T 1990/07 (Online coupons / CATALINA) of 13.6.2012

European Case Law Identifier: ECLI:EP:BA:2012:T199007.20120613
Date of decision: 13 June 2012
Case number: T 1990/07
Application number: 99952952.2
IPC class: G06F 17/60
G06F 1/00
Language of proceedings: EN
Distribution: D
Download and more information:
Decision text in EN (PDF, 33.385K)
Documentation of the appeal procedure can be found in the Register
Bibliographic information is available in: EN
Versions: Unpublished
Title of application: Method of and system for distributing and redeeming electronic coupons
Applicant name: Catalina Marketing Corporation
Opponent name: -
Board: 3.5.01
Headnote: -
Relevant legal provisions:
Rules of procedure of the Boards of Appeal Art 12(2)
Rules of procedure of the Boards of Appeal Art 12(4)
Rules of procedure of the Boards of Appeal Art 13(1)
Rules of procedure of the Boards of Appeal Art 13(3)
European Patent Convention 1973 Art 54(1)
European Patent Convention 1973 Art 54(2)
Keywords: Novelty - no
Late-filed auxiliary request - not admitted
Catchwords:

-

Cited decisions:
-
Citing decisions:
T 0065/11
T 1354/11

Summary of Facts and Submissions

I. This appeal is against the decision of the examining division to refuse European patent application No. 99952952.2, entitled "Method of and system for distributing and redeeming electronic coupons", filed as international application PCT/US99/22169 and published as

A1: WO-A1-00/19348.

The refusal was based on the ground of obviousness (Article 56 EPC 1973) as the application was considered to relate to a business process, the automation of which relied on well-known technical means. Obiter, the decision under appeal cited prior art relating to the transfer of information in computer networks,

D1: WO-A-98/19224.

Claim 3 of the main request was rejected due to added matter (Article 123(2) EPC 1973) arising from rearranged claim dependencies.

II. In the statement setting out the grounds of appeal, the appellant requested that the decision under appeal be set aside and maintained the four requests (main request, auxiliary requests 1 to 3) rejected by the examining division. Oral proceedings were requested on an auxiliary basis.

(a) Claim 1 according to the main request (18.04.2005) and auxiliary request 1 (05.04.2007) reads:

"1. A system (100) for distributing and redeeming electronic coupons (304), comprising:

a first server system (120) including a computer processor and associated memory, said first server system (120) being connected by a communications channel(160) to a client system (110), said first server system (120) including means for providing an electronic token to said client system (110);

said client system (110) including a computer processor and associated memory, said client system (110) being adapted for receiving and storing said electronic token in said memory;

characterised by said first server system (120) including means for associating an electronic coupon (304) with said client system (110) and for providing an electronic token to said client system (110) without regard to predetermined client criteria, said token having a data structure associating said client system (110) with said electronic coupon, and in that the system (100) further includes retrieval means (120; 130; 314) for establishing a connection with said client system (110), for detecting and retrieving said electronic token stored on said client system (110), and for redeeming said electronic coupon (304)."

(b) Auxiliary requests 2 and 3 (05.04.2007) append the following paragraph to claim 1:

", the retrieval means (130; 314) includes a second server system (130) connected to said communications channel (160), and in that the system further comprises a third server system (140; 150) connected to said communications channel (160), said third server system (140; 150) including means for communicating with said second server system (130) and for identifying and authorizing the redemption of said electronic coupon (304)."

III. According to the statement of grounds of appeal, the invention addressed problems encountered with particular types of interaction over the Internet. Previously, there had been no effective way to distribute and redeem coupons online. The extent of common general knowledge had not been proven by the examining division. In view of considerable design freedom for the skilled person, it could not be said without hindsight that the skilled person could and would arrive at the solution claimed. The early priority year (1998) of the application had to be respected.

IV. The Board summoned to oral proceedings and expressed its preliminary opinion that the digital coupon scheme described in D1 seemed to anticipate the system according to claim 1 of the main request and auxiliary requests 1 to 3.

