T 1358/09 (Classification/BDGB ENTERPRISE SOFTWARE) 21-11-2014
Classification method and apparatus
I. The applicant (appellant), which at the time was SER Systeme AG Produkte und Anwendungen der Datenverarbeitung, lodged an appeal against the decision of the Examining Division refusing European patent application No. 00926837.6.
II. With effect from 25 March 2011, the application was transferred to BDGB Enterprise Software Sàrl, which thereby obtained the status of appellant.
III. According to the contested decision, the application did not comply with Article 83 EPC and the subject-matter of claim 1 lacked an inventive step within the meaning of Article 56 EPC. No documents were cited.
IV. With the statement of grounds of appeal, the appellant essentially requested that the decision under appeal be set aside and that a patent be granted on the basis of the claims filed with the letter dated 5 June 2007, i.e. the claims on which the decision under appeal was based.
V. In a communication accompanying a summons to oral proceedings, the Board indicated that, although it could not agree with the reasons given in the contested decision, the application appeared not to sufficiently disclose the invention over its whole claimed scope. Assuming the appellant succeeded in overcoming this objection, the subject-matter of claim 1 appeared to lack an inventive step.
VI. With a letter dated 21 October 2014, the appellant informed the Board that it had decided "to abandon this case" and so would not attend the oral proceedings. In addition, it requested a decision according to the state of the file.
VII. Oral proceedings took place on 21 November 2014 in the absence of the appellant. At the end of the oral proceedings, the chairman pronounced the Board's decision.
VIII. Claim 1 reads as follows:
"A method for the computerized classification of an unclassified text document into one of a plurality of predefined classes based on a classification model obtained from the classification of a plurality of preclassified text documents which respectively have been classified as belonging to one of said plurality of classes, said document and said documents respectively comprising a plurality of terms which respectively comprise one or more symbols of a finite set of symbols;
a) wherein said method involves the computerized building of said classification model, comprising the following method steps:
a1) representing each of said plurality of text documents, which are digitally represented in a computer, by a vector of n dimensions, said n dimensions forming a vector space, whereas the value of each dimension of said vector corresponds to the frequency of occurrence of a certain term in the document corresponding to said vector, so that said n dimensions span up a vector space;
a2) representing the classification of said already classified documents into classes by separating said vector space into a plurality of subspaces by calculating one or more hyperplanes, such that each subspace comprises one or more documents as represented by their corresponding vectors in said vector space, so that said each subspace corresponds to a respective class;
a3) calculating a maximum margin surrounding said hyperplanes in said vector space such that said margin contains none of the vectors contained in the subspaces corresponding to said classification classes;
b) wherein said method further involves, on basis of said classification model, the computerized classification of said unclassified text document as belonging to one of said plurality of classes, comprising the following method steps:
b1) representing said text document, which is digitally represented in a computer, by a vector of n dimensions, said n dimensions spanning up said vector space, whereas the value of each dimension of said vector corresponds to the frequency of occurrence of a certain term in the document corresponding to said vector;
b2) classifying said document into one of said plurality of classes by determining into which of said plurality of subspaces of said vector space said vector falls and identifying said document as belonging to a certain class which corresponds to the subspace into which said vector falls;
b3) calculating a confidence level for the classification of said document as belonging to said certain class based on the distances between the vector representing said document and all hyperplanes surrounding said subspace which corresponds to said certain class normalized by the corresponding margins such that a document which lies outside said margins is assigned a confidence level of '1' and a document which falls into said margins is assigned a value between '0' and '1'."
1. The appellant's declaration made in the letter dated 21 October 2014 that it had decided "to abandon this case" in itself does not amount to an unambiguous declaration of the withdrawal of the appeal. Since in the same letter the appellant requested a decision according to the state of the file, there is in fact no doubt that it intended not to withdraw the appeal, but to inform the Board that it would make no further submissions. The Board is therefore competent to decide on the appeal.
2. The appeal complies with the provisions referred to in Rule 101 EPC and is therefore admissible.
3. The invention
3.1 The invention is concerned with the computerised classification of text documents. This is done by first building a "classification model" and then classifying documents using this classification model.
3.2 The classification model is built on the basis of a set of documents which have been previously classified into a number of predefined classes. How the classification of these documents was performed is not part of the claimed invention; they may have been classified manually or by some (other) computerised classification method.
3.3 The next step in building the model is the calculation of hyperplanes that separate the vector space into "subspaces" such that "each subspace comprises one or more documents as represented by their corresponding vectors" and "each subspace corresponds to a respective class". In other words, hyperplanes are calculated that bound a number of subspaces in such a way that each "cloud" of vectors corresponding to a particular class of documents lies within one subspace. These subspaces form the classification model. A simplified two-dimensional example of a separation into subspaces is given in Figure 3 of the application.
3.4 Once the classification model has been built, an unclassified document is classified by representing it as a vector in the same vector space and determining the subspace to which the vector belongs. The document is then classified into the class corresponding to this subspace.
3.5 The invention according to claim 1 further calculates a "maximum margin", which is a margin surrounding the calculated hyperplanes that does not contain any of the vectors corresponding to the previously classified documents. Upon classifying a document, a "confidence level" is assigned to the document based on the distance of its vector from the calculated hyperplanes relative to the corresponding margins.
4. Sufficiency of disclosure
4.1 In the communication accompanying the summons, the Board noted that it was willing to accept that the skilled person was able to implement the calculation of a suitable set of hyperplanes if such a set exists, but that in general this appeared not to be the case. Indeed, if in the example of Figure 3 the vector corresponding to one of the previously classified documents in predefined class I (represented by squares) had happened to be located in the middle of the vectors corresponding to the previously classified documents in class IV, a set of hyperplanes with the properties required by the claim would not exist.
