised: March 30, 2013

Suggested Citation

Cotter, Thomas F., A Burkean Perspective on Patent Eligibility, Part II: Reflections on the (Counter)Revolution in Patent Law (January 21, 2010). Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Forthcoming; Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-05. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1540132

Contact Information

Thomas F. Cotter (Contact Author)
University of Minnesota Law School ( email )
229 19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States
612-624-7527 (Phone)
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