Patentable Subject Matter – Mayo v. Prometheus

An invention must be of the appropriate subject matter to be eligible for a patent.  Appropriate subject matter includes, by statutory definition, a machine, article of manufacture, composition of matter, or process.  For most inventions, the determination regarding whether the invention is patent eligible is generally an easy one.  However, in some areas of technology, this questions becomes extremely difficult.

The Supreme Court is currently tackling a case whose core issue is the patentability of a process of applying a drug containing an active ingredient and subsequently measuring that ingredient’s levels in the patient.  Patentable subject matter is an issue the Supreme Court does not often take up, one reason simply being that it is a difficult issue.  Oral argument was yesterday, and Justice Breyer, at least, revealed some frustration around the issue (via Patently-O):

JUSTICE BREYER: Suppose I discover that if … someone takes aspirin … for a headache and, you know, I see an amazing thing: if you look at a person’s little finger, and you notice the color [indicates that] you need a little more, unless it’s a different color, you need a little less. Now, I’ve discovered a law of nature and I may have spent millions on that. And I can’t patent that law of nature, but I say: I didn’t; I said apply it. I said: Look at his little finger.

MR. SHAPIRO: Sure.

JUSTICE BREYER: Okay? Is that a good patent or isn’t it?

MR. SHAPIRO: No … Well, because you — you’ve added to a law of nature [to] just a simple observation of the man’s little finger.