Identifying technicity

What does a patent-eligible invention have in common with obscenity? Some may be tempted to answer that, in both cases, I know it when I see it, as the famous phrase goes. 

But the EPO would certainly not share this view, as the Boards of appeal have consistently worked on framing elaborate eligibility / inventive step tests so as to exclude any intuitive approach to the issue – the prize to pay being that this body of case law makes for a difficult read.

In today’s post, Aujain Eghbali examines if and how said extensive case law can be applied to the examination of French patent applications as well.

The examination of applications related to software inventions in France has been known to yield unpredictable outcomes. This is because, while substantive grounds provided to the French patent office (INPI) to refuse applications include the manifest exclusion from the scope of patentability (ineligibility) and the manifest lack of novelty in view of the search report, they do not include the lack of inventive step (which is only a ground for nullity).

Now, readers familiar with EPO practice know that software inventions are nowadays almost systematically examined under the scope of inventive step at the EPO. The mere mention of the use of a computer in a method claim allows passing the eligibility bar.

In this context, it has not been clear whether INPI examiners can rely on the ineligibility ground to refuse applications, or whether on the contrary they have to comply with EPO case law and conclude that there is no ground for a refusal.

Recent French court decisions, some of which were commented on this blog (here, here, here and there), seem to favor the first solution. The Sesame decision in particular confirmed the refusal by the INPI of a computer-implemented business method on the ground of ineligibility.

While this increase in legal certainty is surely appreciated, these recent developments raise other issues. One may notably ask the following question:

To what extent could INPI examiners apply principles established by the EPO in relation with the inventive step analysis in order to assess the patentability of software inventions, when they can only raise another ground?

EPO board of appeal decision T1992/10 of September 8, 2016 may be a good basis for the beginning of an answer.

SAP had filed a European patent application related to a solution to check the integrity of a shipment. The solution consists in calculating an initial identifier of a set of objects of the shipment based on individual identifiers, before sending the shipment. When the shipment arrives, the same algorithm is used to compute a set identifier for all arrived objects and the result is compared to the initial identifier. A match indicates integrity of the shipment.

Claim 1 according to the auxiliary request read as follows:

A computer-implemented method for checking the integrity of a shipment that includes multiple products, the method comprising:

calculating, prior to shipping, a set identifier for the shipment, the calculating comprising:

– receiving (210), at a tag reader, a first identifier from a first identification tag (130a; 570a; 730a) associated with a first physical object (120a; 560a; 720a);

– receiving (220), at the tag reader, a second identifier from a second identification tag (130b; 570b; 730b) associated with a second physical object (120b; 560b; 720b);

– determining (230) the set identifier at the tag reader, the set identifier corresponding to a set (110) of physical objects that includes the first physical object (120a; 560a; 720a) and the second physical object (120b; 560b; 720b), based on the first identifier and the second identifier, wherein the determining further includes:

— sorting (440) the first identifier and the second identifier to produce sorted identifiers, such that, for all pairs of identifiers, a first identifier of a pair appearing before a second identifier of the pair indicates that the first identifier is less than the second identifier;

— combining (450) the sorted identifiers to produce a combined set identifier by concatenating the first identifier and the second identifier in sorted order; and

— applying (460) the SHA1 algorithm to the combined identifier to produce the set identifier;

– associating (240-270) the set identifier with a web page (180a) that corresponds to the set (110);

calculating a set identifier for the shipment after shipping to verify the integrity of the shipment;

when the set identifier calculated prior to shipping matches the set identifier calculated after shipping, determining that no products have been removed from or added to the shipment in the time between the calculation of the two set identifiers, and

when the set identifier calculated prior to shipping differs from the set identifier calculated after shipping, determining that at least one product has been removed from or added to the shipment in the time between the calculation of the two set identifiers.

According to SAP, both with and without the invention, it was necessary to scan all arriving objects; but with the invention, only one comparison subsequently needed to be made: the identifier calculated on arrival had to be compared with the identifier calculated before shipping. Without the invention, many individual comparisons would be needed. Furthermore, SAP argued that the specific algorithm used to produce the set identifier performed speedily. Also, the final comparison could be made fast, thanks to the format of the set identifier.

