Author Archive

Electronic voucher scheme: non-technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office refused to grant a software patent on the concept of replicating the handling and redemption of paper-based vouchers with an electronic voucher scheme. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1031/14 (Electronic vouchers/I-MOVO) of 3.12.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

The idea of not providing the voucher value together with the voucher and distributing vouchers without the notion of an account or balance is a business scheme and does not involve technical considerations.

The invention

This European patent application generally relates to cash value vouchers. According to the description, there is a long history of consumer-oriented businesses using printed cash value vouchers as a promotional tool to retain existing customers and to attract new ones. However, paper-based vouchers suffer from high up-front costs (producing the vouchers, handling), and also consumers increasingly dislike carrying paper vouchers with them. Lastly, paper vouchers of high face-value carry a significant financial risk as advances in copying technology has made it easier to reproduce vouchers fraudulently.

The invention therefore concerns replacing paper-based vouchers by an e-voucher scheme, which is able to work with existing point-of-sale equipment. The overall goal of the invention was to closely replicate how tokens are handled today and effectively dematerialise the token and redemption process.

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

First of all, the board briefly addressed the question of patent-eligibility, which was no problem due to the presence of technical means in claim 1:

The claim is directed to a mix of technical and non-technical features. The Board does not dispute that the method according to claim 1 appears in a technical context. The method can be considered to be performed by technical means, because it involves an ISO/IEC 7812-1 and/or ANSI X4.14 compliant POS terminal with means for storing data, means for processing data and means for transmitting and receiving data, and, therefore, has technical character. Accordingly, the claimed subject-matter is an invention in the sense of Article 52(1) EPC (see T 258/03 “Auction method/HITACHI“).

But of course, the challenging test was that of inventive step:

However, the question of inventive step requires an assessment of whether the invention makes a technical contribution over the prior art. Features which do not make such a contribution cannot support the presence of an inventive step (see T 641/00 “Two identities/COMVIK“, Headnote I). The assessment of inventive step in the decision under appeal considered D7 to be the closest prior art.

Accordingly, the board assessed which of the features of claim 1 actually contribute to the technical character of the invention, and came to the following conclusion:

The Board agrees that the following features outlined in point 9.2 of the decision per se pertain to an administrative method, i.e. to the non-technical part of claim 1:

– providing a cash value voucher comprising an alphanumeric number and having a cash value, which cash value is not related to the number, forming a concatenated string comprising said number, terminal identifier and an issuer identification number and sending the string to an acquirer, which acquirer after validating the string sends the string to the issuer, the voucher number having 6 to 10 digits,

– the issuer authenticates the voucher number and amends the string such that the string comprises the cash value, POS terminal identifier and the issuer identification number, which amended string enables authorisation of payment for the value of the cash value,

– the amended string being transmitted via the acquirer to authorise redemption of the voucher for the cash value.

The appellant’s argument that the claimed e-voucher scheme was indeed technical did not succeed:

What the application itself calls “an e voucher scheme” (see e.g. page 1. last par. of the description) is regarded by the Board as an administrative business related concept of distributing, validating and authorising vouchers. The Board does not agree with the appellant’s argument that such a voucher scheme cannot be carried out with pen and paper (see point 6 of the statement setting out the grounds of appeal). It is an abstract concept to issue a voucher not related to a cash value, adding an alphanumeric number, POS ID and issuer ID, validating by an acquirer, authenticating by an issuer to comprise cash value, POS ID and issuer ID, handing it back to the acquirer, who transmits the voucher for authorisation to a dealer. The idea of not providing the voucher value together with the voucher and distributing vouchers without the notion of an account or balance is a business scheme and does not involve technical considerations. The possibility of making different pricing schemes possible is a direct consequence of the business idea. This scheme could be carried out in a conventional way without involving electronic means. It therefore does not contribute to the technical character of the invention.

Also the technical implementation of the e-voucher scheme was not found to involve any helpful technical aspects:

The contribution of the invention does not lie in an improved POS infrastructure for redeeming cash value vouchers. The technical infrastructure used according to claim 1 is that of an ISO/IEC 7812-1 or ANSI X4.14 compliant POS terminal with means for storing data, means for processing data and means for transmitting and receiving data such as a networked general purpose computer, which were common general knowledge before the priority date. The contribution lies rather in the way of associating information with existing transaction data such as cash value, POS ID, issuer ID. Such data, however, in the Board’s view, is not technical, since it is cognitive data, not functional data (see T 1194/97 Data structure product/PHILIPS, OJ EPO 2000, 525).

The appellant had argued that the concatenated string comprised cognitive and functional data and gave an example of a voucher redemption request and a corresponding response message. The appellant also cited a standards-related document that showed that certain fields could not be changed in the response message. According to the appellant, these fields represented functional data, without which the system would not understand the messages. This was said to be analagous to the functional data in T 1194/97 (supra), without which the operation of the television system would be impaired.

But also this argument did not convince the board:

However, the example of a voucher redemption request presented and the changes made to the string therein do not reflect features of claim 1. According to the wording of the claim, the string is amended such that it comprises the cash value, POS terminal identifier and the issuer identification number. These are fields of cognitive data and they do not interact with the system to produce a technical effect as was the case in T 1194/97. They merely enable a business scheme. No further implementation details are given in the claim, in particular it is not specified what the messages look like. Even if the appellant was right with regard to the specific example, which the Board doubts, there is no corresponding concrete feature in claim 1, which could be considered when assessing inventive step.

