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5 UC Irvine Law Review 973 (2015)


What is the ultimate objective of the patent eligibility inquiry? The recent eligibility case law — a frenzied outpouring of opinions from many esteemed judges — has revealed little while mystifying much. Scholars haven’t fared much better, although it isn’t for lack of trying. Our scholarly colleagues have offered a multitude of intriguing new perspectives on the analysis — drawing on history, the philosophy of science, semiotics, institutional choice, and so on. But we continue to wonder exactly what the eligibility inquiry is for.

In addressing that question here, we’re following a familiar methodological tradition: we propose to reimagine eligibility from a new perspective, that of expressive theories of law. Our central claim is that eligibility rules can be understood as performing expressive functions that are at least as weighty, if not more so, than the traditional gatekeeping function. We argue that it’s helpful to identify those expressive functions for three reasons: (1) doing so helps explain some aspects of eligibility doctrine that otherwise appear incoherent; (2) doing so brings to the fore some new ideas about the objectives of the eligibility inquiry that link to eligibility’s expressive functions; and (3) doing so may enable courts to design eligibility rules that facilitate the development of new behavioral norms in the patent community.