The European Patent Office refused to grant a software patent on a method of charging for consuming dynamic content according to rules defined in server-side and client-side policies. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 0239/14 of 13.6.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

Providing part of the rules of a billing model at the side of the client, rather than the server, is not of technical relevance.

Licence terms are not technical, since they are cognitive data, not functional data.

The invention

The invention underlying this European patent application concerns charging for consuming (e.g. downloading) dynamic content according to rules defined in a server-side charging policy, and the provision of licence terms in a client-side policy.

Fig. 1 of EP 1 379 983
Fig. 1 of EP 1 379 983

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

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

First of all, the board acknowledged that claim 1 includes at least some technical features (a client and a server computer system), so that the invention passes the patent-eligibility hurdle:

The claim is directed to a mix of technical and non-technical features. The Board does not dispute that the method according to claim 1 appears in a technical context. The claimed method can be considered to be performed by technical means, because it involves a client and a server, i.e. inter-related devices with means for storing processing, transmitting, and receiving data. The overall subject-matter of claim 1 therefore, has technical character. Consequently, the claimed subject-matter is an invention in the sense of Article 52(1) EPC (see T 258/03 – Auction method/HITACHI).

But as the skilled reader will know, the presence of an inventive step requires the features distinguishing the invention from the prior art to contribute to the solution of a technical problem:

However, the question of inventive step requires an assessment of whether the invention makes a technical contribution over the prior art. Features, which do not make such a contribution, cannot support the presence of an inventive step (see T 641/00 Two identities/COMVIK, Headnote I). The non-technical features may instead be included in the framework of the technical problem that the skilled person has to solve (Headnote II).

Following the board’s assessment, the only difference over the closest prior art was that the “authorization of said user to consume said content unit is defined via license terms within a client side policy“. According to the board, this is not a technical difference:

The contribution is not a technical one, since it lies in the association of digital content with an authorization for its use/consumption.

What is called “client side policy” and “server-side policy” represents the underlying billing model in a mobile communication client-server environment. By providing part of the rules at the side of the client, rather than the server, they might be available offline (see page 12, lines 24 to 33). However, the Board does not regard this to be of technical relevance. The appellant has not brought forward convincing arguments to the contrary. The Board considers this split of rules between the client and the server to be part of the billing concept, which is provided to the skilled person as a set of requirements to implement. It is not the technically skilled person who comes up with the split in order to solve a technical problem.

The client-side policy defines license terms, i.e. rules specifying what the user can and cannot do with the content. For example, the licence terms could specify a limited period of usage or a limited number of uses (see page 12, lines 27-28 in the published application). In the Board’s view, those are administrative rules, which do not contribute to the solution of a technical problem.

Furthermore, the licence terms are not technical, since they are cognitive data, not functional data in the sense of having a technical effect (for this distinction see T 1194/97 Data structure product/PHILIPS, OJ EPO 2000, 525). The storage, selection, and processing of such cognitive data is an administrative measure, such as would be performed by a human when charging for consumed dynamic content, making use of general purpose computer or mobile communication device functions (e.g. transmitting, receiving, storing and retrieving information and content in electronic form) without creating a further technical effect.

The fact that steps of the claimed method are performed automatically is a mere consequence of implementing the non-technical billing model in a mobile communication client-server environment. Indeed, the automatic processing is already achieved in D1 (see the communications system underlying the MOBIVAS architecture in figure 1). D1 not only discloses the technical infrastructure necessary for implementing the non-technical billing concept, but also a significant part of the billing concept itself (see point 2.3 above).

Therefore, claim 1 was found not to involve an inventive step:

In the absence of any technical contribution beyond the straight-forward computer-implementation, the subject-matter of claim 1 does not involve an inventive step (Article 56 EPC) in view of D1 and the skilled person’s common general knowledge.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 0239/14 of 13.6.2019

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