The Board added that the application dealt with a business method which required a number of technical partial problems to be solved at the implementation level. However, the solutions to those problems appeared to rely on common technical knowledge as exemplified by D1 and acknowledged by the present application (A1, page 1, lines 10 to 21: providing a cookie to a client is "common practice").

V. By a fax received on 8 June 2012, the appellant filed arguments in favour of novelty (main request, auxiliary request 1) and inventive step (auxiliary requests 2 and 3).

(a) According to the appellant, D1 does not disclose a server system that includes retrieval means for retrieving an electronic token stored on a client system. The offer-providing server of D1 receives an acceptance of an offer rather than an electronic token stored at the client (D1, Figure 4B, step 130). A program (D1, Figure 4A, step 118: smart digital offer object) is transferred to the client and accesses the coupon at the client and generates an offer (based on the coupon) at the client (D1, page 12, line 20 to page 14, line 3). Thus, in D1 it is the client rather than the server that retrieves the coupon data. The program executing at the client does not communicate the coupon to a server.

(b) Unlike D1, the present application described a technical problem with cookies: "some web browsers [...] limit a website to depositing and retrieving Cookies only for itself" (A1, page 9, lines 19 to 21). One server might be technically unable to retrieve a cookie written to a client by another server. The present application described a technical solution to this technical problem, which included "retrieval means (120; 130; 314) for establishing a connection with said client system (110), for detecting and retrieving said electronic token stored on said client system (110)."

As D1 was silent with respect to different servers retrieving the coupon, claim 1 of auxiliary requests 2 and 3 did not lack an inventive step over D1.

VI. The fax of 8 June 2012 includes an amended version of claim 1 as a fourth auxiliary request.

(a) Claim 1 according to auxiliary request 4 reads:

"1. A system (100) for distributing and redeeming electronic coupons (304), comprising:

a first server system (120) including a computer processor and associated memory, said first server system (120) being connected by a communications channel (160) to a client system (110), said first server system (120) including means for providing a cookie to said client system (110);

characterised by said first server system (120) including means for associating an electronic coupon (304) with said client system (110) and for providing a cookie to said client system (110), said token [sic] having a data structure associating said client system (110) with said electronic coupon, and in that the system (100) further includes means for distributing a frame-generating script (254) to a plurality of websites, wherein the frame-generating script generates a frame to be spawned at each of the plurality of websites and the frame deposits a cookie on the client system and reads the cookie stored at the client system from any one of the plurality of websites."

(b) The amended claim 1 addresses the technical problem that a server may be unable to retrieve a cookie written to a client computer by another server. The solution --- a frame-generating script is distributed to a plurality of websites and the frame deposits a cookie on the client system and reads that cookie from any one of the plurality of websites --- is said to be based on the description (A1, page 9, lines 17 to 29; page 10, lines 21 to 28).

VII. Oral proceedings before the Board took place as scheduled (13 June 2012) and covered in particular the construction of claim 1 (main request, auxiliary requests 1 to 3) and its comparison with the prior art according to D1.

Regarding auxiliary request 4, the professional representative explained that its late submission was due to a recent change in the appellant's US representatives (instructing attorneys). In addition, clarifications and changes in terminology appeared necessary to highlight technical aspects of the invention in response to the Board's preliminary opinion annexed to the summons.

Reasons for the decision

1. The application

The application aims at an effective way to distribute and redeem coupons online in a network environment (A1, page 2, lines 1 to 8), and proposes to transfer an electronic token (e.g. in the form of a "cookie") from a server system to a client system. The token may constitute the coupon, i.e. it may include all the data necessary for processing the coupon (page 2, lines 28 to 30; page 6, paragraph 2), or the token is only a pointer to the actual coupon data stored on a server system (page 3, lines 10 to 14; page 7, lines 9 to 15; original claims 31/32). The handling of the token and coupon (generation, storage, detection, authentication, authorisation, redemption, accounting) may be distributed over several servers (see e.g. page 2, line 24 to page 3, line 9).

