T 1210/10 (Secure loading/MOTOROLA) of 19.3.2014

European Case Law Identifier: ECLI:EP:BA:2014:T121010.20140319
Date of decision: 19 March 2014
Case number: T 1210/10
Application number: 99913850.6
IPC class: G06F 1/00
Language of proceedings: EN
Distribution: D
Download and more information:
Decision text in EN (PDF, 297.715K)
Documentation of the appeal procedure can be found in the Register
Bibliographic information is available in: EN
Versions: Unpublished
Applicant name: Motorola Solutions, Inc.
Opponent name: -
Board: 3.5.06
Headnote: -
Relevant legal provisions:
European Patent Convention Art 123(2)
European Patent Convention 1973 Art 56
Rules of procedure of the Boards of Appeal Art 15(3)
Keywords: Oral proceedings - held in absence of appellant
Amendments - added subject-matter (no)
Inventive step - (no)


Cited decisions:
Citing decisions:

Summary of Facts and Submissions

I. The appeal lies against the decision of the examining division, with written reasons dispatched on 16 Decem­ber 2009, to refuse the European patent application no. 99913850.6 for violation of Article 123 (2) EPC. The decision also referred to inter alia the docu­ments

D1: "Cryptographic Microcode Loading Controller for Secure Function", IBM TDB, Vol. 34, No. 4B, pp. 34-36, September 1991 and

D2: WO 98/15082 A1,

and argued, in a section entitled "Further Remarks", that independent claims 1 and 7 lacked an inventive step over D1 and D2, Article 56 EPC 1973.

II. An appeal was lodged on 24 February 2010 and the appeal fee was paid on the same day. A statement of grounds of appeal was received on 26 April 2010. It was requested that the decision under appeal be set aside and, as a main request, that the application proceed to grant based on the documents on file at the time of the de­cision or, as an auxiliary request, based on an amended set of claims as filed with the grounds of appeal. The present application documents thus are as follows:

claims, nos.

1-10 as filed with letter of 10 March 2008 (main request) or with the grounds of appeal (auxiliary request)

description, pages

1, 5, 6 as published

2, 2a, 3, 4, 7, 8 as filed with letter of 10 March 2008

drawings, sheets

1/2-2/2 as published

III. With a summons to oral proceedings, the board informed the appellant that, according to its preliminary opin­ion, the main request complied with Ar­ticle 123 (2) EPC but did not show an inventive step in the sense of Ar­ticle 56 EPC 1973, in particular over D1 in combination with D2.

IV. The appellant did not respond in substance to the board's considerations, filing neither amend­ments nor arguments. Instead, with letter dated 11 March 2014, the appellant indicated that neither the applicant nor the representative would be attending oral proceedings.

V. Claim 1 according to the main request reads as follows:

"A method comprising the steps of: entering (301) a bootstrap mode of a processor (101); during the bootstrap mode: reading (303), by a memory (105) within the processor (101), a bootstrap program from a device external (103) to the processor (101); decrypting (307) the bootstrap program yielding a decrypted program; characterised by performing (311) authentication verification on the decrypted program; executing (317), by the processor (101), the decrypted program only after the decrypted program is authenticated, and when the decrypted program fails to be authenticated, inhibiting (315) execution of the decrypted program by the processor (101)."

Claim 1 of the auxiliary request coincides with that of the main request except that the "decrypting" step reads as follows:

"... decrypting (307) the bootstrap program using a key embedded inside the processor (101) yielding a decrypted program; ..."

Both requests also contain an independent processor claim 7 which corresponds largely with the respective independent method claim.

VI. Oral proceedings took place as scheduled in the absence of anyone for the appellant. At the end of the oral proceedings, the chairman announced the board's deci­sion.

Reasons for the Decision

Decision in the appellant's absence

1. According to Article 15(3) RPBA the board is not ob­liged to delay any step in the proceedings, including its decision, by reason only of the absence at the oral proceedings of any party duly summoned. Therefore, and further in accordance with Article 15(3) RPBA, the board treats the appellant as relying only on its written case. The following reasons are substantially those communi­cated to the appellant in the annex to the summons to oral proceedings.

The invention

2. The application relates to a processor which, in a "bootstrap mode", downloads a program from an external source for later execution, and addresses the problems that the external source may be tampered with and that undesirable programs may enter the processor. The inven­tion is meant to solve these problems while main­tai­ning the possibi­li­ty to reprogram the processor at a la­­ter time (original description, p. 1, lines 32-36, and p. 2, 1-5).

2.1 As a solution it is proposed to use encryption and authentication to secure the download: Programs are loaded in encrypted form so that the processor must decrypt them before execution. Additionally, the decrypted program must pass an authentication procedure before it is allowed to run on the processor.

2.2 The application describes a single "preferred embodi­ment" and mentions several times that the key used for decryption is "embedded inside", or "stored within", the processor (see p. 2, lines 35-36; p. 3, lines 28-31; p. 6, lines 22-24; fig. 1). This feature was also contained in independent claims 1 and 7 as ori­gi­nally filed. Independent claims 1 and 7 according to the main request lack this feature, while those of the auxiliary request contain it.

