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Case Law of the Boards of Appeal

Technical considerations: implementation of a function on a computer system 

In T 1177/97 claim 1 was directed to a method for translation between natural languages; accordingly, it used various linguistic terms and involved linguistic aspects of the translation process. The board raised the question whether such linguistic concepts and methods could form part of a technical invention at all. It referred to EPO case law which provided various examples showing that even the automation of such methods did not make good a lack of technical character (e.g. T 52/85). On the other hand, coded information had been considered, on a case-by-case basis, as a patentable entity, i.a. T 163/85 (OJ 1990, 379), T 1194/97 (OJ 2000, 525) and T 769/92 (OJ 1995, 525). The board confirmed that, in accordance with this case law, it seemed to be common ground that the use of a piece of information in a technical system, or its usability for that purpose, could confer a technical character on the information itself, in that it reflected the properties of the technical system, for instance by being specifically formatted and/or processed. When used in or processed by the technical system, such information could be part of a technical solution to a technical problem and thus form the basis for a technical contribution of the invention to the prior art.

In so far as technical character was concerned, the board stressed that it should be irrelevant that the piece of information was used or processed by a conventional computer, or any other conventional information processing apparatus, since the circumstance that such an apparatus had become a conventional article for everyday use did not deprive it of its technical character, just as a hammer still had to be regarded as a technical tool even though its use had been known for millennia. The board thus came to the conclusion that information and methods related to linguistics could in principle assume a technical character if they were used in a computer system and formed part of a technical problem solution. Implementing a function on a computer system always involved technical considerations, at least implicitly, and meant in substance that the functionality of a technical system was increased. The implementation of the information and methods related to linguistics as a computerised translation process similarly required technical considerations and thus provided a technical aspect to per se non-technical things such as dictionaries, word matching or the translation of compound expressions into a corresponding meaning. Features or aspects of the method which reflected only peculiarities of the field of linguistics, however, had to be ignored in assessing inventive step.

Decision T 115/85 (OJ 1990, 30) concerned a method for displaying one of a set of predetermined messages comprising a phrase made up of a number of words, each message indicating a specific event which might occur in the input-output device of a word processing system which also included a keyboard, a display and a memory. The board observed that automatically giving visual indications of conditions prevailing in an apparatus or a system was basically a technical problem. The application proposed a solution to this technical problem involving the use of a computer program and certain tables stored in a memory. It adopted the principle laid down in decision T 208/84: an invention which would be patentable in accordance with conventional patentability criteria should not be excluded from protection by the mere fact that for its implementation modern technical means in the form of a computer program are used. However, it did not follow from this that conversely a computer program could under all circumstances be considered as constituting technical means. In the case in question the subject-matter of the claim, phrased in functional terms, was not barred from protection by Art. 52(2)(c) and (3) EPC 1973 (see also T 790/92).