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By J.D. Houvener
Patent Attorney and Founder

Determining patent eligibility can be complicated, particularly as technology evolves at an unprecedented pace. At its core, patent law stipulates that for a technology to be patentable, it must fulfill certain fundamental criteria. However, even when these are met, certain categories of technologies are deemed unpatentable due to their abstract nature. This post will delve into specific examples of such technologies, with the aim of helping inventors better understand what is and isn’t patentable. 

Basics of Patent Eligibility

Patent eligibility is governed by strict criteria that ensure a balance between rewarding innovation and preventing the monopolization of basic ideas. Three fundamental requirements must be met for a technology to be considered patentable: novelty, utility, and non-obviousness. Novelty implies that the technology must be new, i.e., not previously disclosed in any public domain. Utility refers to the condition that the invention must serve a useful purpose, while non-obviousness requires that the technology is not an evident extension or modification of existing inventions to an individual skilled in the particular field.

While these principles provide a baseline, the abstract ideas exception further complicates patent eligibility. In essence, this exception prevents the patenting of abstract ideas, regardless of their novelty, utility, or non-obviousness. This is to prevent patent monopolies from stifling innovation, as abstract ideas are considered fundamental building blocks of human ingenuity. However, this is a gray area in patent law, with courts often grappling to define what precisely constitutes an “abstract idea,” particularly in the realm of rapidly evolving digital technologies.

Mathematical Formulas

Mathematical formulas and algorithms represent one of the clearest examples of abstract ideas that are deemed unpatentable. The main reason for this exclusion is the principle that laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas are not patentable. Mathematical formulas are considered laws of nature or abstract intellectual concepts because they are a fundamental expression of the realities of our universe, not a human-made invention. Granting patent rights on these would monopolize basic tools of scientific and technological work, thereby impeding innovation rather than promoting it.

Take, for instance, the well-known formula E=mc², Einstein’s theory of relativity. This formula fundamentally describes how energy (E) is related to mass (m) and the speed of light (c). It’s a universal truth, a law of nature, and thus, not something that can be invented or claimed as a unique creation by any individual or organization. This rule helps ensure that fundamental principles remain open for all to use.

Natural Phenomena

Similar to mathematical formulas, natural phenomena also fall within the realm of unpatentable subject matter under patent law. This rule acknowledges that natural phenomena exist independent of human action. They are not “invented” by humans, but are instead “discovered.” Therefore, while these discoveries can be groundbreaking, they are not deemed eligible for patent protection.

For instance, consider the principles of gravity or the natural therapeutic properties of plants. These phenomena existed long before humans discovered or understood them, and patenting them would essentially mean granting exclusive rights over universal facts or mechanisms of nature. This would stifle scientific progress and impede further innovation. Instead, what can be patented are unique, non-obvious applications or technologies that harness these natural phenomena in new ways, turning them into practical applications that serve a specific purpose or solve a particular problem.

Algorithms and Computer Programs

Algorithms and computer programs sit at the intersection of mathematical formulas and applied technology, creating a uniquely contentious area in patent law. Generally, algorithms are seen as mathematical formulas or sets of rules to be followed in calculations. Like mathematical formulas, they are considered abstract ideas not tied to a specific tangible application and, thus, fall outside the scope of patentable subject matter. Computer programs, often built around these algorithms, face similar challenges in achieving patent protection, especially if the underlying principle is an abstract idea.

The line becomes blurrier when we consider that many technological innovations rely heavily on novel algorithms and software. So, while the algorithms themselves may not be patentable, the innovative application of these algorithms could be. For instance, if an algorithm is used in a unique way to improve a specific technological process, this “process” could potentially be patented. The key point in such cases lies in demonstrating a practical application that goes beyond the algorithm or the computer program’s abstract nature. A comprehensive patent claim should demonstrate that the invention’s novelty isn’t the algorithm itself, but how it is applied to solve a particular problem or improve a specific technology.

Purely Theoretical Inventions or Ideas

Purely theoretical inventions or ideas are another category of unpatentable technologies. The fundamental reason for this is that patents are designed to protect applied innovation – that is, ideas that have been developed into a concrete, practical form. Theoretical ideas, even if novel and non-obvious, are not patentable if they are not accompanied by some form of tangible realization or specific application.

For instance, an idea for a teleportation device might be exciting and certainly novel, but without a demonstrable and practical process or device that can achieve this feat, it remains a theoretical idea. The patent system requires the inventor to provide a detailed description of how to make the claimed invention, and this is often impossible for purely theoretical ideas. This requirement ensures that the scope of patent protection aligns with the inventor’s contribution to the field, preventing broad monopolization of ideas and encouraging further technological development. 

Bold Patents Can Help You Determine If Your Idea Is Patentable

Understanding whether your invention is patentable is a crucial first step in the innovation process. A patent grants exclusive rights to an invention, providing a competitive advantage and potential economic benefits. It’s critical to establish patentability before embarking on the application process, and a patent attorney can play a pivotal role, providing expert guidance. Bold Patents can help you navigate the intricate rules surrounding abstract ideas and other unpatentable categories, ensuring a smooth and successful patent application process. Reach out to us today!

About the Author
J.D. Houvener is a Registered USPTO Patent Attorney who has a strong interest in helping entrepreneurs and businesses thrive. J.D. leverages his technical background in engineering and experience in the aerospace industry to provide businesses with a unique perspective on their patent needs. He works with clients who are serious about investing in their intellectual assets and provides counsel on how to capitalize their patents in the market. If you have any questions regarding this article or patents in general, consider contacting J.D. at