Author Archive

Developing rod patterns in nuclear reactors based on a simulation: non-technical

The application underlying the present decision relates to developing rod patterns in nuclear reactors based on a simulation. However, the European Patent Office refused to grant a patent since the relevant features of claim 1 would not produce a technical effect. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 2660/18 (Developing rod patterns in nuclear reactors/GLOBAL NUCLEAR FUEL-AMERICAS) of December 7, 2021 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.07:

Key takeaways

A technical effect must be achieved over substantially the whole scope of the claimed invention.

The invention

The application underlying the present decision relates to determining rod pattern (or blade pattern) designs for a nuclear reactor core.

The description outlines the underlying problem as follows:

[0002] A core of a nuclear reactor such as boiling water reactor (BWR) or pressurized water reactor (PWR) has several hundred individual fuel bundles of fuel rods (BWR) or groups of fuel rods (PWR) that have different characteristics. These bundles (fuel rod groups) are preferably arranged so that interaction between rods within a fuel bundle (rod group), and between fuel bundles (fuel rod groups) satisfies all regulatory and reactor design constraints, including governmental and customer-specified constraints. Additional, the rod pattern design, e.g., the arrangement of control mechanisms such as control blades (BWR) or control rods (PWR) within the core must be determined so as to optimize core cycle energy. Core cycle energy is the amount of energy that a reactor core generates before the core needs to be refreshed with new fuel elements, such as is done at an outage.

[0006] A Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensed core simulation program reads the resulting input file and outputs the results of the simulation to a text or binary file. A designer then evaluates the simulation output to determine if the design criteria has been met, and also to verify that no violations of margins to thermal limits have occurred. Failure to meet design criteria (i.e., violations of one or more limits) require a manual designer modification to the input file. Specifically, the designer would manually change one or more operation parameter and rerun the core simulation program. This process was repeated until a satisfactory rod pattern design was achieved.

[0007] This process is extremely time consuming. …

Fig. 4 of EP 1 435 626 A2

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

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

First of all, the Board stated that the closest prior art document D1 fails to teach the following two features of claim 1:

7. The distinguishing features of claim 1 having regard to the disclosure of document D1 are thus:

(DF1) defining the sets of limits using a database server

(DF2) comparing the simulated results against the limits using a total objective function which is the sum of all individual constraint components defined by

OBJpar = MULTpar * (RESULTpar- CONSpar),

where CONS is a limit of the defined set of limits for a particular constraint parameter (par); RESULT is one of the simulation results for that particular constraint parameter and MULT is a multiplier for the constraint parameter.

However, both features would only refer to obvious measures.

In addition, more interestingly, the Board ruled that claim 1 also lacks an inventive step in view of a general-purpose computer. Against this assessment, the Appellant argued as follows:

15. The appellant argued that the technical effect was “reducing the time to design rods and doing so in a safe manner” and the “implicit use of the modified rods in the reactor that was simulated for operating the reactor safely within target operating and core performance value limits”. The technical effect resulted from a computer-based arrangement that provided “a way to efficiently develop a rod pattern design for a nuclear reactor, where the rod pattern design represented a control mechanism for operating the reactor”, as well as a “computer-based method for providing internal and external users the ability to quickly develop, simulate, modify and perfect a rod pattern design for (implicit) use in their reactor” (letter of 19 November 2021, pages 8 and 9).

However, the Board in charge explained that such an effect would not be produced by the distinguishing features:

15.1 The board does not see such an effect coming from the distinguishing features. Moreover, the same effects are achieved by the method disclosed in document D1 (see abstract: “The system is successfully demonstrated by generating control rod programming for the 2894-MW (thermal) Kuosheng nuclear power plant in Taiwan. The computing time is tremendously reduced compared to programs using mathematical methods.”).

Furthermore, to convince the Board, the Appellant referred to T 0625/11, cited in the G1/19 decision:

16. During the oral proceedings, the appellant also cited decision T 625/11. In case T 625/11, the board concluded that the determination, as a limit value, of the value of a first operating parameter conferred a technical character to the claim which went beyond the mere interaction between the numerical simulation algorithm and the computer system. The nature of the parameter thus identified was, in fact, “intimately linked to” the operation of a nuclear reactor, independently of whether the parameter was actually used in a nuclear reactor (T 625/11, Reasons 8.4).

However, contrary to the parameters used in T0625/11, in the Board’s view, the claimed limits might correspond to limits set by a human person or by an organization:

17.1 The limits are “limiting or target operating and core performance values for a specific reactor plant or core energy cycle”. They might correspond to limits set by an administrative authority such as the NRC mentioned in the application (page 2, second full paragraph).

Hence, the Board maintained its position that no technical effect is produced by the distinguishing features as no parameter is identified by the claimed method that is intimately linked to the operation of a nuclear reactor, as it is the case in the method according to T 0625/11:

18. The board is of the opinion that no technical effect is achieved by the method’s functionality as the method merely produces a test rod pattern (i.e. a fuel bundle configuration) design and data “indicative of limits that were violated by the proposed test rod pattern design during the simulation”.

19. Thus, contrary to case T 625/11, no parameter is identified that is “intimately linked to” the operation of a nuclear reactor.

Moreover, the rod pattern design and the limits cold both not be directly used in a reactor:

Although the method yields a rod pattern design and provides limits of core performance values for a reactor plant having this design, this rod pattern design and the limits cannot be used directly in a nuclear reactor system. The rod pattern would first need to be manufactured.

In addition, a rod pattern could also be used for study purposes and thus may be utilized in non-technical applications, and therefore, a technical effect would not be achieved over substantially the whole scope of the claimed invention (G 1/19, points 94 and 95):

Moreover, a rod pattern design appears to have non-technical uses such as for study purposes. These are “relevant uses other than the use with a technical device”, and therefore a technical effect is not achieved over substantially the whole scope of the claimed invention (G 1/19, points 94 and 95). In fact, the reactor for which the rod pattern was designed may not yet have been built and may never be built.

