Patent protections are an important legal tool to help protect intellectual property. Without these protections, the inventions and ideas that help make our business endeavors succeed are at risk. Unfortunately the application of these protections is not always clear. A recent case provides an example of how it can be difficult to determine when these patent protections apply, and when they are part of an exception to the rule.
Manufacturing company faces challenges on patent of a driveshaft
In this case, American Axle and Manufacturing Inc. v. Neapco, the Supreme Court will provide guidance on when an invention is eligible for patent protection.
American Axle requested patent protections for an invention that makes a quieter driveshaft. Patent protections are generally available for those who develop a “new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement therof.” The manufacturer argues that the invention is one that qualifies for these protections because it uses various processes to reduce the noise emitted from the driveshaft. Neapco argues that the invention does not qualify because it basically uses a rule of nature, a physics equation known as Hooke’s Law, to get the results it claims led to the new invention.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case and provide further guidance.
The problem with the exceptions
There are three exceptions: natural laws, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas. There are a number of issues with the application of these exceptions. First, lawmakers did not include these exceptions within the text of the law. The courts basically developed these exceptions. Although not uncommon, the courts need more clarity as they have not applied the exceptions uniformly.
Next, the concept of a natural law barring patent eligibility is a very difficult concept to apply in practice because we can break down almost every invention, at its very basics, into a series of natural laws. As a result, the courts have cautioned that they must apply these exceptions in a very narrow manner. The courts recognize that a failure to do so could allow the exceptions to defeat the purposes of patent law.
To help guide these decisions, the courts use a two-step process. First, the court looks at whether or not the claims involve a patent-ineligible concept. Next, the court must look at the inventive concept and determine whether or not it transforms the object into something more than a patent on an ineligible concept.
Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, courts have struggled with consistent application of this two-step process. As such, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear this case and provide some guidance.
The answer may come from more than one source
The Supreme Court is not the only high-ranking authority likely to take on this issue in 2022. Reporters with Reuters note the case may be enough to spur Congress into action. We will provide updates on this case as it unfolds, but the important takeaway is the complexity of IP protections and the importance of the language used to create a patent.