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Registering at an interface to receive relevant data for performing a task: non-technical

This case may be interesting for people involved in transportation and logistics business, specifically in the aviation sector. The European Patent Office considered registering (e.g. by a pilot) at an interface to receive relevant data for performing a task non-technical. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 2316/16 () of 12.2.2021 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.4.03:

Key takeaways

The commercial success of an invention does not allow any conclusions to be drawn about its technical character.

While non-technical features cannot contribute to inventive step, they may however legitimately form part of the problem to be solved by claimed subject-matter.

Procedural aspect: Declaring non-attendance at oral proceedings is considered as equivalent to a withdrawal of the request for oral proceedings.

The invention

The Board in charge summarized the subject-matter of the European patent application underlying the present decision as follows:

3. The invention

The invention relates to a method for selecting relevant information from a database for a user active in the transport sector. In particular, the invention finds its use in the aviation sector, more in particular, the invention relates to the selection of information which, for a pilot, where the latter is performing a task, is relevant at that moment, see the application, page 1, lines 4 to 8.

In the transport sector, in particular the aviation sector, obtaining accurate data such as weather information, vehicle information, or environmental information, is crucial for being able to correctly perform a task. This applies to, for example, “operators of the vehicle, who take a vehicle from point A to point B, as well as to the logisticians, who create plannings, as well as to maintenance personnel, who maintain vehicles”, see the application, page 1, lines 11 to 16.

According to the claimed method, transport activity related data is supplied to an interface of a predetermined user (e. g. a pilot) who is to perform a given task (e. g. a flight from A to B at a given time). The method and the system according to the invention are applicable by means of portable interfaces, such as for example those on mobile terminals, such as tablet computers, smart phones, laptops, etc., or by means of wired interfaces that are provided in the vehicle in a suitable position, such as for example a touch screen in the cockpit of an aircraft, see the application, page 2, lines 16 to 20.

The transport activity related data are stored in a database, wherein the plurality of data comprises different data types which are periodically loaded with different frequencies and which have a different validity period. Each of the data has at least four parameters attributed thereto: a first parameter contains one or more vehicle identifier means, a second parameter specifies at least one user-related qualification, a third parameter defines an area and a fourth parameter defines a time period.

After registering at the interface and identifying the vehicle (e. g. the aircraft to be used), a predetermined user (e. g. a pilot) is provided with the relevant data for performing the task (a flight from A to B at a given time). In case of a pilot, transport activity related data could relate to weather, flight planning, navigation charts, vehicle operation, vehicle load, etc.

 

Fig. 2A WO 2012/155218 A1

Here is how the invention was defined in claim 1 according to the main request:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it patentable?

The first instance examining division rejected the present application due to lack of inventive step. The Board in charge arrives at the same conclusion and states that the subject-matter of claim 1 is a combination of technical and non-technical features. However, out of the plurality of features of claim 1, only three features of claim 1 would belong to the first group of technical features:

4.1 For the Board, the technical features according to claim 1 are the following:

– an interface (of a predetermined user) with means for running a program (e. g. a processor)

– a central information storage system having means for comprising a database (e. g. a memory device), means for storing a plurality of data

– a communication link for providing communication between the interface and the central information storage system.

To convince the Board in charge of the technical character of the remaining features of claim 1, the appellant filed three annexes and argued that (1) a similar case was considered technical by the German Federal Court of Justice (“Bundesgerichtshof”), that (2) a product that makes use of the claimed subject-matter is commercially successful, and that (3) that the claimed subject-matter provides a solution to minimize the risk of human errors by making sure that the user receives only the relevant and up to date information.

4.7.3 The appellant submitted Annex 1 related to the European patent EP 1 474 927 to provide evidence that, in that case, the German Bundesgerichtshof came to the conclusion that the enhanced perceptibility of information by a specific way of using an image stream and two subset image streams could be regarded as a technical effect. The appellant argued that, for the present invention as defined in claim 1, a user also could more quickly and efficiently grasp information to perform her/his task, see statement of grounds of appeal, points 4. to 7.