In the end, therefore, the board decided that in the absence of any technical contribution beyond the straight-forward computer-implementation, claim 1 of the main request did not involve an inventive step. The appeal was dismissed.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1031/14 (Electronic vouchers/I-MOVO)

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Digitalization of the distribution of product inserts: technical but obvious

In this decision, the European Patent Office refused to grant a software patent on a digitalized approach for distributing product inserts. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 0223/18 (Product insert update/BIO-RAD) of 18.2.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.05:

Key takeaways

Digitalization of the existing workflow for distribution of product inserts: only straightforward implementation of an administrative method using notorious technical means

The invention

This European patent application concerns the digitalization of the existing workflow for distribution of product inserts. According to the application, conventional product inserts were printed and packaged with control products on the basis of information available at the date of manufacture. The invention provided an easy, cost-efficient and targeted way of distributing product insert information.

Fig. 1A of EP 2 567 353
Fig. 1A of EP 2 567 353

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

The first instance examining divison had refused the patent application based on the argument that the subject-matter of the claim is the straightforward implementation of an administrative method using notorious technical means such as servers and databases, and consequently does not involve an inventive step. On the appeal stage, the appellant argued that the invention indeed had some business aspects, but that it nevertheless provided an easy, cost-efficient and targeted way of distributing product insert information.

The board was not persuaded:

The board does not doubt that, but the subject-matter of claim 1 does not go beyond the straightforward digitalization of the existing workflow for distribution of product inserts. It uses databases instead of paper for the storage of test data and the parameters derived from them, and servers for their distribution. It is evident that digitized information can be distributed much more easily, frequently, without the costs associated with printing, and that database management systems reply to queries unlike paper which does not.

The appellant also argued that the technical effect was to prevent the distribution of data that might not be accurate. Only when an insert was approved would that insert be transmitted to the end user insert database.

But also this argument did not convince the board:

However, as paragraph [0028] of the application also points out, production of control product inserts is regulated by well-defined FDA-approved procedures that dictate inter alia how insert values are approved. There are equivalent legal or regulatory requirements in every jurisdiction. These requirements for accuracy of parameter values and their approval have to be met, as a matter of course, by conventional printed product inserts that the appellant describes as the prior art. Therefore, the subject-matter of claim 1 cannot have the alleged effect with respect to the prior art.

Lastly, the appellant argued that the method of claim 1 generates more accurate parameters by analyzing data to see if changes occur. However, the board noted that neither claim 1 not the description revealed any information regarding how the data is analyzed  and thus the alleged effect was found to be merely speculative.

As a result, the board confirmed the first-instance decision that claim 1 concerned merely the straightforward implementation of an administrative method using notorious technical means such as servers and databases. Consequently claim 1 was found not to involve an inventive step, and the appeal was dismissed.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0223/18 (Product insert update/BIO-RAD) of 18.2.2020

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Recommending a shooting spot where a particular image can be taken: non-technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office did not grant a software patent on a computer system for recommending a shooting spot where a particular image can be taken. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1455/16 (Image search to obtain shooting spot/RAKUTEN) of 20.11.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.07:

Key takeaways

The mere fact that position information concerns physical elements in the real world is not sufficient for establishing a technical contribution of providing the position information.

The invention

This European patent application concerns retrieving images according to user specified criteria and recommending a shooting spot at which such an image can be captured.

According to the invention, an information providing server stores image data and associated image information in a database. The image information includes object information about objects or subjects in the image (e.g. people, animals, plants, landscapes), arrangement information of each object in the image and the shooting location (e.g. latitude and longitude or address).

At a terminal, a user specifies “arrangement information” indicating “object candidates”, each corresponding to a subject type, arranged in a particular manner in a “pseudo frame” representing an image area. Figure 5 illustrates a user interface to specify a search by arranging the position, shape and size of (rectangular) objects, each representing a subject type, on a pseudo-frame window. In the example of Figure 5, the user specifies a search for images showing two mountains, a river and a person in a given spatial arrangement on the image:

Fig. 5 of EP 2 562 655
Fig. 5 of EP 2 562 655

The arrangement information is sent to the information providing server, which then searches for image data matching the arrangement information and sends the image data found, optionally with corresponding information about a shooting spot at which an image can be captured according to the arrangement information.

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

The board of appeal started its inventive-step assessment from a prior art document which disclosed an on-line image database from which image data can be retrieved on the basis of visual characteristics such as colours, textures, shapes, and sizes, as well as textual tags appended to the images. The board found that claim 1 differed from the information providing device described in the prior art, among others, by the following feature:

  • (A’) the image data memory means is further arranged to store position information of the image data indicating the shooting spot of the image data, and the transmitting means is further arranged to transmit the position information of images searched by the searching means.

The appellant had argued as follows:

In its written reply and at the oral proceedings, the appellant argued that the provision of a shooting spot was comparable with the technical field of navigation, because the user was guided to a point in space where they could take a picture according to their expectations. Navigation was implicit in the claim. Explicitly claiming the feature of navigation was not necessary for credibly assisting the user in performing the technical task of reaching the point in space; this directly and necessarily followed from using the device claimed and transmitting the position to the terminal device.

Providing improved position information to a user was based on technical considerations. It was based on the presence of physical elements correlated with the position information, which reflected technical characteristics of the real world. In addition, it enabled the user, for instance, to move a vehicle along a direction aimed at reaching the point in space for shooting a photo in the same manner as a navigation system enabled a user to reach a desired destination. Moving had physical consequences and was hence a technical process. Reference was made to decision T 2035/11 of 25 July 2014, Reasons 5.2.1, and to decision T 1670/07 of 11 July 2013, Reasons 13.

