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EUROPEAN SOFTWARE PATENTS August 2019 updates

August came with four new decisions in the EUROPEAN SOFTWARE PATENTS knowledge base relating to data retrieval, graphical user interfaces, and automation:

Patentability of data retrieval concepts

In the area of data retrieval, one recent decision refused to grant a software patent on a method of conducting internet search from an instant messenging application. The Board of Appeal decided that the desire to enable users to perform explicitly defined web search queries is not a technical aim but rather a non-technical requirement. Searching for documents using keywords has a non-technical character, and this is not changed by the mere use of a computer system.

Patenting graphical user interfaces

Improvements in graphical user interfaces are sometimes difficult to protect with patents when they are closely related to the presentation of information (which is as such excluded from patentability).

In one case, the European Patent Office decided that a confirmation element which is provided independent of a concrete content of related information displayed to a user is non-technical. The argument was that providing a confirmation element independent of a concrete content of related information displayed to a user and independent of the subsequent cognitive processes or decisions of the user does not solve a technical problem and thus cannot contribute to inventive step.

Automation

How the EPO examines software patents

By the way, if you are interested in a deeper look into how the European Patent Office examines software-related inventions, this 30-minute video gives a concise overview of the “two hurdle” approach with lots of examples.

In the field of automation, the European Patent Office considered a self-controlling documentation for validated processes non-technical. According to the Board of Appeal, the automation of a method known in the art cannot contribute to inventive step, wherein a method also has to be considered as automated when some steps still have to be carried out a human.

Likewise, another Board of Appeal decided that tracking SWAP derivatives transaction positions is non-technical, and emphasized that the pure automation in the sense of making financial information available quickly is not considered technical by the EPO.

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EUROPEAN SOFTWARE PATENTS July 2019 updates

July came with four new decisions in the EUROPEAN SOFTWARE PATENTS knowledge base relating to graphical user interfaces, computer security, business methods and internal control:

Patents for graphical user interfaces

Improvements in graphical user interfaces are sometimes difficult to protect with patents when they are closely related to the presentation of information (which is as such excluded from patentability).

In one case, the European Patent Office refused to grant a software patent on a method of unlocking a device by performing gestures on an unlock image. The decisive argument was that giving visual indications about conditions prevailing in an apparatus or system can only be considered a technical problem if these are technical conditions. However, providing reassuring feedback – i.e. a confirmation that the user has been doing the right thing so far – was not in itself considered a technical effect.

Patentability of computer security concepts

In the field of computer security, the European Patent Office refused to grant a software patent on a method of managing booting of secure devices with untrusted software. The decision was appealed successfully and the case was remitted to the Examining Division because erasing user data outside of the security block before allowing the execution of an unsigned operating system was found to contribute to increasing the security of the claimed device.

How the EPO examines software patents

By the way, if you are interested in a deeper look into how the European Patent Office examines software-related inventions, this 30-minute video gives a concise overview of the “two hurdle” approach with lots of examples.

Business method patents

In the field of business methods, one Technical Board of Appeal decided that an improved risk-hedging approach in credit derivative trading is non-technical. In particular, associating information with trade related data (namely trader, credit risk positions, maturity dates, delta offsets) was found not to be technical. Storage, selection, transmission and processing of such data was considered not produce a further technical effect.

Internal control

In one recent decision, the European Patent Office confirmed that the concept of allowing a computer to access a data library without reconfiguration is technical. However, the board refused to grant a software patent because the claimed solution was found to be obvious.

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Improved risk-hedging in credit derivative trading: non-technical

This decision is a good reminder that the European Patent Office does not grant software patents on purely financial concepts. The Board of Appeal in this case decided that an improved risk-hedging approach in credit derivative trading is non-technical. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1895/13 (Reducing delta values of credit risk positions/CREDITEX) of 17.1.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

Associating information with trade related data (namely trader, credit risk positions, maturity dates, delta offsets) is not technical. Storage, selection, transmission and processing of such data does not produce a further technical effect.

Providing for an improved risk-hedging approach in credit derivative trading (e.g. reducing or eliminating individual delta values, optimisation using notional amounts of original trades etc.) does not have technical implications for the functioning of the data processing system.

An unspecified data format per se does not contribute to the technical character. The organisation of data in the form of a table or a spreadsheet is commonly known in the art.