4.7.4 The appellant filed Annex 2 to show a commercial success of the present application and for supporting an inventive step. It cited slides 22 to 25, 14 to 21 and its client’s testimonials as evidence that the features shown in slides 14 to 25 contributed to the commercial success, see statement of grounds of appeal, points 9 to 11.

4.7.5 The appellant filed Annex 3 to show a long-felt need and cited the conclusions on pages 81 and 82. It argued that, whilst the invention did not provide a solution to completely solve the risk of human error, it minimized this risk by making sure that the user had only the relevant and up to date information. It added that the invention provided “a solution which can ensure that necessary data to be able to detect human errors or identity risks, for example for take-off performance parameters, is available on the user interface“, see statement of grounds of appeal, point 12.

However, the Board in charge did not follow the appellant’s arguments and commented on the filed annexes as follows:

Annex 1:

4.8.3 ad 4.7.3: the Board is of the opinion that the outcome of national proceedings related to European patent EP 1 474 927 are not relevant for the present case and that the determination of those features having a technical nature and those that do not contribute to any technical problem is to be made on the basis of how a skilled person understands the claim. The Board does not share the appellant’s view that the invention as defined in claim 1 necessarily provides a user (e. g. a pilot) more quickly and efficiently with the information which is needed to perform her/his task. For the Board, accumulating data, keeping it up do date and selecting a relevant subset to be supplied to a specific user is an administrative task of an aircraft operator employing pilots that are legally obliged to have specific data on board an aircraft.

Annex 2:

4.8.4 ad 4.7.4: The Board notes that Annex 2 was published in 2016 and does not see a link between the testimonials of slide 13 (for the Aviobook® EFB Platform shown from slides 14 to 25) and the invention defined by the present claims. In particular, the way of displaying information according to slides 14 to 21 and the system architecture of slides 22 to 25 are not present in the method of claim 1. Post-published Annex 2 cannot support an inventive step of claim 1. Even if Annex 2 were considered to establish the commercial success of the Aviobook® EFB Platform, it does not provide evidence that this commercial success derives from the technical features of claim 1.

Annex 3:

4.8.5 ad 4.7.5: The Board agrees that Annex 3 describes the wish to reduce the risk of human errors during the take-off phase of flight. The Board is of the opinion that the method according to claim 1 does not include technical features that necessarily reduce errors made by humans or avoid inappropriately designed or unavailable material, because the invention according to claim 1 only specifies the way the pilot obtains data, and does not improve the quality of the data itself.

For reasoning its decision, the Board focused on the specific embodiment in which a pilot is to perform a flight (indeed, claim 1 is formulated much broader):

4.3 Although claim 1 is not limited to the particular case of a pilot who is to perform a given flight with an aircraft, the Board focuses on this specific embodiment.

The Board is of the opinion that the above features relate to an administrative scheme for gathering, selecting and supplying information, which a pilot requires during a flight (manuals, handbooks for the aircraft, weather information, flight planning, navigation charts, aircraft operation, load, information about the destination airport, etc.). This administrative scheme merely corresponds to the typical steps which an aircraft operator would take (and may be legally obliged to take) to provide the pilots with the information they require during a flight.

In other words, in order to perform the administrative scheme as defined above, an aircraft operator will have to maintain an up-to-date collection of data (aircraft manuals, weather data, data about airports, etc.) organised in a way which enables data relevant for a particular flight (time, location, type of aircraft) or pilot (qualification) to be easily retrieved. In order to be provided with the relevant data, the pilot must necessarily “register” by identifying himself, the aircraft, the start and destination airports and the time of the flight. Once a pilot has “registered” himself and given the details about his flight (start and destination, type of aircraft, time of the flight, etc.), the aircraft operator would have to select the relevant data and supply the selected data to the pilot.

Against this background, the Board further argued as follows:

4.4 In view of the above identified technical features, the closest prior art is a notorious server/client system with a communicating link between server and client device.

