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Text classification: non-technical

The European Patent Office considered text classification non-technical. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 1316/09 () of 18.12.2012 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

Text classification per se does not serve any technical purpose.

The technical effect of a feature must be sufficiently substantiated.

The invention

The application underlying the present decision relates to a method and a system for suggesting automated responses to an incoming electronic message based on content analysis and categorisation (cf. EP 1 587 004 A1, paras. [0002]-[0003]). A classifier uses query-based classification in combination with example-based classification to classify the content of an incoming message (cf. EP 1 587 004 A1, paras. [0004]).

Fig. 2A of EP 1 587 004 A1

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it patentable?

In the course of the examination procedure, the examining division inter alia raised objections concerning inventive step. At the end of the examination phase, the application was rejected. During the appeal proceedings, the appellant argued that the objective technical problem underlying the present application could be formulated as “how to more efficiently and effectively provide a response to an incoming message”. However, the Board in charge was of the opinion that the appellant failed to substantiate why the claimed method and system increases efficiency with respect to providing responses to messages:

4. (…) Firstly, the alleged effects are speculative, considering that nothing in the claimed invention prevents the intersection of the categories provided by a query and by the example-based algorithm being empty and hence that the claimed method is a complete failure. Even more importantly, the appellant did not provide any substantive reason why a more efficient and better categorisation of the informational content of an IEM qualifies as a technical effect at all and why such an advancement over the prior art has technical character.

More importantly, the Board in charge outlined that the inventive solution of the objective technical problem must be based on the technical features of the invention as claimed:

4. A decisive factor in any assessment of inventive step is the objective technical problem underlying the invention. The inventive solution of the objective technical problem must be based on the technical features of the invention as claimed. Text classification per se, however, does not serve any technical purpose. Neither does the combination of different methods of text categorisation per se provide any relevant technical effect that could form a valid basis for defining the objective technical problem. (…)

Hence, all claim features relating to the text classification aspects were ignored for the assessment of inventive step. As a result, the Board in charge concluded that the claimed subject-matter is rendered-obvious by the cited prior art and therefore dismissed the appeal.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1316/09 () of 18.12.2012.

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Implementing the execution of a database view query: technical

The European Patent Office considered implementing the execution of a database view query technical. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 0104/12 (Metadata-based query/SAP) of 8.9.2016 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.07:

Key takeaways

Implementing the execution of a known database view query is technical. However, most probably, such an implementation is rendered-obvious by the prior art.

The invention

The application underlying the present decision relates to the field of data processing, and more particularly, to data extraction. A data extractor is a program used to fill a given extractor structure with data from a database. The extracted data is provided from the source system to a data warehouse (a sink) for the purposes of analysis and management information (cf. WO 2005/015435 A2, page 2, l. 2-5). One of the advantages of the present invention is that the interface between the data sink and the data source is generic such that not only specific data warehouses can act as a data sink but various different kinds of applications which require data from a data source for any purpose. Another advantage is that the data sink does not need to provide a complete extractor structure for all the data which are available from the data source. Rather the data sink is enabled to specify a sub-set of the data which is of interest. This reduces the amount of memory which is required by the data sink and it also substantially reduces the data transmission time from the data source to the data sink (cf. WO 2005/015435 A2, page 4, l. 8-18).

Fig. 1 of WO 2005/015435 A2.

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it patentable?

The present application was considered as not patentable by the first instance examining division. In more detail, the application was rejected due to lack of inventive step in light of prior art document D1. The rejection has been appealed by the applicant.

According to the Board of Appeal in charge, the subject-matter of claim 1 of the main request differs from well-known OLTP systems (considered to form the closest prior art for claim 1) in steps a. to d., which set out how the data sink obtains the information necessary to formulate the query, and in steps f. to h., which describe how the query is executed. Particularly, the Board considered the subject-matter of steps f. to h. as technical:

3.8 Hence, starting from the closest prior art identified in point 3.33.3 above, the Board considers that the technical problem solved by steps f) to h) is that of implementing the execution of a database view query. (…)

However, the Board in charge further outlined that the implementation of the execution of a query cannot render the claimed subject-matter inventive:

3.8 (…) The skilled person confronted with this problem would understand that, conceptually, such a query is to do what is described in point 3.63.6 above. The straightforward implementation of this conceptual approach corresponds to steps f) to h). Although the skilled person would be aware that this implementation will generally be inefficient, the acceptance of such a foreseeable disadvantage not offset by any unexpected technical advantage does not involve an inventive step.