4.2 This problem of non-linearly separable clouds is in fact foreseen in the description on page 14, last two paragraphs. This passage discloses that "preferably" a further preprocessing is performed which has two tasks, the second task involving removing or merging underpopulated classes and splitting up overpopulated classes into subclasses. The method of choice for performing the class split is referred to as "clustering (unsupervised learning)". This is said to ensure that the generated subclasses will be pairwise linearly separable.
4.3 A further reference to this problem can be found on page 21, first paragraph, which states that for "overlapping classes (classes which are not pairwise linearly separable)" a "network growth algorithm" or "kernel methods (support vector machines)" can be used.
4.4 The application does not explain any of these techniques in detail, and claim 1 does not specify any measure being taken to ensure linear separability. It may therefore be questioned whether the application is sufficiently disclosed over the whole scope claimed. However, the Board considers that this issue does not prevent it from examining for the presence of an inventive step. Given the outcome of this examination (see points 5.15.1 to 5.85.8 below), the question of sufficiency of disclosure need not be answered.
5. Inventive step
5.1 Claim 1 defines a method for classifying text documents essentially in terms of an abstract mathematical algorithm. Claim 1 does specify that the algorithm is to be executed by a computer, but only by referring to steps of the method as being "computerized" and by referring to text documents as being "digitally represented in a computer".
5.2 A mathematical algorithm contributes to the technical character of a computer-implemented method only in so far as it serves a technical purpose (see decision T 1784/06 of 21 September 2012, reasons 3.1.1). In the present case, the algorithm serves the general purpose of classifying text documents.
Classification of text documents is certainly useful, as it may help to locate text documents with a relevant cognitive content, but in the Board's view it does not qualify as a technical purpose. Whether two text documents in respect of their textual content belong to the same "class" of documents is not a technical issue. The Board notes that the same position was taken in decision T 1316/09 of 18 December 2012, reasons 2, which held that methods of text classification per se did not produce a relevant technical effect or provide a technical solution to any technical problem.
5.3 In the statement of grounds of appeal, the appellant stressed that the claimed invention could not be seen as the straightforward implementation of something which had been done manually before. When manually classifying a text document, a human being would read it through and assign a particular class to it on the basis of his understanding of the document. As was known from the domain of cognitive psychology, he would not consider all of the words in the document; words near its beginning would often already provide a clear indication of its semantic topic. The claimed automatic classification method on the other hand involved precise computation steps which no human being would ever perform when classifying documents.
The appellant also submitted that the claimed computerised method was highly efficient, in particular in comparison to classification methods disclosed in documents cited in the international search report.
5.4 The Board agrees that a human being would not apply the claimed classification method to perform the task of classifying text documents. The Board further accepts that the proposed computerised method may be faster than classification methods known from the prior art. However, the determination of the claim features which contribute to the technical character of the invention is made, at least in principle, without reference to the prior art (cf. T 154/04, OJ EPO 2008, 46, reasons 5, under (E) and (F)). It follows that a comparison with what a human being would do or with what is known from the prior art is not a suitable basis for distinguishing between technical and non-technical steps (see also decision T 1954/08 of 6 March 2013, reasons 6.2).
5.5 Nevertheless, not all efficiency aspects of an algorithm are by definition without relevance for the question of whether the algorithm provides a technical contribution. If an algorithm is particularly suitable for being performed on a computer in that its design was motivated by technical considerations of the internal functioning of the computer, it may arguably be considered to provide a technical contribution to the invention (cf. T 258/03, OJ EPO 2004, 575, reasons 5.8). However, such technical considerations must go beyond merely finding a computer algorithm to carry out some procedure (see G 3/08, OJ EPO 2011, 10, reasons 13.5 and 13.5.1).
In the present case the Board considers that no such technical considerations are present. The algorithm underlying the method of claim 1 does not go beyond a particular mathematical formulation of the task of classifying documents. The aim of this formulation is clearly to enable a computer to carry out this task, but no further consideration of the internal functioning of a computer can be recognised.
5.6 The appellant further argued that the claimed method provided more reliable and objective results than manual classification, since it was independent of the human subjective understanding of the content of the documents.
The Board does not contest that the claimed classification method may provide reliable and objective results, but this is an inherent property of deterministic algorithms. The mere fact that an algorithm leads to reproducible results does not imply that it makes a technical contribution.
5.7 Since the mathematical algorithm does not contribute to the technical character of the claimed method, an inventive step can be present only in its technical implementation. The only implementation features specified in the claim are references to the method being "computerized" and the text documents being "digitally represented in a computer". The skilled person, when given the task of implementing the algorithm, would certainly have chosen to represent text documents "digitally in a computer".
The Board further considers that the skilled person, using only his common general knowledge, would have had no difficulty in implementing on a computer the various steps of claim 1. The appellant never argued otherwise, which is consistent with the fact that the description of the present application does not provide any technical implementation details at all. Although the Board, as explained above in points 4.14.1 to 4.44.4 , does have some doubts as regards the general feasibility of calculating a suitable set of hyperplanes, these concerns essentially relate to the definition of the algorithm and not to its implementation.
5.8 The technical implementation of the mathematical algorithm being obvious, the conclusion is that the method of claim 1 lacks an inventive step within the meaning of Articles 52(1) and 56 EPC over a notorious general-purpose computer.
6. Since the sole claim request on file is not allowable, the appeal is to be dismissed.
For these reasons it is decided that:
The appeal is dismissed.