The board, however, did not follow these arguments:

In the present case, the rationale of T 2035/11, reasons 5.2.1 and 5.2.2, does not apply. The device of claim 1 does not use information about the user’s position. Neither the distinguishing features nor claim 1 concern navigation, route planning or real-time guidance. The position information returned by the device in feature A’ can be used for any purpose, for example for merely presenting the information to the user, i.e. for presentation of information as such. Contrary to the appellant’s arguments, the claim cannot thus be considered to implicitly specify the navigation.

The text of claim 1 does not reflect the application of the position information in a technical task of guiding the user to a point in space. Therefore, it cannot be said that in the present case providing position information to a user is based on technical considerations. The mere fact that the position information concerns physical elements in the real world is not sufficient for establishing a technical contribution of providing the position information (T 154/04, OJ EPO 2008, 46, reasons 20; T 2035/11, reasons 5.1.4).

The Board is therefore of the opinion that feature A’ meets the non-technical user requirement of adapting the device of document D1 to further return position information indicating the shooting spot of the image. At the priority date of the present application, it was common practice to store position information with images taken, e.g. by digital cameras (see also paragraph [0002] of the present application), such position information corresponding to the shooting spot. It would therefore be obvious for the skilled person to store position information with each image and provide, as a result of the search, the position information for the matching images. That is, it would be obvious to modify the device of document D1 in the way defined by feature A’.

Therefore, the board of appeal decided that claim 1 lacked an inventive step and dismissed the appeal.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1455/16 (Image search to obtain shooting spot/RAKUTEN)

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Haptic feedback assisted text manipulation: technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office considered features that enable a user of a touch screen device to efficiently select a text portion as technical, but obvious in view of the prior art. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 2741/16 (Haptic feedback assisted text manipulation / Immersion) of 28.11.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.05:

Key takeaways

Enabling a user of a touch screen device to efficiently select a text portion: technical

The invention

This European patent application generally relates to user interface techniques, and particularliy to a device with a touch screen that provides tactile feedback when it senses a touch by a user’s finger. The addressed problem is to support the user as he or she manipulates text.

The solution as claimed provides for adapting the type of tactile feedback to the type of manipulation and to specific touch gestures.

Fig 3 of EP 2 461 228
Fig 3 of EP 2 461 228

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

The board of appeal used a document as closest prior art which discloses a device with a touch screen. The device is adapted to provide tactile feedback in different situations. The appellant had argued that this prior art did not anticipate the claimed feature of “as the finger slides across the dynamically generated text, different haptic events are generated”, and argued why this was non-obvious.

However, the board of appeal did not agree to the appellant’s analysis and took the view that the alleged difference was already disclosed in the prior art. As the only difference, the board identified the feature that “the user’s finger is being slid across the dynamically generated text and the corresponding portion of the text is highlighted”.

But this difference was found to be obvious by the board:

The technical effect of distinguishing feature (m1) is that the user is enabled to efficiently select a text portion.

The objective technical problem is considered to be how to enable the user to efficiently select a text portion.

Faced with this problem, the person skilled in the art would consider, based on his or her common general knowledge, that by dragging a selection cursor on a touch screen text can be selected and highlighted.

Similarly, document D1, which falls within the same technical field and discloses techniques for selecting information on a touch screen, discloses selecting and highlighting a region of text by a proximity-drag touch operation (Figures 45 and 46, paragraph 201). In this regard, the appellant confirmed (page 4, last paragraph of the statement of grounds) that document D1 discloses that “text may also (be) directly selected by sliding the finger over the text”.

Consequently, to solve the problem posed, the person skilled in the art would modify the teaching of document D2 by providing a possibility for the user to slide his or her finger across the text and thereby highlight the corresponding text’s portion. Moreover, the different haptic events of document D2 would clearly result as the finger slide across the text. In this way, the skilled person would arrive at the subject-matter of claim 1 in an obvious manner.

What is interesting about this decision is that enabling the user to efficiently select a text portion was accepted as a technical problem without any discussion. Accordingly, innovative user interface control mechanisms can indeed be patented, if they are non-obvious.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 2741/16 (Haptic feedback assisted text manipulation / Immersion)

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Scoring the competence of an organisation: non-technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office refused to grant a software patent on the concept of assessing the competence of an organisation by processing score data. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1902/13 (Assessing competence levels/SWISS RE) of 4.7.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

Designing questions for determining competence levels and method steps and decisions leading thereto as well as mathematical/statistical operations of weighting, scaling and norming are all in the non-technical domain of an economist or a business person and do not make an inventive technical contribution.

The invention

This European patent application relates to a computer-based method for assessing competence levels of an organisation with multiple organisational units, as conventionally assessed by business consultants.

A computer stores scores related to answers given by a human representative of organisational units in response to defined questions. The computer assigns each score to one of the organisational units. For the organisational units, total scores are calculated in the computer by adding up the scores assigned to the respective organisational unit. Moreover, the computer calculates weighted total scores for the organisational units by adding up weighted maximum scores assigned to the questions. The weighted maximum scores each depend on the respective organisational unit and the respective question. Finally, the computer calculates competence levels of the organisational units. The results are provided by generating a graphical representation.

The applicant also filed an auxiliary request during the appeal stage, which adds the use of a rules-based expert-system.