As a result, the appeal was dismissed.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0104/12 (Metadata-based query/SAP) of 8.9.2016.

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Automatically generating a list of expressions semantically related to an input linguistic expression: non-technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office did not grant a patent on the concept of automatically generating a list of expressions semantically related to an input linguistic expression. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1569/05 (Method for retrieving data/CANON) of 26.6.2008 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Catchwords

If a method is computer-implemented, it is considered technical.

However, features relating to automatically generating a list of expressions semantically related to an input linguistic expression is basically not of a technical nature but a matter of the meaning of those expressions, i.e. of their abstract linguistic information content.

The invention

This European patent application generally relates to a data retrieving apparatus and method thereof. More particularly, it relates to a database system or an interface system between a database system and users (cf. EP 0 822 506 A2, page 1, lines 3-4). In the retrieving operation as used in common pattern matching systems, a user is unable to retrieve data having the same meaning but represented by the different representation forms, or data having similar meanings. Moreover, pattern matching cannot deal with polysemy of words (cf. EP 0 822 506 A2, page 1, lines 7-12). The stored data could be of any kind but for simplicity, it is assumed they represent images (in accordance with the third embodiment of the invention). The Board in charge summarized the subject-matter of the underlying application as follows:

The invention is a data processing method (claim 13) and apparatus (claim 1) for searching a database. The stored data could be of any kind but for illustration it is here assumed they represent images in accordance with the third embodiment of the invention. Each image is described by a number of words (“comparison-subjected word group”) representing its contents. A user searching for an image inputs a keyword as well as a number of “context words” intended to define the appropriate semantic context. The keyword, the context words and the comparison-subjected words are transformed to vectors in what is referred to as “semantic space”. This space has been created using eigenvalue decomposition of “space generation words”, taken for example from a dictionary. The context vectors form a “semantic center”, which is a subspace of semantic space corresponding to the given context. The semantic center does not include (…) the axes corresponding to the most frequent meanings of the space generation words. The keyword vector and the comparison-subjected vector group are projected onto the semantic center and the distances (“correlation amounts”) between the keyword vector and the comparison-subjected vectors are calculated. The closest comparison-subjected vector is identified and the corresponding image retrieved from the database (see also p.4, l.44 to p.11, l.9 of the A-publication).

Fig. 3 of EP 0 822 506 A2

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 13:

  • Claim 13 (main request)

Is it technical?

The first-instance examining division had refused the patent application for lack of inventive step in light of the cited prior art. In reaction thereto, the applicants appealed the decision.

With respect to technicality, the Board in charge stated as follows:

Claim 13 is directed to a “computer-implemented method… performed by a computer”. A computer being a technical means, the subject-matter of claim 13 is an invention within the meaning of Article 52(1) EPC.

The appellants agreed to the Board’s assessment, that the subject-matter of claim 13 of the main requests differs from the teachings of the closest prior art in that:

– a principal-axis index set is generated by calculating a sum vector of the space generation vector group and selecting an axis of the sum vector as the principal-axis index set if an absolute value of the corresponding element satisfies a condition for a ratio to an absolute value of a succeeding element in descending order of the absolute values, and

– the subspace into which the projector projects a vector contains no axes belonging to the principal-axis index set.

The Board summarized the teaching of these two distinguishing features as follows:

3.2 (…) Hence, in essence the claimed data processing method differs from the prior art by a modification of the mathematical model of meaning used for data retrieval. Put simply, common elements of meaning, having no distinguishing power, are determined, and the corresponding axes are excluded from the subspace (“semantic center”) where the correlations between the keyword and the image descriptions (“comparison-subjected word group”) are evaluated.

However, the Board agreed to the assessment of the first-instance examining division and considered the distinguishing features as non-technical:

3.3 Also the examining division found that the above two features (as they were then formulated) distinguished the invention from D3 (cf the decision under appeal, point 1.1). In the division’s opinion, the features merely caused a further restriction of the subspace to be searched (cf the decision under appeal, point 1.2). This was a technically non-functional modification of the known “mathematical model of meaning”, relating to the field of linguistics. The invention thus did not involve an inventive step.