Hence, the present case would not be an exceptional case in which calculated effects achieved by a simulation could be considered as implied technical effects:

Hence, this is not an “exceptional case” in which calculated effects can be considered implied technical effects (see decision G 1/19, points 94, 95 and 128).

Since also the auxiliary requests were considered obvious, as a result, the appeal was dismissed due to lack of inventive step.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 2660/18 (Developing rod patterns in nuclear reactors/GLOBAL NUCLEAR FUEL-AMERICAS) of December 7, 2021

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Publishing of addresses and programs: non-technical

The application underlying the present decision relates to a method of creating a generic wireless communication platform for user applications in an area of wireless communications. However, the European Patent Office refused to grant a patent since the relevant features of claim 1 would either be rendered obvious by the cited prior art or would only refer to non-technical aspects. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 0999/16 (Wireless communication platform/IQRF) of February 4, 2022 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.03:

Key takeaways

Activities depending on administrative considerations are non-technical and thus cannot contribute to inventive step.

The invention

According to EP 1 768 268 A2, the invention underlying the present decision relates to an arrangement of a module for wireless communication between electric or electronic equipment or systems, in high frequency bands at least in the range of 300 MHz to 2.60 GHz, particularly for home and office automation systems. Said electric or electronic equipment includes controls for electronics, and can be controlled or can provide data, for example a cordless thermometer. The invention also involves the method of controlling it and a method of creating generic platforms for user applications in the area of wireless communications with those modules (cf. EP 1 768 268 A2, para. [0001]).

Fig. 1 of EP 1 768 268 A2

Here is how the invention is defined by the limiting features of claim 1 of the main request:

  • Claim 1 (feature labeling introduced by the Board)

Is it technical?

First of all, the Board in charge determined the distinguishing features of the closest prior art document D1 as follows:

3.2.4 The subject-matter of claim 1 therefore differs from the disclosure of D1 in features D1, I, J, J1 and J2.

Then, the Board outlined that features D1, J, J1 and J2 are rendered-obvious by D1. Specifically with respect to feature I, which reads “the addresses and the method of selecting the individual services of the operating system are published”, the Board explained that it would refer to a non-technical activity and thus could not contribute to inventive step:

3.2.6 Re feature I: the “publishing” of addresses and programs is a non-technical activity, depending on administrative considerations, which therefore does not contribute to inventive step (cf. T 641/00, headnote I). In any event, the publication of a list of “memory addresses” of operating-system routines stored in a non-volatile memory, e.g. a ROM, to be called from user programs was a technique notoriously known already in the 1980s (e.g. “KERNAL” calls in the 8-bit computer Commodore C64). Hence, the skilled person would have readily considered this technique when implementing the “operating functions of the Real-time Operation System 210” (see D1, paragraph [0035]).

Notably, the Appellant did not contest this assessment and just presented generic arguments why the subject-matter of claim 1 would comprise an inventive step. However, the Board did not follow these arguments.

Against this background, at the end of the hearing, the appeal was dismissed due to lack of inventive step.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0999/16 (Wireless communication platform/IQRF) of February 4, 2022

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Translating a predicted amount of electrical energy into fuel savings: non-technical

The application underlying the present decision relates to estimating the electrical energy production of a photovoltaic system of an aircraft. However, the European Patent Office refused to grant a patent since the relevant features of claim 1 would only refer to a simulation method that does not produce a technical effect. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1035/18 (Estimating airborne photovoltaic energy production/BOEING) of November 2, 2021 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

Simulation accuracy might play a role in the assessment of inventive step only if the simulation contributes to the technical character of the invention.

The invention

The Board in charge summarized the invention underlying the present application as follows:

1.1 The invention is about estimating the electrical energy production of a photovoltaic system of an aircraft in flight (paragraph [0002] of the published application).

1.2 Looking at Figures 1 and 2, the method starts by estimating a first amount of solar irradiance 106 generated by the Sun 108 and received at a plurality of geographical points 104 as a function of time (feature [a]). Based on this, a second amount of solar irradiance received by an aircraft 110 travelling along a flight path 112 is determined. The flight path 112 includes a subset of the geographical points 104 and has a starting and an ending time … . Based on the solar irradiance on the aircraft, the amount of electrical energy produced by the photovoltaic system 200 on the aircraft 110 is predicted … .

Finally, the predicted amount of electrical energy is translated into estimated fuel savings.

Fig. 1 of EP 2 899 685 A1

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

  • Claim 1 (Ninth auxiliary request)

Is it technical?

Since the ninth auxiliary request was considered to be the most concrete one, the Board based its assessment on this request.

During the first instance examination phase, it was found that the first three features of claim 1 would relate to a prediciation method that could be performed by purely mental or mathematical means:

2.3 The examining division held that steps [a] to [c] defined a prediction method at a high level of abstraction that could be performed by purely mental or mathematical means. This was in contrast to the case in T 1227/05 (Circuit Simulation/Infineon) where the deciding Board held that the simulation could not be performed purely by such means and provided for realistic prediction of the performance of a designed circuit.

Against this assessment, the Applicant/Appellant argued that a technical system is simulated by the prediction method. Hence, in view of T 1227/05 (Circuit Simulation/Infineon), the claimed method has to be considered technical. However, the Board in charge found that T 1227/05 is rendered moot in view of G1/19:

2.5 The Board considers that the question of whether or not the present case resembles that of T 1227/05 is moot in view of G 1/19, which supersedes T 1227/05. According to G 1/19, whether a simulation contributes to the technical character of the claimed subject-matter does not depend on the degree to which the simulation represents reality (point 111); nor does it depend on the technicality of the simulated system (point 120). What counts is whether the simulation contributes to the solution of a technical problem (point 120).

The Board then further found that the claimed simulation steps do not involve a technical character, since technicality in light of G 1/19 does not depend on the simulated system but on the further use of the data produced by the simulation:

2.6 It is common ground that steps [a] to [c] define a simulation method. The method produces calculated numerical data, i.e. a prediction of the amount of electrical energy produced by the photovoltaic system during multiple flight paths. The Board agrees with the examination division’s decision that these steps do not involve a technical effect.

