In this decision, the European Patent Office did not grant a software patent on a computer system for recommending a shooting spot where a particular image can be taken. Here are the practical takeaways of the decision T 1455/16 (Image search to obtain shooting spot/RAKUTEN) of 20.11.2019 of Technical Board of Appeal 3.5.07:

Key takeaways

The mere fact that position information concerns physical elements in the real world is not sufficient for establishing a technical contribution of providing the position information.

The invention

This European patent application concerns retrieving images according to user specified criteria and recommending a shooting spot at which such an image can be captured.

According to the invention, an information providing server stores image data and associated image information in a database. The image information includes object information about objects or subjects in the image (e.g. people, animals, plants, landscapes), arrangement information of each object in the image and the shooting location (e.g. latitude and longitude or address).

At a terminal, a user specifies “arrangement information” indicating “object candidates”, each corresponding to a subject type, arranged in a particular manner in a “pseudo frame” representing an image area. Figure 5 illustrates a user interface to specify a search by arranging the position, shape and size of (rectangular) objects, each representing a subject type, on a pseudo-frame window. In the example of Figure 5, the user specifies a search for images showing two mountains, a river and a person in a given spatial arrangement on the image:

Fig. 5 of EP 2 562 655
Fig. 5 of EP 2 562 655

The arrangement information is sent to the information providing server, which then searches for image data matching the arrangement information and sends the image data found, optionally with corresponding information about a shooting spot at which an image can be captured according to the arrangement information.

Here is how the invention is defined in claim 1:

  • Claim 1 (main request)

Is it technical?

The board of appeal started its inventive-step assessment from a prior art document which disclosed an on-line image database from which image data can be retrieved on the basis of visual characteristics such as colours, textures, shapes, and sizes, as well as textual tags appended to the images. The board found that claim 1 differed from the information providing device described in the prior art, among others, by the following feature:

  • (A’) the image data memory means is further arranged to store position information of the image data indicating the shooting spot of the image data, and the transmitting means is further arranged to transmit the position information of images searched by the searching means.

The appellant had argued as follows:

In its written reply and at the oral proceedings, the appellant argued that the provision of a shooting spot was comparable with the technical field of navigation, because the user was guided to a point in space where they could take a picture according to their expectations. Navigation was implicit in the claim. Explicitly claiming the feature of navigation was not necessary for credibly assisting the user in performing the technical task of reaching the point in space; this directly and necessarily followed from using the device claimed and transmitting the position to the terminal device.

Providing improved position information to a user was based on technical considerations. It was based on the presence of physical elements correlated with the position information, which reflected technical characteristics of the real world. In addition, it enabled the user, for instance, to move a vehicle along a direction aimed at reaching the point in space for shooting a photo in the same manner as a navigation system enabled a user to reach a desired destination. Moving had physical consequences and was hence a technical process. Reference was made to decision T 2035/11 of 25 July 2014, Reasons 5.2.1, and to decision T 1670/07 of 11 July 2013, Reasons 13.

The board, however, did not follow these arguments:

In the present case, the rationale of T 2035/11, reasons 5.2.1 and 5.2.2, does not apply. The device of claim 1 does not use information about the user’s position. Neither the distinguishing features nor claim 1 concern navigation, route planning or real-time guidance. The position information returned by the device in feature A’ can be used for any purpose, for example for merely presenting the information to the user, i.e. for presentation of information as such. Contrary to the appellant’s arguments, the claim cannot thus be considered to implicitly specify the navigation.

The text of claim 1 does not reflect the application of the position information in a technical task of guiding the user to a point in space. Therefore, it cannot be said that in the present case providing position information to a user is based on technical considerations. The mere fact that the position information concerns physical elements in the real world is not sufficient for establishing a technical contribution of providing the position information (T 154/04, OJ EPO 2008, 46, reasons 20; T 2035/11, reasons 5.1.4).

The Board is therefore of the opinion that feature A’ meets the non-technical user requirement of adapting the device of document D1 to further return position information indicating the shooting spot of the image. At the priority date of the present application, it was common practice to store position information with images taken, e.g. by digital cameras (see also paragraph [0002] of the present application), such position information corresponding to the shooting spot. It would therefore be obvious for the skilled person to store position information with each image and provide, as a result of the search, the position information for the matching images. That is, it would be obvious to modify the device of document D1 in the way defined by feature A’.

Therefore, the board of appeal decided that claim 1 lacked an inventive step and dismissed the appeal.

More information

You can read the whole decision here: T 1455/16 (Image search to obtain shooting spot/RAKUTEN)

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