A non-computer implemented identification tag – therefore a technical one?

The Board considered that the contemplation of a set identifier in particular to perform a shipment integrity check did not involve any technical consideration as such. Furthermore, the Board was not persuaded that the effects argued by the appellant were actually obtained (speedy identifier calculation and fast comparison).

Also, the Board did not buy the argument related to only one set identifier comparison to be eventually made instead of many individual comparisons. On this topic, the Board not only noted that a database programmer would tend to send one composite query rather than a series of individual queries, but the Board also considered again that the alleged effect was not credible since no details about the comparison were provided in claim 1.

As a conclusion, the algorithm did not seek to overcome a limitation of a computer, but was imposed from the outside for the non-technical purpose of providing a set identifier.

Whether we agree with this reasoning or not, the part of the decision most interesting to me lies elsewhere, where the Board considered:

10. This is not a case in which a clearly non-technical method, consisting of non-technical steps, is performed by a computer, essentially by telling it to carry out the steps involved. Such cases normally fail under the approach in T 0641/00, Two identities/COMVIK, OJ 2003, 352, which, by placing the steps in the statement of the objective technical problem, in essence ensures they do not contribute to inventive step. With such a method, the novelty and obviousness of the steps themselves need not be assessed and the salient question for inventive step is often only whether the implementation of the steps using a computer would have been obvious. In most cases, it would have been.

11. This contrasts with the present invention, in which, although the steps are per se non-technical, a technical contribution cannot be immediately ruled out. The need to investigate the obviousness of these steps depends on such a contribution. The aim of the invention is a non-technical one: identify objects and sets of objects, and keep track of them. The present invention, however, starts from an existing technical method of identifying objects. It seeks to overcome shortcomings in that technical method, and raises rather more problems than the cases referred to above. Are the shortcomings themselves technical? Are technical means used to overcome them? In short: what is the technical effect on the prior art system?

12. That is a matter that requires care. On one side, the technology of the starting point, or its shortcomings, should not be trivialised. On another, circumventing a problem, rather than solving it, is no basis for an allowable claim.

As we can see, the Board introduced a distinction here between SAP’s invention and others which consist in performing a clearly non-technical method, consisting of non-technical steps, by a computer.

The Board considered that, in the shipment integrity check case, care should be taken before ruling out the technical contribution of a step apparently non-technical. The Board suggested performing a thorough analysis of effects alleged to be provided by the invention in view of the prior art, and then only searching for those effects which are technical and credibly achieved.

This decision therefore stresses that, when a computer-implemented invention does not relate to performing a clearly non-technical method by a computer, it is of the utmost importance to assess its patentability within the scope of inventive step, such that the prior art can be discussed. The Board thus reminded us that the approach developed by EPO case law is not merely cosmetic.

Now, once again, the ground provided to INPI examiners to refuse computer-implemented inventions is the manifest exclusion from the scope of patentability.

We know that although the INPI can refuse an application on the ground of a manifest lack of novelty, the lack of novelty has to be really blatant for the INPI to refuse the application. We also know that the INPI cannot refuse an application on the ground of a lack of inventive step. As mentioned in the Sesame post, when there is room for discussion on patentability the legislator probably wanted said discussion to occur within a trial rather than during examination.

I believe that this principle should fully apply to computer-implemented inventions: when there is room for discussion on the presence or not of a technical contribution, said discussion should not occur at the examination stage. In other words, there should be situations where the INPI admits that exclusion from the scope of patentability is not manifest.

Decision T1992/10 not only provides a reason why but also a criterion that the INPI could apply: is the computer-implemented method merely a clearly non-technical method implemented by a computer?

Thank you Aujain. Who knows, maybe we will get some clarification in the next version of the French guidelines for examination? Those may still have a long way to go before they can match the completeness and reliability of the EPO guidelines.