Main Request and First Auxiliary Request

2. Construction of claim 1

2.1 The Board interprets the first characterising feature "said first server system (120) including means for associating an electronic coupon (304) with said client system (110)" broadly. For example, the fact that a coupon is sent to the client system entails an associating step as the server must address the coupon to the client system. Any association of a coupon with a client is covered by the claim wording; whenever a component of the system knows that a coupon is related to a specific client, the coupon and the client have been associated with each other.

The description of the application supports such a broad understanding: according to the Summary of the Invention, the server merely "transfers" coupons to the client system and the client system stores the coupon (A1, page 2, lines 15/16 and 28/29; page 3, lines 10 to 12; etc). See also original claim 1 ("transmitting").

The specific embodiment of Figure 3 (to which claim 1 is not restricted) mentions that a first server (advertising website 120) may store coupon information "associated with the Client (110)" into the database of another server (clearinghouse 150). Again, this wording covers any manner in which the overall system establishes a relationship between a coupon and a client.

2.2 The second characterising feature, "providing an electronic token to said client system (110) without regard to predetermined client criteria" generally means that the claimed system does not comprise means for filtering clients when tokens are transferred to client systems. In other words, any client is allowed to request and receive a token. No other explanation is provided by any part of the description.

2.3 The third characterising feature, "said token having a data structure associating said client system (110) with said electronic coupon", can be embodied by any pointer which is stored on the client system and points to a storage location of the actual coupon data (e.g. to a server).

3. Closest prior art according to Article 54(2) EPC 1973

3.1 D1 is entitled "Controlled transfer of information in computer networks" and discloses a first server system (Figure 3: coupon-providing server 102) which sends a digital, i.e. electronic, coupon to the client computer 100 (see also Figures 4A/4B; page 12, from line 6 onwards), i.e. the first server (102) associates the coupon with the client system in a general manner by addressing it to the client system.

The coupon may be a digitally signed set of inputs sent from the first server (102) to a program residing at the client computer (page 12, lines 28 to 30). This is an additional, specific way of associating the coupon with the (resident program of the) client system.

3.2 The coupon may simply contain a coded number that can be understood by a program (smart digital offer object) which the client computer may activate at the client computer or at a second server (offer-providing server 106) (page 12, lines 33 to 35; page 14, lines 3 to 12; Figure 4A, steps 120/122/126; claim 29).

3.3 The smart digital offer object (program) examines the "coupon and other user-specific information" and presents an offer to the user based on the coupon and other information (Figure 4A, step 126), resulting in a redemption of the coupon by the user accepting a granted discount (page 12, lines 30 to 32; Figure 4B).

3.4 The embodiment of D1 which activates the smart digital offer object (program) at the second (offer-providing) server includes server means for retrieving the coupon from the client system, see D1, page 14 (lines 3 to 12): "to observe the parameters of the execution environment at the client machine, including the presence of coupons".

3.5 Where the coupon consists of a coded number, it implicitly acts as a pointer (token) to the full coupon information. Otherwise, the smart digital offer object activated at the offer-providing server (106) would not be able to examine the coupon.

At the same time, the offer-providing server (106) knows that the coupon (or pointer or token) under examination originates from the client system which activated the smart digital offer object (Figure 4A, steps 120, 126). Thus, the coupon structure as a whole is associated with the client system (100).

3.6 The token is provided to the client system "without regard to predetermined client criteria". There is no filtering of clients who are allowed or disallowed to request electronic coupons; none of the restrictions mentioned at page 12 (lines 30 to 32) relates to clients.

3.7 Basic technical components (computer processor and associated memory) are implied in the client and server systems of D1.

4. Article 54(1) EPC 1973 - Lack of novelty

Therefore, the Board judges that all the features of claim 1 (main request, auxiliary request 1) are present in D1.

Consequently, the system according to claim 1 lacks novelty (Article 54(1) EPC 1973).

Auxiliary Requests 2 and 3

5. Article 54(1) EPC 1973 - Lack of novelty

5.1 Claim 1 according to auxiliary requests 2 and 3 adds that "a third server system" communicates with "a second server system" over a communications channel for identifying and authorising the redemption of the electronic coupon.

