2106.05(f) Mere Instructions To Apply An Exception [R-08.2017]
Another consideration when determining whether a claim recites significantly more than a judicial exception is whether the additional elements amount to more than a recitation of the words "apply it" (or an equivalent) or are more than mere instructions to implement an abstract idea or other exception on a computer. As explained by the Supreme Court, in order to transform a judicial exception into a patent-eligible application, the additional element or combination of elements must do "‘more than simply stat[e] the [judicial exception] while adding the words ‘apply it’". Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank, 573 U.S. __, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 2357, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1982-83 (2014) (quoting Mayo Collaborative Servs. V. Prometheus Labs., Inc., 566 U.S. 66, 72, 101 USPQ2d 1961, 1965). Thus, for example, claims that amount to nothing more than an instruction to apply the abstract idea using a generic computer do not render an abstract idea eligible. Alice Corp., 134 S. Ct. at 2358, 110 USPQ2d at 1983. See also 134 S. Ct. at 2389, 110 USPQ2d at 1984 (warning against a § 1.1 analysis that turns on "the draftsman’s art").
The Supreme Court has identified additional elements as mere instructions to apply an exception in several cases. For instance, in Mayo, the Supreme Court concluded that a step of determining thiopurine metabolite levels in patients’ blood did not amount to significantly more than the recited laws of nature, because this additional element simply instructed doctors to apply the laws by measuring the metabolites in any way the doctors (or medical laboratories) chose to use. 566 U.S. at 79, 101 USPQ2d at 1968. In Alice Corp., the claim recited the concept of intermediated settlement as performed by a generic computer. The Court found that the recitation of the computer in the claim amounted to mere instructions to apply the abstract idea on a generic computer. 134 S. Ct. at 2359-60, 110 USPQ2d at 1984. The Supreme Court also discussed this concept in an earlier case, Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 70, 175 USPQ 673, 676 (1972), where the claim recited a process for converting binary-coded-decimal (BCD) numerals into pure binary numbers. The Court found that the claimed process had no substantial practical application except in connection with a computer. Benson, 409 U.S. at 71-72, 175 USPQ at 676. The claim simply stated a judicial exception (e.g., law of nature or abstract idea) while effectively adding words that "apply it" in a computer. Id.
Requiring more than mere instructions to apply an exception does not mean that the claim must be narrow in order to be eligible. The courts have identified some broad claims as eligible see, e.g., McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 120 USPQ2d 1091 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Thales Visionix Inc. v. United States, 850 F.3d. 1343, 121 USPQ2d 1898 (Fed. Cir. 2017), and some narrow claims as ineligible see e.g., Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709, 112 USPQ2d 1750 (Fed. Cir. 2014); Electric Power Group, LLC v. Alstom, S.A., 830 F.3d 1350, 119 USPQ2d 1739 (Fed. Cir. 2016)). Thus, examiners should carefully consider each claim on its own merits, as well as evaluate all other relevant Step 2B considerations, before making a determination of whether an element (or combination of elements) is more than mere instructions to apply an exception. For example, because this consideration often overlaps with the improvement consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(a)), the particular machine and particular transformation considerations (see MPEP § 2106.05(b) and (c), respectively), and the well-understood, routine, conventional consideration (see MPEP § 2106.05(d)), evaluation of those other considerations may assist examiners in making a determination of whether an element (or combination of elements) is more than mere instructions to apply an exception.
For claim limitations that do not amount to more than a recitation of the words "apply it" (or an equivalent), such as mere instructions to implement an abstract idea on a computer, examiners should explain why they do not meaningfully limit the claim in an eligibility rejection. For example, an examiner could explain that implementing an abstract idea on a generic computer, does not add significantly more, similar to how the recitation of the computer in the claim in Alice amounted to mere instructions to apply the abstract idea of intermediated settlement on a generic computer. For more information on formulating a subject matter eligibility rejection involving well-understood, routine, conventional activity see MPEP § 2106.07(a).
When determining whether a claim simply recites a judicial exception with the words "apply it" (or an equivalent), such as mere instructions to implement an abstract idea on a computer, examiners may consider the following.
(1) Whether the claim recites only the idea of a solution or outcome i.e., the claim fails to recite details of how a solution to a problem is accomplished. The recitation of claim limitations that attempt to cover any solution to an identified problem with no restriction on how the result is accomplished and no description of the mechanism for accomplishing the result, does not provide significantly more because this type of recitation is equivalent to the words "apply it". See Electric Power Group, LLC v. Alstom, S.A., 830 F.3d 1350, 1356, 119 USPQ2d 1739, 1743-44 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Intellectual Ventures I v. Symantec, 838 F.3d 1307, 1327, 120 USPQ2d 1353, 1366 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Internet Patents Corp. v. Active Network, Inc., 790 F.3d 1343, 1348, 115 USPQ2d 1414, 1417 (Fed. Cir. 2015). In contrast, claiming a particular solution to a problem or a particular way to achieve a desired outcome may provide significantly more. See Electric Power, 830 F.3d at 1356, 119 USPQ2d at 1743.
