T 1367/08 (Restricting use of an application program / SYSMEX) of 27.6.2012

European Case Law Identifier: ECLI:EP:BA:2012:T136708.20120627
Date of decision: 27 June 2012
Case number: T 1367/08
Application number: 05021028.5
IPC class: G06F 1/00
Language of proceedings: EN
Distribution: D
Download and more information:
Decision text in EN (PDF, 39.188K)
Documentation of the appeal procedure can be found in the Register
Bibliographic information is available in: EN
Versions: Unpublished
Title of application: Method and system for restricting the use of an application program
Applicant name: SYSMEX CORPORATION
Opponent name: -
Board: 3.5.06
Headnote: -
Relevant legal provisions:
European Patent Convention Art 123(2)
European Patent Convention 1973 Art 56
Keywords: Inventive step (no - main, first, second and fourth auxiliary requests)
Added subject-matter (yes - third auxiliary request)
Catchwords:

-

Cited decisions:
-
Citing decisions:
-

Summary of Facts and Submissions

I. The appeal is directed against the decision of the examining division, posted on 18 February 2008, to refuse the application 05021028. The reason for the refusal was lack of inventive step over document:

D2 US 5 550 968 A, 27 August 1996.

II. A notice of appeal was received on 18 April 2008. The fee was received the same day. A statement of the grounds of appeal was received on 20 June 2008. Sets of claims for a main and two auxiliary requests were filed. Oral proceedings were conditionally requested.

III. The board issued a summons to oral proceedings, raising objections with respect to inventive step.

IV. In a letter dated 24 May 2012, the appellant filed a third and a fourth auxiliary request.

V. Oral proceedings were held on 27 June 2012. At their end, the chairman announced the board's decision.

VI. The appellant requests to set the decision aside and to grant a patent on the basis of a main request filed with the grounds (claims 1-17 as filed with the attachment, not as formulated on page 1 of the grounds, i.e. including the replacement of "client computer" by "user computer" in line 2), a first or second auxiliary request filed with the grounds (each request with claims 1-17), a third or a fourth auxiliary request filed with the letter dated 24 May 2012 (third request with claims 1-20; fourth request with claims 1-18). The further text on file is: the description page 1 as filed during oral proceedings on 1 February 2008, pages 2-31 as filed with letter dated 8 November 2007, and the drawing sheets 1-18 as originally filed.

VII. Claim 1 of the main request reads as follows:

"1. A method for restricting the use of functions of an application program installed on a user computer for being used for processing measurement results of a measuring apparatus, comprising the steps of:

receiving input of authentication information used to authenticate a user;

authenticating the user based on the received authentication information;

acquiring use authority information related to the authenticated user from a database that stores use authority information that indicates authority to use objects configuring the application program; and

setting use restrictions regarding the functions of the application program for the authenticated user based on the acquired use authority information comprising the steps of:

searching objects configuring the application program;

determining whether or not the user has use authority of the objects of the search result based on the use authority information; and

setting any object as non-usable when it has been determined that the user does not have use authority of the object."

VIII. Claim 1 of the first auxiliary request differs from claim 1 of the main request only in the "acquiring" step (additions in italics):

"acquiring use authority information related to the authenticated user from a database that stores user information that indicates the authenticated user and use authority information for the authenticated user that indicates authority to use objects configuring the application program, the objects processing measurement results of the measuring apparatus"

IX. Claim 1 of the second auxiliary request reads as follows (additions to the main request in italics):

"1. A method for restricting the use of functions of an application program installed on a user computer for being used for processing measurement results of a measuring apparatus, comprising the steps of:

receiving input of authentication information used to authenticate a user;

authenticating the user based on the received

authentication information;

once acquiring use authority information related to the authenticated user from a database that stores use authority information that indicates authority to use objects configuring the application program;

storing the acquired use authority information in a buffer; and

setting use restrictions regarding the functions of the application program for the authenticated user based on the acquired use authority information comprising the steps of:

searching objects configuring the application program;

determining whether or not the user has use authority of the objects of the search result based on the use authority information stored in the buffer; and

setting any object as non-usable when it has been determined that the user does not have use authority of the object."

X. Claim 1 of the third auxiliary request reads as follows (additions to the main request in italics):

"1. A method for changing user authority of a user for an application program installed on a user computer and used for processing measurement results of a measuring apparatus, comprising the steps of:

receiving, by the user computer, input of authentication information used to authenticate a user;

authenticating, by an authentication server, the user based on the received authentication information;

when a user authentication is successful, acquiring, by the user computer, use authority information related to the authenticated user from a database of the authentication server, the database storing use authority information that indicates authority to use controls configuring a screen displayed by the application program;

setting, by the user computer, use restrictions regarding the controls configuring the screen displayed by the application program for the authenticated user based on the acquired use authority information;

receiving, by the user computer, an instruction to change the use authority information stored in the database, when the authenticated user is allowed to use a control for changing the use authority information stored in the database;

sending the instruction from the user computer to the authentication server; and

changing, by the authentication server, the use authority information stored in the database according to the instruction received from the user computer."