2.7 Following the principles laid out in G 1/19, the Board considers that whether the simulation achieves a technical effect depends on the further use of these numerical data (G 1/19, point 124).

To counter this finding, the Appellant argued that the central point of the present case is whether the estimated fuel savings provide a technical effect:

2.7 … The appellant argued for such an effect on the basis of step [d], added during the appeal, which specifies a further use of the predicted amount of electrical energy, namely translating this amount into estimated fuel savings. The issue in the present case is, thus, whether the estimated fuel savings provide a technical effect.

However, the Board in charge was not convinced by this argument:

2.9 The Board is not convinced by this argument because estimating the fuel savings for a flight is a non-technical administrative activity.

Then, the Appellant presented to further arguments:

2.10 During the oral proceedings, the appellant argued that the estimated fuel savings implied a more precise estimation of the amount of fuel needed by the aircraft for a flight. This was a technical effect because refuelling the aircraft with the optimal amount of fuel would enable the aircraft to traverse the flight path more efficiently.

2.12 The appellant also argued during the oral proceedings that step [a] described an accurate model for predicting the solar irradiance at a plurality of geographical points. This, in turn, led to a more precise estimation of the fuel savings. According to point 111, second sentence, of G 1/19, the accuracy of a simulation might be taken into consideration in the assessment of inventive step.

However, also these arguments did not convince the Board:

2.11 The Board considers that although refuelling is a technical process, it is not a direct consequence of the estimated fuel savings but would only occur as a result of a human decision (see also G 1/19, point 123). Moreover, the estimated fuel savings can also be used for business decisions, such as whether the savings merit the production and installation of the photovoltaic system or whether they permit a reduction of the flight tickets’ prices. Hence, the estimations do not have an implied technical use that can be the basis for an implied technical effect (see also G 1/19, points 98, 128).

2.13 In the Board’s view, however, the simulation’s accuracy might play a role in the assessment of inventive step only if the simulation contributes to the technical character of the invention. In view of the above (points 2.8 to 2.11), the Board judges that the simulation does not contribute to the technical character of the invention. Hence, the simulation’s accuracy is irrelevant for the assessment of inventive step.

Against this background, the Board found that the features relating to the simulation are of non-technical nature and thus have to be ignored for the assessment of inventive step:

2.14 As features [a] to [d] do not contribute to the technical character of the invention, they can be legitimately incorporated into the technical problem solved, as constraints to be met (T 641/00). …

As a result, the appeal was dismissed due to lack of inventive step.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1035/18 (Estimating airborne photovoltaic energy production/BOEING) of November 2, 2021

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Present, advertise and promote paint and other coating products: non-technical

The application underlying the present decision relates to a self-service terminal usable in stores that sell paints of different colours. However, the European Patent Office refused to grant a patent since claim 1 would only refer to the presentation of information. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 2849/18 of April 8, 2022 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.4.03:

Key takeaways

Features relating to the presentation of information are non-technical and thus cannot contribute to inventive step.

The invention

The Board in charge summarized the invention underlying the present application as follows:

1.1 The invention concerns a self-service terminal in a store selling paints of different colours. At such a terminal the customer can initiate a session using a paint sample card from a paint card display. The paint card represents a specific paint/colour and provides the terminal with information in order to create a session. The session simulates painting a chosen environment (e.g. a dining room) with the chosen paint/colour.

1.2 The alleged aim of the invention is to present, advertise and promote paint and other coating products in a retail environment and to provide product information to consumers and others (see page 1, second paragraph, of the application). This is e.g. achieved in that the colour application program suggests an additional colour coordinating with the selected colour. The location of the paint card (corresponding to the additional colour) in a paint card display is illustrated (“pinpointed”) in an image of the paint card display array.

Fig. 7 of WO 2011/140134 A2

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

  • Claim 1 (Main Request - numbering added by the Board)

Is it technical?

At first, the Board in charge stated that it agrees with the examining division’s assessment that D1 forms the closest prior art for the claimed subject-matter. Then, the Board summarized the disclosure of D1 as follows:

2.2.1 In D1 a coded sample colour paint card is described as a “fabric or paint chip” mentioned e.g. in paragraph [0128]. D1 further discloses a colour card reader, where the colour is input via the “paint chip” card and the corresponding colour code is retrieved via a colour database. D1 does not explicitly discloses that the paint chips are stored in a “card display” device, where the cards are exposed and made available to the customers. Such a display is shown in D7 (paint chip panels 27, 28, 31, paragraphs [0048], [0049]).

According to the Board, D1 would fail to teach the following two features of claim 1 of the main request:

2.3.2 D1 does not disclose

(a) a paint sample card display device for displaying an array of coded paint sample cards (parts of Features (B), (C), and (D)) and

(b) a pinpoint location in the image of a paint sample card bearing a selected color from the plurality of additional colors (Feature (H)).

As a next step, the Board determined the technical effect of both distinguishing features:

2.4.1 Feature (a) has the technical effect of storing and displaying the paint sample cards.

2.4.2 The effect of distinguishing Feature (b) is that the customer can easily and intuitively retrieve a paint sample card in the display panel by indication of the place of the card in a scheme representing the whole array of paint sample cards.

The Appellant argued that feature (b) provides a technical effect because the used display array would be a technical entity:

2.4.3 The Appellant has argued that Feature (b) had a technical effect, because the display array was a technical entity and retrieving a paint sample card was a technical process. … Its technical task was to enable the user to locate easily the paint sample card in the paint sample card display.

However, the Board did not follow this line of argumentation and found that the feature in questions only relates to non-technical displaying of information, which thus cannot contribute to inventive step:

2.4.4 The Board however is of the opinion that displaying the information, where the paint card is located, refers to presentation of information (see Article 52(2)(d) EPC) as brought forward by the Examining Division in the summons to oral proceedings and in the impugned decision. Non-technical features within the meaning of Article 52(2)(d) EPC, i.e. features related to presentation of information, are allowed in the context of other technical features, but cannot contribute to inventive step. …

Therefore, the Board formulated the problem to be solved as follows:

2.5 The problem therefore may be defined as providing an easily usable storage device for the paint cards and implementing an image of the paint sample card array pinpointing the location in the image of a paint sample card.

