The European Patent Office refused to grant a software patent on the concept of automatically uninstalling apps after the trial phase. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 1098/12 (Computer program with limited lifetime/Nokia) of 12.7.2017 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.06:
This patent application starts from the known pricing models for software, like freeware, shareware, and time or functionality limited versions. In contrast to these models, the invention lets users download and try out an app on their mobile devices, but deletes the app automatically after a certain time.
Claim 1 (main request)A method comprising:
- receiving user identity information from a mobile terminal comprising a user identity module storing user identity information;
- receiving a choice of an application contained at an application database (242), the application database (242) containing at least one application having a selectable lifetime during which the application is executable;
- receiving a selection of a selectable lifetime of the chosen application during which the application is to be executable;
- configuring the chosen application to automatically delete or uninstall itself from the mobile terminal (210) when the selected lifetime for the chosen application expires;
- downloading the chosen application from the application database (242) to the mobile terminal; and
- storing an indicia of the selectable lifetime, the user identity information and the application selection in an application-license database (232).
Is it patentable?
Readers who are familiar with the COMVIK approach will probably have an idea of the Board’s opinion. First of all, the overall problem to be solved by the invention (trying out software on a mobile terminal for a limited time at a lower price) was considered to be non-technical:
4.2.1 From the wording of claim 1 of the main request, in connection with the statements made on pages 2 to 4 of the description, the board concludes that the main aim of the present invention is of a commercial nature, i.e. to provide a new model for the commercialisation of software on “mobile terminals”. More specifically, the problem to be solved by the method of claim 1 is to enable users to try out software on a mobile terminal for a limited time at a lower price (see in particular page 4, lines 12 to 14).
4.2.2 The board considers this to be a non-technical vending model. It should therefore be seen as part of the requirements specification provided to the skilled person who has the task of implementing the vending model by technical means.
Because mobile devices typically have only limited memory capacity, the Board considered it to be obvious to solve this problem by automatically removing apps that are no longer usable:
4.2.4 Given that the task of the skilled person is to time-limit the use of applications specifically on “mobile terminals”, i.e. on devices which are relatively small and consequently have limited memory, the board considers it straightforward for the skilled person to take this limitation into account. One obvious way to do this is to arrange for the memory occupied by an application to be released, preferably automatically, once the application is no longer usable, i.e. once its lifetime has expired.
4.2.5 It is thus considered obvious for the skilled person to maintain an application-licence database which specifies whether the lifetime for a given application has expired for a given user, and to configure the application, which at some time has been downloaded from an application database, to delete or uninstall itself automatically from the mobile terminal if its lifetime has expired.
The patent applicant had argued that the problem to be solved is technical, namely “how to achieve (more) efficient memory handling in a mobile terminal”. Also this was not successful:
4.2.9 The board’s conclusion would however remain the same, even if it were to accept this alternative problem to be solved. Indeed, it is firstly considered obvious that memory on mobile devices should be handled efficiently, given the limited memory capacity on such devices. Secondly, the user of the device will, when the available memory becomes insufficient, try to release memory that is no longer needed. Since the memory is used by data and by applications, the user will delete/uninstall data and applications which are no longer needed. For applications this would for instance be the case when their lifetime has expired.
The board agrees with the practice generally adopted in the boards of appeal, according to which the automation as such of a manual process cannot be considered inventive. For the rest, a database which keeps track of all necessary information, such as the lifetime of application licences, would be a standard tool used by the programmer entrusted with the automation task. Hence, the subject-matter of claim 1 of the main request would be considered non-inventive, even if one started from the technical problem mentioned by the appellant.
The patent applicant also tried to get at least an auxiliary request granted. The limitation was that customised settings of the app are retained after the app deletes itself. But the board did not change its mind:
5.4 The appellant has however not disputed the fact mentioned in point 8.2 of the summons that the commonly known “registry” which has existed in Microsoft Windows since version 3.1 (introduced in 1992) is routinely used to maintain customised settings of an application on the device where the application is installed, even after the application has been uninstalled. Instead, the appellant merely implies (reply to the summons, last page, third paragraph, first sentence) that none of the cited documents disclose such a way of proceeding.
5.5 […] In the context of commonly known mobile devices, it happens routinely that applications are uninstalled and later re-installed. The board firstly considers it obvious that a skilled person will want to balance the amount of memory required for applications or settings and the effort needed to recover deleted data. The board secondly considers it to be known that the memory space occupied by an application is typically much larger than that occupied by its user settings, while the effort required to restore an application is typically much less than that to restore its user settings. In view of this, the board considers it obvious that the skilled person will apply known techniques which preserve user settings in view of a possible future re-installation of a deleted application.
Therefore, the Board ultimately decided that the patent application does not provide any technical contribution that could be the basis for an inventive step.
You can read the whole decision here: T 1098/12 (Computer program with limited lifetime/Nokia) of 12.7.2017
Bastian is a European patent attorney and a partner at BARDEHLE PAGENBERG. He specializes in software patents in Europe both from a prosecution and litigation point of view.