Fig. 5 of EP 1 649 420
Fig. 5 of EP 1 649 420

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

First of all, the board briefly assessed whether the invention as defined in claim 1 was patent-eligible. As the avid reader will know, patent-eligibility is a very low hurdle at the EPO and thus there was no problem in this regard:

The claims are directed to a mix of technical and non-technical features. The Board does not dispute that the methods according to claims 1 and 8 appear in a technical context. The methods can be considered to be performed by technical means, because they involve a computer with means for storing data, means for processing data and means for transmitting and receiving data, and, therefore, have technical character. Accordingly, the claimed subject-matter is an invention in the sense of Article 52(1) EPC (see T 258/03 “Auction method/HITACHI“).

But the challenging question with mixed-type inventions is regularly that of inventive step, which requires an assessment of whether the invention makes a technical contribution over the prior art. Readers of this website will know that features which do not make such a contribution cannot support the presence of an inventive step (see T 641/00 “Two identities/COMVIK“, Headnote I).

Here the board sided with the first-instance examining division and found that most of the features of claim 1 were non-technical:

The Board agrees with the contested decision that except for the features relating to the technical infrastructure of a general purpose computer system, the features pertain to an administrative method, i.e. to the non-technical part of claim 1 and claim 8. Thus, the assessment of inventive step in the decision under appeal correctly considered a notoriously known general purpose computer system to be the closest prior art (see points 2 and 10 of the decision). Such a general purpose computer system was capable of storing, assigning, weighting, calculating and presenting all kinds of data. The claims as well as the description of the application lack technical detail with regard to the claimed computer system. Consequently, the Board does not find a specific disclosure of any technical aspect that could distinguish the computer system, on which the claimed method is based, from such a general purpose computer system.

Regarding the part of the invention which concerned the selection of questions and evaluating the answers, the board came to the following conclusion:

Designing questions for determining competence levels and method steps and decisions leading thereto as well as mathematical/statistical operations of weighting, scaling and norming are all in the non-technical domain of an economist or a business person (Article 52(2)(a) and (c) EPC) and do not make an inventive technical contribution. The parameters resulting from those questions are considered to be non-technical, i.e. cognitive data.

Also the computer implementation did not help, since the board found that the computer system would still follow the same principles as the business consultant:

A business consultant, who wants to assess the competence of an organisation would design a set of rules and questions, which can be reused for another organisation. In order to present meaningful results, e.g. on a flip-chart using graphical diagrams like well known spider diagrams, the business consultant would have to transform the answers into numerical values, scale and weight them. No computer would be needed for performing these tasks. The more dimensions the quantities require, the more cumbersome and time consuming these tasks would be. According to the invention, parts of the process are therefore automated using a computer system. However, the computer system would still follow the same principles as the business consultant following the underlying administrative concept according to the set of rules and questions. The Board does not agree with the appellant’s argument put forward during oral proceedings, that the business person and the skilled programmer would have to sit together in order to elaborate a workable solution. Rather the underlying administrative concept following the traditional business consultant approach would be provided to the programmer as a requirements specification.

The appellant had also argued that the invention automatically initiated certain decisions, but without success:

The Board does not see how the claimed invention can automatically initiate decisions (“automatische Initiierung von Verfahrensentscheidungen”) as argued by the appellant (see page 5, last paragraph of the grounds). Every decision concerning what to do in order to improve competence has to be taken by a human interpreting the diagrams or the data in general. There is no automation in this regard and this goes beyond what is covered by the independent claims.

Furthermore, also the appellant’s arguments regarding the technical character of th rule-based expert system (pursued in the auxiliary request) did not prevail:

The application discloses “Generally, questions with assigned low scores will determine the steps and areas of possible improvements. For example, computer 1 retrieves the steps and areas of possible improvements from a table stored in memory 12. Preferably, the steps and areas of possible improvements are determined by means of an expert system” (see the paragraph bridging pages 15 and 16).

However, no detailed technical disclosure of an expert system is found in the application, in particular how it has to be implemented. The knowledge and rules on which such an expert system is based, are considered to be part of the non-technical business related concept, which are part of the requirement specification (see point 3.3 above). The computer follows the same rules and questions that were designed by the business consultant. There is no added value in the decision making process caused by the computer means except for automation of calculations for scaling and weighting the values corresponding to the answers.

One further argument by the appellant was that the invention provided an improved man-machine interface, which is regularly accepted as technical by the boards of appeal. However, not in this case:

The contribution of the invention also does not lie in an improved man-machine interface as argued by the appellant with regard to a graphical representation. The man-machine interface used according to claim 1 is that of a general purpose computer which was notorious knowledge before the priority date. The contribution lies rather in the way of associating information with collected competence related data. Such data, however, in the Board’s view, is not technical, since it is cognitive data, not functional data (see T 1194/97 Data structure product/PHILIPS, OJ EPO 2000, 525). Storage, selection and processing of such data is an administrative measure, such as would be performed by a human when designing questions and assessing competence levels, implemented in a straight-forward manner making use of general purpose computer functions (e.g. storing and retrieving information and displaying content in electronic form) without creating a further technical effect.

Also with regard to the specific selection of a spider diagram for the graphical representation, the board had doubts regarding its technical contribution:

The appellant further argued that generating a graphical representation constituted a technical contribution. The Board does not agree. The appellant specifically referred to spider diagrams. The application discloses “preferably in the form of a so-called spider diagram” (see the sentence bridging pages 14 and 15). This clearly shows that such diagrams were already known and widely used when graphically presenting multiple parameters in one diagram. The Board agrees with the contested decision that the effects are in the subjective and mental area of presentation of information. The Board doubts that the kind of a diagram like a spider diagram contributes to the technical character. However, it would be an obvious choice for graphically presenting multiple parameters in one diagram for human interpretation and decision making. This feature therefore does not provide an inventive technical contribution.

