Computer-Related Board of Appeal Decisions from 2014 Case Law Summary

The European Patent Office has now published a case law summary for 2014 as Official Journal supplementary publication 4/2015. Sections I-C-4.1, I-C-5.1, II-A-1, and II-E-1.4 discuss case law that relates to computer-related inventions. The relevant passages are extracted and commented on below.

Skilled Person

T 407/11 held that the relevant skilled person in the context of providing computer-system users with operating assistance via a user interface (e.g. error messages or warnings) was an expert in software ergonomics concerned with the userfriendliness of human-machine interfaces rather than an expert in software programming or in computer technology in the strict sense.

The objective problem to be solved by that skilled person was to prevent a situation whereby the user’s action caused an electronic data-processing system to execute a called function differently from intended (or even to fail to execute it at all).

In the board’s view, however, the technical effect claimed in the application (simpler operation of an object-oriented user interface, facilitating initial use and subsequent familiarisation, especially for beginners or upgrading users, and so making the resulting method easier and more intuitive to learn) could not be considered a directly derivable consequence of the distinguishing features, because attributes such as “simpler operation” or “easy and intuitive familiarisation” were generally subjective, i.e. depended on the user’s individual preferences and experience or intellectual capabilities, while the classification of users as “beginners”, “upgraders” or “advanced” was generally based on a variety of criteria which were not clearly defined.

This suggests that providing objective definitions of technical effects (e.g. millisecond time savings) may help to support an inventive step under European practice. It also further indicates a need to avoid reference to “user”-based advantages.

Applications of Algorithms

In T 2035/11 the application mainly related to navigation systems that could be tailored to a user’s particular wishes. The focus of the application was on the route-planning functionality of a navigation system.

The board held that the subject-matter of claim 1 lacked an inventive step within the meaning of Art. 52(1) and 56 EPC. It noted that mathematical algorithms may contribute to the technical character of an invention only in so far as they serve a technical purpose (see e.g. decision T 1784/06). The purpose of the algorithm was the mere display of an optimal path to the user for cognitive processing. The user could act on the information, but did not need to.

As stated in decision T 1670/07, a technical effect may arise from either the provision of data about a technical process, regardless of the presence of the user or its subsequent use, or from the provision of data (including data that on its own is excluded, e.g. produced by means of an algorithm) that is applied directly in a technical process.

In the case at issue, the data was produced by means of an algorithm and was not applied directly in a technical process, so neither possibility applied.

Warning on Generalisation

In T 2231/09 the patent in suit concerned a method of representing and analysing images. Claim 1 of the main request set out that “… at least one said descriptor element is derived using only a subset of pixels in said image.”

The board considered the expression “subset of pixels” to be problematic under Art. 84 EPC 1973 and stressed that, while a certain degree of generalisation may be permitted, features as claimed should make it possible to clearly identify features of embodiments that are covered by the terms of a claim. Moreover, the generalised subject-matter as claimed should make it possible to understand the technical problem to be solved.

When amending claim 1, the applicant had put forward a new interpretation according to which a “region” could mean the whole image, and a “subset” could correspond to all pixels of the region. The board considered this interpretation to be inconsistent with essential parts of the described embodiments, according to which a subset corresponded to only some of the pixels of a region. The subject-matter of claim 1 was thus unclear when interpreted in the light of the description.

The board also stated that the requirements of clarity and support by the description in Art. 84 EPC 1973 were designed to reflect the principle that the terms of a claim should be commensurate with the invention’s technical contribution to the art. Taking into account the description, the board regarded the division of the image into regions and subsets as essential for achieving the technical effect underlying the invention. Therefore, the subject-matter of claim 1 was not supported by the description. The board concluded that claim 1 did not comply with Art. 84 EPC 1973.

This indicates the need, when drafting claims for computer-related inventions, to provide clear and unambiguous definitions of terms used within the claims. This is especially important when features of the claims relate to abstract entities, e.g. data within a data processing system.

Added Subject Matter and Features without Technical Contribution

In T 1779/09 the board considered that the appellant had found itself exactly in the situation envisaged in decision G 1/93 (OJ 1994, 451). As emphasised in Headnote II of G 1/93, “a feature which has not been disclosed in the application as filed but which has been added to the application during examination and which, without providing a technical contribution to the subject-matter of the claimed invention, merely limits the protection conferred by the patent as granted by excluding protection for part of the subject-matter of the claimed invention as covered by the application as filed, is not to be considered as subject-matter which extends beyond the content of the application as filed within the meaning of Art. 123(2) EPC.” These principles were confirmed in G 2/98 (OJ 2001, 413) and G 2/10 (OJ 2012, 376). The board in the case at issue concluded that a limiting feature which generally would not be allowable under Art. 123(2) EPC could, under certain conditions, nevertheless be maintained in the claim of an opposed patent in the particular situation addressed in decision G 1/93. It then complied with Art. 123(2) EPC by way of a legal fiction. In the case at issue, the term “only” was introduced during the examination proceedings and successfully objected to under Art. 100(c) EPC in proceedings before the opposition division by the former respondent. Since the board considered the term to be truly limiting, its deletion would extend the protection conferred and thereby infringe Art. 123(3) EPC. However, the board held that the exclusive limitation did not influence the solution of the technical problem as understood from the application as originally filed, and hence provided no technical contribution to the claimed invention (see also decision T 384/91, Headnote II). It merely excluded protection of part of the invention described in the application, thus not giving any unwarranted advantage to the applicant. Claim 1 of the appellant’s sole request was therefore deemed to comply with Art. 123(2) EPC.

Updated US Guidance on Patent Eligibility (or “Stuff =/ Patents”)

The USPTO issued updated guidance on Patent Subject Matter Eligibility (i.e. things you can get a patent for in the US) at the end of July.

The materials are fairly dense and help address some of the criticisms raised by applicants. Further explanations of the approach are provided as well as an expanded list of examples.

Reading between the lines, it appears the USPTO is moving towards a position that is harmonised with European, Chinese and UK approaches on excluded subject matter.

Having a relatively simple mind, I found the following page from the guidance summary useful.

Stuff What You Can't Patent