Software inventions: The BGH confirms examination approach
By its judgment in X ZR 121/09 (Webseitenanzeige), the German Federal Court of Justice (BGH) recently nullified one of Siemens AG’s German patents (English-language version) for lacking technical character. The judgment can be said to belong to the same lineage as Xa ZB 20/08 (Dynamische Dokumentengenerierung), which was reported in AWA IP Review 2/2010, and X ZB 22/07 (Steurungseinrichtung für Untersuchungsmodalitäten), on which Xa ZB 20/08 relied heavily.
This new judgment once more demonstrates the German two-step approach to determining whether an invention has technical character. The two-step approach is in contrast to current practice under the EPC, which regards technical character as a monolithic – and usually rather easy – requirement to satisfy. The new judgment (see point 15) stresses that the invention both
(i) should possess technicality (“Technizität”, referring to the wording of § 1(1) PatG, “Erfindungen auf allen Gebieten der Technik”), and
(ii) has to provide instructions for solving a concrete technical problem.
An invention failing condition (ii) will not escape the exception in § 1(3), point 3 PatG (“Pläne, Regeln und Verfahren für gedankliche Tätigkeiten, für Spiele oder für geschäftliche Tätigkeiten sowie Programme für Datenverarbeitungsanlagen”).
It is intriguing to note that these provisions, which proved fatal to the patent-in-suit, are word by word identical to Art. 52(1) and Art. 52(2)(c) EPC. What makes such differing interpretations possible – and what their impact may be – is discussed in more detail in the article in AWA IP Review 2/2010.
Siemens’ patent was about a method for organizing browsing history. This is a computer-implemented invention fulfilling the “Technizität” requirement (see point 16) but does not, in the Court’s view, go beyond the normal interactions between hardware and software in a computer to such an extent that it fulfils condition (ii) (see points 22–27). Indirect advantages – e.g., that a server executing the claimed method can allow computers with simpler hardware to connect (point 25) or that the total load on the Internet may decrease a trifle (point 30) – are not accepted as evidence of a concrete technical problem being solved. Indeed, they relate to devices outside the claimed subject-matter and do not form part of its results from an objective point of view.
Between the lines, the BGH points out the weaknesses that made the Court pass this judgment. Apparently, the application leaves the skilled person with little more than conceptual ideas for carrying out the claimed steps (point 27). Also, the method relies on user data being entered by the user him- or herself and not on measured – hence potentially technical – environment variables (point 28).
Considering, as we do, someone else’s patent in retrospect, these points can certainly be seen as “room for improvement”. Done right, they would have offered fallback positions that might have saved the patent. These points also reminds us that Siemens’ application was drafted in 2001, in the days before a stable European software practice had emerged. Today, I believe few patent attorneys in this field would feel comfortable filing an application that discloses the invention only on a conceptual level.
Since the European application EP02006122 in the family is still pending, the judgment offers an interesting opportunity to compare European practice with the patenting standards of Europe’s largest economy. While the BGH judgment makes explicit reference to the German law, the EPO may reach a similar conclusion, be it by other arguments.
Anders Hansson, Patent Attorney, Awapatent