Joshua D. Sarnoff
Volume 63, Issue 1, 53-126
The U.S. Supreme Court has continued to require that patentable subject-matter eligibility determinations be made by reference to three historic, categorical exclusions (scientific principles, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas), which must be treated as if already known even when newly discovered by the applicant. Various thoughtful scholars have alternatively urged that these exclusions should be viewed restrictively or that such eligibility decisions should be avoided. But these scholars underappreciate the systemic and social benefits of categorical exclusions, and particularly of treating these categories as if they were already known prior art. In any event, the Federal Circuit, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the public must now draw lines between eligible inventions and ineligible applications of excluded discoveries.
This Article supplies a history and theory of subject-matter eligibility to guide such line drawing, based on the recognition that (for both eligibility and patentability) the Patent Act has always required, and still requires, creative, human invention in the application of such categorically excluded discoveries. So long as these basic discoveries continue to be treated as if already known, relying on threshold eligibility determinations will improve efficiency and reduce patent-system errors. Supplying clearer criteria for the additional creativity required for eligibility will further reduce overall patent-system burdens and will better direct investment, effort, invention, and disclosure towards more creative, patentable applications.These categorical eligibility exclusions were justified historically on both deontological and utilitarian moral grounds. Prudence counsels retaining them, given the high social stakes involved, the lack of theoretical or empirical demonstration that competing innovation approaches are better, and the moral concerns that would be raised by their elimination. The Article thus concludes with an exhortation to celebrate rather than to reluctantly embrace categorical exclusions of patentable subject matter, their prior-art status, and the line drawing that eligibility determinations require, to better protect the public domain of science, nature, and ideas while simultaneously improving the patent system.