Hooked on Precedent or Something New
Highlighting internal disagreement regarding patent eligibility under § 101, a divided panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a series of opinions revising and reissuing a previous opinion on § 101 patent eligibility for a mechanical invention and, in an even split, denied a petition for en banc review. American Axle & Manufacturing, Inc. v. Neapco Holdings LLC, Case No. 18-1763 D.I. 134 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 3, 2019) (Dyk, J.) (Moore, J., dissenting); id. D.I. 133 (denying en banc by a 6–6 vote).
In October 2019, a divided Federal Circuit panel in American Axle v. Neapco affirmed a district court finding that method claims for a mechanical invention were invalid under 35 U.S.C. § 101. The majority specifically found that the claimed invention was nothing more than a recitation of Hooke’s law, which undoubtedly is a law of nature. Judge Moore dissented, arguing that the majority improperly expanded the § 101 eligibility inquiry beyond its statutory gatekeeping function and distorted patent eligibility under § 101 and enablement under § 112.
Neapco filed a petition for rehearing and a petition for rehearing en banc. Several amicus briefs were also filed. Notably, retired Judge Paul R. Michel, formerly the chief judge of the Federal Circuit, filed an amicus brief in support of the en banc petition because he believed the panel’s original decision “conflicts with the Supreme Court’s and [Federal Circuit’s] precedent.”
In view of the petition for rehearing, the original panel modified and reissued its opinion. The Court affirmed its original decision that two of the three independent claims were invalid under § 101 (patent claims 22 and 36); however, the Court reversed its original decision invalidating claim 1. Regarding claims 22 and 36, the majority reiterated that the claims were merely an application of Hooke’s law and that it was simply applying Supreme Court and Federal Circuit precedent, analogizing this case to the Supreme Court’s 1853 O’Reilly v. Morse decision where the Supreme Court determined the patentability of claims directed to a natural law of using electromagnetic force to transmit messages. When responding to the dissent, the majority reiterated that it was not departing from prior precedent, and that its “holding is limited to the situation where a patent claim on its face and as construed clearly invokes a natural law, and nothing else, to accomplish a desired result.”
Regarding claim 1, the majority reversed its original decision because the claim had an additional limitation that could cause the claim to not merely be an application of Hooke’s law. Because the district court did not address this limitation, the majority remanded the case so the district court could address this issue in the first instance.
Judge Moore maintained her dissent, arguing that the majority was announcing a new patentability test: the “Nothing More” test. She argued that the decision created a new test for instances when claims are directed to a natural law even though no natural law is specifically recited in the claims. Judge Moore further reiterated that the majority conflated § 101 with § 112, calling the majority’s decision “enablement on steroids.”
Practice Note: The reissued decision, particularly 6–6 decision to deny a rehearing en banc, highlights the Federal Circuit’s division on patent eligibility. The judges denying the en banc petition (Chief Judge Prost and Judges Dyk, Wallach, Taranto, Chen and Hughes) apparently viewed the panel’s decision as a simple application of prior precedent, while the dissenting judges (Judges Newman, Lourie, Moore, O’Malley, Reyna and Stoll) appeared to view the panel’s decision as announcing a new patentability test. This even split shows uncertainty regarding the scope of § 101. With such contrasting views among the judges, patent owners and inventors must continue to navigate an uncertain § 101 landscape until future Federal Circuit and Supreme Court cases provide more clarity.