Therefore, the board’s point of view did not differ from the first instance examining division and the board thus dismissed the appeal.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1902/13 (Assessing competence levels/SWISS RE) of 4.7.2019

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Displaying medical information on a patient monitor: non-technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office refused to grant a patent on a specific way of displaying medical information on a patient monitor. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1442/16 (Cabrera ECG/PHILIPS) of 30.8.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.05:

Key takeaways

One criterion for assessing the credibility of an alleged technical effect in inventions involving presentations of information is the distinction between subjective psychological factors and objective physiological factors.

Intuitiveness of presentations of information is not an objective effect, but rather a subjective one which depends on the user’s individual needs and preferences (confirmation of T 584/10 and T 407/11).

The invention

This European patent application relates to medical monitoring, in particular in the context of patient monitors that are used for the observation of the condition of the patient.

As explained in the background section, known patient monitors can display more than hundred different parameters and trigger alarm signals in case one or some of them shows an undesired behavior. Because of the large amount of displayed parameters it is sometimes difficult for a physician to quickly recognize a critical or undesired situation of the patient. The human bounded perception capabilities, worsen by the stress resulted from extreme medical situations like in operation procedures for example, hinder the complete perception of all the information offered by such monitors.

The patent application sets out to solve this problem essentially by displaying the data in a particular manner, namely using a number of multiaxis diagrams in which the position of the axes is related to the position of the sensors arranged on the patient. Fig. 2 shows an example of such multiaxis diagrams:

Fig. 2 of EP 1 794 694
Fig. 2 of EP 1 794 694

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

The board of appeal primarily dealt with claim 1 of auxiliary request III, since the findings applied equally to the more generic higher ranking requests. This claim version differed from the closest prior art in that each axis of the multiaxis diagrams displaying ECG data displays data from its respective ECG lead data, the position and the angle of each of the axes correspond to the location of the respective ECG lead in the arrangement according to which the respective ECG electrodes of the leads were positioned on the patient, and a 3D heart model is displayed together with the multiaxis diagrams, each of the axes in the multiaxis diagrams extending from the centre of the heart model.

According to the board, these features related to the presentation of information (which is one of the items on the exclusion list) and thus it had to be carefully assessed whether they produce a technical effect:

These features relate to presentations of information (Article 52(2)(d) EPC) and may only contribute to an inventive step if they produce a technical effect, i.e. if they contribute to the technical character of the claim by interacting with its technical features to solve a technical problem (see T 641/00, Headnote 1 and T 1143/06, point 3.4 of the reasons).

Interestingly, the appellants drew an analogy with the famous “Bildstrom” decision of the German Federal Court of Justice (BGH, X ZR 37/13, GRUR 2015, 660 – Bildstrom of 26 February 2015), and argued that in this decision the FCJ reviewed and explicitly confirmed the case law of the Boards of Appeal of the European Patent Office in relation to presentations of information. That decision was, however, noteworthy in that it identified a category of inventions related to presentations of information other than the “what” (“die Vermittlung bestimmter Inhalte” in the citation below) and “how” (“deren Vermittlung in besonderer Aufmachung” in the citation below) categories  regularly used by the EPO, namely those which exploit physiological characteristics of human perception so as to enable or improve the perception of presented information by a human.

The appellants were not aware of any such distinction having been made in the case law of the Boards of Appeal and asked the board to also recognise such inventions as contributing to the solution of a technical problem.

The board, however, held that also this alleged third category of technical inventions was already recognized by the EPO, but did not apply in the present case:

However, the distinction between subjective psychological factors and objective physiological factors when assessing the presence of a credible technical effect in inventions involving presentations of information has already been made in several decisions of the Boards of Appeal of the European Patent Office (see e.g. T 862/10, point 4.2 of the reasons; T 1375/11, point 4.6 of the reasons). This is not a further category of inventions involving presentations of information, but rather one criterion for assessing the credibility of an alleged technical effect. In the present case, although the Cabrera system evidently reflects the anatomy of the patient, an arrangement of the axes of the diagrams according to the Cabrera system clearly has nothing to do with the physiological characteristics of the physician’s eye or visual system.

The appellants were not able to demonstrate credibly that the distinguishing features of claim 1 of auxiliary request III produced a technical effect. Accordingly, they relate to presentations of information as such and are non-technical features which have to be disregarded in the assessment of inventive step according to the established case law (see T 641/00, Headnote 1).

Therefore, claim 1 of the main request and auxiliary requests I to III was found not to involve an inventive step.

The appellants also tried an auxiliary request IVa which essentially defined that two polygonal patterns are formed by connecting the values of ECG data on each of two multiaxis diagrams representing the horizontal and vertical planes in which the cardiac electrical field is projected.

The argument was that these polygons created new patterns which did not exist in raw ECG data and which provided additional information to the physician for locating a condition in a patient’s heart. Polygonal patterns were a more intuitive representation than mere points plotted on axes and could convey further information through their shape.

The board, however, did not follow these arguments:

The board is not convinced by these arguments since intuitiveness of presentations of information is not an objective effect, but rather a subjective one which depends on the user’s individual needs and preferences (see T 584/10, point 1.1.4 of the reasons; T 407/11, point 2.1.4 of the reasons).