In response, the appellants argued that the application relates to the technical field of utilizing a natural language as a search input, as allegedly confirmed by T 208/84. However, the Board in charge did not follow these arguments and argued that the present case could not be compared to the decision referred to by the appellants:

3.5 In the Board’s view, (…) the modified model according to the invention [is not] within the technical area, since only the meaning of the words determines how they are represented, stored and selected, and since mathematical algorithms completely define the processing.

3.6 A technical aspect can therefore at most be seen in the application of these models for retrieving data in a computer database, such retrieval being normally considered to have technical character.

In this respect, the Board further argued that using such a modified model would be obvious in light of the cited prior art:

3.8 (…) To use such a modified model for data retrieval is obvious in the light of D3. Search efficiency is a standard problem in data retrieval applications and any modification leading to faster and arguably better search results would be clearly desirable.

As a result, the Board in charge dismissed the appeal due to lack of inventive step.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1569/05 (Method for retrieving data/CANON) of 26.6.2008.

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Retrieving documents from a database using a normalized symbol: non-technical

The European Patent Office considered retrieving documents from a database using a normalized symbol non-technical. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 0309/10 (Archival and retrieval/MULTEX) of June 19, 2013 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

Using computers for what they are good at – e.g. storing and processing large amounts of data quickly – is an obvious measure that cannot contribute to inventive step.

The invention

The application underlying the present decision relates to archival and retrieval of documents. As explained in the application (cf. WO 00/79430 A1, “Background Information”), companies issue various securities, but there are different ways of referring to them in different parts of the world. For example, “T” might refer to AT&T in the US, but to Telos in Canada. Vendors of financial information sometimes use a two-part name for securities or companies, for example T.US, IBM@GB, IB.EG. These are not used in a consistent way: IBM@GB and IB.EG might both be used to refer to the same company, T.US might refer to an AT&T security, T@US might refer to a security issued by a different company. All that creates problems with archival and retrieval. It is difficult to locate all documents, and only those documents, that relate to a particular company.

To solve this problem, the application underlying the present decision suggests a method and system for the reference, archival and retrieval of symbolically linked information despite idiosyncratic symbol usage (cf. WO 00/79430 A1, “Summary of the Invention”).

Fig. 1 of WO 00/79430 A1.

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it patentable?

The present application was considered as not patentable by the first instance examining division. In more detail, the examining division considered most of the claimed steps as non-technical an thus ignored them for the assessment of inventive step. Against this decision the appellant argued as follows:

The invention made the retrieval of relevant documents easier and more accurate. It saved time and resources. A solution to a similar problem was found to involve an inventive step in T 0654/10, Searchable message storage system/J2 GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS (not published in the OJ EPO).

The invention could not be viewed as the automation of a mental act. A human, for example a librarian, would not, or could not, maintain the information required in his head. Nor could the invention be seen as the automation of a known method, because the method was not known.

Implementation using a computer system would allow the repository to grow larger than without.

According to the Board in charge, the method as claimed comprises some technical features (for example “a storage device”, “a network interface”, and “a processor) as well as some specific method steps that vary from request to request. However, it includes a core method common to all requests:

5. Claim 1 according to each request defines a document repository system. The system comprises a number of technical features, for example “a storage device”, “a network interface”, and “a processor. The bulk of the claim is the method that the processor is adapted to carry out. This method is slightly different from request to request. However, there is a core method, common to them all, and it is useful to set that out at the start.

6. The first part of the method sets up a table of master symbols: a symbol is normalised, the result being a master symbol; a parent identifier is assigned to it, and the association is stored. The same parent identifier can be assigned to more then one master symbol.

7. The second part of the method creates a database of documents, and a table that links documents with parent identifiers: a document identifier is generated; the document identifier is stored with the associated parent identifier; the document is stored together with its parent identifier.

8. The final part of the method retrieves documents from the database: a symbol is normalised; the table of master symbols is consulted; the corresponding parent identifier is retrieved; the database is searched; and a document with the parent identifier is retrieved.

