The European Patent Office refused to grant a software patent for serverless group e-mail, although the particular way of generating a group identifier was considered to be technical. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 1408/09 (Group identifier / SQUARE ENIX) of 7.9.2017 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:

Key takeaways

Providing a unique identifier for identifying user groups without using a server: technical

Catchwords: “According to the problem solution approach, the objective technical problem is formulated based on the technical effect of the difference between the claimed subject-matter and the starting point in the prior art. It is not a requirement for obviousness that the starting point address this problem. If it does, that could make the solution all the more obvious. If, on the other hand, there is a pointer away from the invention, that might be an indication in favour of inventive step.”

The invention

This patent application generally concerns serverless group e-mail, where the groups are managed by the members’ terminals without involving a server.

To this end, the terminals use a group identifier for identifying the groups. The group identifier is generated by combining user information of the terminal of the member forming the group and the time of forming the group. Since the same user cannot create more than one group at exactly the same time, the group identifier is unique throughout the system.

Fig. 1 of EP 1 469 409
Fig. 1 of EP 1 469 409
  • Claim 1

Is it patentable?

The independent claims differed from the closest prior art in that a group identifier (“group information”) is generated by combining user information of the user generating the group and the time of forming the group. Concerning the effect of this distinguishing feature, the Board noted:

It is also common ground that the group identifier solves the problem of providing a unique identifier for identifying the groups, without using a server.

The Board did not dispute that this was a technical effect. Accordingly, the question to be decided was whether combining user information and the time of forming the group to generate the group identifier was obvious. Here, the Board pointed to another prior art document and concluded that the combination of both teachings renders the claimed subject-matter obvious:

Document D7, cited by the Board, describes a unique identifier called “universal unique identifier” (UUID), which is generated without involving a server. The UUID is based on user information (a node ID, or a POSIX user ID) and a timestamp.

The skilled person, faced with the problem of providing a unique identifier for mobile communication groups, would have looked for solutions in the wider field of networked systems. D7 is a general disclosure of a unique identifier that can be used for multiple purposes to reliably identify objects across a network. Although it has not been established that the particular format described in D7 was part of the skilled person’s general knowledge at the priority date, the Board considers that the concept of UUIDs as such was widely known at the date of the invention. Thus, the skilled person would have looked in the direction of UUIDs, and he would have considered the teachings in D7.

Therefore, the Board ultimately decided that the patent application does not involve an inventive step.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1408/09 (Group identifier / SQUARE ENIX) of 7.9.2017

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