A technical silver lining

They say that every cloud has a silver lining.

Thinking about a recent Philips case in which not one, not two, but three patents were revoked by the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI), this saying seems quite fitting.

From the perspective of IP right holders, the dark cloud is of course that we have just been presented with yet another confirmation that patent validity is severely appraised in France. But the silver lining is that, although software patents were at stake, the court did not strike them down for just being that, but on the contrary fully acknowledged the technical nature of the inventions.

The case at hand was certainly a big one for Philips.

Not only were three patents involved, but there were also parallel proceedings against several unrelated defendants.

So much so that there were in fact four judgments issued on the same day: one pitching Philips against HTC, another against Asus, another against Archos and the last one against Wiko.

Philips reproached all defendants for not joining their “Touch enabled device” license program, and retaliated by filing an infringement action based on European patents No. EP 1384134, EP 0888687 and EP 1571988.

The four judgments look substantially identical, so it should be sufficient to look at only one of them.

Claim 1 of EP’134 reads as follows:

A data processing apparatus having a user interface assisting in searching for information from an ordered list a data array, the apparatus comprising:
an array scroller responsive to user actuation; and
a helper character-generator, actuated by continued user actuation of the array, the helper character generator being operative to display a helper character representative of a portion in the list being scrolled.

In brief, this is a user interface invention. The context is that of a long list of elements. In order to facilitate the retrieval of one element in the list by the user, a so-called “helper character” appears. This helper character may represent e.g. a first letter of a name or a first digit of a telephone number. It is thus representative of a cluster of entries in the list. By scrolling from helper character to helper character, the user may select a desired cluster, and then browse within this cluster instead of browsing through the entire list.

Choosing the right song in a menu, a critical decision to make.

The defendants argued that this was a mere presentation of information, and thus not an invention under art. 52 EPC.

Here is the court’s position on this objection:

Displaying the helper character involves continuous actuation by the user in a scrolling array. 

The patent thus relies on the user taking an active part, via an improved interface interacting with him, thus creating a particular technical effect due to the actuation by the user, allowing a faster choice in an array of elements. 

By combining several modes of scrolling down a list of elements, the patent teaches an adaptive user interface for searching and displaying, and thus does not just present information “as such”. It should also be emphasized that the purpose of the invention is to facilitate the selection of an element in a large set of data, on small size devices, taking into account their specific ergonomic design. 

Therefore, the EP’134 patent undeniably implements technical means to obtain a technical solution to a technical problem. Its subject-matter is thus patentable. 

I asked my partner Aujain Eghbali, who is an ace at computer-implemented inventions, what we can make of this.

His main comment was that this is the same type of reasoning that the EPO could have made. He added that the court’s reasoning is in fact quite patent-friendly even by EPO standards.

In particular, the court relied on the ergonomic character of the human/machine interface when assessing the technical nature of the invention. The Boards of appeal of the EPO have sometimes adopted a similar approach (see T 1779/14) but the Guidelines for examination do not take any clear position on the technical nature of such innovations. Section G-II, 3.7.1 suggests that a “physical ergonomic advantage” could be considered as a technical contribution, but specifically in relation with user input.

The court also took note of a statement in the description of the patent, per which human-machine interaction is particularly challenging when the device is small, due to the physiology of the user. Although effects relying on human physiology are acknowledged in the EPO Guidelines (section G-II, 3.7), they are not commonly accepted by examiners as having a technical character, Aujain said.

Going back to the judgment, the EP’134 patent was thus found to meet the requirements of article 52 EPC.

Further objections of insufficiency of disclosure and lack of novelty were also rejected. But the patent finally died of lack of inventive step.

However, it is important to note that all features of claim 1 were fully taken into account in the inventive step reasoning, in keeping with the court’s finding that the claim related to a technical solution to a technical problem.

The court’s negative opinion on the patent was thus fully based on relevant disclosures identified in the prior art. So, this is your good old, traditional, prior art-based lack of inventive step, if you will; not a this-is-not-technical-enough lack of inventive step.

In more detail:

The EP’036 document teaches that, upon continuous actuation of the scrolling key, the first names are sequentially displayed, in the alphabetic order, for each letter, thus providing a search tool. 

Starting from this search tool disclosed in EP’036, the skilled person, namely an electrical engineer experienced in designing user interfaces for portable electronic devices, confronted with the problem of selecting an element in a scrolling list on a small size screen, would achieve claim 1 of the EP’134 patent, since the search tool of the EP’036 prior art (underlining the first letter of a name) is only a visual alternative to the generation of a help character, which is anyway taught by the US’949 document. 

The EP’036 document also taught scrolling cluster by cluster, allowing the user, by maintaining the scrolling key pressed, to go from letter to letter in the directory, without having to go through all names starting with the same letter. 

Therefore, the features of claim 1 of the EP’134 patent derive from the state of the art. 

Next up was EP’687, another user-interface patent.

See in particular claim 1:

An electronic device comprising:
– at least one display;
– a controller arranged to cause the display to show a rotating menu comprising a plurality of menu options,
which menu is disposed off centre in the display so that at least one option is rotatable off the display at any one time, whereby an arbitrary number of options may be added to the menu without changing its format.

Again, the court fully acknowledged the technical character of the invention:

[…] The EP’687 patent aims at improving a user interface for a screen. To this end, it allows displaying a menu comprising a plurality of options as well as adding an arbitrary number of options to the menu without changing its format. It thus provides a better identification of options. 

The objective of the EP’687 patent is to facilitate adding more articles to the menu without making the display more complex, as long as at least one option in the menu is out of the screen due to the rotating menu being off-centered. 

Therefore, the patent makes it possible for the user to interact with the device, while adding any number of options to the menu, without modifying the format and while keeping their own character making their identification easier.

Consequently, the EP’687 patent, which ensures a better identification of menu options for the user, by means of a controller which combines a particular option display format and a double function of rotation and addition of options, obviously implements technical means to provide a technical solution to a technical problem. Its subject-matter is thus patentable. 

Like for the previous patent, Philips was also able to fend off insufficiency and lack of novelty challenges, but then stumbled on inventive step, as the prior art was deemed to be very similar to the invention.

The third patent was directed to an activity monitor. Its technical character was not challenged. It was revoked for lack of inventive step all the same.

In summary, the present case seems to confirm a trend recently seen in a Thales decision and on the contrary to drift further away from past case law in which the stance on patent eligibility was considerably stricter.

How apropos then that the INPI (French patent office) has just published an updated version of its examination guidelines containing two new sections C.VII.1.3.1 and C.VII.1.3.2 on computer-implemented inventions.

One section is dedicated to CAD and computer simulations. The other one relates to AI. Both provide additional guidance as to what should be considered technical or non-technical, again quite in line with the EPO approach. Maybe the next revision will contain some additional thoughts on graphical user interfaces?


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 1ère section, July 11, 2019, Koninklijke Philips NV v. SAS HTC France Corporation & HTC Corporation, RG No. 16/02073.