With respect to the core method, the Board in charge argued that this part of the overall method as claimed could be performed without using a computer:

9. The core method as just set out could well be performed without the technical aid of a computer. One readily imagines a librarian creating an index. He would not include all the variants of each entry (e.g. “IBM”, “iBM”, “IbM”, and so on) but choose one representative form. He might provide a unique identifier for each book (or just use the ISBN), a list of authors linked to book identifiers, and a list of index entries linked to book identifiers. When a user of the library asks for books about, say, “International Business Machines”, the librarian might look up “IBM”, discover that the books are indexed under “IBM – COMPANY” and so find a list of the required books. There would be nothing technical in what the librarian would be doing. He would simply be a good administrator, solving the non-technical problem of storing and locating books.

Hence, the problem underlying the present application could be considered as implementing the core method by means of a computer. However, this would be obvious to the skilled person:

10. Thus, the Board considers that the core method is not technical. According to the established jurisprudence of the Boards of Appeal non-technical features do not contribute to inventive step, and can appear in the formulation of the technical problem, when inventive step is at issue (T 641/00 Two identities/COMVIK, OJ EPO 2003,352). That means, that the novelty or obviousness of the core method is not an issue, and that the technically skilled person can be considered as being faced with the technical task of implementing it using a computer system.

Concerning the arguments of the appellant, the Board argued as follows:

17. The further argument that implementation using a computer system would allow the repository to grow larger than without cannot change the Board’s assessment that using computers for what they are good at – storing and processing large amounts of data quickly – was an obvious measure.

18. The argument that the invention cannot be seen as an automation of a known method, because the method, in this case, was not known, fails because the novelty of non-technical methods is irrelevant (cf T 0641/00, headnote 2).

Accordingly, the Board considered implementing such a method on a computer as an obvious measure. Moreover, since novelty of non-technical methods alone is irrelevant, the Board in charge dismissed the appeal.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0309/10 (Archival and retrieval/MULTEX) of June 19, 2013.

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Generation of database queries from database independent selection conditions: technical

The European Patent Office considered the generation of database queries from database independent selection conditions technical. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 1500/08 (Generation of database queries/UBS) of November 4, 2011 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

Reusing a previous search by a database server may be a technical aspect.

The invention

The application underlying the present decision relates to the automatic generation of search queries (cf. EP 1 566 745 A1, para. [0001]). Oftentimes, search requests including selection conditions have a database independent format and must therefore be translated into a database specific query language that can be understood by the used database server (cf. EP 1 566 745 A1, para. [0006]). Hence, there is a need for a mechanism for efficiently and flexibly transforming a database independent search request into a database specific query (cf. EP 1 566 745 A1, para. [0007]). This could be achieved by means of placeholders that could be replaced by specific operators included in the query strings (cf. EP 1 566 745 A1, paras. [0012] and [0023]).

Fig. 1 of EP 1 566 745 A1.

  • Claim 1 (auxiliary request 2)

Is it patentable?

The first instance examining division rejected the present application due to lack of inventive step. During the the appeal proceedings, the applicant filed a main request as well as two auxiliary requests. The main request as well as auxiliary request 1 were rejected by the Board of appeal due to lack of novelty (main request) and lack of inventive step (auxiliary request 2).

However,  concerning claim 1 of auxiliary request 2, the Board in charge outlined:

5.7 According to D2, all substitutions are made before the query is sent to the database server.

5.8 The question of inventive step, therefore, comes down to this: would it have been obvious to the skilled person to modify the teaching of D2 so that only the operators were substituted before transmission to the database server?

Hence, as a next step, the Board in charge derived the technical effect as follows from the above-given distinguishing feature:

5.9 The technical effect is that, sometimes, a previous search can be reused by the database server (application as published, paragraph 0023). The appellant explained, during oral proceedings, that the database server, when processing searches in which only selection values (but not fields or operators) change, can re-use some of the previous results.

While the Board in charge considered the claimed subject-matter technical, it further argued that it would be rendered-obvious by the cited prior art and thus dismissed the appeal.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1500/08 (Generation of database queries/UBS) of November 4, 2011.