Although the Board has no doubts that a server/client system was well known at the priority date of the present application, it wishes to point to D1, D8 and D9, which all disclose an interface (of a pilot) with means for running a program (D1: 2, 3 in figure 1; D8: 10 in figure 3; D9, 12 in figure 1), a central information storage system (D1: 5 in figure 1; D8: 38 on figure 3; D9: 14 in figure 1) having means for comprising a database and a communication link for providing communication between the interface and the central information storage system (D1: 4, figure 1, D8: figure 3; D9: figure 1).

4.5 It is established case law that non-technical features cannot contribute to inventive step, but may legitimately form part of the problem to be solved (T 641/00), for example in the form of a specification of requirements given to the skilled person to implement, see Case Law of the Boards of appeal, 9th edition, 2019, I.D.9.1.4.

Starting from the closest prior art, the objective technical problem to be solved by the skilled person, a computer engineer, is to implement the non-technical administrative schemeon the notorious server/client system.

Finally, the Board concludes that the subject-matter of claim 1 lacks an inventive step:

4.6 It is the view of the Board that it would be obvious for a skilled person having normal programming skills to arrive at the subject-matter of claim 1 …

Hence, the appeal was dismissed.

Some comments on procedural aspects

In the present case, the appellant informed the Board that he will not attend the oral hearing which was considered by the Board as a withdrawal of the request for oral proceedings:

2. Procedural issues

In preparation for the oral proceedings, the Board issued a preliminary opinion on the case, see section III. above.

The appellant’s declaration of non-attendance at the oral proceedings is considered by the Board as equivalent to a withdrawal of its request for oral proceedings (see Case Law of the Boards of Appeal of the European Patent Office, 9th Edition, 2019, III.C. 4.3.2).

Therefore, keep in mind, if non-attendance is declared, it is likely that no oral hearing will take place at all.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 2316/16 () of 12.2.2021

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Checking whether a resource is likely to be available when a corresponding request is serviced: non-technical

This case is interesting for developers of online systems for selling, for example, event tickets. The basic question was whether providing a ticket sale system based on a specific queuing mechanism solves a technical problem. However, the decision also concerns whether non-technical features have to be considered regarding the assessment of novelty.

Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 0552/14 (Queue message/TICKETMASTER) of 12.1.2021 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

Notifying a customer having requested a resource, such as an event ticket or tickets, whether the resource is likely to be available when the request is serviced is an organisational matter and thus not technical. Moreover, queuing per se is considered an administrative (or abstract mathematical) concept.

Whether non-technical features may be ignored for assessing novelty is left undecided.

The invention

The Board in charge summarized the subject-matter of underlying European patent application as follows:

1.1 The invention concerns a method of processing electronic queue data and providing queue messaging over a network. The idea is essentially to notify the customer having requested a resource, such as an event ticket or tickets, whether the resource is likely to be available when the request is serviced. The estimate is based on the number of requests in the queue and historical queue abandonment rates (and certainly also the available quantity of the resource in question). Based on the notification, the customer can decide to abandon or stay in the queue.

Figs. 1 and 1A of WO 2006/102354 A2

Here is how the invention was defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it patentable?

The first instance examining division rejected the present application because it would not solve a technical problem. The Board in charge generally agreed to this assessment:

2.1 The Board agrees with the examining division that a method of processing queue data comprising receiving a ticket request, estimating whether the requested ticket will be available when the request is serviced, and notifying the user if it is estimated that the ticket will not be available, does not on its own solve a technical problem. This subject-matter is, as the examining division said, an organisational matter.

2.3 (…)

Although queues may have technical applications, the act of queuing per se is an administrative (or abstract mathematical) concept. Thus, it follows that improving such a non-technical activity, by allowing it to be performed more efficiently, is not a technical problem.