Then, the Board argued that finding a solution to this problem would have been obvious to the skilled person:

2.6.1 Providing a display array for paint cards as taught by D7 (Fig. 1) is the most obvious way to present paint sample cards in order to make the cards both easily accessibly and visible.

2.6.2 The solution to the second part of the problem directly results from the problem formulation itself. No technical difficulties would be encountered by the skilled person having skills in software development. Hence, the implementation of an image of the paint sample card array pinpointing the location in the image of a paint sample card does not require any inventive skills and would be obvious for the skilled person.

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

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 2849/18 of April 8, 2022

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Finding an alternative to placing packages in a mail room if no lockers were available: non-technical

This case may be interesting for everyone who is active in the area of logistics since the application underlying the present decision relates to delivering of parcels to consignees when an initial delivery attempt is unsuccessful. However, the European Patent Office refused to grant a patent since claim 1 allegedly solves the non-technical problem of finding an alternative to placing packages in a mail room if no lockers were available. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1909/19 (Confirming identity at locker bank/UPC) of March 10, 2022 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.07:

Key takeaways

Features relating to mere business-related aspects cannot contribute to inventive step since they lack technicality.

The invention

The Board in charge summarized the invention underlying the present application as follows:

1. The invention concerns delivery of parcels to consignees when an initial delivery attempt is unsuccessful (see page 1, first text paragraph of the international publication).

1.1 The application discloses a system for facilitating delivery of parcels via a carrier (e.g. logistics company, courier, authorised agent) to alternate delivery locations in response to an unsuccessful delivery attempt to a primary delivery address (e.g. the intended parcel recipient’s residence). An alternate delivery location may be a locker bank comprising a plurality of secure lockers at any suitable location, such as at a stand-alone facility or another facility such as, for example, a retail store, a gas station or a pharmacy (page 2, last full paragraph, to page 3, second line).

1.3 In particular embodiments, as described on page 3, first full paragraph, when the driver representing a carrier arrives at a locker bank to deliver a parcel to the locker bank: (1) the driver indicates, via a system directly accessed at the locker location and/or via a portable computing device, that the parcel is to be delivered; (2) an appropriate locker is selected by the system or the driver, for instance based on a size of the parcel, time of day, type of package or special handling instructions for the parcel; (3) the driver places the parcel in the chosen locker; (4) the computer system associated with the locker bank sends an electronic notification to the parcel’s shipper, consignee, carrier and/or third party that the parcel is in the locker bank; and (5) the locker bank holds the parcel until it is retrieved from the locker, or until a predetermined amount of time passes.

Fig. 3 of WO 2015/057734 A2

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

  • Claim 1 (Main Request - numbering added by the Board)

Is it technical?

As a first step, the Board in charge determined the distinguishing features of claim 1 over the closest prior art document D1:

7. It follows from the above that the subject-matter of claim 1 differs from the method of document D1 in that it includes features (b), (i.1) to (i.3) and the following feature:

(a”) at the logistics server, receiving from a mobile computing device a first indication that delivery of the one or more parcels is not possible at a primary delivery location.

Next, the Appellant argued the technical effect, specifically with respect to distinguishing feature (b) as follows:

8. The appellant argued that features (a), (b) and (c) had the technical effect of providing a method for delivery of a package to a recipient for automatic retrieval

From this, the Appellant formulated the technical problem:

8. … and solved the technical problem of finding an alternative to placing the packages in a mail room if no lockers were available.

However, the Board in charge did not agree and found that the distinguishing features would only concern non-technical requirements in terms of business considerations:

8. …

The board is however of the opinion that distinguishing features (a”) and (b) concern the non-technical requirement of giving preference to delivery of the one or more parcels to a primary delivery location before delivering to one of the locker banks and of selecting a suitable locker bank location based at least in part on the primary delivery location. The board notes that the choice of a delivery location can be based on non-technical business considerations and constraints or preferences of the recipient (such as a preference for a specific location for picking up the packet, e.g. a locker near the recipient’s residence or the workplace).

To convince the Board, the Appellant also argued a technical effect regarding the further distinguishing features (i), (i.1) to (i3):

9. The appellant argued that features (i), (i.1), (i.2), and (i.3) provided the technical effect of enabling a secure delivery of packages and solved the objective technical problem of providing a secure delivery at an alternative location. …

Notably, the Board left it open whether confirming the identity as defined by feature (i) is technical. However, such an implementation would have been obvious to the skilled person:

9.1 It is questionable whether the concept of confirming the identity of the individual on the basis of the individual’s location is technical. Its implementation using a computing device in the ways described in the application would have been obvious for the skilled person at the priority date of the present application, as the use of mobile devices with advanced location technology had already become ubiquitous, and location-based services were widely used.

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

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1909/19 (Confirming identity at locker bank/UPC) of March 10, 2022

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Displaying a medical workflow: non-technical

The application underlying this decision relates to displaying a medical workflow. However, the European Patent Office refused to grant a patent since claim 1 mainly addresses the displaying of information in terms of a menu. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1743/19 (Possible next actions/CAREFUSION303) of March 4, 2022 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.05:

Key takeaways

The mere presentation of information cannot contribute to the technical character of an invention.

The invention

The application underlying the present decision mainly concerns displaying changes in workflows performed by health care workers, like nurses etc. Since the order of tasks in a workflow may change, the present application suggests using predictions to be able to display the correct order of tasks within a workflow (cf. paras. [002] and [002] of the application).

Fig. 1 of WO 2011/087710 A2

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

  • Claim 1 (Main Request)

Is it technical?