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Predicting the formation of mould fungi: technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office considered predicting the formation of mould fungi based on experiments technical. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision in German language) T 0547/14 (Verfahren zur Vorhersage von Schimmelpilzbildung/FRAUNHOFER) of 29.1.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

Method steps for determining physical quantities are likely considered technical since technical devices have to be used to carry them out.

The invention

This European patent application relates to a method for predicting the formation of mould fungi. Biological germination conditions or growth conditions for at least one mould fungus, which are determined experimentally or by a computer, are compared with the hygrothermic conditions on an object to be examined. Based on the obtained data, it is determined whether the germination or the the growth conditions are present on the examined object (cf. WO 03/014986 A2, Abstract).

Fig. 3 of WO 03/014986 A2

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1 (translated by by the author of this post):

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

According to first instance examining division independent claim 1 would only comprise features that refer to a mental act and/or to an abstract concept. The only technical feature would be the computer that is presented as an option to compare determined biological germination conditions and/or growth conditions. However, according to claim 1, this comparison could also be done experimentally, i.e. without requiring any technical means:

3. The Examining Division found the subject-matter of claim 1 of the main request without the feature “with a computer” to be method that falls under the exclusion conditions of Article 52(2) and (3) EPC.

3.1 The Examining Division submitted that the features of claim 1, which related to an experimental determination of biological germination conditions for moulds, did not differ from a purely intellectual activity, since the “experimental” determination was not technically specified and could be carried out by pure cognitive observation.

As a result, the Examining Division rejected the present application, without considering prior art. In order to counter this argument, applicant submitted that the claimed determination steps would refer to physical quantities. Hence, they would have to be considered as technical.

The Board in charge agreed to applicant’s argumentation and explained that the claimed determination steps are of technical character, even when no computer is used to carry them out. The reason is that an “experimental” determination would require the use of technical means:

3.6 If these are determined ‘experimentally’, it is necessary to carry out experiments and thus to use technical means. In this respect, the Board agrees with the appellant that the subject matter claimed is thus technical. If a computer is used, the subject matter is also technical with the use of this technical means.

The Board in charge concluded that the features relating to the determination steps as claimed have to be considered for the assessment of inventive step. Hence, the Board in charge remitted the case back to the first instance Examining Division for further examination, including a consideration of the searched prior art documents.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0547/14 (Verfahren zur Vorhersage von Schimmelpilzbildung/FRAUNHOFER) of 29.1.2020.

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Generated metadata file for OLAP tools: non-technical

In this decision, the European Patent Office considered a generated metadata file as non-technical. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 2573/16 (OLAP-cube specification/ACCENTURE GLOBAL SERVICES) of 6.11.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.07:

Key takeaways

If non-technical features could not contribute to a technical effect because they are non-technical, there would be no need for analyzing whether these features produce a technical effect over a computer. Hence, it has always to be analysed whether, and to what extent, a non-technical scheme, when implemented on a computer, produces a technical effect over that computer.

While a file itself is likely non-technical, the generation thereof might be technical.

The invention

This European patent application relates to online analytical processing (OLAP) which is a category of tools used to provide access to data in a database. With OLAP, multidimensional analytical queries can be quickly answered. Databases configured for OLAP may use a  multidimensional data model that provides multidimensional views of data for quick access to strategic information for further analysis (cf. EP 2 312 465 A1, para. [0002]).

OLAP tools use OLAP cubes to achieve efficient data retrieval which is a data structure that organizes categories of data by dimensions and measures (cf. EP 2 312 465 A1, para. [0003]). If users want to change the OLAP cube, such as add or remove dimensions, a cumbersome process must be followed by the technical solution team to properly implement the changes. The back-and-forth communications and processes needed to implement changes to the OLAP cube are burdensome (cf. EP 2 312 465 A1, para. [0005]).

The present application seeks to to improve OLAP systems by means of a template metadata file including metadata defining the structure of the OLAP cube (cf. EP 2 312 465 A1, para. [0006]).