The invention

This European patent application relates to electronic trading systems such as the Creditex RealTime® platform. According to the description, traders or dealers representing large financial institutions (e.g., banks and funds) routinely use electronic trading systems to enter into credit derivative transactions involving large notional amounts.

However, while being delta neutral overall (i.e., with respect to parallel shifts in the entire credit curve of a particular reference entity), a financial institution may still be exposed to short/long credit risk positions in successive maturities on the credit curve. That is, although all the positive and negative delta values may offset one another and thus add up to almost zero, the large variance of the delta positions could be problematic to the bank holding these credit positions. In addition, the bank may be exposed to default gap risk if the delta values toggles between short and long positions too quickly in successive maturities.

Against this background, the application attempts to overcome the problems associated with current risk-hedging techniques in credit derivative trading by providing techniques for reducing delta values of credit risk positions in online trading of credit derivatives.

Fig. 1 of EP 2 212 850
Fig. 1 of EP 2 212 850

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1

Is it technical?

Applying the established “two hurdle” approach, the board first noted that the invention as claimed was not excluded from patentability due to the presence of technical means in the claim:

The claim is directed to a mix of technical and non-technical features. The Board does not dispute that the system according to claim 1 appears in a technical context. The system involves technical means such as a processor, a user interface and a communication network 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“).

However, as the avid reader will already know, the second hurdle of inventive step can be overcome only based on non-obvious technical features:

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).

In the present case, most of the features of claim 1 were found to not to contribute to the technical character of the invention, namely:

The Board agrees with the contested decision at point 3.3 that the following features “per se” pertain to an administrative business related method, i.e. to the non-technical part of claim 1:

– receiving, in the online trading system of credit derivatives, a plurality of credit risk positions submitted by a plurality of trader clients, each credit risk position having a delta value and a maturity date, wherein each trader client’s submission is unknown to other trader clients;

– automatically identifying, from the plurality of trader clients, at least two trader clients who hold offsetting credit risk positions on at least two maturity dates;

– determining delta offsets to be applied to delta values of the credit risk positions held by the at least two trader clients and having the at least two maturity dates, such that an overall delta of each of the at least two trader clients’ credit risk positions remains substantially unchanged after the application of the delta offsets;

– calculating, based on the determined delta offsets, notional amounts of credit derivative trades needed to realize the delta offsets; and

– executing the credit derivative trades among the at least two trader clients.

Here is how the board argued about these features:

The contribution of the invention does not lie in a faster and more efficient information processing as argued by the appellant (see point 1 of the statement setting out the grounds of appeal). The technical infrastructure and the user interface used according to claim 1 are that of a general purpose computer which was notorious knowledge before the priority date (see for example US 2006/0036535 A1 (D1) cited in the International Search Report: figures 1, 5A, 5B, 6 and 7; para. [0036] to [0041]).

The contribution lies rather in the way of associating information with trade related data (namely trader, credit risk positions, maturity dates, delta offsets). 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, transmission and processing of such data are merely implementations of administrative measures following a financial concept, such as would be performed by a human trader, when mitigating credit risk positions, making use of general purpose computer functions (e.g. storing and retrieving information in electronic form) without creating a further technical effect.

The present invention may provide for an improved risk-hedging approach in credit derivative trading (e.g. reducing or eliminating individual delta values, optimisation using notional amounts of original trades etc.) and therefore an improved financial concept. Those measures, however, do not appear to have any technical implication for the functioning of the data processing system and its interactive graphical user interface (GUI), since the underlying operations are carried out by a conventional networked data processing system (such as exemplified in D1, see above).

By the way, if you are interested in a deeper look into how the European Patent Office examines software-related inventions, this 30-minute video gives a concise overview of the “two hurdle” approach with lots of examples:

The applicant had also argued that it was a technical feature of the invention that each client’s submission is unknown to the other trader clients. However, without success:

In contrast to the appellant, the Board does not consider the feature that each client’s submission is unknown to the other trader clients to be technical since such a limitation of data flow is not achieved by technical measures, but is a constraint of the underlying administrative/financial concept.

The same applied ultimately to the aspect of automating the processing of the financial data. As the skilled reader will know, the mere automation of something is regularly considered obvious by the European Patent Office:

The fact that the steps of receiving, identifying, selecting and calculating complementary offsetting credit risk positions are performed automatically and are scalable is an obvious consequence of using a computer system with commonly known database and network technology.

Therefore, the board decided that claim 1 of the main request did not involve an inventive step.

