The Supreme Court has suggested that the realm of patents embraces “anything under the sun that is made by man,”1 but this is not literally true. First, the Constitution limits the power of Congress to the promotion of the “useful arts.” These are generally understood to include technological endeavors rather than, for example, artistic or social endeavors. The language of the Patent Act further limits the types of creations that can be patented. Section 101 of the Patent Act (35 U.S.C. § 101) provides as follows:
Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.2
In order to be patented, an invention must fall within one of the statutory categories of “process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter.” Because these terms are deliberately broad, this is seldom an obstacle. Yet certain categories of invention or discovery have been held to exceed the statutory boundaries of patentable subject matter, or are sufficiently close to those boundaries as to generate controversy. The most important of these fall under the rubric of abstract ideas, principles of nature, living organisms, literary or artistic creations, printed matter, methods of doing business, and computer programs.
1 Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303, 309 (1980).
2 “Manufacture” is an abbreviated term for a product produced by a manufacturing process.
“Composition of matter” is a broad term that is most often applied to chemical compounds
and the like, but that could literally refer to any agglomeration of physical substances.