Fig. 1 of EP 2 312 465 A1

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

According to the first instance Examining Division, almost all features of claim 1 would refer to non-technical aspects:

4.1 (…) Point 10.1.1.5 of the decision essentially repeats point 10.1.1.3 by stating that the only technical aspects present in claim 1 were the feature specifying that the metadata receipt module was “configured to receive input via a user interface”, which implied the use of a general-purpose computer, and the features relating to “files”, which were to be interpreted as “electronic data files in a computer memory” of that general-purpose computer. All other aspects of claim 1 were non-technical in nature and therefore formed “part of a given framework within which the technical problem [was] posed, for example in the form of a requirements specification provided to the person skilled in a technical field”.

Hence, considering a common personal computer as closest prior art, the Examining Division rejected the present application due to lack of inventive step.

According to the present decision, however, the Board in charge considered the reasoning of the Examining Division not persuasive:

4.5  In sum, the contested decision’s inventive-step reasoning is incomplete as it stands, and the general approach to assessing inventive step taken in the decision is prone to overlook technical contributions made by non-technical features.

In more detail, the Board argues that the Examining Division failed to assess whether the claimed non-technical scheme produces a technical effect or not:

4.2 Although in many cases the implementation of a non-technical scheme on a general-purpose computer results in subject-matter that is obvious, this is not inevitably the case. As the Examining Division essentially stated in point 10.1.1.4 of its decision, non-technical features are to be taken into account in the assessment of inventive step to the extent that they interact with the technical subject-matter of the claim to solve a technical problem or bring about a technical effect (see G 1/04, OJ EPO 2006, 334, reasons 5.3; T 154/04, OJ EPO 2008, 46, reasons 5, under (F), and 13 to 15). It therefore still has to be analysed whether, and to what extent, the non-technical scheme, when implemented on a computer, produces a technical effect over that computer.

Therefore, the Board in charge re-examined inventive step in all detail. In this respect, the Board, however, came to the conclusion that the process of generating a metadata file may be technical, but not the metadata file as such:

5.4 The overall effect of the four modules is the generation of a metadata file which defines the structure of an OLAP cube and which is to be used by the claimed system’s conventional OLAP functionality.

This generated metadata file cannot be technically distinguished from the metadata file produced by the technical solution team of the prior art: the four claimed modules do not ensure any special property of the generated metadata file that translates into a technical effect, occurring when the file is used by the system’s conventional OLAP functionality, that is different from the technical effects that occur when a metadata file produced by a technical solution team is processed.

(…)

Hence, the generated metadata file does not represent a technical effect achieved over the prior-art OLAP system. Any technical effect is thus to be found in the generation process itself.

However, the Board considered the technical aspects of the generation to be trivial:

Indeed, the only technical features here relate to reading and writing data from and to files and the use of implicit input and output devices for receiving input from and presenting information to the user. Since these features are well known and are used for their normal purpose, they do not support an inventive step.

As a result, the Board dismissed the appeal.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 2573/16 (OLAP-cube specification/ACCENTURE GLOBAL SERVICES) of 6.11.2019.

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Cost-based optimisation of a query in a relational database system: technical

The European Patent Office considered cost-based optimisation of a query in a relational database system technical. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 1965/11 (Cost-based materialised view selection/MICROSOFT TECHNOLOGY LICENSING) of 24.3.2017 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.07:

Key takeaways

Retrieving data in a computer database is normally considered to have technical character.

More specifically, cost-based query optimisation that searches for low-cost query execution plans using a cost estimate for computer resources involves further technical considerations.

The invention

The application underlying the present decision relates to a database query optimizer that selects materialized views on a cost basis (cf. EP 1 193 618 A2, para. [0001]). A known concept regarding databases is to materialize (store) the result of queries and then use the computed result when similar queries are submitted to the database (cf. EP 1 193 618 A2, para. [0004]). For maximum flexibility, applications should not need to be aware that certain views exist, or are materialized. A query processor should identify matches between user queries and existing pre-computed results, and use such results when applicable (cf. EP 1 193 618 A2, para. [0005]). However, on some complex queries, view utilization will be possible only in sub-expressions of the complete query. These sub-queries may appear only after some reordering has taken place, which is a time-consuming task (cf. EP 1 193 618 A2, para. [0009]). Hence, the present application aims at providing a cost based query optimizer that determines the applicability of materialized views to a query. View utilization alternatives are generated in the exploration stage of optimization, so that interaction with other transformations in complex queries is taken into account. A final decision on whether to use a materialized view is based on estimated costs (cf. EP 1 193 618 A2, para. [0010]).

