A Board of Appeal of the EPO has issued a decision to grant a patent for an electronic business method that goes against the run of play for cases of this nature. The Decision is T1051/07 and it issued from EPO Board of Appeal 3.4.03.
The decision arose from an appeal against an Examining Division's decision to refuse a patent application to a system in which money accounts are issued to subscribers of mobile phones. The accounts could be used to perform financial transactions including remittance, charging, settlement and the collection of money between the subscribers. The Examining Division refused the application for lack of inventive step.
The system included:
- a service control unit (120) having a subscriber service interface (160) for providing a service menu to a subscriber's terminal through a first network (200) and for outputting a service request message when an item of the service menu is selected, and
- a transaction service interface (150) connecting the service control unit (120) via a second network (300) to a settlement system (400) which processes a first transfer of money between a bank account of a body providing a financial transaction service and a bank account of a subscriber,
- wherein the service control unit (120) is arranged to process a second transfer of a corresponding amount of money between a service account of the body and a mobile account of the subscriber both held in a database (110).
The Board of Appeal held that the distinguishing features over the closest prior art allow a user (subscriber) to load money on his account in a host computer. Accordingly, the objective technical problem to be solved relative to the closest prior art was to provide the system with means allowing a user to load money on his account in the host computer (or realise money from his account). As none of the cited prior art documents addressed this problem or contained any indication as to its solution, the Board found that the invention was not obvious and remitted the patent to the Examining Division with an order to grant the patent.
Whereas the Board generally agreed with the first instance Examining Division that reloading the host computer account fundamentally constituted a business method and would lack technical character, nevertheless the Board found that the subject matter under consideration was not confined to merely reciting an administrative banking procedure alongside straightforward technical means for its implementation, but rather provided a technical solution, involving technical means to the technical problem of how to reload such an account. On this basis, the Board held that there was indeed an inventive step.
The EPO's standard approach when considering the patentability of computer implemented business methods is that claim features of a non-technical nature are not to be taken into account when assessing inventive step. On this basis, the rejection rate for applications with this type of subject matter is very high. In this appeal, the Board was surprisingly generous.
The case was assigned from the outset to Board of Appeal 3.4.03 which handles telecoms subject matter. Allocation of cases to different boards is based on the principal International Patent Classification (IPC) code assigned at the time of filing of the application. By contrast, most appeals in the field of electronic business methods are handled by Board of Appeal 3.5.01.
We doubt this case signifies the beginning of a relaxation of the EPO's strict approach to computer implemented business method applications. We suspect Board of Appeal 3.5.01 might well have dismissed this appeal. The case does, perhaps, illustrate the value, at the outset, of drafting a patent application to read as a description of a technical system of interoperating components rather than a method of conducting transactions.