The applicant also tried an auxiliary request which defined that the credit risk positions can be uploaded by the trader clients using a spreadsheet format:

Claim 1 of this request additionally incorporates features of dependent claims 2 and 3 of the main request by further specifying that the plurality of trader clients are invited to upload the plurality of credit risk positions to the electronic trading system of credit derivatives in a spreadsheet format.

The Board concurs with the contested decision that an unspecified data format per se does not contribute to the technical character of the claim and that organisation of data in the form of a table or a spreadsheet was commonly known in the art (see point 8 of the decision under appeal).

In addition, a trading system comprising a standardized interface that allows processing of credit derivatives in a compact and uniform format was known in the art, including the use of tables (see e.g. D1, para. [0013], [0045] or [0046], [0069] to [0071] with figures 11, 14, and 15A to 15D).

The additional features therefore do not involve an inventive technical contribution.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1895/13 (Reducing delta values of credit risk positions/CREDITEX)

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Allowing a computer to access a data library without reconfiguration: technical

In this recent decision, the European Patent Office confirmed that the concept of allowing a computer to access a data library without reconfiguration is technical. However, the deciding board refused to grant a software patent because the claimed solution was found to be obvious. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1180/13 (Partitioned data library III/HEWLETT PACKARD) of 25.4.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.05:

Key takeaways

Allowing a computer to access a data library without reconfiguration is technical.

The invention

This European patent application relates to a partitioned data library that is to be attached to a data storage area network. To allow existing software to access the partitions without first being reconfigured, the partitions are set up to emulate existing data libraries for which the software has already been configured.

Fig. 1 of EP 1 324 185 A2
Fig. 1 of EP 1 324 185 A2

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1 of the main request:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

Since claim 1 of the main request was found to contain added subject-matter, the board decided on inventive step only with regard to the first auxiliary request. Claim 1 of the first auxiliary request is directed to a data library adapted to be attached to a storage area network. The library contains a number of partitions, each partition including at least one data transfer element and at least one data storage element slot. The partitions share at least one media transport element for moving media between slots and data transfer elements. The library includes a library controller that restricts movement of media between slots to slots assigned to the same partition.

Each of the data transfer elements, data storage element slots and media transport elements is assigned an “internally unique element address”. The library controller assigns a different “logical unit designation” to each partition and an “external element address” to each of the data transfer elements, data storage element slots and media transport elements.

Regarding inventive step, the board held that the invention differed from the closest prior art in the following features:

  • internally unique element addresses are assigned to the data transfer elements, the data storage element slots and the media transport elements;
  • external element addresses are assigned to the data transfer elements and the data storage element slots;
  • the library controller maps the internally unique element addresses to the external addresses; and
  • for each partition, the number of data transfer elements, the number of data storage element slots and the external addresses correspond to the respective numbers and element addresses of an existing data library model from a plurality of existing library models.

The board had no doubt that these features indeed provide a technical effect and thus formulated the objective technical problem as follows:

These features have the effect that a computer configured to access a data library of the existing data library model need not be reconfigured to access the claimed data library.

The problem to be solved may therefore be formulated as how to modify the data library of document D4 so as to allow a computer to access the data library without reconfiguration.

In the end, however, the claimed solution to this problem was found to be obvious:

The skilled person, starting from document D4 and faced with this problem, would consult document D2, which discloses a data library that has a virtual configuration different from its physical configuration and is presented to host computer systems as a conventional data library with a physical configuration identical to the virtual configuration (see abstract). Document D2 explains that this avoids “complicating the set-up, maintenance, or creation of application software utilizing the library” (column 9, lines 30 to 40).

To achieve this goal, the library’s response to host commands must be altered (column 9, lines 44 to 49). In particular, to correctly deal with a SCSI move medium command as shown in Figure 10, the library’s controller has to “remap source and destination addresses from the virtual configuration seen by the host to the appropriate physical resources allocated to that host” (column 9, lines 58 to 62; column 7, lines 10 to 25).

In other words, the library controller maps external element addresses corresponding to the configuration of the “conventional data library” to the internally unique addresses corresponding to the actual physical configuration of the data library (and vice versa). And it is self-evident that for the virtual configuration to correspond to the physical configuration of a conventional data library, the virtual configuration needs to define the same number of data transfer elements and data storage element slots.

Hence, document D2 discloses a SCSI-based solution to the problem posed which is applicable to the SCSI-based data library of document D4 and corresponds to the solution proposed in claim 1. The skilled person would therefore apply the teaching of document D2 to the data library of document D4 and thereby arrive at the subject-matter of claim 1 without the exercise of inventive skill.