By way of example, in Intellectual Ventures I v. Capital One Fin. Corp., 850 F.3d 1332, 121 USPQ2d 1940 (Fed. Cir. 2017), the steps in the claims described "the creation of a dynamic document based upon ‘management record types’ and ‘primary record types.’" 850 F.3d at 1339-40; 121 USPQ2d at 1945-46. The claims were found to be directed to the abstract idea of "collecting, displaying, and manipulating data." 850 F.3d at 1340; 121 USPQ2d at 1946. In addition to the abstract idea, the claims also recited the additional element of modifying the underlying XML document in response to modifications made in the dynamic document. 850 F.3d at 1342; 121 USPQ2d at 1947-48. Although the claims purported to modify the underlying XML document in response to modifications made in the dynamic document, nothing in the claims indicated what specific steps were undertaken other than merely using the abstract idea in the context of XML documents. The court thus held the claims ineligible, because the additional limitations provided only a result-oriented solution and lacked details as to how the computer performed the modifications, which was equivalent to the words "apply it". 850 F.3d at 1341-42; 121 USPQ2d at 1947-48 (citing Electric Power Group., 830 F.3d at 1356, 1356, USPQ2d at 1743-44 (cautioning against claims "so result focused, so functional, as to effectively cover any solution to an identified problem")).
Other examples where the courts have found the additional elements to be mere instructions to apply an exception, because they recite no more than an idea of a solution or outcome include:
- i. Remotely accessing user-specific information through a mobile interface and pointers to retrieve the information without any description of how the mobile interface and pointers accomplish the result of retrieving previously inaccessible information, Intellectual Ventures v. Erie Indem. Co., 850 F.3d 1315, 1331, 121 USPQ2d 1928, 1939 (Fed. Cir. 2017);
- ii. A general method of screening emails on a generic computer without any limitations that addressed the issues of shrinking the protection gap and mooting the volume problem, Intellectual Ventures I v. Symantec Corp., 838 F.3d 1307, 1319, 120 USPQ2d 1353, 1361 (Fed. Cir. 2016); and
- iii. Wireless delivery of out-of-region broadcasting content to a cellular telephone via a network without any details of how the delivery is accomplished, Affinity Labs of Texas v. DirecTV, LLC, 838 F.3d 1253, 1262-63, 120 USPQ2d 1201, 1207 (Fed. Cir. 2016).
In contrast, recent cases have found that additional elements are more than "apply it" or are not "mere instructions" when the claim recites a technological solution to a technological problem. In DDR Holdings, the court found that the additional elements did amount to more than merely instructing that the abstract idea should be applied on the Internet. DDR Holdings, LLC v. Hotels.com, L.P., 773 F.3d 1245, 1259, 113 USPQ2d 1097, 1107 (Fed. Cir. 2014). The claims at issue specified how interactions with the Internet were manipulated to yield a desired result—a result that overrode the routine and conventional sequence of events ordinarily triggered by the click of a hyperlink. 773 F.3d at 1258; 113 USPQ2d at 1106. In BASCOM, the court determined that the claimed combination of limitations did not simply recite an instruction to apply the abstract idea of filtering content on the Internet. BASCOM Global Internet Servs. v. AT&T Mobility, LLC, 827 F.3d 1341, 1350, 119 USPQ2d 1236, 1243 (Fed. Cir. 2016). Instead, the claim recited a "technology based solution" of filtering content on the Internet that overcome the disadvantages of prior art filtering systems. 827 F.3d at 1350-51, 119 USPQ2d at 1243. Finally, in Thales Visionix, the particular configuration of inertial sensors and the particular method of using the raw data from the sensors was more than simply applying a law of nature. Thales Visionix, Inc. v. United States, 850 F.3d 1343, 1348-49, 121 USPQ2d 1898, 1902 (Fed. Cir. 2017). The court found that the claims provided a system and method that "eliminate[d] many ‘complications’ inherent in previous solutions for determining position and orientation of an object on a moving platform." In other words, the claim recited a technological solution to a technological problem. Id.
(2) Whether the claim invokes computers or other machinery merely as a tool to perform an existing process. Use of a computer or other machinery in its ordinary capacity for economic or other tasks (e.g., to receive, store, or transmit data) or simply adding a general purpose computer or computer components after the fact to an abstract idea (e.g., a fundamental economic practice or mathematical equation) does not provide significantly more. See Affinity Labs v. DirecTV, 838 F.3d 1253, 1262, 120 USPQ2d 1201, 1207 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (cellular telephone); TLI Communications LLC v. AV Auto, LLC, 823 F.3d 607, 613, 118 USPQ2d 1744, 1748 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (computer server and telephone unit). Similarly, "claiming the improved speed or efficiency inherent with applying the abstract idea on a computer" does not provide an inventive concept. Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Capital One Bank (USA), 792 F.3d 1363, 1367, 115 USPQ2d 1636, 1639 (Fed. Cir. 2015). In contrast, a claim that purports to improve computer capabilities or to improve an existing technology may provide significantly more. McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc., 837 F.3d 1299, 1314-15, 120 USPQ2d 1091, 1101-02 (Fed. Cir. 2016); Enfish, LLC v. Microsoft Corp., 822 F.3d 1327, 1335-36, 118 USPQ2d 1684, 1688-89 (Fed. Cir. 2016). See MPEP § 2106.05(a) for a discussion of improvements to the functioning of a computer or to another technology or technical field.
