17 January 2011

Patent Protection of Graphical User Interfaces in Europe

On the occasion of the recent ECJ judgement (C-393/09) on copyright protection of GUIs (see earlier posting), I want to briefly review the relevant case law of the Boards of Appeal of the EPO regarding patent protection of graphical user interfaces, which has to be considered against the background of Art. 52 (2), (3) EPC, requiring that "programs for computers" and "presentation of information" as such shall not be regarded as patentable inventions.

Below please find a short survey covering the most relevant decisions I got aware of during my search in the EPO's decision database, the "Case law of the boards of appeal (6th edition, 2010)" and this recommendable book of four EPO patent examiners (see book reviews here and here).

Business Information System: One of the most recent cases involving GUI's appears to be T 528/07, decided on 27 April 2010, which has also been discussed in an earlier posting on this blog.

Refused claim 1 relates to a computer system (a so called "business-to-business relationship portal")  comprising a computer network with a server and a plurality of clients. The server can create a graphical user interface on a display of a client, including links to application programs and info boxes ("channels") for displaying aggregated data from the application programs, in order to facilitate the exchange of information between business parties by presenting "business opportunity information" to permitted users, e.g. company background information or financial information. Claim 1 thus basically relates to displaying of (business-related) information via a server-controlled GUI on a client computer.

As required according the established Comvik approach for examining inventive step of mixed-type claims, Appeal Board 3.5.01 under Chairman Wibergh had to assess whether this feature is of technical nature and thus may contribute to inventive step (cf. T 641/00). The Board found in T 833/91 that visual indications via the GUI must concern technical conditions of the system in order to relate to a technical problem (T 833/91). Consequently, the GUI-related features of the claims were to be regarded as non-technical and thus could not contribute to inventive step. In the end, the Board could no see any feature making a inventive technical contribution to the prior art. (cf. T 528/07, items 5.1 to 5.6). 

Three-Dimensional Icons: The patent application in T 1749/06, decided on 24 February 2010, relates to representing low-resolution display icons having a 3D appearance on mobile phone displays by using alternating dark and white stripes to suggest the presence of highlights and shadows.

Appeal Board 3.4.03 under Chairman Eliasson held that presentation of information arises when "what is displayed" is claimed without specifying "how it is displayed". In other words, a presentation of information defined solely by the content of the information is not patentable, while the claimed invention relates to the manner of representation of the icon, as distinct from the information content, and thus may well constitute a patentable technical feature. The Board thus found that the claimed invention does not fall under the category of presentation of information within the meaning of Art. 52 (2)d EPC.

Setting Processing Conditions: T 1188/04, decided on 5 March 2008, relates to a GUI allowing processing conditions to be set by drag and drop. In such a GUI the mouse pointer is used not only to drag and drop a first icon (representing a document) onto a second icon (triggering some document processing) but also to change conditions of the document processing (e.g. print parameters) by operating the document in a predetermined manner when the first icon has been dragged to the second icon. A plurality of processing conditions (e.g. print parameters) can be set by the manner in which the first icon is manipulated over the second icon.

Appeal Board 3.5.01 under Chairman Steinbrener was convinced that the use of a computer mouse and a graphical pointer to directly control the operation of a standard computer constitutes technical subject-matter. In particular, the operation of the claimed man-machine interface is defined in terms of functional features rather than cognitive or aesthetical content.

Interactive Video Game: In T 928/03, decided on 2 June 2006, independent claim 1 relates to an implementation of a GUI of an interactive video game, in which a user controls at least one player character displayed on a screen. While the usability of a conventional GUI is limited since a player character's guide mark might be concealed by a neighbouring player character, the invention enables that a concealed indicator is clearly visible on a display.

Appeal Board 3.5.01 under Chairman Steinbrener found that the claimed teaching does not exclusively address a human mental process but contributes an objective technical function of the display, so that the invention was found to represent a physical entity in particular comprising displaying means which have a technical character by their nature. 

Comparative Product Assessment: The patent application in T 125/04, decided on 10 May 2005, relates to comparative visual assessment of products, e.g. automobiles, by displaying relevant product aspects (e.g. expenses, quality) as a vector, whereas the horizontal length of the vector and the angle the vector forms with the horizontal indicate measures of importance of the product aspect.

Appeal Board 3.5.01 under Chairman Steinbrener argued that a computer system suitably programmed for use in a particular field is an invention within the meaning of Art. 52 (1) EPC (cf. point 5 of T 931/95), even though the claimed invention exclusively relates to processing of non-technical data and does neither affect the physical/technical functioning of a device nor solve a technical problem, but merely presents data as a vector diagram chart.

Upon assessing inventive step, however, the Board took the position that, the task of designing diagrams is non-technical [cf. T 244/00] even if the diagrams arguably convey information in way which a viewer may intuitively regard as particularly appealing, lucid or logical. The Board added that the specific manner of representation has been conceived exclusively with regard to a human being's mental capabilities but is not related to any technical format or structure of the information processed, nor is it linked to the internal functioning of the system.

Image Retrieval: The patent application in T 643/00, decided on 16 October 2003, relates to converting non-hierarchical image data into hierarchically encoded image data in order to make image searching easier to the user, who is enabled to navigate in an image hierarchy instead of combing the images one by one at high resolution. According to the invention, the images are arranged in a side-by-side manner at low resolution, while the hierarchical display is provided at higher resolution, enabling a comprehensive survey as well as a fast check for details are possible.

Appeal Board 3.5.01 under Chairman Steinbrener took the position that such an arrangement of images (or menu items) on a screen might contribute to technical considerations in order to enable the user to manage a technical task, such as searching and retrieving images stored in an image processing apparatus, in a more efficient or faster manner, even if an evaluation by the user on a mental level was involved. Although such evaluation per se did not fall within the meaning of "invention" pursuant to Art. 52 EPC 1973, the mere fact that mental activities were involved did not necessarily qualify subject-matter as non-technical, since any technical solutions in the end were intended to provide tools which served, assisted or replaced human activities of different kinds, including mental ones.

Internal Functioning of a Computer: The patent application in T 769/92, decided on 31 May 1994, relates to a general-purpose management system, comprising, inter alia, a display for displaying, in the form of an image on the screen, a single transfer slip having a commonly used format. The claimed invention enables inputting data for various types of managements which could be performed independently from each other using the single user interface provided in the form of the displayed unitary transfer slip. This has two essential effects, namely (i.) the operator input is facilitated in that always the same screen is displayed and (ii.) various files may be updated directly from stored transfer slips without involving the operator, thus avoiding multiple inputs of redundant data.

Appeal Board 3.5.01 under Chairman van den Berg held that the implementation of this "user interface" in the form of a "transfer slip" is not merely an act of programming but rather requires technical considerations to be carried out before the implementation and that the need for such technical considerations implies an technical problem to be solved and technical features solving this problem. 

Conclusion: As a general rule of thumb, an exclusion of a GUI-based invention from patentability based on Art. 52 (2), (3) EPC might be prevented by specifying in the claim either the manner in which the user can interact with (or rather controls) the computer via the GUI or, vice versa, the representation of internal technical information on the machine via the GUI to the user.