Both the Board in charge and the Appellant considered that the closest prior art document D2 fails to teach the characterizing portion of claim 1:

1.1 The appellant considers all the features in the characterising part of claim 1 of the main request to be distinguishing features over D2, which reads as follows:

“predicting comprises using information related to past actions by the healthcare worker for predicting the healthcare worker’s workflow, and associating probabilities with actions possible by the healthcare worker; and

prioritizing display of possible next actions in the menu using the probability values associated with said actions”

1.2 Whereas D2 predicts the next possible actions in a healthcare worker’s workflow based on known ordered activities or tasks (see D2, [0081] and [0082]), the claimed method predicts the next possible actions using the healthcare worker’s past actions, which the appellant emphasises in its submissions are “medical” past actions, and displays these actions in a menu prioritised according to their associated probabilities.

According to the Appellant, the distinguishing features would reduce errors and improve efficiency on the part of healthcare workers during the time in which healthcare workers became accustomed to upgrades or changes to existing healthcare configurations. Moreover, flexibility in conducting workflows would be improved:

1.3.1 The appellant argued that errors were reduced and efficiency increased on the part of healthcare workers during the time in which healthcare workers became accustomed to upgrades or changes to existing healthcare configurations. …

1.3.2 Referring to paragraph [0022] of the description, the appellant argued that the need for a healthcare worker to follow only a single specific sequence of actions was eliminated. It reiterated at the oral proceedings that the distinguishing features gave the healthcare worker more flexibility. …

However, the Board found that the distinguishing features would only relate to the presentation of information. To counter this, the Appellant argued that displaying information may contribute to the technical character under exceptional circumstances as follows:

1.3.5 In its letter of reply to the board’s preliminary opinion, the appellant argued that the menu according to claim 1 placed the user in a favourable position to carry out the technical task of selecting a next option from the menu guiding the user through a workflow and submitted that in previous decisions of the boards of appeal, a GUI placing the user in a favourable position to carry out a technical task had been regarded as technical. It is evident that the appellant was referring to the established test that a presentation of information might exceptionally contribute to the technical character of an invention if it credibly assists the user in performing a technical task by means of a continued and guided human-machine interaction process (see e.g. T 1091/17, point 1.7 of the Reasons). …

The Board did not follow this argument since selecting something from a menu would be a non-technical task:

1.3.5 … Nevertheless, the case at hand fails this test at the very outset since selecting from a menu is not a technical task, contrary to the appellant’s argument.

Thus, the Board in charge concluded that the distinguishing features of claim 1 are of non-technical nature:

1.4 Since the distinguishing features of claim 1 do not have any technical effect, they cannot solve any objective technical problem. Therefore, the subject-matter of claim 1 of the main request does not involve any inventive step (Article 56 EPC).

As a result, since non-technical features have to be ignored for assessing non-obviousness, the Board dismissed the appeal due to lack of inventive step.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1743/19 (Possible next actions/CAREFUSION303) of March 4, 2022

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Managing the funding of catastrophe relief efforts: non-technical

The application underlying this decision relates to managing the funding of catastrophe relief efforts. However, the European Patent Office refused to grant a patent that mainly focuses on a payment method. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 0550/14 (Catastrophe relief/SWISS RE) of September 14, 2021 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

Business requirements given to the skilled person to implement are non-technical features.

The invention

The Board in charge summarized the invention as follows:

1.1 The invention is about managing the funding of catastrophe relief efforts caused by natural or man-made disasters, such as earthquakes, see page 1, first paragraph of the originally filed application. Conventionally, as can been from Fig. 2, charitable organisations 3 provide relief S9 in the event of a disaster from donations S1 from donors 2. Insurance companies might offer catastrophe insurance policies, but these may be too expensive or even unavailable for developing countries, so that the available relief may be insufficient.

1.2 The objective of the invention is to make sure that adequate funding is in place before the catastrophic event actually occurs and to pay out when it does.

1.3 The invention achieves this by providing a “special purpose entity” (“special purpose vehicle” in the claims) 1′ which offers a financial product S3 (e.g. a security, or another financial instrument) in return for a premium S2 from the charitable organisation (or donor directly), see page 2, last paragraph, to page 3, first paragraph.

1.4 Investors 4 back S4 the product and receive in return for their investment a payment of the premium S2 which is issued as a coupon S10 from the special purpose entity. If a catastrophic event occurs within a defined time period, the capital is paid S8 to the charitable organisation, otherwise the capital is paid back S11 to the investors who keep the premium for their efforts.

1.5 The “special purpose entity” collects information S6 about catastrophic events from an online provider 5, see page 7, lines 8 to 16. This information is provided in the form of a “parametric index” indicating the severity of catastrophic events, which serves as a triggering condition for whether and how much payout shall be made to the charitable organisation, see page 10, third paragraph. The “parametric index” is linked to geographical areas, the type of catastrophe and the severity of the catastrophic event (Table 1).

Fig. 2 of WO 2009/100546 A1

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

  • Claim 1 (Main Request)

Is it technical?

According to the assessment of the Board in charge, the closest prior art for the claimed subject-matter is a common computer network and that claim 1 differs from such a network by all features relating to the claimed payout scheme:

2.7 The Board agrees with the division that a valid starting point is a networked computer system, comprising a control module and several functional modules. Such a “networked” system can be interconnected with other networked computers via a telecommunications network and not just be a stand-alone system, as argued by the appellant.

2.8 The invention therefore differs, as is usually the case starting from such prior art, by all the features of the relief payout scheme.

Then, the Board assessed whether the first instance examining division was correct in considering all the distinguishing features non-technical. As a result, the Board held the the examining division’s assessment was correct:

2.10 The Board agrees with the division that the features define a method for managing funding of catastrophe relief efforts. They represent the different parties involved, which are the donor, the charitable organisation, the investor and the information provider, as well as the monetary and information flow between them and the role each one plays. They are therefore part of the business requirements given to the skilled person to implement.