Therefore, the board decided that claim 1 of the first auxiliary request does not involve an inventive step.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1180/13 (Partitioned data library III/HEWLETT PACKARD) of 25.4.2019

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EUROPEAN SOFTWARE PATENTS June 2019 updates

June came with four new decisions in the EUROPEAN SOFTWARE PATENTS knowledge base relating to graphical user interfaces, computer simulations and business methods:

Patents for graphical user interfaces

Improvements in graphical user interfaces are sometimes difficult to protect with patents when they are closely related to the presentation of information (which is as such excluded from patentability).

In one case, the European Patent Office acknowledged that precomputing user habit information for a graphical user interface of a mobile device is technical. However, this difference over the prior art was found to be obvious, since in the art of computing, “precomputation” was found to be a well known method of speeding up program execution.

On the other hand, the European Patent Office granted a software patent on a method of representing missed approach information in a perspective view on a cockpit display. Here, the argument was that enabling a pilot to abort a landing in due time if necessary, thereby improving safety, is technical.

Patentability of computer simulations

The field of computer simulations continues to be an exciting area in terms of patentability, last but not least because of the pending referral G1/19 in which the EPO Enlarged Board of Appeal will have to make a stance concerning the patentability of computer-implemented simulation methods.

In the meantime, the European Patent Office granted a software patent on a method for designing an optical system that satisfies a certain algebraic condition. The board took the view that the criteria for technical character presupposes that the claimed subject-matter relates to a physical entity or a physical activity.

How the EPO examines software patents

By the way, if you are interested in a deeper look into how the European Patent Office examines software-related inventions, this 30-minute video gives a concise overview of the “two hurdle” approach with lots of examples.

Business method patents

In the field of business methods, one Technical Board of Appeal had to deal with a patent application relating to an automated exchange system designed to execute matching of combinations of financial instruments. Despite the focus of this invention on a financial use case, the board found that implementing the financial matching concept in a way which improves real-time and latency constraints in the matching unit is indeed a technical problem that has to be taken into account in the inventive step assessment.

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Designing an optical system with certain mathematical properties: technical

The European Patent Office granted a software patent on a method for designing an optical system that satisfies a certain algebraic condition. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 0471/05 of 6.2.2007 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.4.02:

Key takeaways

The criteria for technical character presupposes that the claimed subject-matter relates to a physical entity or a physical activity.

The invention

This European patent application relates to the activity of designing an optical system. This is done such that substantially all light rays imaged by the optical system between two predetermined points on the optical axis of the system satisfy an algebraic condition specified in the patent claim.

Fig. 1 of EP 0 932 845
Fig. 1 of EP 0 932 845

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1 of the main request:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

Since claim 1 concerned a method for designing an optical system essentially such that a mathematical formula is satisfied, the question at hand was whether the claimed subject-matter is excluded from patentability per se. In this respect, the board noted:

Thus, the claim merely formulates a series of mathematical and optical abstract concepts without properly requiring a physical, technical implementation. In particular, neither the claimed design method nor the resulting “design” requires a technical activity or a technical entity – let alone a “physical” activity or entity within the meaning of decision T 453/91 (point 5.2 of the reasons). It follows that the subject-matter for which protection is sought (Article 84 EPC, first sentence) is the mere “design” of an optical system and encompasses purely abstract and conceptual implementations excluded from patent protection pursuant to Articles 52(1), (2) and (3) EPC. More particularly, the claimed method can be carried out as a purely mental act or as a purely mathematical design algorithm and, consequently, encompasses embodiments falling within the category of methods for performing mental acts as such and within the category of mathematical methods as such both expressly excluded from patent protection under Article 52(2)(a) and (c) in conjunction with Article 52(3) EPC.