CASE REFERENCE: T1992/10, Board 3.5.01, September 8, 2016, Set Identifiers / SAP.

French courts get IT

Some patent attorneys are more passionate about IT than others. See, when I read this acronym, the first thing that comes to my mind tends to be Stephen King’s classic goosebumps-giving novel. My partner Aujain Eghbali, on the other hand, immediately thinks of databases, networks and the like.

This is why I am particularly delighted that he has taken it upon himself to update us on the increasing alignment of French courts on EPO case law regarding computer-implemented inventions.

Here is to him.

Although the provisions of article 52 EPC regarding the ineligibility to patent protection of computer programs as such are repeated word-for-word in article L.611-10 of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle, French practitioners like to remind applicants that French courts are not bound by EPO case law.

Such precaution used to be particularly appropriate in the field of computer-implemented inventions, as only very little national case law was available until recently.

The situation has however started to become clearer since a few decisions commented on this blog were issued (see here, here and there). I have notably written on this blog based on my understanding of the Sesame decision that, when the EPO does not grant patents for software for implementing business or administrative methods, applicants probably do not have much more to expect from French courts.

A recent decision Xaga Network v. Ewalia of November 18, 2016, by the Paris Tribunal de grande instance seems to extend this principle to other types of computer-implemented methods.

In this decision, French patent No. FR 2948788 (corresponding to EP App. No. EP 2460112 and to US App. No. US 2012/311525) owned by Xaga Network was revoked. The patent was directed to a system allowing users to easily customize generic applications without any coding, such that the users need not be skilled programmers.

Claim 1 of the patent read:

An application management system, characterized in that it comprises at least one dataspace adapted to be associated to an application, said dataspace comprising:

– at least one organizational entity able to be linked in at least one other dataspace and comprising a plurality of first components;

– at least one operational entity comprising a plurality of second components;

the first and second components being able to be activated/deactivated by parameterization within said dataspace according to the managed application.

The owner stated that the claimed system enabled the development of preconfigured applications adaptable and customizable by a simple activation-deactivation of the modules, without any new coding. The patent addressed a technical problem, namely, how to select the components that will be used in an entity for an application. The patent further solved this problem by a component activation/deactivation system within a dataspace. The proposed technical solution thereby made it possible for the user not to necessarily have technical knowledge to implement the invention.

Obviously, the nullity claimant did their homework and duly noted that the EPO had refused the corresponding application, although claim 1 was very extensively amended during examination at the EPO to eventually recite:

A system for managing applications (APP), characterized in that it comprises:

– a web server (SRVW) including: 

– objects comprising one or more predefined and pre-assembled components (Cp), said objects forming:

– a generic model of Organization (MGO) composed of logical organizational entities (ST) forming sets of identified physical persons, said logical organizational entities (ST) being possibly configured to be linked together;

– a generic management model (MGG) composed of logical operational entities (EO), an operational entity comprising at least one task which can be implemented by at least one person, said logical operational entities being possibly configured to be linked together;

– a generic pilot model (MGP) consisting of data analysis tools (OA) so as to monitor, owing to a set of indicators, actions performed on at least one operational entity (EO);

– a generic model (MGS) of screens and kinematics (SCR) for a user interface (Ul), said kinematics corresponding to a sequence of screens;

– a set of tables and files (G_TAB) characterizing the possibilities of activation and personalization of the objects and characterizing the processes, flows and rules associated with the objects;

– identification tools (ID_T) of the possible activations of objects linked to an initial activation of an object;

– management tools (MG_T) allowing the construction of logical networks comprising data spaces, and preassembled links that can be activated and customized, each data space being composed of all the objects,

– a connector object (ML) searching for tables and files corresponding to the activation and personalization of components of the object and object data to be displayed in the areas of the corresponding screen;

a data server (SRVD) including a predefined single physical database (DB1) comprising the data corresponding to said objects.

A figure as scary as a lengthy claim to an application management system.

The EPO examining division construed the application as relating to an abstract model comprised in a Web server, consisting in a collection of generic objects and data, and meant to facilitate the programming of applications by unskilled users.

