Postscript | Intellectual Property Law
Patent Subject Matter Eligibility in the Post-Alice Wonderland: USPTO Guidance and a Push for More Clarity
by Trevor J.C. Foster*
Vol. 94, Postscript (May 2021)
94 S. Cal. L. Rev. Postscript 128 (2021)
Keywords: Intellectual Property Law, USPTO, Patent
The United States patent system has long been considered the gold standard of global patent systems, in part because of the consistency and strength of the protections that it has granted to inventors.1 The rapid growth of the United States economy during the nation’s early years is often attributed in part to the patent system adopted by the country,2 and the strength of the United States patent system allows the United States to remain among the world’s most innovative countries despite falling behind other countries in areas relevant to innovation such as higher education and researcher concentration.3 A hallmark of a strong patent system is predictability.4 “In a strong patent system, patent rights are granted to particular inventions in a predictable manner, and patent infringement similarly is enforced in a predictable manner.”5 This predictability reinforces the strength of the patent system by allowing inventors to protect their inventions and efficiently allocate resources for future innovation.6
Until relatively recently, the rules regarding patent eligible subject matter were clear and predictable—courts and the United States Patent and Trademark Office, or USPTO, should interpret subject matter eligibility requirements broadly.7 This expansive subject matter eligibility interpretation was widely criticized as resulting in patents that were both too broad and too vague, 8 which resulted in the judiciary revisiting the issue of patent subject matter eligibility in a series of cases culminating in Alice Corp. Proprietary Ltd. v. CLS Bank International.9 In Alice, the Supreme Court reified a two-step analytical framework for patent subject matter eligibility.10 This framework, which was established in part to clarify patent-eligible subject matter, has been heavily criticized as being “chaotic,” a “real mess,” and even putting patent subject matter eligibility into a “state of crisis.”11 The application of this framework has proven to be “unpredictable and impossible to administer in a coherent consistent way.”12
In the years since Alice, there has been much legal scholarship and research regarding how to resolve the ambiguity surrounding patent subject matter eligibility, but nothing has successfully resolved the issue in practice. In January 2019, the USPTO promulgated guidance on the issue of patent subject matter eligibility.13
This Note will begin by providing a brief discussion of patent subject matter eligibility. Next, the Note will discuss the January 2019 Guidance promulgated by the USPTO and how the Guidance aims to alter the two-step analytical framework from Alice, before assessing whether this Guidance has appeared to have any substantial effect on the federal judiciary in the first year since the Guidance was promulgated.
* Senior Submissions Editor, Southern California Law Review, Volume 94, J.D. 2021,
University of Southern California Gould School of Law; B.S. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Philosophy 2018, Marquette University. Thank you to Professor Edward McCaffery for his guidance during the drafting of this Note, to my friends and family for their support, and to the editors of the Southern California Law Review for all their work.