Thus, also this request was found to lack an inventive step.

Finally, the appellants succeeded in filing another auxiliary request with numerous features related to polygonal patterns and parameters calculated on the basis of these patterns, which had not have been searched yet. The board decided to remit the case to the examining division for further prosecution on the basis of these claims.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1442/16 (Cabrera ECG/PHILIPS) of 30.8.2019

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Persisting database objects: technical

In this decision, one board of appeal confirmed that concepts for persisting database objects are technical. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 0731/17 (Object persistence/MICROSOFT TECHNOLOGY LICENSING) of 15.1.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.07:

Key takeaways

Decision T 1954/08 cannot be taken to mean that any effect resulting from the implementation of a non-technical feature or combination of features is non-technical.

The concept of accessing information contained in a database store via a database server is technical functionality.

The invention

This European patent application relates to persisting objects in a data store. The background section explains that Microsoft SQL SERVER, which integrates the Microsoft Windows .NET Framework Common Language Runtime (CLR), allows creating a “user defined type” (UDT) class, instances of which can then be persisted in the database store.

UDTs extend the scalar type system of the database and can be used in the same contexts as a system type, such as in column definitions, variables, parameters, function results, cursors, triggers, and replication. The class that defines a UDT can include methods that implement specific behaviours on objects of that type.

An object of a UDT class is persisted in the database store by a process known as “object serialisation”, which transfers the values of the variables of the class to the database store’s physical storage.

When a database query which references a behaviour of a persisted UDT object is executed, the object has to be deserialised, memory for the full object has to be allocated in the CLR to receive the object’s stored values, and the method implementing the behaviour has to be invoked on the full object.

The invention aims to reduce the processing overhead associated with allocating memory for storing the full object at runtime, deserialising and populating all parts of the object, essentially by providing metadata that allows “direct structural access” to the field values in the serialised representation of the persisted object.

 

Fig. 6 of EP 1 593 059
Fig. 6 of EP 1 593 059

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (sole request)

Is it technical?

In the first instance decision, the examining division had argued that the only technical features of then claim 1 were “system”, “database store”, “server” and “persisted values” and that all other claim features, when taken in isolation, were non-technical because they were directed to a “non-technical rationale for providing ‘more efficient storage and retrieval of objects persisted in a database store'”.

The examining division then cited decision T 1954/08, arguiing that the non-technical features did not interact with the technical features to make a technical contribution because “effects stemming from the algorithmi[c] definition of a method do not define a technical character of the corresponding features”. Consequently, claim 1 was found to lack an inventive step over a “notoriously known distributed computing environment comprising general purpose computers and a network”.

The board, however, held that this reasoning is flawed:

According to decision T 1954/08 of 6 March 2013, reasons 6.2, “the sole processing speed” of a computer-implemented algorithm and “the sole amount of memory” it requires are not suitable criteria for determining whether a method step contributes to the solution of a technical problem.

However, these statements in decision T 1954/08 cannot be taken to mean that any effect resulting from the implementation of a non-technical feature or combination of features is non-technical. If non-technical features could never contribute to a technical effect just because they are non-technical, there would be no need to analyse whether non-technical features interact with the technical subject-matter of the claim to solve a technical problem or bring about a technical effect, which would be contrary to opinion G 1/04 (OJ EPO 2006, 334), reasons 5.3, and decision T 154/04 (OJ EPO 2008, 46), reasons 5, under (F), and 13 to 15.

The board also found that the inventive-step reasoning itself as provided by the examining division was not convincing:

In the present case, any attempt to properly formulate a problem that potentially would have led the skilled person from a network of general-purpose computers to the subject-matter claimed should have confronted the Examining Division with the fact that the claim, not analysed as a collection of disconnected terms but as a whole, contains various technical concepts.

For example, the claimed method involves the concept of accessing information contained in a database store via a database server. Such technical functionality is not disclosed by a network of general-purpose computers. The Board is aware that database management systems were well known at the priority date of the application (see document D1, column 1, lines 27 to 30), but that does not mean that an inventive-step reasoning can silently ignore the concept.

6.5 The separate section of the decision discussing documents D1 and D2 contains no detailed analysis. If the Examining Division was of the view that document D1, in column 3, lines 56 to 62, discloses direct access to object attributes “without de-serialization” because the cited passage does not positively state that serialisation takes place, the Board observes that no disclosure of serialisation is not a disclosure of no serialisation.

Since inventive step over documents D1 to D4 had not yet been assessed in detail, and since doing so by the board itself would have effectively replaced the examining division rather than reviewed the contested decision in a judicial manner, the board decided to remit the case back to the examining division for further prosecution.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0731/17 (Object persistence/MICROSOFT TECHNOLOGY LICENSING) of 15.1.2020

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Animating a graphics icon by superimposing an image sequence on a static background: non-technical

The European Patent Office refused to grant a patent on a GUI design of a household appliance such as a baking oven. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1818/14 (User interface for appliance/ELECTROLUX) of 2.12.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.03:

Key takeaways

The manner of presentation of information, i.e. how it is displayed, may relate to solving a technical problem and thus be able to contribute to inventive step if the way the information is displayed credibly assists the user in performing a technical task.

The invention

This European patent application concerns a user interface for an appliance such as a baking oven. Essentially, as defined in claim 1, the user interface has a controller for controlling a display panel which has first and second display panel sections. The first display panel section displays at least one of a time course and chart of linear, arrowed or curved geometry of at least one operation parameter, and the second display panel displays an operational mode of the appliance, the operational mode being represented by an animated graphics icon, the animated graphics icon being a superposition of at least one pictogram and an image sequence of several images.