The EPO considered that such a purpose was not of a technical nature and referred to the old decision T 0204/93 which had previously held that “generating concrete software programs from supplied generic specifications, i.e, reusable software modules, involving computer programs as such, and a computer implementation of mental acts, does not make a contribution in a field outside the range of excluded matters”. This decision has been constantly followed by the EPO boards of appeal.

Examiners are used to overkilling applications when they refuse them.

Accordingly, the examining division further added that claim 1 in any case did not clearly provide a solution to the problem of facilitating the management of applications, the claimed model being too vague for that. The division probably wanted to remind the applicant, before they considered filing an appeal (which they did not), of the particularly high bar regarding clarity when it comes to computer-implemented inventions.

The question of whether both the problem and its solution are technical is critical here. Thus, the EPO is particularly strict on the requirement that all “ingredients” for solving the alleged problem should be present in the claim, so that the problem is effectively solved on the whole claimed range. While practitioners used to chemistry or biotechnology inventions are familiar with this approach, European patent attorneys know that the EPO is sometimes more lenient in other technological fields, such as mechanical engineering.

Interestingly, the French court followed both lines of reasoning, holding first that the claim related to software as such and that the programming activity field did not constitute a patentable technical activity, and second that claim 1 described “an abstract scheme which does not offer any technical solution to the application management facilitation problem it pretends to solve since it is not made explicit how the proposed management system effectively helps the user”.

Like in the Sesame decision, I must say that I am quite impressed by the capacity of French legal judges to level up to EPO case law’s subtleties in the area of software patentability, which is not known as the most limpid literature even to technical practitioners such as European patent attorneys.

These recent developments teach us that French courts are probably taking the path of European legal harmonization in the field of software patentability by integrating principles well-established at the EPO in that area. This increase in legal certainty will surely be appreciated by most applicants, especially by those who understood early on that a patent granted by the INPI (French patent office) for a computer-implemented invention meant so little that they played the game of filing directly at the EPO.

But this leaves open the question already asked at the end of the Sesame post: how will the INPI deal with an application blatantly not providing any technical solution to a technical problem, from now on?

As a final word, Aujain also wanted to draw our readers’ attention to the U.S. counterpart of the patent at stake. He says the applicant also had a very hard time at the USPTO, as the claims were deemed not to relate to statutory subject-matter, but were also held to lack the equivalent of clarity in Europe. And yet, this happened pre-Alice.

So, this may be a sign of a growing harmonization also across the Atlantic.

CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 2ème section, November 18, 2016, Xaga Network SAS et al. v. Ewalia et al., RG No.2013/11351.

Red card for Orange

In a previous post, I gave an example of a French patent which was revoked because it was considered as not relating to an invention but to a mere discovery.

Still on the subject of patent eligibility, the same section of the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance (TGI), chaired by the same presiding judge, Ms. Courboulay, confirmed their relatively harsh stance on this topic, this time in relation with a computer-implemented invention. The judgment was already reported on the Blog du droit européen des brevets but since it is really remarkable I thought it would be worth mentioning it here as well, just in case some readers missed it.

The telecommunications giant Orange brought an infringement action against its competitor Free, based on European patent No. EP 2044797. Unsurprisingly, Free filed a revocation counterclaim, and, as the title of this post suggests, Orange lost the case. Indeed, the court revoked all of the patent claims which were asserted by Orange.

Some of these claims were held invalid due to lack of novelty, but this is not the part of the decision which I would like to discuss. I would like to focus on claims 12, 13, 14 and 15.

Claim 12 read as follows:

Computer program product downloadable from a communication network and/or stored on a computer-readable medium and/or executable by a microprocessor of a mobile terminal (2) including means for detecting the radio field (160) of a base station (16) of a home local area network (150), said home local area network including one or more home equipments (11-14) connected to a home gateway (15), said mobile terminal (2) including means for exchanging data with said gateway via a radio link with the base station (16), characterized in that it includes program code instructions for sending to said home gateway (15), in response to detection of the radio field (160), information relating to the establishment of a multimedia session in progress between said mobile terminal (2) and an applicative system (20), and in that it further includes program code instructions for displaying a list of home equipments sent by the home gateway (15) and means for selecting at least one home equipment (11; 12; 13; 14) in said list.