Notably, the first instance examining division did not apply the well-established COMVIK approach (see T0641/00) but rejected the present application due to lack of novelty. In more detail, the examining division ignored the non-technical features of the claimed subject-matter and took only into account the technical features of claim 1 for assessing novelty:

3.1 The examining division argued that the lack of technical contribution over the prior art (a notorious computer system) resulted in a lack of novelty (Article 54(1) and (2) EPC). …

While the Board in charge agreed to the result of the examining division on the merits, it expressed some concerns whether the approach of the examining division to reject the application based on a lack of novelty was correct. Specifically, the examining division justified its reasoning by referring to three decisions, which appear to imply that only technical features may establish novelty:

3.1 … As support for this approach, the examining division referred to decisions G 2/88 (Friction reducing additive), T 172/03 (Order management/RICOH), and T 154/04 (Estimating sales activity/DUNS LICENSING ASSOCIATES).

3.2 The cited decisions indeed seem to suggest that only technical features can establish novelty. However, the individual statements made in these decisions have to be seen in the context of the decision as a whole and not just in isolation. None of the decisions applies the “approach” to a computer-implemented invention.

However, the Board came to the conclusion that from none of the three cited decisions it could be generally deduced that only technical features were to be considered for the assessment of novelty. G 2/88 only referred to the specific example of a use claim

3.3 G 2/88 includes the following statement:

“a claimed invention lacks novelty unless it includes at least one essential technical feature which distinguishes it from the state of the art”.

The statement was made in the specific context of use claims where the only novel feature lay in the purpose of the use. The Enlarged Board discussed the difference between a purpose having a technical effect, and a purpose that merely existed in the mind of the person carrying out the invention, and was therefore subjective rather than objective. While the former conferred novelty on the known use, the latter did not. The Enlarged Board of Appeal did not consider whether objectively distinguishing features involving non-technical aspects, for example computer-implemented method steps, could establish novelty over, say, a computer.

3.4 In T 172/03, the Board stated that the patentability of an invention, for which inventive step was a requirement, had to arise from features and aspects of the invention from which a technical solution to a technical problem could be inferred and which were thus of technical character (point 3).

This statement seems to suggest that novelty, which is also a patentability requirement, can be based only on technical features.

(…)

Nevertheless, the case in T 172/03 was decided on inventive step (Article 56 EPC). The Board did not elaborate further on the question of “technical novelty”.

3.5 In T 154/04, the Board summarized the case law on computer-implemented inventions. It was said that non-technical features “as such” did not provide a technical contribution to the prior art and were thus to be ignored in the assessment of novelty and inventive step (point 5(f)). However, also in T 154/04, the case was decided on other grounds than novelty.

Hence, the Board concluded that none of the three decisions could support the approach of the examining division with respect to disregarding non-technical features for the assessment of novelty. Unfortunately, the Board did not decide on this issue due to potential implications on other aspects of the EPC and, as outlined above, applied the well-established COMVIK approach to reject the application based on lack of inventive step:

3.6 The question of “technical novelty” is complex, and has potential implications on many areas of patent law, such as the assessment of the same invention in Article 87 EPC, as well as added matter under Articles 76 and 123(2) EPC.

In the present case, the Board does not need to decide on this issue, because the notorious computer system is clearly prior art under Article 54(2) EPC. Therefore, the case can be decided on inventive step.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0552/14 (Queue message/TICKETMASTER) of 12.1.2021

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Determining the value of a collateral using an index value calculated based on an appraised quality/quantity of water: non-technical

This is a further decision that confirms that business-related aspects of the claimed subject-matter cannot contribute to inventive step. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 0426/16 of 17.9.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.4.03:

Key takeaways

Remember that the so-called “contribution approach”, taking into account prior art when determining whether subject-matter was excluded under Art. 52(2) and (3) EPC 1973, is abandoned (Case Law of the Boards of Appeal of the European patent office, I.A.1.4.1 a) and b)

It must be clear from the wording of the claim or the application that technical means must actually be used to carry out a method step.

