Why do I work as a patent attorney?

I was lucky enough to attend a session with Debra Baker of Law Leaders Lab / GrowthPlay. One of the many good points raised by Debra was that we often need to ask ourselves: “why are we doing this?”

This follows on from the talks of Simon Sinek*.

It’s the kind of question that you answer in a covering letter for a job or in an interview. You often answer it when you have no experience of the job. You tend to forget the question more than a decade later.


So: why do I work as a patent attorney?

I love technology. Growing up my favourite possessions were a box of Lego, a BBC Micro, a cheap Bush walkman and my Casio calculator watch. In conversation I get excited about  machine learning and natural language processing. Blade Runner and Terminator 2 are my favourite films. I find the Promethean ability to breath life into inert matter fascinating. Working as a patent attorney means I am immersed in technology of all kinds every day.

I like helping inventors and innovative companies. As a patent attorney you get to work with some of the smartest, most creative engineers on the planet. You also work in the real commercial world, as opposed to the more artificial confines of academia.

I enjoy diving deep into new subject matter and linking it to existing understanding. I have a “systematic” mind, I enjoy figuring out what makes things work. As a kid, I devoured Encylopedias and practically slept with a copy of the Usborne Book of Knowledge. I studied hard, partly through sheer curiosity.  I always find how we know what we know fascinating. I may be the only one of my school and University peers who uses their subject knowledge everyday. Each new invention builds upon strata of past learning in a way that is deeply satisfying.

I like an intellectual challenge (the flip-side to being easily bored by the surface of things). I like wrestling an idea into language.

And the more quotidian reasons: I like being able to pay the bills; I like working in a place with free Nespresso and apples; I like having good colleagues and leadership.


Why you need the why

You need these reasons to keep going through the day-to-day work and the ups-and-downs of commercial reality.

For example:

  • Nine out of ten small businesses fail, typically despite great inventions and people.
  • Human contact is often lost beneath the required bureaucratic machinery of large organisations.
  • Cases can be granted or refused based solely on the luck of the examiner draw.
  • The gap between the hyperbole needed to sale a product and the prosaic hardwork to get the product working.
  • The size of the body of previously-published materials.
  • Cases you work on for years are left behind as companies pivot and cost-cut.
  • There’s always a deadline or five.
  • Every other patent attorney is just as driven and smart and is competing against you.

If you align why you are doing something with what you are doing then things become a lot easier.

* Caveat: I understand that this can seem a little MBA-gimmicky, and I do share your skepticism, but the underlying question is a sound one. Reflection is also a good thing, and needed now more than ever with the iPhone buzzing and blinking. 

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

Case Law Review – O/174/14 – UK Patent Hearing

Case:

O/174/14

Claimed Subject Matter:

The alleged invention relates to a computer system and method for executing a point of sale transaction. In particular, the invention provides a point of sale terminal which is capable of receiving first price data from at least one item purchased by a customer and a server which receives both transaction data from the point of sale terminal and second price data pertaining to comparable competitor items from an update server so that the first and second price data can be compared and a voucher issued based on the comparison.

[This appears to be a patent application directed to Sainsbury’s Brand Match feature.]

Comments:

The Hearing Officer found that the actual contribution of the invention related entirely to a method of doing business which, as it was brought about by a computer program, also related to a computer program, as such. The invention was therefore excluded by section 1(2) and the application was refused.

Section 22 shows the risk of using an argument that is not present in the specification; the Hearing Office was sceptical of an argument based around quality control / self-checking that appeared to have little basis in the application as filed. As we have seen with many Europe cases, basing an argument on advantages not described in the patent application rarely succeed.

The Applicant attempted to argue that a technical contribution lay in “the overall architecture of  the computer system with technical components which in themselves are known but connected in a different way” . However, on applying step 3 of the Aerotel/Macrossan test the Hearing Officer was firmly of the view that “the actual contribution relates entirely to a way of conducting business” (see 27). This is because the actual contribution was deemed to be “about: (i) comparing prices, which manifestly is a business issue, and (ii) issuing a voucher with “value” information on it, which is also wholly a business issue”.

Section 29 has useful comments on whether the computer program exclusion is avoided. It was argued that “it is the connectivity of the components of hardware that creates the overall architecture of the invention” and that the computer program “lies in the middle of the system” but does not make up the whole system. This was found to be initially persuasive. However, the Hearing Officer concluded that the ” connectivity is necessarily brought about by a computer program” and that therefore lies “entirely in the programming itself”.

Case Law Review – T 2296/10

Case:

T 2296/10

Claimed Subject Matter:

OFDM-transmitting apparatus and method, and OFDM-receiving apparatus and method.

Comments:

This case provides an interesting consideration of technical prejudices.

The Appellant attempted to argue that technical prejudices of the company behind the closest prior art document (the BBC) meant that the claimed solution was not obvious.

The Board disagreed with the Appellant’s arguments stating (see 2.1.10):

In this regard, the board notes that, in general, cost considerations and technological preferences of a particular company (like the BBC in this case) cannot impose technical prejudices or uncertainties upon a technically skilled person such that he would be deterred from envisaging a technically sound and feasible solution for that reason alone. Otherwise, when analysing and interpreting the actual teaching of the closest prior art determined for the purpose of assessing inventive step according to the well-established “problem-solution approach”, internal experiences, beliefs, and preferences concerning technologies to be applied by the company from which that closest prior art originates would generally have to be taken into account. This would in turn mean that – to answer the question whether the skilled person starting out from the closest prior art would in fact arrive at the claimed solution – additional internal background information on the respective closest prior art (e.g. derived from witness statements from some employees as provided by the present appellant) would be necessary. In other words, the extent to which the notional skilled person in fact applies his skills in providing a solution to an objective technical problem would be unduly bound by such internal information (e.g. the expected infrastructure costs incurred by the BBC when proposing a change in its applied technology) at the filing date of an application instead of finding an appropriate solution to the objective problem posed. That would, however, definitely be incompatible with the problem-solution approach as generally applied.