Contrary to the opinion of the Appellant, the Board also considered the claimed parametric trigger as non-technical:

2.11 … For instance, a catastrophe of a hurricane in the Caribbean, as shown in Table 1 on page 7, has the parametric trigger of wind speed, size of storm and location. In the Board’s view, determining this parametric information, the triggering criteria and the trigger level does not require any technical considerations. Furthermore, the business person would be aware that the relevant information would be available from providers for weather data and catastrophe information.

2.12 2.12 The Board therefore sees no need for the business person to have technical knowledge about networked computer systems in order to propose the business method of the invention. …

Finally, the Board held that implementing a business scheme as claimed would not pose any difficulties to the skilled person:

2.13 Finally, the Board cannot see any difficulties for the person skilled in the art of data processing to implement the business concept of the present invention on the networked computer system.

The Appellant did not agree and requested remitting the case back to the first instance to further discuss technicality of, for example, the parametric trigger as mentioned above:

3.1 … Moreover, if there were no arguments why certain features were deemed to be part of the business model, the right to be heard was not respected. In the present case, a more detailed discussion should have taken place about the feature “parametric trigger”, …

However, the Board held that in the present case it is clear that the features in questions are non-technical. Moreover, the Board considered that these features have already been sufficiently discussed in the first instance proceedings:

3.2 The Board agrees that in this field there is a danger of simply asserting that certain features are non-technical with no basis. Indeed, the Board has seen decisions where the reasoning has not been fully convincing. But this is not one of them. As mentioned above, the examining division addressed the argument about the parametric trigger in the decision at points 2.3 and 2.3.1. Furthermore, the division admirably minuted the discussion of this point at page 2, third last paragraph. This shows why it is always advisable to minute clearly the arguments exchanged about contentious points.

As a result, since non-technical features have to be ignored for assessing non-obviousness, the Board dismissed the appeal due to lack of inventive step.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0550/14 (Catastrophe relief/SWISS RE) of September 14, 2021

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Damage cover and automated payment: non-technical

The application underlying this decision relates to automatically paying financial compensation to affected business units, e.g. airlines and their fleets. However, the European Patent Office refused to grant a patent that mainly focused on damage cover and automated compensation payment. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 0288/19 (notional business person) of February 17, 2022 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.4.03:

Key takeaways

A business person oftentimes provides a framework and the object of an invention. However, the solution to this object can only be provided by a technically skilled person.

The invention

The Board in charge summarized the invention as follows:

1.1 The volcano activities in Iceland 2010 and the subsequent closure of airspace led to an estimated loss of 1.7 billion dollars for the airline industry. Between 15 and 21 April 2010 almost the entire European airspace was closed resulting in cancellation of all flights in, to and from Europe. The invention relates to dealing with such airport closures and flight plan changes related to natural disaster events.

1.2 When aircraft are grounded for more than ten days, airline companies may no longer be able to pay the operating resources (kerosene, salaries, maintenance etc.) due to lack of revenues. It is an aim of the invention to reduce the risk that airline companies go bankrupt due to lack of cash for operation during or after natural disaster events. The airlines seek risk transfer by means of insurance technology to cover such unforeseeable events and to ensure operation of the aircraft fleets. The related technology should be able to cover risk events such as 1) strikes, riots etc.; 2) war, hijacking, terror; 3) pandemic-based risks; 4) extreme weather situations; 5) instabilities in Air Traffic Control (ATC). However, the covers are technically difficult to design because no standards e.g. for critical ash concentrations exist. It is an object of the invention to provide an automated system preventing imminent grounding of aircraft fleets due to missing financial resources after risk events and to provide a systematic and automated management of risk exposure.

1.3 The invention proposes automatically paying financial compensation to the affected business units, i.e. airlines and their fleets, by monitoring relevant airport data, defining critical thresholds and automating cover payments in case of airport closures.

Fig. 1 of WO 2015/008925 A1

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

  • Claim 1 (Claim 1 according to the Main Request and First Auxiliary Request (feature labelling (A) to (V) added by the Board))

Is it technical?

According to the assessment of the Board in charge, claim 1 of the main request and of the first auxiliary request includes the following distinguishing features over the closest prior art document D1:

3.2.7 Therefore D1 does not explicitly disclose

(a) flight plan data is presented as a hash table.

(b) a threshold which is linked to a minimum number of airport identifications assigned to airport closures thus creating an implicit geographic spread of the closed airports of the flight plan.

(c) the geographic spread is associated with geophysical disaster events.

(d) damage covering is performed with a definable upper coverage limit, instead of simple damage prevention.

(e) automated payments are scaled payments and are based on the likelihood of said risk exposure.

(f) flight interruption risks are shared by providing a self-sufficient risk protection.

Concerning the effect of these features, the Board commented as follows:

3.3.2 Effects and technical/non-technical character of the features:

(i) features (a) [part 1, considering the flight plan], (b) and (c) [creating an implicit geographic spread of the closed airports in case of a natural disaster] are related to preventing further financial damage. The character of these features is technical, the purpose is non-technical.

(ii) hashing the flight plan data has the technical effect of improved data base indexing. Both the character and effect of feature (a), part 2, are technical.

(iii) features (d) to (f) are related to a shared insurance cover system including managing the payments; the character and effect of these features as such are non-technical.

Afterwards, the Board held that the overall character and effect of claim 1 is technical:

3.3.3 To summarise, the subject of the present invention (the “what”) is an automated system for dealing with technical/financial damage of an aircraft fleet and is without any doubt technical. The purpose (the “why”) of the present invention however is the automation of a business scheme for providing monetary cover for financial damage to aircraft fleets based on available information, including flight plans and information about airport closures and natural events, i.e. a managerial system for managing the business operations of aircraft fleets including involved operational and financial risks, including covering financial losses of airlines caused by the situation of airport closures resulting from natural disaster. This purpose is non-technical and relates to a business method. The solution (the “how”) with respect to the disclosure of D1 is both technical (adaptation of the software) and non-technical (implementation of the business model). Therefore, the overall character and effect of claim 1 is technical.

Hence, claim 1 provides a mixed-type subject-matter.

