Maybe you are of a sufficient vintage to remember the game show Let's Make a Deal. But have you ever thought about the similarities between that show and the U.S. patent system?
In the game show, contestants would have to pay a price (a wallet containing $500) to see what was behind door No. 3 (maybe a live goat; maybe a brand new faux wood-paneled station wagon). Similarly, in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the government pays a price (allowing a unique brand of monopoly) to see what is in envelope No. 3 (your invention). The analogy may seem far-fetched, but the basic premise is the same: that is, paying a price to see what is otherwise concealed. And even in the realm of patent law, sometimes the government ends up with...a goat.
Fortunately, unlike the game show, there are several ways the USPTO can get out of the deal even after the envelope is opened and the invention disclosed. To be worthy of a patent, the invention must be new, useful, and non-obvious. While the "new" and "non-obvious" requirements normally get most of the attention, the USPTO and the U.S. Court of Appeals for patent cases (the Federal Circuit) have taken a somewhat surprising approach in the past couple of months to back out of deals with potential patentees--rejecting patent applications on the basis of usefulness. In other words, the Federal Circuit has been deciding that certain classes of inventions just aren't patentable.
What is really creating a buzz in the patent world is that the USPTO and the Federal Circuit have recently addressed an almost decade-old class of patents that has developed a reputation as the runt of the litter as far as patents go--business method patents. Love them or hate them, the Federal Circuit's 1998 decision in the State Street Bank case has been widely interpreted to allow for the patenting of new and novel business methods. Since that case, the USPTO has been inundated with business method patent applications and, more specifically, software applications. The question is, will this trend continue?
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