Interpreting 35 U.S.C. §271(f): Method claims not covered

In a recent decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC) ruled that method claims in patents cannot be infringed under 35 U.S.C. §271(f). This section of the Patent Act is meant to prevent the encouragement of infringing a U.S. patent in another jurisdiction, and it came about in response to a 1972 Supreme Court case that found a manufacturer not liable for selling unassembled parts of a patented machine abroad. It essentially makes it illegal to supply components of a patented invention with the knowledge or intent that they will be combined in such a manner that it would infringe the patent if such a combination was performed within the U.S. in the first place. The case, Cardiac Pacemakers v. St. Jude Medical, saw allegations that St. Jude was selling devices that infringed patents held by Cardiac, and it was specifically alleged that a method claim was being infringed by way of section 271(f).

The particular issue of whether method claims fall under section 271(f) was heard en banc. The majority decision focused on the limiting terms “component” and “supply” within this section. It was found that “a component of a tangible product, device, or apparatus is a tangible part of the product, device, or apparatus, whereas a component of a method or process is a step in that method or process”, and “supplying an intangible step is … a physical impossibility”, so it was argued that it would not be reasonable to read the legislation as covering the supplying of a component of a method. Additionally, section 271(c) distinguishes a “component” from a “material or apparatus for use in practicing a patented process”, further suggesting that the use of the word “component” in 271(f) was not meant to cover materials required for a method.

There was a single dissent in this case, that of Judge Newman. The dissent focused on the chosen language of “patented invention” within section 271(f). It was noted that this “is the general term embracing all of the statutory classes of patentable invention”, and it was argued that had Congress wished to exclude methods then they would have been more explicit as they were elsewhere in other sections of the legislation that deal with limited classes of patentable subject matter. It is also apparently the case that earlier versions discussed during the legislative history of this section explicitly listed the subject matter to be covered and did not include processes, but the final version did not make this distinction and used the all-encompassing term currently in place, further suggesting that patented methods should be covered.

I would have to agree in part with Judge Newman, as this seems like a case where the consequences of the specific language used in the statute simply does not seem to mesh with the intent of the legislators who drafted it. From my understanding, providing unique physical apparatuses that are necessary for carrying out a patented method is just as encouraging of foreign infringement as providing unique components of a patented machine. However, the ultimate choice for the CAFC came down to deciding whether to accept a semantically unfeasible interpretation that lines up with the obvious intent of the section, or to look past strict dictionary definitions so as to accept an implicit, silent, and seemingly arbitrary elimination of patented methods. In choosing the latter, the majority’s decision lines up with the doctrine of using the plain language of a statute as the primary way to get at its meaning. Reading in coverage of “materials required for a method” could have perhaps been deemed as legislating from the bench.