Fig. 8 of EP 2 439 603
Fig. 8 of EP 2 439 603

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

The board based its inventive step reasoning on a prior art document which discloses a baking oven with a user interface. Implicitly, the user interface was controlled by a controller. There were also first and second display panel sections.

According to the board, claim 1 differed from this disclosure in that the animated graphics icon consists of a superposition of at least one pictogram and an image sequence of several images. Here is what the board said regarding the technical character of this difference:

In accordance with case law (cf. e.g. T 1185/13, point 4.1 of the reasons), the manner of presentation of information, i.e. how it is displayed, may relate to solving a technical problem and thus be able to contribute to inventive step if the way the information is displayed credibly assists the user in performing a technical task.

In the present case, the distinguishing features have no technical effect beyond the technical details of implementing an icon with a static part and an animated part. In particular, there is no improvement in the ability of the user to operate the oven by enabling further indications of the operational mode to be displayed, as argued by the appellant. In this respect, the animated graphics icon may be nothing more than a foreground representation of an oven with a background image sequence of burning wood, or a foreground picture symbolising the operational mode and an image sequence representing a fireplace with glowing coals (cf. paragraph [0056] of the description), which, when compared with D4, merely concerns a more aesthetically pleasing way of displaying the operational mode. Consequently, any improvement here lies within the field of a presentation of information (cf. Article 52(2)(d) EPC). Using the established COMVIK approach (cf. T 641/00), this aspect therefore does not contribute to inventive step.

The technical problem therefore reduces to that of how to implement technically an animated graphic icon consisting of a static part and a dynamic part. The claimed solution, i.e. the superposition of a pictogram and an image sequence, is deemed to be obvious to the skilled person based on common general knowledge, as it is well known that simple animation can be produced by a sequence of image frames (e.g. of a ball) superimposed on a background. A well-known example of this type of animation is the use of multiple image layers in the context of GIF (cf. EP 1 107 605 A2 (= D7), paragraph [0005], which refers to the prevailing state of the art). Further, in the case of D4, it is obvious that the “square box” part of the icon could be a static “pictogram”, and the changing grill bars could be represented by a sequence of images. Furthermore, the appellant has not claimed that creating simple animation in this manner was per se not known in the art.

Therefore, the board concluded that claim 1 lacks an inventive step and dismissed the appeal.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1818/14 (User interface for appliance/ELECTROLUX) of 2.12.2019

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Increased security when collecting and selling customer data: non-technical

The European Patent Office refused to grant a software patent on collecting and selling customer data. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1039/13 (Updating information/EQUIFAX) of 11.12.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

The Board is not persuaded by the appellant’s arguments that the alleged increased security is a technical effect that counts towards inventive step. It is rather a question of what and how much information to give away. That is something for the business person.

The invention

This European patent application concerns a method involving an information supplier that gathers information about consumers and sells it to a number of information buyers. The information buyers may use the processed information for marketing purposes.

Looking at Figure 1 of the published application, the information supplier (102) stores the consumer data in a “universe database file” (UF, 104). Each record in the UF has a “unique universe identifier” (UUID), which is stable over time. The information buyers (108A-N), on their end, store information about their existing or potential customers in “customer database files” (CF, 120a-n). The records in the CFs are indexed by a “unique customer identifier” (UCID):

Fig. 1 of EP 1 446 749
Fig. 1 of EP 1 446 749

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

Although the overall purpose of this application was to collect and sell customer data, claim 1 included a number of features concerning the database implementation. As summarized by the board:

Claim 1 of the main request covers the initial transfer of information from the information supplier to an information buyer as depicted in Figure 2 of the published application. At this stage, the information buyer’s CF is essentially a list of customers that it presumably already knows about, but whose records do not have UCIDs assigned to them (page 7, lines 18 to 19).

The information buyer sends the list of customers to the information supplier in a “transfer customer database file”. The information supplier assigns a UCID to each entry in the list, compares the list of customers with the information stored in the UF, and updates the customer database file (page 7, line 31 to page 8, line 8). The information supplier may, for example, add information about the customers’ income and debts. The information supplier also generates a conversion table (CT) that provides a mapping between the UCIDs and the UUIDs. The CT will be used for mapping the records in the CF to the records in the UF the next time the CF is to be updated (Figure 3; page 8, lines 18 to 28).

According to the board, claim 1 differed from the closest prior art in that the information buyer provides a database file to the information supplier, which, in turn, assigns unique identifiers (UCIDs) to the records in the file and updates them. The identifiers used for the customer database file are different from the UUIDs used in the central database. The information supplier also creates a conversion table between the UCIDs and the UUIDs.

The examining division had found that the provision of customer database files by the information buyer, as well as the updating of those files by the information supplier, were non-technical business requirements. The appellant argued that the invention increased the security of the information supplier’s database by limiting the extent to which it was accessed by outside systems, whilst also increasing the efficiency of information retrieval at the client end, because the CF could be hosted on the information buyer’s systems.

Thus, the key question and the point of dispute in this case was where to draw the line between the technical and non-technical features of the invention. Here is what the board said:

This is crucial, because the non-technical features are given to the skilled person as a set of requirements to implement. Since they are part of the problem rather than the solution, they cannot contribute to inventive step (see T 641/00 – Two identities/COMVIK).