The invention

The invention underlying the present decision relates to an investment instrument for water based on a stable free market price. A broker computes an index value of water 104 (1.07 $ per m3, for example), which allows to evaluate a defined portion of the body of the water. Then, the broker may sell a certificate for 1000 m3 of water for 1000 m3 x 1.07 $/m3 = 1070 $ (plus, for example, a 2% commission) to an investor. The relevant factors for computing the value index of the water are regularly updated. Furthermore, the state of a collateral is periodically appraised by a “professional appraiser” and the value of the collateral adjusted in order to make sure that each certificate is covered by valid assets.

Fig. 1 of WO 2009/024928 A2

Here is how the invention was defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it patentable?

At the end of the first instance prosecution stage, the examining division decided that the subject-matter of the independent claims of the main request (and of first to third auxiliary requests) lacked an inventive step in view of a notoriously-known computer network system. In more detail, most of the claimed features were ignored for the assessment of inventive step since they were considered non-technical:

4.1 The examining division decided that the subject-matter of the independent claims of the main request and of the first to third auxiliary requests, all filed on 10 August 2015, lacked an inventive step (Article 56 EPC) in view of a notoriously known computer network system. The technical features of the method claim 1 of the requests were no more than a notoriously known “computerized system”, see sections 12.3 and 12.4 of the contested decision. The step of “professionally appraising fresh water in regard to the quality and quantity”, the steps of determining and repetitively updating an index value (based on changes on the price of a product, the quantity of water utilized to produce the product and the quantity of water constituent in the product) and the step of determining a value of the collateral using the computed index value and the appraised quality/quantity of the collateral were considered as related to “a business concept on an abstract level”, see sections 12.2.

Against this decision, the applicant filed an appeal and argued that a water quality appraisal instrument is a technical means (hereinafter first argument). In addition, the applicant argued that, according to some decisions of various Boards of Appeal, in order to be patentable, it is sufficient that the claimed subject-matter is based on technical considerations (hereinafter second argument):

(d) According to the appellant, the claims recited a non-abstract technical solution with a technical character and, hence, provided a technical solution to a technical problem. In view of the “professional water quality appraisal instruments” in the independent claims, the skilled person was “an expert in the field of technical evaluation of substances in the water by technical instruments”, which “could not be interpreted as an abstract mental or pure business act that can even be performed by a human being”. Features (b) and (b’) therefore were technical features. As examples of an “professional water quality appraisal”, the appellant mentioned the measure of the amount of one or more substances in water e. g. to determine its salinity or its pH, the term “water quality” being a known “technical characteristic”. The appellant cited a number of web pages related to the testing of water quality.

(e) The appellant argued that the “water quality appraisal instruments” were “integrated together with the inventive combination of elements” according to features (h) and (n) or (h’) and (n’), because for determining the “value of a defined portion of the amount of water” the first (or second) index and the appraised water quality (category) were taken into consideration.

(g) The appellant mentioned decisions T 931/95 and T 769/92, where the Board of Appeal held “allowable a method claim based merely on an implied need for technical considerations”. The Board in case T 769/92 found that the invention had technical character because it implied a need for technical considerations when carrying out that invention.

However, the board in charge did neither follow the first nor the second argument. With respect to the first argument, the board argued:

No indication can be found in the application as originally filed for “professional water quality appraisal instruments” according to features (b) and (b’). “Professional water quality appraisal instruments” are neither explicitly mentioned on page 6 nor can they be derived therefrom. Page 8, lines 9 to 10, lines 17 to 22 and figure 2, box 236 merely mention that a “professional appraiser appraises (box 236) the collateral for the quantity, the quality and availability of the water”. From this passage, a skilled person reading the application as originally filed cannot directly and unambiguously derive that “professional water quality appraisal instruments” are involved or what kind of analysis (salinity, pH or other) is performed. The Board understands from page 8, lines 17 to 24 that step 236 in figure 2 concerns an evaluation by a professional of the state of the collateral 101, e. g. a lake. However, no indication can be found in the application that this evaluation requires any “professional water quality appraisal instruments”.

[…]

Hence, the application as originally filed does not disclose “water quality appraisal instruments” as such or does not suggest that the professional appraisal mentioned on page 8, lines 17 to 22 is necessarily performed by using technical means.