Then, as a second step, the Board stated that it considers features (O) to (V) non-technical. Thus, these features may be used for formulating the objective technical problem to be solved:

3.3.4 Non-technical features within the meaning of Article 52(2)(c) EPC, i.e. features related to business methods, are allowed in the context of other technical features, but cannot contribute to inventive step. These features can thus be included into the formulation of the task (see, inter alia, G 1/19 [reasons 31], T 0641/00, G 3/08, Case Law of the Boards of Appeal, 9th edition 2019, sections I.D.9.1.2 to I.D.9.1.4). According to T 0641/00, the aim to be achieved in a non-technical field may legitimately appear in the formulation of the problem as part of the framework of the technical problem. Therefore, the non-technical features (O) to (V) (“damage cover” and “automated payment”) can be included into the task formulation as a framework condition to be fulfilled.

Then, contrary to the Appellant’s line of argumentation, the Board in charge held that the skilled person for the present case is not a notional business person, but a computer specialist:

3.4.3 In the present case the skilled person solving the objective technical problem however is not the “notional business person”, but a computer specialist, because the solution of the problem concerns principally re-programming the central CPU (e.g. of the ground station 81). The business person however provides the framework and object of the invention. This is very frequently the case for technical inventions, e.g. a business person may instruct an engineer to design a double-deck aircraft for up to 850 passengers with a budget of 10 billion dollars. The solution to this object can only be provided by a technically skilled person. In the present case the notional business person (e.g. insurance company in cooperation with the airline companies concerned) instructs a computer specialist with the implementation of an automated system. Their task is to adapt the software in module 81 of D1 (cf. also T 2522/16, reasons 3.2.1, T 0589/17, reasons 2.6, T 0755/18, reasons 3.5).

3.4.4 The Appellant argued that the skilled person needed to have specific knowledge in aircraft communication systems and aircraft security. The Board however concludes that such specific knowledge is not necessary because all raw data required for solving the problem is available on the computer base station 81 of D1. The modified software has only to provide a link between airport closure data and automated payments.

Against this background, the Board formulated the technical problem as follows:

3.5.2 The Board therefore formulates the objective technical problem with D1 as starting point as “technically implementing an automated management of financial risk exposure of scheduled flights due to airport closures, including implementing the claimed non-technical features (O) to (V)“.

Finally, the Board argued that the claimed subject-matter is rendered obvious to the skilled person by D1 combined with general knowledge, thereby individually addressing the technical and non-technical features:

3.6 Obviousness

ad (i)

3.6.1 The technically skilled person would therefore consider analysing whether airports were closed and whether such closures were linked to geophysical events covered by the insurance policy. They would then adapt the threshold defined in D1 to a specific number of airport closures within the given time window as defined in the insurance policy.

3.6.2 In order to deal with the technical and financial consequences of airport closures it is obvious to the skilled person to consider the concerned airports and flight plan routes to and from the closed airports. In view of the objective technical problem to be solved it would be a normal option to monitor which flight plan connection (and therefore which fleets and airlines) are concerned by the closure of specific airports and air-spaces. Furthermore, the emergency system of D3 teaches ([0084]) to take flight plan data into account. The skilled person would therefore adapt the software architecture of D1 and correlate the airport closure events with the flight plan data.

ad (ii)

3.6.3 In order to improve the data base indexing of the flight plan table the skilled person would choose the common option of providing the flight plan data in a hash table. D11 teaches the use of hash tables.

ad (iii)

3.6.4 Features (O) to (V) directly result from the problem to be solved.

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 0288/19 of February 17, 2022 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.4.03

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Adjusting a credit according to a data file: non-technical

The application underlying this decision relates to the area of digital security. However, the European Patent Office refused to grant a patent that deals with an electronic safe. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1607/18 of December 21, 2021 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.4.03:

Key takeaways

Technical features that do not contribute to the technical character of an invention can be included into the formulation of the technical problem.

The invention

The Board in charge summarized the invention as follows:

1.1 The present application is about an electronic safe for use in retail environments, where the safe counts the money being deposited and electronically transmits a report containing the amount of money counted to a central processing location.

1.2 Upon receipt of this report, the retailer can be credited the deposited money amount even before it is picked up by an armored car service and deposited at a bank or similar institution. Retailers can therefore benefit from cash collections almost immediately.

Fig. 2 of WO 2009/018095 A1

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

During the appeal proceedings, the Board in charge arrived at the conclusion that claim 1 only comprises one distinguishing feature over the closest prior art document D1:

2.3.2 D1 therefore does not explicitly disclose that the credit is adjusted based on differences, if any, between the verified amount and the calculated total amount of cash deposited into the safe as identified in the data file (second part of feature (G)).

Based on the distinguishing feature, the Appellant argued the technical effect and the problem to be solved as follows:

2.4.1 The Appellant has argued that the effect of the distinguishing features was that only small data files comprising the aggregated sum (in D1 e.g. the sum of the deposit of “3/6” and the first deposit of “3/7”) had to be transmitted thus reducing the load on the communication network.

2.4.2 The problem to be solved was the reduction of the amount of data sent between the safe and the central units. The invention generally simplified data handling and thereby error handling. The invention also required less bandwidth. The invention therefore achieved a technical effect by reducing the load on the network.

However, the Board in charge did bot follow the Appellant’s line of argumentation and considered the distinguishing feature as only having a business-related aim:

2.4.3 The Board however came to the conclusion that the effect of reducing the network load is not an effect of the difference between D1 and claim 1 (i.e. the second part of feature (G)). Indeed, feature (G) relates to a method of doing business, i.e. adjusting any difference between an accounted total amount and the amount of cash picked up by an armored car. This “adjusting” according to feature (G) is merely a non-technical business aim and does not achieve any technical effect or solve a technical problem by technical features. When regarded on its own, feature (G) would constitute subject-matter excluded from patentability under Article 52(2) and (3) EPC.

Hence, the Board formulated the technical problem as follows:

2.4.5 The problem to be solved can therefore be formulated as adjusting in the system of D1 the step of “reconciliation” (claim 4 of D1) by “adjusting the credit previously provided based on differences, if any, between the verified amount and the calculated total amount of cash deposited into the safe as identified in the data file” (cf. task of the agent, [0051], [0053], feature (G)).

