Posts Tagged “Supreme Court”

Today’s Supreme Court ruling against Aereo proves that even the younger Justices don’t “get it”. What is really ironic is that the over-the-air broadcasters will find this a Pyrrhic victory. The Aereo service is used by people who don’t own TV’s (except to use as display devices for their computers, e.g., Netflix) and don’t subscribe to cable – broadcasters (particularly the local stations) have just cut off their best hope for capturing these eyeballs.

And who are these people? The younger generation. Neither of my daughters (~30 years old) have TV’s and, except for special events (e.g., World Cup) have little interest in getting cable. They certainly would not pay for cable to get their over-the-air local stations.

Over the air TV is becoming the Republican party of content delivery – its audience is growing older every day.

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The story of Prometheus proves that bringing good things to mankind may not always have a good payback. In case you forgot, the Greek Titan Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gave it to us mere mortals. Zeus punished him for his crime by having him bound to a rock while a great eagle ate his liver every day only to have it grow back to be eaten again the next day. While Prometheus the Titan’s crime might have been clear, not so with Prometheus Laboratories, whose patent on certain diagnostic blood tests might or might not have been patentable.

Prometheus Labs has had its patent eaten and regrown at least twice. However, with a Supreme Court ruling it seems the cycle is finally over (at least for Prometheus). For the rest of us, the Supreme Court’s invalidity ruling for Prometheus raises significant questions about the value of investing in certain types of research activities.

To put the case in a nutshell, Prometheus discovered/observed/researched that the lowest effective dose of a particular class of drug could be determined by the level of its metabolite (the product that remains after the drug is broken down by the body) measured in the blood. Their patent claim(s) essentially said “administer the drug to a patient and determine from a blood test if the metabolite is within the desired range”. From the perspective of the Supreme Court, these claims were nothing more than a statement of a law of nature (that the body produces the metabolite in proportion to how effectively it uses the administered drug) along with the instruction to observe nature in action. And, since laws of nature are not patentable, Prometheus lost the right to keep others from selling competing test kits. Note that the test kits were not patented, just the use of the kits to guide doctors in determining the proper dosage.

This ruling is important to the rest of us because the basis for invalidity was that the invention was ruled “not patentable subject matter”. To the Supreme Court the patent was the equivalent of saying “put more wood on the fire if you’re cold, break the fire apart if you are too hot.” Basic law of nature; more fuel equals hotter fire, less fuel equals cooler fire.

But this perspective is flawed, since it presumes that coming up with the acceptable range of the measurement has no inventive, patentable value. But saying that the acceptable range has no patentable value is really an issue of obviousness – just like knowing when to throw wood on Prometheus’s gift to man is obvious. The Supreme Court said “we don’t care how hard it is to come up with the right limits to make this a medically valid test. The Constitutional directive to reward inventors and discoverers of advances to the useful arts will not be applied to tests like this“.

We all may suffer from this ruling. How many research dollars will flow into medical tests that are simple to perform but whose diagnostic value comes from knowing how to interpret the results?

The validity of Prometheus’s patent should have been determined by obviousness, not by subject matter. If measuring the single metabolite in a hundred patients was all that was needed, then maybe it’s obvious. If figuring out which metabolite to measure, out of a hundred in the blood stream, was required, well, maybe not so obvious.

How about your company – how much of your value comes from a key bit of hard won knowledge? Are you the next company to have your liver eaten?


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I have never liked so-called business methods patents (in fact, I dislike a majority of “methods” patents). Today the Supreme Court hand down its ruling on the Bilski case, upholding the USPTO’s rejection of Bilski’s patent application on “101” grounds. That is, the PTO rejected the application because the claimed invention did not address a patentable subject. Specifically the Court ruled that Bilski’s application was an attempt to patent an abstract idea – a catagory that has long been ruled not subject to patenting.

Many people, myself included, had been hoping that the Supreme Court would address the patentablity of software and business methods at a broader level since there has been much huffing and puffing on the topic of should business methods as a class and should software as a class be patent eligible. Unfortunately we will have to wait until, perhaps, the Congress acts since the Court explicitly said it:

… declines to impose limitations on the Patent Act that are inconsistent with the Act’s text. The patent application here can be rejected underour precedents on the unpatentability of abstract ideas.The Court, therefore, need not define further what constitutes a patentable “process”…

In effect, the Court said that if Congress didn’t like the way the PTO was defining a patentable process then Congress can amend the patent statutes.

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