TLI Communications provides an example of a claim invoking computers and other machinery merely as a tool to perform an existing process. The court stated that the claims describe steps of recording, administration and archiving of digital images, and found them to be directed to the abstract idea of classifying and storing digital images in an organized manner. 823 F.3d at 612, 118 USPQ2d at 1747. The court then turned to the additional elements of performing these functions using a telephone unit and a server and noted that these elements were being used in their ordinary capacity (i.e., the telephone unit is used to make calls and operate as a digital camera including compressing images and transmitting those images, and the server simply receives data, extracts classification information from the received data, and stores the digital images based on the extracted information). 823 F.3d at 612-13, 118 USPQ2d at 1747-48. In other words, the claims invoked the telephone unit and server merely as tools to execute the abstract idea. Thus, the court found that the additional elements did not add significantly more to the abstract idea because they were simply applying the abstract idea on a telephone network without any recitation of details of how to carry out the abstract idea.
Other examples where the courts have found the additional elements to be mere instructions to apply an exception, because they do no more than merely invoke computers or machinery as a tool to perform an existing process include:
- i. A commonplace business method or mathematical algorithm being applied on a general purpose computer, Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. V. CLS Bank Int’l, 134 S. Ct. 2347, 1357, 110 USPQ2d 1976, 1983 (2014); Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 64, 175 USPQ 673, 674 (1972); Versata Dev. Group, Inc. v. SAP Am., Inc., 793 F.3d 1306, 1334, 115 USPQ2d 1681, 1701 (Fed. Cir. 2015);
- ii. Generating a second menu from a first menu and sending the second menu to another location as performed by generic computer components, Apple, Inc. v. Ameranth, Inc., 842 F.3d 1229, 1243-44, 120 USPQ2d 1844, 1855-57 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
- iii. A process for monitoring audit log data that is executed on a general-purpose computer where the increased speed in the process comes solely from the capabilities of the general-purpose computer, FairWarning IP, LLC v. Iatric Sys., 839 F.3d 1089, 1095, 120 USPQ2d 1293, 1296 (Fed. Cir. 2016);
- iv. A method of using advertising as an exchange or currency being applied or implemented on the Internet, Ultramercial, Inc. v. Hulu, LLC, 772 F.3d 709, 715, 112 USPQ2d 1750, 1754 (Fed. Cir. 2014);
- v. Requiring the use of software to tailor information and provide it to the user on a generic computer, Intellectual Ventures I LLC v. Capital One Bank (USA), 792 F.3d 1363, 1370-71, 115 USPQ2d 1636, 1642 (Fed. Cir. 2015); and
- vi. A method of assigning hair designs to balance head shape with a final step of using a tool (scissors) to cut the hair, In re Brown, 645 Fed. App'x 1014, 1017 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (non-precedential).
(3) The particularity or generality of the application of the judicial exception. A claim having broad applicability across many fields of endeavor may not provide meaningful limitations that amount to significantly more. For instance, a claim that generically recites an effect of the judicial exception or claims every mode of accomplishing that effect, amounts to a claim that is merely adding the words "apply it" to the judicial exception. See Internet Patents Corporation v. Active Network, Inc., 790 F.3d 1343, 1348, 115 USPQ2d 1414, 1418 (Fed. Cir. 2015) (The recitation of maintaining the state of data in an online form without restriction on how the state is maintained and with no description of the mechanism for maintaining the state describes "the effect or result dissociated from any method by which maintaining the state is accomplished" and does not provide a meaningful limitation because it merely states that the abstract idea should be applied to achieve a desired result). See also O’Reilly v. Morse, 56 U.S. 62 (1854) (finding ineligible a claim for "the use of electromagnetism for transmitting signals at a distance"); The Telephone Cases, 126 U.S. 1, 209 (1888) (finding a method of "transmitting vocal or other sound telegraphically... by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sounds," to be ineligible, because it "monopolize[d] a natural force" and "the right to avail of that law by any means whatever.").
In contrast, limitations that confine the judicial exception to a particular, practical application of the judicial exception may amount to significantly more. For example, in BASCOM, the combination of additional elements, and specifically "the installation of a filtering tool at a specific location, remote from the end‐users, with customizable filtering features specific to each end user" where the filtering tool at the ISP was able to "identify individual accounts that communicate with the ISP server, and to associate a request for Internet content with a specific individual account," were held to be meaningful limitations because they confined the abstract idea of content filtering to a particular, practical application of the abstract idea. 827 F.3d at 1350-51, 119 USPQ2d at 1243.