Rather, the person skilled in a technical field (i.e. mobile communication networks in the present case) would try to seek a technical solution to an objective technical problem (i.e. choosing a certain pilot symbol pattern) under certain constraints (i.e. digital video distribution), starting with the closest prior art (i.e. document D1). However, based on the reasoning set out in points 2.1.12.1.1 to 2.1.92.1.9 , the board considers that said skilled person would arrive at the solution (i.e. using a DVB-T-based pilot symbol pattern) according to feature A) of claim 1 without exercising inventive skills.

[With thanks to Jake Loftus for help finding and reviewing these cases.]

Case Law Review – T 1602/09

Case:

T 1602/09

Claimed Subject Matter:

A  computer system for managing relationships between brokers and traders in a trading network.

Comments:

The Appellant claimed that the invention solved a technical problem which arose in such systems, namely that a trader could not simply and easily control, i.e. prevent or permit, a computer terminal operated by a broker to send trading commands on behalf of the trader from the computer terminal via the network to the trading system.

The Appeal was dismissed by the Board.

The Board found that the problem formulation only made sense in the context of operations by a (non-technical) “active trader”, these being traders who wish to be able to supervise trade orders given to brokers. It was found that since the trading was computer-based the active trader would need to have access to the broker’s trading system. The skilled person was certainly aware that this made a log-on necessary. Equivalently, if the active trader for some reason was not logged on, the broker should not be allowed to trade. Ideally, the check should be automatic. These straight-forward considerations were deemed to lead directly to the subject-matter of claim 1.

[With thanks to Jake Loftus for help finding and reviewing these cases.]

Case Law Review – T 1192/10

Case:

T 1192/10

Claimed Subject Matter:

User interface with gesture recognition.

The subject-matter of claim 1 differed from the disclosure in the closest prior art document in that according to claim 1:

a) warning messages are output to the user instead of having only internal messages between different components,

b) a range of sampling periods, i.e. a period when the button is activated, is supervised,

c) a range of poses indicating ranges of pitch and roll angles of the input device with respect to the bottom plane on which the input device is positioned is supervised and

d) temporary button release when the button is deactivated and re-activated within a predetermined time causes another warning to the user.

Comments:

Feature (a) of outputting warning messages to a user instead of internal messages between different components was deemed to be technical, solving the technical problem of how to provide feedback to the user about internal states or identified conditions of the device, but notoriously known.

However, features (b) of supervising a range of sampling periods and (d) providing temporary de-activation of a button were deemed to be technical features that provided an inventive step over the cited art. This set aside an earlier decision of the examining division.

The examining division had argued that although the actual implementation of the specific validation criteria involved a technically skilled person, the definition of the expected operation (e.g. what motions and durations of the input are expected) was rather business-based, according to the intended purpose of the device and to design choices. This argument was not accepted by the Board who concluded that, whatever the reason for the definition of a gesture might be, the underlying ranges, rolls and angles are of a technical nature.

Case Law Review – T 0913/10

Case:

T 0913/10

Claimed Subject Matter:

Encrypting data within a database system based on a defined system role (security administrator, database administrator, and user administrator).

Comments:

The case provides an interesting discussion about the term “role”, e.g. as used in a computing sense e.g sysadmin, user, database admin.

The Board concluded that “that nothing in the claims or in the description can dispel the reasonable possibility that the definition of tasks to be distributed over three administrators is merely an organisational and hence non-technical issue, not­withstanding that it relates to a technical entity such as a database system”. The claims were then found to lack an inventive step based on this assumption.

[With thanks to Jake Loftus for help finding and reviewing these cases.]

Case Law Review – T 1929/09

Case:

T 1929/09

Claimed Subject Matter:

Server-side web summary generation and presentation.

Claim 1 specified: an Internet Portal, comprising an Internet-connected server and a portal software executing on the server, including a summary software agent, wherein the Portal maintains a list of Internet destinations specific for a subscriber, and the summary software agent accesses the Internet destinations, retrieves information according to pre-programmed criteria, and summarizes the retrieved information for delivery to the subscriber.

Comments:

The underlying idea was to facilitate the life of a user who normally had to provide some personal information for accessing certain web pages. This was deemed at first instance to be a non-technical problem.

The Board agreed with the Appellant that improving the allocation of resources on the Internet and reducing connection time between servers or between a server and a workstation are, in principle, technical problems. However, the Board held that an information service tailored to the needs of a particular user and limited to user-defined Internet destinations is essentially a business scheme. Thus, the mere idea of providing such a service cannot be regarded as a contribution to the solution of a technical problem.

Claim 1 was broad and lacked technical detail on a specific implementation; as such any technical features therein were deemed to be obviously required. The background of the invention was cited to support this point.

[With thanks to Jake Loftus for help finding and reviewing these cases.]

Software & Patenting: IP Outside Your Comfort Zone

A presentation given as a CIPA Webinar on 25 February 2014.

Provides an introduction to software as it relates to patenting and an overview of current practice in UK and Europe. Details of relevant legislation and case law are provided, together with some tips for drafting.

Provided according to the terms set out here: http://www.eip.com/legal.php – i.e. does not constitute legal advice and should be taken as guidance.