The appellant argued that the claimed method defines an activity that requires the use of technical means, involves technical considerations, results in an optical system design and produces technical information in the form of the specifications of an optical system having predetermined technical characteristics, and pertains to the technical field of optical design. However, this did not convice the board:

However, this line of argument does not persuade the Board. The criteria for technical character of a claimed invention discussed in decision T 619/02 implicitly presuppose that the claimed subject-matter defining the matter for which protection is sought relates to a physical entity or a physical activity (see for instance point 2.1, first paragraph, and points 2.3.1, 2.4.1 of the decision). It cannot be denied that the method defined in claim 1 of the main request can be carried out using some physical means (e.g. a block of optical material to be gradually shaped into an optical system so as to satisfy the algebraic condition specified in the claim), or using some technical means (e.g. a computer to determine the optical specifications of the optical system design), or in the form of a physical activity that results in a physical entity (e.g. when the claimed step of “making a design of the optical system” is implemented by the manufacture of the design as actually claimed in claim 5), and that such implementations of the claimed method constitute physical, technical activities not excluded from patent protection (see for instance decisions T 914/02, point 2.3.3 of the reasons, and T 258/03, OJ EPO 2004, 575, point 4.7). Nonetheless, contrary to the appellant’s contention, the claimed method does not require the use of technical means and, as noted above, the method is not restricted to physical, technical implementations, and the fact that the claimed method encompasses non-excluded implementations such as those mentioned above does not overcome the fact that the claimed method also encompasses excluded subject-matter (T 914/02, points 2 and 3, and T 388/04, OJ EPO 2007, 16, point 3 of the reasons; see also T 453/91, point 5.2, and T 930/05, points 3.1 and 4.5). Thus, as long as the claimed design method is not confined to physical, technical implementations, the claimed subject-matter encompasses embodiments excluded from patentability under Articles 52(1) to 52(3) EPC and is not entitled to patent protection under the EPC.

Therefore, the board concluded that claim 1 of the main request is excluded from patent protection under Articles 52(1), (2) and (3) EPC.

In a second auxiliary request, the appellant added that the claimed method is carried out “using an optics design program”. This claim version overcame the exclusion:

Thus, claim 1 of the second auxiliary request defines an activity in which the design conditions defined in the claim are input into an optics design program to determine the design parameters of optical systems satisfying the design conditions expressed in the claim. In addition, the determination by the optics design program of the resulting design specifications requires implicitly that the optics design program is run in some form of hardware such as a computer. It follows that the claimed method defines an activity involving inherently and necessarily the use of such hardware fed with the optics design program and the claimed design conditions, i.e. defines a physical, technical activity.

By the way, if you are interested in a deeper look into how the European Patent Office examines software-related inventions, this 30-minute video gives a concise overview of the “two hurdle” approach with lots of examples:

Regarding inventive step, the board was apparently satisfied that the claimed subject-matter, including the mathematical formula, defines technical subject-matter, since it examined in detail whether these features were rendered obvious by the prior art at hand:

The Board, however, cannot follow the conclusion drawn by the examining division. First, the line of argument of the examining division relies on a parameter q algebraically interpolating between the Abbe and the Herschel conditions, i.e. relies on hindsight knowledge of the specific algebraic condition defined in the claimed invention and therefore on an ex post facto analysis. Second, even assuming that the skilled person would have considered the possibility of obtaining a compromise between the two antagonistic conditions different from that proposed in document D1, the Board notes that there is an infinite number of ways of reaching a compromise between the two conditions. In particular, there is an infinite number of mathematical functions interpolating between the two algebraic conditions [1] and [2]; even restricting such interpolating functions to parametric functions, there is an infinite number of such interpolating parametric functions, the one-parameter algebraic interpolations given by the appellant in the statement of grounds of appeal (see point V above) constituting just some examples. In fact, there are even infinite ways of compromising the two conditions with the algebraic function defined in the claim when – contrary to the requirements of the claimed design – the condition is only satisfied by some light rays, or by substantially all light rays but with different values of the parameter q.

In addition, the algebraic condition defined in the claimed invention does not constitute an arbitrary selection of just one from among infinite possibilities of mathematically interpolating between conditions [1] and [2], but, according to the disclosure of the invention, the claimed condition constitutes the selection of a specific mathematical interpolation that guarantees the achievement of an advantageous balance between field size and axial excursion (page 3, lines 15 to 25), thus allowing for a relatively large volume in image space where aberrations stay relatively low (pages 9 to 12 of the application).

In view of the above, neither the available prior art nor the general common knowledge in this field suggest the design requirements defined in claim 1 and the technical improvements achieved therewith.

Therefore, the Board decided that claim 1 of the second auxiliary request involves an inventive step.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0471/05 of 6.2.2007

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Improving information display on a display device of an aircraft: technical

The European Patent Office granted a software patent on a method of representing missed approach information in perspective view on a cockpit display. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 0013/18 of 12.4.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.2.01:

Key takeaways

Enabling a pilot to abort a landing in due time if necessary, thereby improving safety: technical

The invention

This European patent application relates to a method for displaying information on a display device of an aircraft. The method comprises determining graphics data for visual aids that represent
missed approach data, incorporating the graphics data into a user interface that is in perspective view, and generating the user interface for display on the display device of the aircraft.

