In United States patent law, a method, also called "process", is one of the four principal categories of things that may be patented through "utility patents". The other three are a machine, an article of manufacture (also termed a manufacture), and a composition of matter.
In that context, a method is a process, or series of steps or acts, for performing a function or accomplishing a result. The terms are largely interchangeable, but "process" usually refers to a manufacturing process—a series of steps for making something, while a "method" usually refers to a way of using a product to accomplish a given result. Thus, one might speak of a process for making soap or candles, or speak of a method for curing headaches comprising administering a therapeutically effective dosage of aspirin.
Not all methods, in the dictionary sense, are methods for purposes of United States patent law. The case law "forecloses a purely literal reading of § 101." The concept is elaborated in the article machine-or-transformation test.
Previously, a method patent claim could be infringed only when a single person or entity practices all claimed steps. Neither a physical device, such as a product that can be used to practice the method, nor instructions for practicing the method, are infringing until they are used by a single person to perform all the steps together. This rule was changed in Akamai Tech. v. Limelight Networks (Fed. Cir. 2012).
- "Types of Patents". Technology Assessment and Forecast data base. USPTO. 1 June 2000. Retrieved July 11, 2012. "Utility Patent- Issued for the invention of a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, (...)"
- See Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 70 (1972) (“A process is a mode of treatment of certain materials to produce a given result. It is an act, or a series of acts, performed upon the subject-matter to be transformed and reduced to a different state or thing.”). See also In re Kollar, 286 F.3d 1326, 1332 (Fed. Cir. 2002) (“[A] process...consists of a series of acts or steps.... It consists of doing something, and therefore has to be carried out or performed.”).
- Thus section 100(b) of the US patent act, 35 U.S.C. sec. 100(b), states, "The term 'process' means process, art, or method, and includes a new use of a known process...."
- Parker v. Flook, 437 U.S. 584, 589 (1978). In Gottschalk v. Benson, 409 U.S. 63, 64 (1973), the Court said, "The question is whether the method described and claimed is a 'process' within the meaning of the Patent Act." See also In re Bilski ("But the Supreme Court has held that the meaning of 'process' as used in § 101 is narrower than its ordinary meaning.").
- "[A] method claim is only infringed when a single party can be charged with performing each step of the asserted claim." Muniauction v. Thomson Corp. and i-Deal, (Fed. Cir. 2008) opinion
- Akamai Tech. v. Limelight Networks (Fed. Cir. 2012) ipwatchdog review of decision