XI. Claim 1 of the fourth auxiliary reads as follows: (additions to the main request in italics):

"1. A method for changing user group authority information for an application program installed on a user computer and used for processing measurement results of a measuring apparatus, comprising the steps of:

receiving, by the user computer, input of authentication information used to authenticate a user;

authenticating, by an authentication server, the user based on the received authentication information;

when a user authentication is successful, acquiring, by the user computer, use authority information related to the authenticated user from a database of the authentication server, the database storing use authority information that indicates authority to use controls configuring a screen displayed by the application program;

setting, by the user computer, use restrictions regarding the controls configuring the screen displayed by the application program for the authenticated user based on the acquired use authority information;

receiving, by the user computer, an instruction to change the user group authority information stored in the database, when the authenticated user is allowed to use a control for changing the user group authority information stored in the database;

sending the instruction from the user computer to the authentication server; and

changing, by the authentication server, the user group authority information stored in the database according to the instruction received from the user computer

wherein the step of setting the use restrictions comprises the steps of:

searching controls configuring the application program;

determining whether or not the user has use authority of the controls of the search result based on the use authority information; and

setting any control as non-usable when it has been determined that the user does not have use authority of the control."

Reasons for the Decision

1. Admission of the third and fourth auxiliary requests

One effect of the amendments incorporated in these requests is to clarify claim 1 by replacing the overly broad expression "object" by "control" (see the summons, section 4.1.4) and by adding to each step which computer executes the step (user computer or authentication server). Given this improved clarity and since the requests do not raise issues too complex for the board to handle in the oral proceedings, they are admitted into the procedure (Article 13(1) Rules of Procedure of the Boards of Appeal).

2. Original disclosure of the third auxiliary request

"A method for changing user authority of a user" (claim 1, line 1) is not originally disclosed. The description as originally filed only discloses storing and changing the "use authority" of a user group, and not of a single user, see page 32, lines 15-19, 25-27; figures 17, 18 with user group names; for the "authority" data to be changed in TBL3 of database DB2 see figure 9 with the control names (F33) and the user group fields (F34 to F311) and page 19, line 18 to page 20, line 6 (in particular page 19, line 25: "for storing the use authority of controls for each user group").

The appellant argued during the oral proceedings that a user group name "user1" (page 20, line 1; figure 9 (F310)) would imply that only one user named "user1" is in that group. The board agrees to the extent that independent of the fact whether the user group "user1" really comprises only one user, it is clear that a group can comprise only one member. However, even a one-member user group is a user group, and not a user. A user group has a different technical implementation than a user and has different technical capabilities; e.g. a one-member user group can be extended to two members, whereas a user cannot.

The appellant further argued that page 31, lines 5-8 disclosed "processes for ... changing the content of the database DB2 can be performed from the user authentication tab 71a". This implied the ability to change the "use authority" per user. However firstly, the board considers that the skilled person would understand a user "authentication tab" as serving for authentication purposes, and not for authorisation ones. Secondly, this tab is also three times called a "user information tab" (page 30, line 33; page 31, line 1; and figure 17 (71a)). The board considers that the skilled person would understand this to be its correct name, especially since the user information displayed on this tab is "assigned user group, logon ID, user name, default database, expiration data and the like" (page 31, lines 2, 3). There is no mention of the authorisation of a control. Thirdly, the above cited expression "changing the content of the database DB2" does not unambigiously disclose that all content of DB2 can be changed.

Thus, the board is not convinced by the appellant's arguments and concludes that claim 1 of the third auxiliary request does not satisfy the requirements of Article 123(2) EPC.

3. Inventiveness

3.1 Main request

3.1.1 In the appealed decision, claim 1 is refused for lack of inventive step over document D2. The claim refused is identical to claim 1 of the present main request with the exception of replacing "client computer" by "user computer".

The only difference between claim 1 as refused and the disclosure of D2 is identified in the decision as the use of the application program for processing measurement results of a measuring apparatus. The generic method of D2 is said to be applicable without any modification to measuring apparatuses.

3.1.2 The appellant takes the view that there are other differences. In the grounds of appeal, it is stated on pages 8-9, section 1.1 that D2 does not disclose the feature of setting use restrictions regarding the functions of the application program and that "D2 deals with restriction of access to data to be displayed and not to restriction of access to functionalities" (page 9, paragraph 3).

