The Supreme Court released its opinion in Bilski v. Kappos this morning, which tested the sufficiency of a "business method" patent relating to the hedging of risk in investments.

Four Justices wanted to scrap "business methods" patents altogether. Five wanted to scrap just the patent at issue here.

Given the complexity of the issues involved, I’m pleasantly surprised to report that the actual holding of the case can be summarized with just a few quotes:

Section 101 defines the subject matter that may be patented under the Patent Act:

“Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.”

Section 101 thus specifies four independent categories of inventions or discoveries that are eligible for protection: processes, machines, manufactures, and compositions of matter. “In choosing such expansive terms . . . modified by the comprehensive ‘any,’ Congress plainly contemplated that the patent laws would be given wide scope.” Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U. S. 303, 308 (1980).

Slip op., 4.

The Court’s precedents provide three specific exceptions to §101’s broad patent-eligibility principles: “laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas.” Chakrabarty, supra, at 309.

Slip op., 5.

In light of these precedents, it is clear that petitioners’ application is not a patentable “process.” Claims 1 and 4 in petitioners’ application explain the basic concept of hedging, or protecting against risk: “Hedging is a fundamental economic practice long prevalent in our system of commerce and taught in any introductory finance class.” 545 F. 3d, at 1013 (Rader, J., dissenting); see, e.g., D. Chorafas, Introduction to Derivative Financial Instruments 75–94 (2008); C. Stickney, R. Weil, K. Schipper, & J. Francis, Financial Accounting: An Introduction to Concepts, Methods, and Uses 581–582 (13th ed. 2010); S.Ross, R. Westerfield, & B. Jordan, Fundamentals of Corporate Finance 743–744 (8th ed. 2008). The concept of hedging, described in claim 1 and reduced to a mathematical formula in claim 4, is an unpatentable abstract idea, just like the algorithms at issue in Benson and Flook. Allowing petitioners to patent risk hedging would preempt use of this approach in all fields, and would effectively grant a monopoly over an abstract idea.

Slip op., 15.

And that’s it: hedging is an "abstract idea," and thus not subject to patenting.

That is undoubtably the correct result; this same morning, Fred Wilson over at AVC gave some basic advice for startups on the concept of hedging. I doubt Fred ever read the patent at issue here, or ever read any paper or article based on the patent. Hedging is an abstract concept that can be applied to a particular situation, no different from the Ruy Lopez in chess or moonwalking.

But not everybody’s happy, since the Supreme Court took the nice, clean rule established by the Federal Circuit in its opinion denying the patent, threw that rule out, and restored the old mess. Patent professors like Dennis Crouch at Patently-O are frustrated:

In general, the opinion offers no clarity or aid for those tasked with determining whether a particular innovation falls within Section 101. The opinion provides no new lines to be avoided. Rather, the outcome from the decision might be best stated as "business as usual."

Today, the Court once again declines to impose limitations on the Patent Act that are inconsistent with the Act’s text. The patent application here can be rejected under our precedents on the unpatentability of abstract ideas. The Court, therefore, need not define further what constitutes a patentable “process,” beyond pointing to the definition of that term provided in §100(b) and looking to the guideposts in Benson, Flook, and Diehr.

By refusing to state any particular rule or categorical exclusion, the Court has almost certainly pushed Section 101 patent eligibility to the background in most patent prosecution and litigation.

Techies (and techie lawyers) are also similarly annoyed:

The Software Freedom Law Center, which supports open source licenses, lamented the ruling.

"The landscape of patent law has been a cluttered, dangerous mess for almost two decades," said Eben Moglen, Chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center. "The confusion and uncertainty behind today’s ruling guarantees that the issues involved in Bilski v. Kappos will have to return to the Supreme Court after much money has been wasted and much innovation obstructed."

These aren’t merely theoretical considerations. Patents don’t control what people are allowed to think, but they certainly control what people are allowed to do with what they think. Billions, potentially trillions, of dollars of revenue are dependent on the patent laws of the United States. Whole businesses live, die, and pursue or forgo opportunities based on those laws.

And, of course, every day, patent infringement lawsuits are filed, and millions of dollars are spent pursuing or defending those lawsuits. The issue is not one to be taken lightly.

Given the circumstances here — i.e., the abrupt and sporadic acceptance, and then rejection, of the patentability of some business methods by the Federal Circuit in the 1990s — it would have been better for the majority to have clearly reaffirmed the longstanding pre-1990s rule that business methods were not patentable, as the concurrence recommended.

The majority opinion and the concurrence are both worth reading; further, as the majority noted, "Students of patent law would be well advised to study [the] scholarly opinions" of the Federal Circuit in the case. Since patent law has just been made a bit messier again, it’s a good idea to keep your mind limber.

Though I agree with the concurrence, the majority’s reasoning isn’t wrong per se. The problem, to me, is the philosophical underpinning of their interpretation.

Four of the majority’s members’ hesitation in going further was understandable:

It is important to emphasize that the Court today is not commenting on the patentability of any particular invention, let alone holding that any of the above-mentioned technologies from the Information Age should or should not receive patent protection. This Age puts the possibility of innovation in the hands of more people and raises new difficulties for the patent law. With ever more people trying to innovate and thus seeking patent protections for their inventions, the patent law faces a great challenge in striking the balance between protecting inventors and not granting monopolies over procedures that others would discover by independent, creative application of general principles. Nothing in this opinion should be read to take a position on where that balance ought to be struck.

Slip op., 9-10 (Justice Scalia chose not to join that part, so that language is only a plurality opinion). But I don’t think the majority’s overall reasoning stands up: 

The Court’s precedents provide three specific exceptions to §101’s broad patent-eligibility principles: “laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas.” Chakrabarty, supra, at 309. While these exceptions are not required by the statutory text, they are consistent with the notion that a patentable process must be “new and useful.” And, in any case, these exceptions have defined the reach of the statute as a matter of statutory stare decisis going back 150 years. See Le Roy v. Tatham, 14 How. 156, 174– 175 (1853). The concepts covered by these exceptions are “part of the storehouse of knowledge of all men . . . free to all men and reserved exclusively to none.” Funk Brothers Seed Co. v. Kalo Inoculant Co., 333 U. S. 127, 130 (1948).

Slip op., 5.

The problem with this analysis is that the second sentence contradicts the first. There are plenty of "abstract ideas" that are "new and useful:" consider the Ruy Lopez and moonwalking. Neither of these ideas teaches a person how to make anything, as is the focus of the Patent Act; rather, they teach people how to do something in a "new and useful" way, much like business methods do. 

Are they patentable? There’s no way to know beforehand with certainty, and so there’s a chilling effect on businesses or individuals. As Justice Stevens opened his concurrence, "In the area of patents, it is especially important that the law remain stable and clear." For someone like me, who represents plaintiffs enforcing patents, stability and clarity help me evaluate whether or not to accept a potential client’s case.

Unfortunately, although the law is a bit more stable than it could have been — the majority did, after all, affirm the denial of the patent — it’s less clear than the Federal Circuit had made it.