On the second argument, the board in charge commented as follows:

4.6 Regarding the appellant’s comments on T 769/92, see section VII., point (g), the Board notes that this decision concerned the question whether the claimed subject-matter was covered by the exclusion provisions of Article 52(2) and (3) EPC and still followed the now abandoned “contribution approach”, see e. g. Case Law of the Boards of Appeal of the European patent office, I.A.1.4.1 a) and b). A discussion of the contribution approach and the departure from it can be found e. g. in G 3/08, points 10.6 and 10.7 of the Reasons for the Opinion. In the present case, the examining division did not question that the subject-matter of the claims was not falling within the exclusions of of Article 52(2) and (3) EPC. Furthermore, the Board in T 769/92 found that technical considerations were necessary before programming of the computer-implemented method could begin. In the present case, no technical considerations are to be made, as each consideration appears to be made by a broker, and not a computer engineer.

4.7 Hence, in view of sections 4.3 to 4.6 above and of the example of figures 1 to 3, the Board is of the view that the only technical features disclosed in the application as a whole and present in the above subject-matter are a notoriously-known computer with a processor, a memory and a display. As a side remark, the Board notes that a basis for a method involving or a system having plural computers, plural processors or plural display devices is not disclosed in the application as originally filed, figure 1 only showing one desktop computer with a processor, a memory and a display device.

Therefore, the board concluded that claim 1 of the main request did not involve an inventive step. Furthermore, since the same arguments would also apply to the subject-matter of all filed auxliary requests, the appeal was dismissed.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0426/16 of 17.9.2020

Necessity of stopping a suspicious vehicle: non-technical

The EPO considered determining whether a suspicious vehicle needs to be stopped to detect a toll offence is a legal requirement and thus non-technical. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 0595/16 (Kontrollbedüftiges Fahrzeug/TOLLCOLLECT) of 14.9.2020 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.05:

Key takeaways

Assigning vehicles to different groups based on specific criteria in order to decide whether a vehicle has to be checked manually is a business-related method and thus not technical.

The invention

This European patent application underlying the present decision relates to a control method for road toll collection using a control system. Every vehicle on every road section that is monitored by the system is to be checked by collecting usable vehicle information. Based on these information, it is decided whether suspicious vehicles are stopped and checked manually by inspection staff (cf. WO 02/061690 A1, pages 1-3).

Fig. 5 of WO 02/061690 A1

Here is how the invention was defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request) - translated from German into English by the author of this post

Is it patentable?

The first-instance examining division rejected the application due to lack of inventive step in light of prior art document D4. Independent claim 1 of the rejected application differs from the teaching of D4 in that control data of a vehicle subject to checks are not transmitted to a control center but to a control point. According to the application, a control point is a checkpoint where control staff performs manual inspections of vehicles. However, the first-instance examining division considered this distinguishing feature to be non-technical and argued that the necessity of stopping a suspicious vehicle to conduct a further manual control is considered a legal requirement, but not a technical one. Hence, the distinguishing feature was not considered for the assessment of inventive step (cf. point 1.4 of the appeal decision).

During appeal stage, the applicant further argued that assigning the vehicles to be checked into different case groups as specified by claim 1 would be technical (cf. point 1.5 of the appeal decision). In more detail, it would be technical to change the number of vehicles that need to be checked by assigning them to different groups which are then used to decide whether a vehicle is manually checked or not.

However, the board in charge did not follow these arguments and argued that assigning vehicles to different groups is a business-related method to control the number of vehicles to be checked, as for example outlined in the  description in the sentence bridging pages 30 and 31. Hence, also the feature of claim 1 referring to the case groups is considered non-technical and thus not relevant for assessing inventive step.

As a result, the board in charge came to the conclusion that D4 renders-obvious the claimed subject-matter and dismissed the appeal.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0595/16 (Kontrollbedüftiges Fahrzeug/TOLLCOLLECT) of 14.9.2020

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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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