3.1.3 However, the board considers that displaying data is one example of a functionality of a program, so that in restricting which data are to be displayed D2 does indeed deal with restrictions to program functionalities and hence discloses the setting of use restrictions regarding the functions.

3.1.4 Furthermore, the actual disclosed embodiments of "restricting the use of functions" of claim 1, line 1 relate only to the setting of so-called "objects" as non-usable (claim 1, last step). These "objects" are controls of a GUI window, according to the grounds, page 5, dash 4, line 5 and according to original description page 29, lines 15-25. In the latter passage, it is said that the controls of the main windows are searched and those controls which are flagged as disabled are displayed in light colour and do not response to user mouse clicks.

3.1.5 Document D2 discloses restricting access to controls of a GUI (abstract, line 1). It shows controls which are usually called "text boxes" (figures 3, 4) as in the sole elaborated example. The access to these text boxes is not only for reading their displayed content, but may also be for modifying it, see D2, column 6, lines 63-67 (italics style added):

"The GUI 40 includes a window or panel 42 which provides access to a database or software application which maintains employee records. The panel 42 is utilized to permit employees to access and/or update certain categories of employee information via some of the controls ..."

By obscuring these controls, reading and updating is prevented.

This is also confirmed in the grounds, page 12, paragraph 7 ("restrict access to viewing or ... modifying the data itself").

3.1.6 Document D2 defines controls as follows (column 1, line 28):

"A control is a visual element within a GUI which may be manipulated by a user to interact with data. Icons and objects are examples of controls."

Thus, the controls of D2 may also be icons which clearly may represent a function of a program to be executed ("display" or "modify") when the icon is clicked with the help of the mouse.

It follows that the board has no reason to interpret the well-known technical term "controls" as used in D2 in a different sense than in the application. In both cases, it is used in the commonly known sense.

Thus, this is not a difference between the disclosure of D2 and what is claimed.

3.1.7 In the grounds, page 9, section 1.2 it is argued that there is a further difference in that D2 does not disclose the step of "searching objects configuring the application programs" (first sentence), since "D2 merely states that it is determined whether a window includes one or more controls" (page 10, line 1). And further that "the controls of D2 are merely related to access of information displayed in a window and are different from the objects configuring the application program and providing functionalities to the application" (lines 2-5).

3.1.8 In assessing this argument the board first notes that in D2, during the creation of a window, all controls are checked if they are to be displayed with or without obscuration (column 3, lines 32-44).

3.1.9 As to the statement that the controls in D2 would not allow to configure a program, but only to access information displayed in a window (and possibly change it), it is necessary to construe what "configuring the application program" (claim 1) actually means in the context of the application. The description uses the word "configure" in a way which is unusual for computer scientists or programmers (page 33, line 24):

"In window systems ..., systems controlled by graphical user interface (GUI) components configuring the screen, such as buttons, scroll bars, list boxes, menus (...) and the like configuring the window are standard."

This means that the screen or the window is configured by GUI controls, and not the application program in the sense of, for example, providing parameters representing a user's preferred settings. "Configured" is used in the application in the sense of "formed" or "built". The board notes in further support that figure 12 also does not show any particular configuration elements for the measuring apparatus.

Nor could the board find any passage in the description suggesting that the GUI controls configured the application program in any sense other than simply populating a window.

3.1.10 The passage supporting the feature of claim 1 of "searching objects configuring the application program" is the following (from page 24, lines 29 on):

"the CPU 31a searches the control included in the window (step S112), selects one control from among the controls of the search result (step S113), and references the use authority data stored in the buffer area to check the set value of the user authority of this control (step S114). ... Then the CPU 31a determines whether or not use authority have been checked for all controls of the search result (step S117), and when there is a control that has not been checked (step S117: NO), the CPU returns the process to step S113."

See also figure 11 (S112).

This means that every control of the window is "searched". Thus, the "objects configuring the application program" searched in claim 1 would be all the controls building [the GUI of] the application program. And that is what D2 does, as noted above. Thus again the board agrees with the appealed decision that this is not a distinguishing feature. In the oral proceedings the appellant maintained the view that the claimed "search" was not carried out in D2, but could not point out any concrete disclosure in the application which would contradict the board's interpretation. In the board's view, the only distinction between the application and D2 on this point is a different choice of words to describe the same functionality.

3.1.11 As to the statement in the grounds, page 11, paragraph 5 that D2 does not belong to the same technical field as the invention, the board is of the opinion that both D2 and the application mainly belong to the technical field of GUI design, in particular concerned with use restrictions of GUI controls. That the application also belongs to the field of application "(medical) particle measuring apparatuses" (description page 2, paragraph 2 and page 8, line 12) does not seem to be of any relevance since the board cannot find any feature in claim 1 that is influenced by that field of application (except "for being used for processing measuring results of a measuring apparatus" from line 2 on). The board agrees with the appealed decision that it would not require an inventive step to adapt the teaching of D2 to "(medical) particle measuring apparatuses", nor indeed to any computer-controlled device having a user interface and multiple users who should have different kinds of access to the functionality of the program controlling the device.

