In United States patent law, a method, also called "process", is one of the four principal categories of things that may be patented through "utility patents". The other three are a machine, an article of manufacture (also termed a manufacture), and a composition of matter.
In that context, a method is a series of steps for performing a function or accomplishing a result. While the terms method and process are largely interchangeable, method usually refers to a way to use a product to accomplish a given result, and process usually refers to a series of steps in manufacture. Thus, one might speak about a method for curing headaches that comprises the administration of a therapeutically effective dose of aspirin or speak about a process for making soap or candles.
Not all methods, in the dictionary sense, are methods for purposes of United States patent law. The case law "forecloses a purely literal reading of § 101." The concept is elaborated in the article machine-or-transformation test.
A method patent claim can only be infringed when a single person or entity (including contractually obligated agents, if any) practices all of the claimed steps. Neither a physical device, such as a product that can be used to practice the method, nor instructions for practicing the method, are infringing until they are used by a single person to perform all the steps together. A potential exception to this rule for indirect infringement was implicit in the circuit court of appeal's ruling in Akamai Tech. v. Limelight Networks (Fed. Cir. 2012). The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the circuit court's ruling on Monday, June 2, 2014 (docket number 12-786), holding that the circuit court had misread patent law to reach its decision. The court noted that the statute explicitly defines a method patent to cover only the entirety of the method, and doesn't confer any rights in the individual steps that make up the method.
The European Patent Convention does not mention method patents (called process patents) so prominently, and the same applies to the TRIPS Agreement. The prime characteristic of process patents in these treaties is that "the protection conferred by the patent shall extend to the products directly obtained by such process". Art. 28(1)(b) TRIPS provides a similar rule. This shows the historical background of process patents in chemistry, where there was a need to protect new processes to manufacture known substances.
- "Types of Patents". Technology Assessment and Forecast data base. USPTO. 1 June 2000. Retrieved July 11, 2012.
Utility Patent- Issued for the invention of a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, (...)
- See Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 70 (1972) ("A process is a mode of treatment of certain materials to produce a given result. It is an act, or a series of acts, performed upon the subject-matter to be transformed and reduced to a different state or thing."). See also In re Kollar, 286 F.3d 1326, 1332 (Fed. Cir. 2002) ("[A] process...consists of a series of acts or steps.... It consists of doing something, and therefore has to be carried out or performed.").
- section 100(b) of the US patent act, 35 U.S.C. sec. 100(b), states that "[t]he term 'process' means process, art, or method, and includes a new use of a known process. . . ."
- Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 589 (1978). In Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 64 (1973), the Court said, "The question is whether the method described and claimed is a 'process' within the meaning of the Patent Act." See also In re Bilski ("But the Supreme Court has held that the meaning of 'process' as used in § 101 is narrower than its ordinary meaning.").
- "[A] method claim is only infringed when a single party can be charged with performing each step of the asserted claim." Muniauction v. Thomson Corp. and i-Deal, (Fed. Cir. 2008) opinion Archived 2010-05-27 at the Wayback Machine
- Akamai Tech. v. Limelight Networks (Fed. Cir. 2012) ipwatchdog review of decision
- Akamai Tech. v. Limelight Networks (S.C.o.t.U.S. docket #12-786) LIMELIGHT NETWORKS v. AKAMAI TECHNOLOGIES
- Article 64(2) EPC