On its last day before adjourning for the summer, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its most controversial decision of this year. This case was argued in November 2009, and the eight months required to render its decision was historic. No one expected this low-profile issue to tie the Court in knots for so long.
This case involved a simple, but terribly important issue: should constitutional protection for inventors' patents extend to the invention of new business methods? Most people don't realize it, but the property right of an inventor in his invention is one of our most important constitutional rights. The Founding Fathers put this right into the U.S. Constitution even before they put in freedom of speech and religion because they knew that new inventions would be the key to American growth and prosperity. The American patent system was unique when it was created, and it is still unique in the world. This property right is why the United States has produced most of the world's great inventions.
In this case, the issue was how broad the scope of patent law should be in protecting the innovations of small inventors. The Court split 5-4 along ideological lines, with Justice Kennedy writing the Court opinion for the conservative bloc and Justice Stevens writing a separate opinion for the liberal bloc. The five conservative Justices sided with private property (broader patent rights), while the four liberal Justices tried to reduce the scope of patent protection.
The inventor involved in this case, named Bernard Bilski, lost his battle to protect his patent because the Court found his work to be an unpatentable, abstract idea. However, the decision was really a victory for small inventors because the Supreme Court reversed the bad decision by the lower courts which had weakened the patent law. Thanks to this Bilski decision, patents will continue to extend as far and as wide as productivity itself.
Listen to the radio commentary here: