The European Patent Office refused to grant a software patent for analysing a physical system and providing an information model reflecting its properties. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 0049/99 (Information modelling/INTERNATIONAL COMPUTERS) of 5.3.2002 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:
This European patent application essentially concerned a method for modelling a physical system in terms of abstract objects representing physical elements of the system and relationships between the objects. The preferred embodiment of the invention aimed at providing a single, comprehensive description of the equipment in a power system, including network topology, operational constraints and limits, telemetry and communication details. The claims, however, were not restricted to the specific power system.
Claim 1 (main request)A method for modelling a physical system in a computer that executes an object-oriented information model based on the physical system, comprising the steps of:
(a) identifying physical elements in the system and their characteristics;
(b) deriving abstract objects and their attributes from the physical elements and their characteristics;
(c) defining relationships between objects;
(d) defining instances of the objects by assigning instance characteristics to the attributes; and
(e) creating an object type hierarchy within the objects, the objects lower in the hierarchy being subtypes of the objects higher in the hierarchy and inheriting attributes from the higher-level objects;
characterised in that
(f) a sub-set of the object types within said hierarchy are designated as base types;
(g) all objects, their attributes and the relationships between the objects are stored in tables with relational database technology, said tables including an [corrected by the Board, originally reading “and”] object table and a plurality of type-specific tables, each type-specific table corresponding to a particular base type;
(h) said object table stores entries for objects of a plurality of different object types, each entry including attributes that are not specific to any particular object type; and
() said type-specific tables store attributes specific to their respective base types.
Is it patentable?
Claim 1 mainly concerned a method for analysing a physical system and providing an information model reflecting the essential properties of the physical system. Information modelling, however, was considered to be an intellectual activity and thus non-technical by the Board:
Information modelling is a formalized process carried out by a system engineer or a similar skilled person in a first stage of software development for systematically gathering data about the physical system to be modelled or simulated and to provide so to say a real world model of the system on paper. Although information modelling embodies useful concepts and methods in developing complex software systems, it is as such an intellectual activity having all traits typical for non-technical branches of knowledge and thus being closely analogous to the non-inventions listed under Article 52(2)(a) and (c) EPC.
Interestingly though, the Board noted that the situation might be different if information modelling was used “purposively” for solving a technical problem:
In examining inventive step, it should hence be treated like any other human activity in a non-technical field, which is, as such, not an invention for the purposes of Article 52(1) EPC. Only the purposive use of information modelling in the context of a solution to a technical problem, as e.g. is the case for the preferred embodiment relating to the control and management of technical processes in a power system, may contribute to the technical character of an invention.
However, this did not help in the present case since the claims were not restricted to particular technical use case:
The claimed invention, however, is not restricted to power systems; as expressly indicated in the description the invention may be applied to various types of systems, “large, complex systems” including manufacturing plants and other physical systems (see description, page 30, lines 10 ff.). Claim 1 uses the generic expression “physical system”, which is actually a term including any real world system, even business and administrative organisations.
In the light of the broad meaning of the expression “physical system”, information modelling in terms of the first part of claim 1 has to be construed as an abstract non-technical activity using abstract constructs like objects, types, attributes, and relationships.
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 0049/99 (Information modelling/INTERNATIONAL COMPUTERS) of 5.3.2002
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.