Fig. 3A of EP 2 664 549
Fig. 3A of EP 2 664 549

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1 of the main request:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

The Board found that claim 1 differs from the closest prior art by the step of “determining, by a distance determination module (24), using the approach data (30) based on real-time flight data or prescribed flight data at least one of a time and a distance from the touchdown point where the decision height or the minimum descent altitude would be achieved” (feature c).

According to the Board, this difference solves the following technical problem:

Determining at least the time or distance from the touchdown point where the decision height or the minimum descent altitude would be achieved will enable the pilot to abort the landing in due time if necessary.

The problem to be solved may be regarded as to increase safety landing.

In view of the prior art at hand, there was no hint for the skilled person to come up with the claimed solution:

D1 (col.8, l.33-45, figure 4) discloses the following: “If the aircraft drops below a predetermined altitude, a shadow 63 of the predictor 31 becomes visible on the screen. The shadow 63 gives the pilot information as to the altitude and the predicted altitude without it being necessary to concentrate on another instrument. In connection with the change in the color of the symbols of the predictor 31 in the region of the lower permissible speed, the pilot can at a glance gather all necessary information shortly prior to touchdown”. The information displayed in D1 enables the pilot to correct the landing.

Thus D1 deals with another problem than the one in the present application. It does not enable the pilot to visualise the decision height or the minimum descent altitude to enable him to take a decision on aborting the landing of the plane. Furthermore there is no incentive for the skilled person to change the information displayed in D1 and to determine the time or distance from touchdown where the decision height or the minimum descent altitude would be achieved.

Therefore, the subject-matter of claim 1 was found to involve an inventive step.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0013/18 of 12.4.2019

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Displaying user interfaces more quickly by precomputing information: technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office acknowledged that precomputing user habit information for a graphical user interface of a mobile device is technical. However, this difference over the prior art was found to be obvious. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1718/17 (User habit list/HUAWEI) of 29.4.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.06:

Key takeaways

Maintaining information as sub-tables rather than generating the tabular information as needed has the advantage that the display interface can be generated more quickly when actually needed, but the disadvantage that the sub-tables must be precomputed and kept in memory.

In the art of computing, “precomputation” is a well known method of speeding up program execution.

The invention

This European patent application relates to the problem of simplifying the use of complex user interfaces, e.g. in smartphones.

The invention proposes to track users’ interactions with their devices to determine their “habits” and thus to predict what they might want to do next. A number of likely user preferences (“user habit options”) are compiled from actual user operations and displayed as a “user habit list” from which the user can select. The list is ordered according to priorities that aim to express user preferences well. The parameters being tracked (and taken into account to arrange the user habit list) relate to applications and their options, the frequency of calls, the time of day, and the like.

Fig. 4 of the application illustrates an example of a user habit list:

Fig. 4 of EP 2 888 664
Fig. 4 of EP 2 888 664

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1 of the main request:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

The Board of Appeal identified the following difference between claim 1 and the closest prior art: Instead of maintaining a single user habit list as in the prior art, claim 1 referred to at least two “user habit statistical sub-tables” which reflect the user habits for “different time span[s] of a day”.

On the one hand, the Board took the view that the multiple statistical sub-tables indeed provide a technical effect. Doing so, however, was found to be obvious:

In the application to hand, the “sub-tables” are disclosed in embodiments 4 and 6 (see the original description, page 17, line 9, to page 19, line 7, and page 20, line 9, to page 22, line 16). Apart from no­ting that different sub-tables can model time-dependent user habits (see page 17, lines 16 to 29) – which is known from documents D3, D5 and D7 – the description does not disclose any specific technical effect of using the claimed subtables for the implementation of that model.

The board can only speculate that maintaining the pertinent information as “sub-tables” rather than (re-)generating the tabular information as needed has the advantage that the display interface can be generated more quickly when actually needed, but the disadvantage that the sub-tables must be precomputed and kept in memory. From this perspective, precomputing sub-tables would have been obvious to the skilled person to achieve the effect known from document D3 as a matter of the well-known trade-off of “precomputing”, namely between time and space requirements on the one hand and system responsiveness on the other.