Solving this problem would be obvious to the skilled person:

2.5.1 The solution to this problem results in a straightforward manner from the problem to be solved. It is obvious that the agent in D1 would adjust the credit, if the amount of cash arriving in the bank/ armored car service facility differs from the amount in the data file, e.g. if the retailer or anyone else has taken out cash from the electronic safe without any record.

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 1607/18 of December 21, 2021 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.4.03

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Relationship between a user’s comment and a specific viewable object: non-technical

The application underlying this decision relates to the area of multimedia content. However, the European Patent Office refused to grant a patent that deals with a relationship between a user’s comment and a specific viewable object. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1822/18 (Augmenting user-input information/ARRIS ENTERPRISES) of November 24, 2021 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.07:

Key takeaways

Lowering the cognitive burden for a user is not a technical effect.

The invention

According to the Board in charge, the claimed invention relates to augmenting user-input information. The Board summarized the invention as follows:

1. The application relates to augmenting user-input information associated with a media source such as a movie (description as published, paragraph [0002]). According to the background of the invention (description, paragraph [0003]), various devices exist that provide a source of viewable media content, such as televisions, computers and mobile devices. Viewers of such media sources may wish to provide some type of commentary related to what is being viewed.

Some services offer a viewer the opportunity to provide a comment that is then viewable by others who follow the viewer or who visit the web page hosting the comment. The comment is often general and easily assigned to the media content as a whole. In other cases, however, the comment is specific to a single portion of the content. This can be confusing, since a comment directed to a specific portion, for example, can lack relevance to a user outside the context of that specific portion of the content. A user may often wish to obtain additional information about a specific portion of content, people or objects viewed in the content, and this can be challenging.

Fig. 3 of WO 2013/162870 A1

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request - numbering added by the Board)

Is it technical?

During the appeal proceedings, as a first step, the Board in charge determined the distinguishing features over the closest prior art document D1:

2.5.2 The board agrees with the examining division that the method disclosed in document D1 automatically creates an association between the user comment and the primary-content metadata, this metadata comprising, for example, the content ID and point in time (D1, paragraphs [0084], [0085], [0088], [0104], [0109] and [0114]). However, the board agrees with the appellant that features F6a and F7 are not disclosed in document D1. Consequently, the board concludes that the distinguishing features are the features F4b, F6a and F7. …

The Appellant argued the technical effect produced by the above-cited distinguishing features as follows:

2.6 According to the appellant a technical effect of the distinguishing features was that an association between the user-input information and a specific viewable object in the primary media content could be generated automatically using only the user’s comment and the primary-content metadata. In other words, the only user-input information that was used to generate the association was the user’s comment (statement of grounds of appeal, page 3).

Then, the Appellant defined the technical problem:

2.6.2 The appellant argued that in the light of the aforementioned technical effects the objective technical problems solved were: (i) how to adapt the method of document D1 to work with different devices, (ii) how to reduce or eliminate the disruption to viewers due to interaction with the primary device, and (iii) how to remove the possibility of incorrect “point and click” operations.

However, the Board in charge did not agree to this assessment:

2.7 Regarding the alleged effects of the distinguishing features with respect to avoiding the “point and click” operations used in the method disclosed in D1, there is nothing in claim 1 which precludes the use of “point and click” operations for user input, including for inputting the text of a user comment (for example by using a pointing device to select letters on a displayed keyboard). Moreover, according to the established case law, lowering the cognitive burden for a user is not a technical effect (see, for example, T 1741/08, Reasons 2.1; T 1834/10, Reasons 5). This applies also with respect to diverting the user’s attention as well as in the case of multiple viewers.

2.7.1 Furthermore, the board does not see that lowering a burden for the user is derivable from the distinguishing features over substantially the whole range claimed (see G 1/19, Reasons 82). Indeed, the claimed subject-matter is broad, and it is not limited to: a particular form of human-machine interaction, the case of multiple viewers, or a commenting user with special needs.

2.7.2 Regarding the possible generation of a wrong association in the method disclosed in document D1, the board informed the appellant during the oral proceedings that it was not convinced that the association created by the claimed method was necessarily one that was intended by the user. Indeed, the association created depends, among other things, on the availability of suitable primary-content metadata and the time period for receiving a comment after a user has viewed a specific media content on the display.

As a result, the Board arrived at the conclusion that the distinguishing feature would only relate to the presentation of information and would thus lack further technical considerations:

2.8 Contrary to the appellant’s submissions, the board considers – in line with the examining division’s opinion (see the contested decision, point 13.4; see also the annex to the summons of 10 May 2017, point 4.3) – that the distinguishing features are aimed at the presentation of information to the user for a non-technical purpose (for informational and commercial applications, for example; see the description, paragraph [0035], for an example application). In particular, the relationship between a user’s comment and a specific viewable object displayed serves only for the purpose of displaying this relationship with the aim of enhancing (“augmented user comment”) the informational content presented to a user.

In view of the above, the distinguishing features do not contribute to a “further” technical effect (see decision T 1173/97, OJ EPO 1999, 609). Moreover, the board does not see that the distinguishing features involve any “further technical considerations” (see opinion G 3/08, OJ EPO 2011, 10, Reasons 13.5.1). Instead, the generation of the association between the parsed user-input metadata and the primary-content metadata by means of analysing the metadata can only be seen as a non-technical algorithm underlying the claimed method. Claim 1 does not specify how this non-technical algorithm underlying the distinguishing features is specifically implemented by exploiting particular computer hardware characteristics, for example, which may, at least in certain circumstances, allow a specific technical effect to be derived within the computer system in the sense of a “further” technical effect (see decision G 1/19, Reasons 51).

Therefore, at the end of the hearing, the Board in charge dismissed the appeal due to lack of inventive step.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1822/18 (Augmenting user-input information/ARRIS ENTERPRISES) of November 24, 2021

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