The court was apparently not very happy with how this claim was drafted. They stated:

Article 52 EPC is perfectly clear and does not require any interpretation: programs for computers as such are excluded from patentability, and this is because they are protected by copyright.  

The emphasis on “as such” was put by the court, and the way I understand it, the expression was interpreted as meaning that programs for computers are “inherently” or “absolutely” excluded from patentability.

But, wait a minute, isn’t this understanding completely at odds with the position taken by the Boards of appeal of the EPO? After all, the Enlarged Board of Appeal, in its opinion G 3/08 on computer programs, stated that:

The present position of the case law is thus that […] a claim in the area of computer programs can avoid exclusion under Articles 52(2)(c) and (3) EPC merely by explicitly mentioning the use of a computer or a computer-readable storage medium (reasons, 10.13).

In other terms, according to the case law that the Enlarged Board endorsed, the wording “as such” in Article 52 means quite the opposite to what the TGI believes, i.e. it means that only pure computer programs can possibly be excluded from patentability, but any mention of a technical feature such as a computer or a storage medium is sufficient to escape exclusion from patentability. To make this easier to understand, the Enlarged Board made a comparison between computer programs and pictures (also excluded from patentability as such), which can be printed on a (patentable) physical support:

a claim to a computer implemented method or a computer program on a computer-readable storage medium will never fall within the exclusion of claimed subject-matter under Articles 52(2) and (3) EPC, just as a claim to a picture on a cup will also never fall under this exclusion.

The TGI was evidently well aware of the EPO case law on the issue but was unimpressed:

It cannot be validly argued, as the sole defense to deny nullity of these two claims, that the practice of the EPO is to admit claims to programs for computers by calling them ‘program-products’.

In fact, it cannot be accepted that a mere trick of language would make it possible to grant patents contra legem. Indeed, the grant of patents to computer programs, even if they are called program products, is not supported by any statute or by any difficulty of interpretation of the EPC, and on the contrary those are clearly excluded as such from patentability.

Claims 13 and 14 contained the same wording of “computer program product” as claim 12 and they were therefore smashed for the same reason.

As for claim 15, it was directed to a “storage medium storing the program according to any one of claims 12 to 14”, but the court found that this does not make any difference:

In this case, and in view of the way claim 15 of the EP’797 patent is drafted, it appears that the storage medium does not have any particular technical feature. It is again a dressing which does not make it possible to escape the exclusion from patentability which concerns computer programs. There is in fact no more information on this storage medium in the description of the patent, and Orange has obtained a protection and the consequent monopoly on an object the only function of which is to contain computer programs which are excluded from patentability.

Claim 15 was therefore canceled as well.

A storage medium suitable for storing non-inventions.

Scathing comments in a ruling often add some spice to it, and Ms. Courboulay did not skimp on those. In this respect, her statement on the EPO’s contra legem practice of granting patents to computer program products is nothing short of astonishing. I will leave it up to the readership to decide for themselves whether the red card mentioned in the title of this post should in fact be shown to her court rather than to the claimant.

But beyond this parfum de scandale, applicants should keep in mind that, at least according to latest case law, claims directed to computer programs seem to be simply outlawed in France. Therefore, they should definitely include method claims in their French or European applications if they want the novelty and inventive step of their inventions to be assessed at all.

In view of the very firm stance taken by the court in Orange, I would not bet on any argumentation advocating the technical character of computer program inventions in front of the TGI.

As to the significant discrepancy between French case law and EPO practice, there are other striking examples (not just in the software field), and I will probably come back to this issue in future posts.

CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, 3ème chambre, 1ère section, SA Orange v. SAS Free & SAS Freebox, June 18, 2015, RG No. 14/05735.