The board takes the view that, in the art of computing, “precomputation” is a well known method of speeding up program execution. The basic idea is to avoid the time-consuming computation of certain data when it may be needed urgently, by computing it – or part of it – earlier. This speeds-up access to the data when needed and may, thereby, increase system responsiveness. This advantage comes at a cost, in that the precomputed data has to be stored until needed and thus increases the program’s memory consumption.

Therefore, the Board decided that claim 1 does not involve an inventive step and dismissed the appeal.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1718/17 (User habit list/HUAWEI) of 29.4.2019

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EUROPEAN SOFTWARE PATENTS May 2019 updates

May came with seven new decisions in the EUROPEAN SOFTWARE PATENTS knowledge base relating to graphical user interfaces, navigation systems, computer games, business methods, video processing, programming and cryptography:

Patents for graphical user interfaces

Improvements in graphical user interfaces are sometimes difficult to protect with patents when they are closely related to the presentation of information (which is as such excluded from patentability).

In one case, however, the Board of Appeal decided that displaying a 3D bird’s eye view map, e.g. in a car navigation system, and the associated calculation steps are technical and thus enter into the inventive step assessment. An important finding was that displaying information in an ergonomically improved manner is indeed a technical purpose.

In another decision relating to GUIs in video games, the European Patent Office granted a software patent on graphical layout aspects of a video game which improved its functional quality. One of the aspects of the invention related to making a possibly concealed indicator clearly visible on a display screen to the user of an interactive video game.

As a negative example in the realm of navigation systems, the European Patent Office refused to grant a patent for a navigation system that can be tailored to a user’s particular wishes.

Business method patents

In one recent decision, the Board of Appeal considered a method for determining a reference reading from a load cell of a cash till as technical and remitted the case back to the examining division. The Board emphasized the basic principle that a computer-implemented method may have a technical character provided that the method is functionally limited to a technical purpose.

How the EPO examines software patents

By the way, if you are interested in a deeper look into how the European Patent Office examines software-related inventions, this 30-minute video gives a concise overview of the “two hurdle” approach with lots of examples.

Patents for audio / video / image processing

Just recently, the European Patent Office granted a software patent on improving the recognition of songs or background music in a video by using closed-captioning data for determining an audio segment that is relatively free of interference. The Board held that improving the recognition of songs or background music is a technical problem.

Programming

The act of programming in itself is regularly regarded to be a mental activity devoid of technical character. In this decision, several method steps for generating a parallel computation graph were found to be non-technical, since the mere potential for a speed-up by parallelization of a computer program is not sufficient for arguing a “further” technical effect.

Cryptography

Although normally based on mathematical concepts, inventions in the field of applied cryptography are regularly allowed by the European Patent Office. For example, in this case the Board of Appeal considered a mathematical method of masking a private key technical. More precisely, the Board decided that protecting a cryptographic computation against power attacks is a technical problem if, and only if, the computation is actually carried out on hardware and thus open to such attacks.

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Improving functional quality of the graphical layout of a video game: technical

This decision is a classic one concerning two items on the list of excluded subject-matter: gaming rules and the presentation of information. The European Patent Office granted a software patent on graphical layout aspects of a video game which improved its functional quality. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 0928/03 (Video game/KONAMI) of 2.6.2006 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

Making a possibly concealed indicator clearly visible on a display screen to the user of an interactive video game does not exclusively address a human mental process (i.e. it is not exclusively determined by the cognitive meaning of the information presented) but contributes an objective technical function to the display.

Highlighting of a second point of interest, in addition to the active player character, on the display screen in order to draw the user’s attention to the second point on the screen is a technical contribution to be considered in the inventive step discussion.

The invention

This European patent application relates to an interactive video game (e.g. a virtual soccer game) in which a user controls at least one player character displayed on a screen.

One aspect of the invention is to display a ring-shaped guide mark (see G1 in the image below) around the foot of the active player character. Further, a team mate of the active player is accompanied by a pass guide mark (G3) so that the active player character can easily pass the ball to the team mate. A central aspect was that the pass guide mark is displayed on the end of the display area even when the other player character and the pass guide mark come out of the display area of the monitor screen so as to properly indicate the direction in which the ball is to be passed by the player character.

Fig. 6 of EP 0 844 580
Fig. 6 of EP 0 844 580

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1

Is it technical?

