The cornerstones of patentability are novelty, utility, and nonobviousness. A fourth requirement, however, and one that inventors and patent holders face with increasing frequency, is subject matter eligibility. As a matter of public policy, inventions that are essentially laws of nature, natural phenomena, or abstract ideas are ineligible for patenting, regardless of their uniqueness or value. These types of subject matter are considered by patent courts to be fundamental to life, and patenting them would preempt their use on too broad a scale. It is not always easy, however, to distinguish between inventions that embody one of these subject matters and those that do not.
For chemical engineers, eligibility questions tend to arise for inventions that involve the use of advanced data processing techniques for such functions as process monitoring, safety, and control. Inventions whose novelty resides in the use of data processing are often rejected as being attempts to claim abstract ideas and thereby failing to meet the eligibility requirement. This Patent Update describes how the courts have handled the question of eligibility in recent cases.
Electric Power Group, LLC, obtained three patents on a system for monitoring real-time performance of an electric power grid. The system, as represented by the last of the three patents (Patent No. 8,401,701), involves...
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