Fig. 2 of EP 1 193 618 A2

  • Claim 1 (auxiliary request IV)

Is it patentable?

The examining division rejected the present application at the end of the examining phase due to added subject-matter. This decision was appealed. In the statement of grounds of appeal, the appellant requested that the decision be set aside and also asked the Board to decide that the claims of at least the fourth auxiliary requests were allowable.

A plurality of prior art documents were discussed during the oral hearing. When it came to the assessment of inventive step, the Board in charge argued as follows:

5.1 According to decision T 1569/05 of 26 June 2008, reasons 3.6, retrieving data in a computer database is normally considered to have technical character. While the method of claim 1 does not include the actual data retrieval, the Board considers that the cost-based optimisation of a query in a relational database system has normally technical character (see T 1003/09 of 29 April 2015, reasons 13.3 and 13.5). Such cost-based query optimisation searches for low-cost query execution plans using a cost estimate for the computer resources (such as CPU, main memory or hard disk) needed to execute a query plan (see D8, section 2, for technical background). Hence, this cost-based approach involves further technical considerations (see opinion G 3/08, “Programs for computers”, OJ EPO 2011, 10, reasons 13.5) relating to the internal functioning of the computer system.

Furthermore, the Board was of the opinion that none of the cited prior art documents could render-obvious the subject-matter as defined by claim 1 of auxiliary request IV:

5.3 None of these prior-art documents addresses the problem of extending a table of alternatives generated by the query optimiser by adding further alternatives using materialised views. The invention makes it possible to find low-cost query execution plans that make use of the available materialised views in order to improve query performance (see page 2, third paragraph). Moreover, in order to explore the search space for such low-cost query execution plans, it proposes integrating the materialised views into the table of alternatives during the plan exploration stage. For this integration, it is necessary to match query plans with materialised views in order to identify useful plan alternatives for such views. The invention teaches using query graphs for the matching in order to substantially reduce the complexity of extracting operator trees which encode a specific join order. In the technical context of query optimisation in relational database systems, this teaching is based on further technical considerations and solves the problem of providing a technically feasible implementation, in particular one that achieves an acceptable time complexity for query optimisation in relational database systems.

As a result, the Board remitted the application back to the examining division with the order to grant a patent based on auxiliary request IV.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1965/11 (Cost-based materialised view selection/MICROSOFT TECHNOLOGY LICENSING) of 24.3.2017.

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Row-based selective auditing in an relational database system: technical

The European Patent Office considered row-based selective auditing in an relational database system technical. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 0963/09 (Selective auditing/ORACLE) of 5.6.2014 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.07:

Key takeaways

Database accesses in general and the specific implementation of row-based selective auditing in an relational database system, in particular, is considered technical.

The invention

The invention underlying the present decision relates to providing security in computerized databases. Databases oftentimes store highly sensitive data, such as salaries, corporate financial data, and even classified military secrets. For security reasons it is essential to be able to audit accesses to this sensitive data. Conventional database systems typically provide a general auditing facility that records an audit trail containing general information about the user and the query issued. However, conventional auditing facilities have a number of shortcomings. They do not record specific information about the application, the session environment or most importantly, the query results. Consequently, information gathered by a conventional auditing facility is frequently insufficient to reconstruct an event, or even to determine whether access rights have been violated (cf. WO 01/82118 A2, p. 1, l. 19-28). Hence, the application intends to provide an auditing mechanism that can specify a finer granularity of audit conditions during accesses to relational tables in order to minimize the number of false audit records that are generated (cf. WO 01/82118 A2, p. 2, l. 3-5).

Fig. 1 of WO 01/82118 A2

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it patentable?

The first instance examining division decided that the independent claims of the main request  lacked an inventive step in view of two cited prior art documents. Apart from the discussion of the prior art, the Board expressed some concerns in the summons whether the claimed subject-matter is technical at all:

7.6 In the communication accompanying the summons, the Board observed that auditing of database accesses, while in itself a technical operation, in the context of the present invention appeared not to serve any specific technical purpose going beyond the act of auditing. Similarly, the motivation for making auditing selective, i.e. limiting auditing of database accesses to accesses of rows satisfying a particular auditing condition, appeared to be non-technical.