First of all, patent-eligibility was not an issue in the present case in accordance with the established case law:

Eligibility for patent protection has not been called into question by the Examining Division. The guide display device according to claim 1 indeed represents a physical entity in particular comprising displaying means which have a technical character by their nature.

The displaying steps of the independent method claim imply the use of displaying means which provides a technical character to the method (T 258/03-Auction method/HITACHI, OJ EPO 2004, 575).

Concerning inventive step, one difference over the closest prior, which indicates the active player character by displaying a small triangle above its head, was that the guide mark is ring-shaped and displayed around a foot of the active player character. The Board assessed the technical character of this difference as follows:

The aforementioned difference implies an enlarged size of the guide mark which avoids any risk of the mark being concealed by a neighbouring player character. Making a possibly concealed indicator clearly visible on a display screen to the user of an interactive video game does not exclusively address a human mental process (i.e. it is not exclusively determined by the cognitive meaning of the information presented) but contributes an objective technical function to the display. The functional quality is not cancelled by the fact that the visualised information will also enter into a decision of the user interacting with the video game displayed on the screen.

In conclusion, the enlarged size of the guide mark will enter into the appraisal of the display device and method with respect to inventive step (T 641/00-Two identities/COMVIK, Headnote I, OJ EPO 2003, 352).

However, the Board ruled differently with respect to the ring shape of the guide mark and its arrangement near the foot of the player character:

On the other hand, the Board is not convinced that the precise geometrical (ring-)shape of the guide mark achieves any effect other than an aesthetic impression. The shape of the guide mark relates to mere artwork in the menu design which the Board considers as non-technical (see T 244/00-Remote control/MATSUSHITA, point 12 of the Reasons).

Consequently, the ring-shape of the guide mark is merely an aesthetic creation and, thus, cannot constitute an inventive step within the meaning of Article 56 EPC.

The same goes for the precise (foot-related) location of the guide mark (G1) with respect to the player character to be marked. In view of the preferred embodiment of the video game (soccer), it may be added that – in accordance with the Examining Division’s finding – marking the foot zone of a player character may also be driven by the non-technical rules of the game, which confirms the non-technical character of that contribution.

By the way, if you are interested in a deeper look into how the European Patent Office examines software-related inventions, this 30-minute video gives a concise overview of the “two hurdle” approach with lots of examples:

Another difference over the closest prior art was that a team mate of the active player character is accompanied by a pass guide mark so that the active player character can easily pass the game medium (e.g. ball) to the team mate:

When the non-technical, game-rule-driven aspects of this feature are stripped off, the underlying technical contribution relates to the highlighting of a second point of interest, in addition to the active player character, on the display screen in order to draw the user’s attention to the second point on the screen. That is a technical contribution to be considered in the inventive step discussion.

A third difference over the closest prior art was that the pass guide mark is displayed on the end of the display area even when the other player character and the pass guide mark come out of the display area of the monitor screen so as to properly indicate the direction in which the game medium (e.g. ball) is to be passed by the player character:

The technical problem underlying this feature relates to conflicting technical requirements: On the one hand, a portion of an image is desired to be displayed on a relatively large scale (e.g. zoom in); on the other hand, the display area of the screen may then be too small to show a complete zone of interest. Resolving that conflict by technical means implies a technical contribution which has to be considered in the inventive step discussion.

The first two differences, albeit being technical contributions, were found to be obvious by the Board. The third difference – highlighting a second point of interest in addition to the active player character on the display screen to draw the user’s attention to the second point on the screen – was found to be non-obvious:

The technical contribution by feature [c] addresses the conflicting technical requirements of displaying an enlarged portion of an image (into which the user may have zoomed) and keeping an overview of a zone of interest which is larger than the display area. Conventional video game GUIs (as acknowledged by the appellant, see point V, last paragraph supra) compromise by superimposing a down-scaled map of the zone of interest on the enlarged portion of the image (covering a considerable part of that portion), or by zooming out (losing detail), or by shifting the viewing perspective (losing focus).

Feature [c] allows an enlarged portion of the image to be displayed and overview information to be provided to the user without sacrificing surface, detail or focus of the enlarged image portion.

In the Board’s judgment, the first and second instance discussions have not revealed any obvious pointer to a display device displaying a guide mark on the end of the display area in order to indicate a second point of interest which is being outside the display area of the monitor screen.

Therefore, the Board decided that claim 1 involves an inventive step.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0928/03 (Video game/KONAMI) of 2.6.2006

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