The Patent Act provides a broad definition of what can be patented: any new or useful process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof. Although these categories of patentable subject matter are broad, they are also exclusive, and any item that does not fall into one of them is not patentable.
As defined by the Patent Act, a process is a method of treating certain material to produce a specific physical change in the character or quality of that material. A machine is a device that uses energy to get work done. The term manufacture refers to a process whereby an article is made by the art or industry of people. A composition of matter is a compound produced from the combination of two or more specific ingredients that has properties different from, or in addition to, those separately possessed by each ingredient.
An improvement is any addition to, or alteration in, a known process, machine, manufacture, or composition that produces a useful result. The right to a patent of an improvement is restricted to the improvement itself and does not include the process, machine, or article improved.
Naturally occurring substances, such as a type of bacteria or an element, are not patentable. But a genetically engineered bacterium is patentable. The law of gravity and other laws of nature are not patentable. Other abstract principles, fundamental truths, calculation methods, mathematical algorithms, computer programs, and bookkeeping systems are not patentable. Ideas, mental theories, or plans of action alone, without concrete means to implement them, are not patentable, irrespective of how revolutionary and useful to humanity they might be.
However, the 2001 Supreme Court case J.E.M. AG Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred Intern., Inc., 534 U.S. 124, 122 S.Ct. 593, 151 L.Ed.2d 508 (2001), affirmed that newly developed plant breeds are patentable subject matter. In an opinion written by Justice CLARENCE THOMAS, the Court said that plants were patentable under the general utility patent statute. To obtain patent protection, a plant breeder must show that the plant it has developed is new, useful, and non-obvious, and must provide written description of plant and deposit of seed that is publicly accessible.
A process that uses a NATURAL LAW, fundamental principle, or mathematical equation can be patented. For example, in the 1981 decision of Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175, 101 S. Ct. 1048, 67 L. Ed. 2d 155, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that an industrial process could be patented in spite of the fact that it depended upon a mathematical equation and involved the use of a computer program.
The Diamond ruling upheld a patent to two inventors for an improved process for molding rubber articles. A patent examiner had previously ruled against the inventors, finding that they sought patent protection for a computer program, which the Supreme Court had expressly said could not be patented. The process in question, which was patented, was developed to calculate with greater accuracy the amount of time required to obtain uniform curves in synthetic rubber molds.
As a further requirement for an invention to be patentable, it must meet three criteria: (1) novelty (it does not conflict with a prior pending patent application or a previously issued patent); (2) utility (virtually any amount of usefulness suffices); and (3) nonobviousness (the invention is not obvious to a person of ordinary skill in the art to which the invention pertains).
It is not always easy to determine what is an "ordinary level of skill" or what is "obvious" in deciding whether an invention meets the criterion of nonobviousness. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Graham v. John Deere Co., 383 U.S. 1, 86 S. Ct. 684, 15 L. Ed. 2d 545, 148 U.S.P.Q. 459 (1966), provides the analytical framework in which to decide whether an invention is nonobvious. Just because all the parts of an invention may be found in a prior art does not necessarily make the invention obvious.
Patents may be rejected for nonutility when their only use is a violation of public morals, such as a tool that can only be used to commit a crime.
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