The prior art

3. D1 discloses a microcontroller having the option to up­date microcode by loading it from an external source (see e.g. p. 34, 2nd par.). It is observed in D1 that manufacturers of microcontrollers "consider the micro­code proprietary" and do not wish to have it exposed "while awaiting loading" (see e.g. p. 34, last par.). As a solution D1 proposes to "encrypt the microcode for transportation and storage and decrypt it "within the confines of the microcontroller itself" (p. 35, 3rd par.). This may happen "on power-up, reset, or specific command" (p. 35, 5th par.). It is disclosed that the decryption key, which the microcontroller must "have", is kept in a "key storage element" (see loc. cit. and the figure). It is further disclosed that the entire microcontroller may be coated with a material which cannot be removed without ruining the chip and thereby preventing access to secure data (see sentence bridging pp. 35 and 36).

4. D2 relates to the update of program code - specifically computer firmware such as the BIOS - in general compu­ting systems (see p. 1, 1st and 2nd par.) and addresses the security of this operation (see p. 2, 2nd par.). It is proposed to require that a new BIOS be authenticated before it can be written into the BIOS memory. It is dis­­closed to provide a cryptographic coprocessor which stores the BIOS and enforces authentication of BIOS up­dates (see p. 2, last par.; fig. 1). It is disclosed that the cryptographic coprocessor may be part of the host processor and that the key needed for authenti­cation may be preloaded in the host processor (p. 5, lines 1-3; p. 7, 2nd par.). If authentication fails, the new BIOS is deleted and is never used (p. 6, lines 9-12). D2 also discloses that "BIOS upgrade code could be encrypted" (p. 6, 4 lines from the bottom).

Added subject matter

5. Independent claims 1 and 7 as originally filed required that the "key [was] embedded inside", or "stored with­in", the processor while the independent claims of the present main request, identical to those subject to decision under appeal, lack this feature. The deci­sion argued (reasons 10) that the omission of this feature was not allowable because the description did not dis­close "that the key could be provided in [any other] way" than embedded in the processor.

5.1 The appellant refers to a sentence in the description (p. 6, lines 22-24) saying that "[t]he key ... used for decryption is embedded inside the processor in the pre­ferred embodiment" and argues that "[a] common sense reading of this statement would make it clear that" it was only preferred but not essential for the invention for the key to be embedded inside the processor (p. 2, 7th par.). The decision under appeal dismissed this ar­gument because the description left open "what the non-preferred embodiments would be". Inter alia, the deci­sion argues (reasons 10.1) that non-preferred embodi­ments might not need encryption at all. The decision under appeal thus seems to argue that the original de­scription does not disclose an embodiment in which en­cryption is used but based on a key stored outside the processor.

5.2 On the same point the decision argues (reasons 10) that omission of the feature is not warranted by the test according to the then applicable Guidelines C-VI, 5.3.10, "since it requires modification of other fea­tures to compensate for the change".

5.3 It appears to be undisputed that the sentence on page 6, lines 22-24, by explicitly re­ferring to the pre­ferred embodiment, implies that the per­­tinent fea­ture may not be present in other embodi­ments. The board further considers that the state­ment must be read in its context, namely a paragraph which throughout, be­fore and after the pertinent sentence (p. 6, 2nd par.), discusses encryp­tion. In this context it would be im­plausible for the skilled person to read, as the deci­sion suggests, the sentence as invoking em­bo­diments which do not use encryption at all. Rather, the skilled person would read this sentence as disclosing, directly and unambiguously, that the decryption key could also be stored outside the processor, in the con­text of the otherwise unchanged preferred embodi­ment. The board also agrees with the appellant that the omission of the "em­bedding" feature does not seem to require "real mo­di­fi­ca­tion of other features ... to compensate for the change" (see grounds of appeal, p. 3, lines 1-3).

5.4 In summary, the board disagrees with the de­ci­sion under appeal in finding that the independent claims of the main request do not go beyond the appli­cation as origi­nally filed, Article 123 (2) EPC.

Inventive step

6. During examination, document D1 was consistently used as the starting point for the assessment of inventive step. The board agrees that this is a suitable choice, if not the only one as was explained in the summons.

6.1 According to the decision under appeal claim 1 of the main request differs from D1 in the use of authenti­cation in addition to the use of encryption (see rea­sons 11.1, feature a). The appellant appears to agree with this position (grounds of appeal, p. 3, 2nd par.), and so does the board.

6.2 The appellant argues that the decision under appeal was wrong to base their inventive step objection an a com­bi­­nation of documents D1 and D2 because "a person skilled in the art would not combine these two docu­ments" (grounds of appeal, p. 3, 3rd par.). Thus D2 would not have prompted the skilled person to add au­then­tication to D1. Neither would, so the appellant seems to argue, the common knowledge in the art. As a consequence, the claimed invention was novel and in­ven­tive over the cited prior art.