Drawing the line between what is technical and not technical requires careful consideration of all the features of the invention and their associated effects.

In decision T 1463/11 (Universal merchant platform/CardinalCommerce), the “notional business person” was used as a tool for drawing the line between the non-technical requirements and the technical implementation of those requirements. The business person can require things such as “Move the money from the payer’s account to the payee’s account”, but the choice of technical means for carrying out the business requirements is normally left to the technical skilled person.

The Board is not persuaded by the appellant’s arguments that the alleged increased security is a technical effect that counts towards inventive step. It is rather a question of what and how much information to give away. That is something for the business person.

The Board agrees with the examining division that the invention is to a large extent a consequence of the relationship between the information supplier and the (plurality of) information buyers. The information supplier sells data to the information buyers. It wants to retain control over its data as much as possible. That is good for business. The information buyer keeps information about its customers or potential new customers. That is part of their business.

The business person might say: We (the information supplier) do not want to give away more information than necessary, and we want to control what information we give away. Give us a list of customers and we will update the records with information that we have about those customers. Thus, those are non technical requirements that are given to the skilled person.

It follows directly from the business requirements that the customer list be provided to the information supplier in some appropriate format, and that the information supplier update the file.

The Board also has doubts whether assigning a unique identifier (a key) to the customer records is technical. The business person could require: “We must be able to identify each customer.” In any case, the use of unique identifiers (primary keys) to identify records in a database was standard practice since long before the priority date.

The skilled person implementing the business requirements would assign keys to the customer records. Whether to use the same keys as in the central database or different keys is, from a technical point of view, a matter of convenient choice. In view of the non technical requirement “Don’t give away information”, using different keys would be the natural choice.

Furthermore, the keys used in the source systems in D6 are different from the keys in the central data warehouse. The skilled person would not see this as a teaching limited to data acquisition. On the contrary, he would recognise that the same arrangement could be used for the central database and the information buyer’s customer database.

Also, it is evident to the skilled person that, if different keys are used, a conversion between them is necessary. That is also known from D6.

Therefore, the board concluded that claim 1 lacks an inventive step and dismissed the appeal.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1039/13 (Updating information/EQUIFAX) of 11.12.2019

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Customizing a shared online environment: non-technical

The European Patent Office refused to grant a software patent on a system for providing customized experiences to client stations in a shared environment. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1308/13 (Customised shared environment/DISNEY) of 17.12.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

Customising a shared environment according to the users’ preferences, and adapting the interaction between different users within the shared environment so as to fit with each user’s customised environment, is a matter of presentation of information or playing a game.

The invention

This European patent application concerns an online shared environment, e.g. a virtual world or a computer game, in which users can interact in a chat.

Figure 2 shows an example of a shared environment. There is a room with a flower painting, a clock, and an animal (a cat). Users A, B, and C, are present in the room and can chat with each other:

Fig. 2 of EP 2 211 299
Fig. 2 of EP 2 211 299

The invention allows the users to customise the shared environment according to their individual preferences. User A likes cats and wants to see a cat. User B, on the other hand, prefers dogs, and user C wants to see a big fish in an aquarium. A problem arises when users A, B, and C interact with each other in relation to a customised element. For example, user B might write to user A “Isn’t that a cute dog?!”. However, user A who sees a cat will not know what user B is talking about.

The invention solves this problem by translating “interaction data” (the chat message in the example above) so that it fits with each user’s customised environment. In other words, the chat message “Isn’t that a cute dog?!” from user B to user A is translated into “Isn’t that a cute cat?!”, because user A’s customised environment comprises a cat. This is illustrated in Figure 3:

Fig. 3 of EP 2 211 299
Fig. 3 of EP 2 211 299

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1

Is it technical?

The Board considered the background art described in the published application itself to be a good starting point for assessing inventive step. According to the published application, networked shared environments were known at the priority date. Those shared environments allowed users to interact with each other. However, it was not possible to customise the elements of the shared environment itself.

The invention in claim 1 thus differed from the known shared environment by the customisation of elements of the shared environment, and the translation of interaction data relating to a customised element of the shared environment.

The appellant argued that the invention solved the technical problem of reconciling customised individual personalisation with a shared social environment. However, without success:

The Board does not share the appellant’s view that this is a technical problem. Customising a shared environment according to the users’ preferences, and adapting the interaction between different users within the shared environment so as to fit with each user’s customised environment, is a matter of presentation of information or playing a game, i.e. it falls within the categories of excluded matter in Article 52(2) EPC.

Neither decision T 1177/97 nor T 769/92 helps the appellant’s case. According to T 1177/97, a piece of information that is used in a technical system may have technical character if it solves a technical problem in that system. However, the Board does not see that any technical problem is solved by the distinguishing features of the invention in claim 1. Furthermore, the Board does not see that the invention in claim 1 involves any technical considerations other than those relating to the computer implementation.

According to T 641/00 – Two identities/COMVIK, non-technical features, i.e. features that fall within the non-exhaustive categories of excluded matter in Article 52(2) EPC, do not contribute to inventive step. Such features are instead considered to be part of the framework of the technical problem to be solved, which is often a set of requirements to be implemented. The Board considers that the invention in claim 1 solves the problem of implementing the customisation and the translation of interaction data in the known shared environment. In the Board’s view, the implementation would have been obvious to the skilled person using routine programming.

Therefore, the board concluded that claim 1 lacks an inventive step and dismissed the appeal.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1308/13 (Customised shared environment/DISNEY) of 17.12.2019

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