During the oral hearing, the appellant argued against this (preliminary) view of the Board in charge:

7.8 At the oral proceedings, the appellant explained that the claimed invention allowed row-based selective auditing to be performed based on an auditing condition that referred to fields that were not included in the query result returned to the client.

Apparently, the Board followed this argument and considered the claimed subject-matter of the main request to involve an inventive step:

7.9 In view of this explanation the Board accepts that the claimed solution to the problem of implementing selective auditing cannot be regarded, without documentary evidence, as a mere obvious possibility.

Hence, at least implicitly, the Board in charge also considered the claimed subject-matter of the main request to be of technical nature and set the first instance decision aside.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0963/09 (Selective auditing/ORACLE) of 5.6.2014.

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Performing prediction of seat availability in a travel planning system: technical

The European Patent Office considered performing prediction of seat availability in a travel planning system technical. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 0279/05 (Predicting availability/ITA) of 5.10.2007 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

Using a server to implement a prediction of airplane seat availability rather than a travel agent client may be considered technical.

The invention

The application underlying the present decision relates to a method for providing availability of airline seats and more particular to determining airline seat availability information for use in travel planning and travel reservation systems (cf. WO/46715, p. 1, l. 7-9). In more detail, the method provides a technique to substitute predictions of availability for actual availability responses. Availability predictions are based upon several conceptual types of models which can be used separately or in various combinations. These models include a predictor based upon a cache or a database of stored availability queries and answers to the availability queries. The queries are used to identify when a stored query is the same as a received query request, and the answers are used as a substitute for direct access for future identical or substantially
related queries (cf. WO/46715, p. 4, l. 13-24).

Fig. 1 of WO/46715

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it patentable?

The application was rejected by the first instance examining division due to lack of inventive step since the use of caching servers is well-known common knowledge. However, no evidence was provided:

6. The examining division argued that the solution was obvious in view of the well-known use of local caching servers relieving main servers from processing load, but gave no detailed arguments provided, nor any evidence of this. (…)

While not expressly stated in the decision, it appears that the examining division considered the claimed subject-matter as a pure implementation of a business process and thus did not perform a search.

During appeal, the applicant argued that the claimed subject-matter solves a technical problem:

1. The application relates to determining airline seat availability. As explained by the appellant (see point VII, above), the invention solves the problem of relieving processing load on the availability system caused by the large number of low-fare flight searches. It achieves this by providing a travel planning system server that stores previous flight availability search results in a database and uses this data to predict results of subsequent searches.

According to the Board in charge, the subject-matter as claimed refers to a mixed-type invention and thus ruled that the COMVIK approach has to be applied for assessing inventive step:

2. The invention involves a mixture of technical aspects, e.g. servers and databases, and not technical aspects, e.g. airline seat availability and yield management. Decision T 641/00 – Two identities/COMVIK (OJ EPO 2003, 352) sets out the approach to judge inventive step in such cases:

“This approach requires identification of the technical field of the invention (which will also be the field of expertise of the person skilled in the art to be considered for the purpose of assessing inventive step), the identification of the closest prior art in this field, the identification of the technical problem which can be regarded as solved in relation to this closest prior art, and then an assessment of whether or not the technical feature(s) which alone or together form the solution claimed, could be derived as a whole by the skilled person in that field in an obvious manner from the state of the art.

(…)

The Board further outlined that using the result of a prediction being performed in a server distinguishes the claimed process from any manual activity and is thus not a mere implementation of a known business activity, but involves technical considerations. Hence, there was no reason to refuse searching the claimed subject-matter during the examination phase:

6. (…) Regardless of whether the presently claimed prediction is distinguished from the caching operation, the Board judges that the distinguishing features at least go beyond what is “notorious”, or essentially irrefutable, in this art. In the Board’s view this removes the basis for not performing a search under Rule 45 EPC, so that an additional search should be performed (cf. T 690/06, points 2 and 8) to establish the relevant prior art by which to judge the inventive step.

Finally, the board ruled that the examining division’s reasoning for lack of inventive step is not convincing and the present application is remitted back to the first instance examining division for further search and examination.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0279/05 (Predicting availability/ITA) of 5.10.2007.

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