6.3 The board notes that the appellant does not seem to question that D1 and D2 are compatible with each other or that this combination, were the skilled person to consider it, would yield the claimed invention. Rather, the appellant appears to argue only that the skilled person, starting from D1, would not have had any reason to consider the incorporation of authentication mea­sures as known from D2 (see grounds of appeal, p. 3, 4th and 5th par.).

7. Specifically, the appellant appears to argue as follows with regard to D1: Microcode, being proprietary, will "only be issued by the ... manufacturer" of the perti­nent micro­controller. Thus the manufacturer has control over both sides of the microcode transmission, can free­ly deter­mine the decryption/encryption algorithm used and make sure that only authorized personnel is able to send valid encrypted data. Access to the en­cryp­tion key and algorithm would then be tanta­mount to a proof of authorization so that there would be no need for pro­viding specific authentication mea­sures in addi­tion to en­cryp­tion. The appellant also argues that the skilled person, if he were to increase to security of the sys­tem of D1, would not consider authentication but rather modify the encryption by, for instance, increa­sing key size (grounds of appeal, p. 3, penult. par.).

7.1 The board agrees with the appellant that, in specific circumstances, it might not be worth­while to invest the effort of using authentication in addition to encryp­tion. The board however considers that in other situa­tions the skilled person would know that authenti­ca­tion is worth the effort because it provides a qualitative increase in security as opposed to a mere quantitative improvement achieved for instance by using longer keys. The board also disagrees with the appellant's opinion that D1 is so narrow as to discourage the skilled per­son from considering authen­ti­ca­tion in such situations.

7.2 The board takes the view that microcode, even if pro­pri­e­tary, may well be produced by different companies or depart­ments within a company. It is noted that D1 does not exclude this possibility. Further, the more com­plex the development si­tu­ation the more difficult it would be for the ma­nu­facturer to keep tight control over the en­cryp­tion al­go­rithms and keys. As a conse­quence, a key - what­ever its size - might leak and the manu­fac­turer would, in the board's view, naturally address this se­cu­ri­ty risk by adding further, separate security mea­sures to the system of D1.

7.3 The board also disagrees with the appellant's allega­tion that the only obvious way to address the "risk of an encryption scheme being broken [is] to in­crease the key size" (grounds of appeal, p. 3, pen­ult. par.) but considers it equally obvious to com­­bine two different security measures with each other: For instance, in or­der to increase the protection of a door, the board deems it equally obvious to use a stronger lock as to use two different locks.

8. Encryption protects data by limiting its ex­po­sure to the owner(s) of the decryption key who will normally be only the rightful receiver(s) of the data. Authen­ti­ca­tion protects data against silent modi­fi­ca­tion by a fraud­­ster and thus ensures that the receiver can verify authorship. The board considers that the skilled person familiar with encryption will also be familiar with authen­ti­­ca­tion and the diffe­­ren­ces between both, use them according to circum­stances and have no difficulty in practicing either. The skilled person will, in the board's view, also be aware of the relative advantages of encrypting data be­fore adding authentication infor­mation (e.g. a di­gi­tal signature) and, as required by the claims, adding au­then­tication first and encrypting the data then.

9. In view of this, the board concludes that the skilled person would indeed consider D2 in trying to increase the security of the system of D1. In doing this, the skilled person would not limit him­self to making en­cryp­tion stronger but would also con­sider additional security measures. In considering D2, the skilled per­son would realise that authentication and encryption serve different but complementary pur­poses which can be easily combined with each other. The skilled person would thus, in the board's present view, not hesitate to incorporate the teaching of D2 into D1 and so arrive at the claimed invention without an in­ventive step in the sense of Article 56 EPC 1973.

10. The independent claims of the auxiliary request differ from those of the main request in requiring that the decryption key be embedded inside the processor.

10.1 Document D1 discloses that the decryption key is stored in a dedicated key storage (p. 35, penult. par.) which is part of the microcontroller, if not the micro­pro­cessor. D1 also discusses physical protection me­cha­nisms for preventing access to secure data (p. 35, last par. - p. 36, 1st par.). In view of this the board deems it to be obvious, to the skilled person adapting the method of D1 from a microcontroller to a mere pro­cessor, to provide a dedicated key storage such as for example a key register within the processor.

10.2 Document D2 discloses specifically that the host pro­cessor is "preloaded" with the key needed for au­then­ti­cation (p. 7, 2nd par., last sentence). Insofar as D2 refers to encryption (p. 6, lines 3-5 from the bottom) this suggests to the skilled person that the decryp­tion key used by the cryp­tographic co­pro­cessor is pre­loa­ded into - i.e. embedded in - the host pro­cessor, too.

10.3 The board therefore finds that the "embedding feature" of the auxiliary request does not establish an inven­tive step over either D1 or D2. The analysis of the main request as given above thus carries over to the auxil­ia­ry request and shows that its indepen­dent claims of the auxiliary requests also lack an in­ven­tive step, in the sense of Article 56 EPC 1973 over D1 and D2.

11. The being no allowable request, the appeal has to be dismissed.


For these reasons it is decided that:

The appeal is dismissed.

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