The European Patent Office considered performing prediction of seat availability in a travel planning system technical. Here are the practical takeaways from the decision T 0279/05 (Predicting availability/ITA) of 5.10.2007 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.01:
The application underlying the present decision relates to a method for providing availability of airline seats and more particular to determining airline seat availability information for use in travel planning and travel reservation systems (cf. WO/46715, p. 1, l. 7-9). In more detail, the method provides a technique to substitute predictions of availability for actual availability responses. Availability predictions are based upon several conceptual types of models which can be used separately or in various combinations. These models include a predictor based upon a cache or a database of stored availability queries and answers to the availability queries. The queries are used to identify when a stored query is the same as a received query request, and the answers are used as a substitute for direct access for future identical or substantially
related queries (cf. WO/46715, p. 4, l. 13-24).
Fig. 1 of WO/46715
Claim 1 (main request)
1. method for automatically providing availability information for a seat on a mode of transportation, comprising the steps of:
submitting queries from a travel planning system server (12) to an availability system (66) remotely located over a computer network that includes a yield management management algorithm and a seat availability algorithm, receiving availability responses therefrom and storing said availability responses in a database (70) of prior queries local to said server;
receiving, by the server, a query (48) for seat availability information, the query including one or more fields that specify at least one of: points of travel, dates of travel, times of travel, class of travel, or booking code;
determining whether the query can be responded to based on information in the local database (70) and,
(i) if so, producing a prediction of availability of a seat based on information from the database (70) in accordance with the availability query; and
(ii) if not, submitting a query to the availability system over the computer network in accordance with the availability query.
Is it patentable?
The application was rejected by the first instance examining division due to lack of inventive step since the use of caching servers is well-known common knowledge. However, no evidence was provided:
6. The examining division argued that the solution was obvious in view of the well-known use of local caching servers relieving main servers from processing load, but gave no detailed arguments provided, nor any evidence of this. (…)
While not expressly stated in the decision, it appears that the examining division considered the claimed subject-matter as a pure implementation of a business process and thus did not perform a search.
During appeal, the applicant argued that the claimed subject-matter solves a technical problem:
1. The application relates to determining airline seat availability. As explained by the appellant (see point VII, above), the invention solves the problem of relieving processing load on the availability system caused by the large number of low-fare flight searches. It achieves this by providing a travel planning system server that stores previous flight availability search results in a database and uses this data to predict results of subsequent searches.
According to the Board in charge, the subject-matter as claimed refers to a mixed-type invention and thus ruled that the COMVIK approach has to be applied for assessing inventive step:
2. The invention involves a mixture of technical aspects, e.g. servers and databases, and not technical aspects, e.g. airline seat availability and yield management. Decision T 641/00 – Two identities/COMVIK (OJ EPO 2003, 352) sets out the approach to judge inventive step in such cases:
“This approach requires identification of the technical field of the invention (which will also be the field of expertise of the person skilled in the art to be considered for the purpose of assessing inventive step), the identification of the closest prior art in this field, the identification of the technical problem which can be regarded as solved in relation to this closest prior art, and then an assessment of whether or not the technical feature(s) which alone or together form the solution claimed, could be derived as a whole by the skilled person in that field in an obvious manner from the state of the art.
The Board further outlined that using the result of a prediction being performed in a server distinguishes the claimed process from any manual activity and is thus not a mere implementation of a known business activity, but involves technical considerations. Hence, there was no reason to refuse searching the claimed subject-matter during the examination phase:
6. (…) Regardless of whether the presently claimed prediction is distinguished from the caching operation, the Board judges that the distinguishing features at least go beyond what is “notorious”, or essentially irrefutable, in this art. In the Board’s view this removes the basis for not performing a search under Rule 45 EPC, so that an additional search should be performed (cf. T 690/06, points 2 and 8) to establish the relevant prior art by which to judge the inventive step.
Finally, the board ruled that the examining division’s reasoning for lack of inventive step is not convincing and the present application is remitted back to the first instance examining division for further search and examination.
You can read the whole decision here: T 0279/05 (Predicting availability/ITA) of 5.10.2007.
Patrick is a European patent attorney at BARDEHLE PAGENBERG. He specializes in software patents in Europe both from a prosecution and litigation point of view.