Another sitting of the Supreme Court has come and gone, and the Court still hasn't decided In re Bilski, which promises to be a big deal in patent law. I was teaching Intellectual Property this term, and I kept putting off teaching patentable subject matter in the hopes that the Court would decide the case, but no such luck.
The case will give us some insight into the longstanding problem of the degree to which patents are available for processes that lie outside the area of traditional industrial, manufacturing processes. A "process" is specifically listed as patentable under section 101 of the patent act, and everyone agrees that a process for vulcanizing rubber, for example, is patentable, but the courts have tied themselves up in knot over more abstract processes, particularly those that involve something like a mathematical algorithm. The Supreme Court started things off by denying patentability for a process for converting numbers from one number system to another and ever since then things have been rather confused.
The Federal Circuit, created to fix up patent law, took great liberties in this area and seems to have regarded itself as authorized to ignore Supreme Court precedent. The Supreme Court gave the Federal Circuit a great deal of leeway for a while -- perhaps to let the experiment work -- but lately has been reining it in almost every Term. Now this case could be another big deal in patents.
Personally, I think mathematicians get unfairly shafted in the subject matter area. Math was my undergraduate major, so perhaps I am biased, but why should achievements in mathematics be less rewarded than those in physics or chemistry? If I invented a fast algorithm for factoring large numbers, for example, it would be extremely important -- all of encryption, as I understand it, is based on the fact that it's easy to multiply two numbers together but hard to break a large number into its factors. A factoring algorithm would be a useful and important achievement, and it's not clear to me why it shouldn't be patentable.
I think I would allow more leeway in subject matter but tighten up in obviousness. A lot of the controversial subject matter patents should clearly have gone down on the obviousness criterion. Mr. Bilski, for example, is basically saying, "I've invented hedging!," which is ridiculous. See also In re Comiskey ("I've invented arbitration!"). Let's give mathematicians their due, but only if they come up with something really new.