5.2 D1, Figure 4B (steps 130/132) refers to a third server (intermediary server, see also Figure 3, reference numeral 111) in addition to the coupon-providing server 102 and the offer-providing server 106. As a coupon represents financial value, it needs to be protected from fraud and the redemption of coupons resumes security features of conventional online payment schemes. A conventional security measure is the use of a trusted intermediary server as set out by D1 (page 6, lines 31 to 33: "notification server 16 that acts as a trusted intermediary"; page 15, lines 6 to 25).

The communications channel used by the three servers may be embodied by the world wide web (D1, e.g. page 2, paragraph 2).

5.3 Therefore, the Board judges that also claim 1 according to auxiliary requests 2 and 3 contains no novel feature over D1.

Admissibility of Auxiliary Request 4

6. Claim 1 according to auxiliary request 4 was filed three working days before the oral proceedings appointed by the Board of Appeal.

However, under the provision of Article 12(2) RPBA the statement setting out the grounds of appeal shall contain a party's complete case.

According to Articles 12(4) and 13(1)(3) RPBA, the Board has a discretion to disregard requests, facts and evidence filed after the statement setting out the grounds of appeal has been filed.

The discretion shall be exercised in view of inter alia the complexity of the amended subject-matter, the current state of the proceedings and the need for procedural economy (Article 13(1) RPBA).

7. As far as procedural economy is concerned, an amendment at a late stage in the proceedings is justifiable if it is an appropriate and immediate reaction to unforeseeable developments in the previous proceedings which do not lie in the responsibility of the party submitting the amendment.

In the present case, the Board's annex to the summons stated that an inventive step required a technical solution rather than a commercial innovation. However, an objection on that basis had been raised by the examining division and was the substantive ground for refusal (decision under appeal, points II.2 to II.4).

The issue was therefore not surprising to the appellant and it could have filed auxiliary request 4 even during the first-instance proceedings. Nevertheless, the appeal refrained from introducing the subject-matter which auxiliary request 4 now highlights as a technical solution to a technical problem.

Also the change of representatives does not constitute an unforeseeable development lying outside the sphere of responsibility of the appellant. On the contrary, it was an internal decision of the appellant (cf. Case Law of the Boards of Appeal of the EPO, 6th edition 2010, section VII.C. 1.5.3, for jurisprudence on this point).

Therefore, the Board holds that there was no procedural justification for filing this request at so late a stage of the proceedings.

8. As far as the complexity of the new subject-matter is concerned, according to the established jurisprudence of the boards of appeal, amendments submitted at, or a few days before, oral proceedings should only be admitted if they are clearly allowable (cf. Case Law of the Boards of Appeal of the EPO, 6th edition 2010, VII.E. 16.1.1 and 16.4.1).

Claim 1 entails considerable amendments including deletions of features (with respect to the main request) and insertions of features based exclusively on the description (A1, page 9, line 17 to page 11, line 5).

As the claim resumes only part of the features of the main request and is shifted to a different group of features (cookie generation rather than server structure), the Board considers the claimed system as diverging subject-matter (claim hopping) which in general should not be admitted into second-instance proceedings, in particular at its final stage.

Furthermore, the amendments are based on features from the description which may not have been searched.

Moreover, the deletion of features in claim 1 creates inter alia a clarity problem or a lack of support by the description (Article 84 EPC 1973): the redeeming step has been deleted (from the end of claim 1 of the main request) although the application and all previous versions of claim 1 relate to a "system for distributing and redeeming electronic coupons".

Thus, the claims of auxiliary request 4 are not clearly allowable. The Board is not in a position to come to a substantive conclusion on the request without extending the procedure by a considerable amount of time, which would be detrimental to procedural economy and legal certainty. No procedural circumstances would justify such a conduct of the proceedings.

9. After having taken all these circumstances into account in exercising the discretion given to it in Articles 12(2)(4) and 13(1) RPBA, the Board did not admit the late-filed auxiliary request 4 into the proceedings.

ORDER

For these reasons, it is decided that:

The appeal is dismissed.

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