3.1.12 The appellant argued during the oral proceedings that the application would provide security checks on two levels (namely the authentication of the user and the authorisation of the authenticated user for each control) whereas D2 merely discloses a password check for each secured control (see figure 5B), without authenticating the user. The board is not convinced by this argument since the embodiment in D2, column 9, lines 54-60 (not that of figure 5B, which relates to a different embodiment) discloses both an authentication (called registration) and an authorisation check:

"The attributes of the security control subclass relative to each secure control then check to see whether the registered user making the request is authorized to view the secure control information (Step 146). This may be accomplished by checking the user identification of the user running this session against a list of authorized user identifications."

Thus, the two-level security check is not a distinguishing feature.

3.1.13 In the oral proceedings the appellant maintained that in D2 there is a (possibly different) password for each control, which has to be supplied in some way every time that control is included in a new window. The board considers that this is not only intrinsically implausible but that this interpretation is directly contradicted by the passage just cited.

3.1.14 This all confirms that the only difference between claim 1 and D2 is the use of the application program for processing measurement results of a measuring apparatus. However, the board cannot recognise that the generic method of D2 has to be adapted in order to be applied to measuring apparatuses. Nor is inventive to have the idea of doing so.

3.1.15 Therefore, claim 1 of the main request is not inventive, in violation of Article 56 EPC 1973.

3.2 First auxiliary request

3.2.1 Compared with the main request, claim 1 of the first auxiliary request contains the following added wording in italics (all in the third step):

"acquiring use authority information related to the authenticated user from a database that stores user information that indicates the authenticated user and use authority information for the authenticated user that indicates authority to use objects configuring the application program, the objects processing measurement results of the measuring apparatus"

3.2.2 During oral proceedings, the appellant stated that the aim of this request was to clarify the expressions "use authority information" and "objects".

3.2.3 The added wording does not contribute any new technical feature to claim 1. It is implicit that every database from which use authority information related to the authenticated user is acquired has to store information about the user. Furthermore, the technical environment of the method (i.e. a measuring apparatus) is also already present in the main request.

3.2.4 Therefore, claim 1 of the first auxiliary request is not inventive, in violation of Article 56 EPC 1973, for the same reasons as for the main request.

3.3 Second auxiliary request

3.3.1 The additional features of the second auxiliary request relate to the well-known principle of buffering data from a storage with a long access time (e.g. a database) in a storage with a short access time (e.g. the RAM). This is a routine measure belonging to the general knowledge of a programmer.

3.3.2 During oral proceedings, the appellant argued that the skilled person would not buffer passwords, since this decreased the security of the system. However, in the cited embodiment of D2, there are not passwords to be buffered, but "lists of authorized user identifications" (see column 9, line 59). Thus, there is nothing to teach away from applying this routine measure to the system of D2.

3.3.3 Therefore, claim 1 of the second auxiliary request is not inventive, in violation of Article 56 EPC 1973.

3.4 Fourth auxiliary request

3.4.1 The only substantive differences between claim 1 of this request and claim 1 of the main request are that the authority information stored in the database can be changed and that the authority information relates to user groups and not to single users. These differences cannot be found (at least not explicitly) in D2. They also do not interact with each other, nor with the difference between claim 1 of the main request and D2, namely the processing of measurement results.

3.4.2 The appellant argued during oral proceedings that these differences increased the flexibility of managing the authorisations without the need for reprogramming when the authorisations are to be changed.

3.4.3 However, the board considers the differences as obvious solutions to the everyday problem of managing authorisations in computers. In particular, storing authorisation data persistently is needed when the authorisation lasts longer than the current program run. Databases or files are well-known as persistent storage means. For example, the operating system UNIX uses a password file for the login authorisations which is changeable by the so-called superuser. Furthermore, authorisations for files in UNIX can be given for a user group.

3.4.4 In response the appellant argued during oral proceedings that a doctor would have to take over the role of the superuser in the present case of a medical measurement apparatus. A doctor would not have the technical knowledge to safely open an editor in order to change the password file or to change a file authorisation. However, the claim does not specify how the "authority information" is changed, so that this argument has no force. The board further notes that it is anyway commonplace to provide "easy" interfaces to facilitate operations which would otherwise be complex, for the benefit of inexperienced users.

3.4.5 Thus, claim 1 of the fourth auxiliary request is not inventive, in violation of Article 56 EPC 1973.

ORDER

For these reasons it is decided that:

The appeal is dismissed.

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