Patentability of Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs)
With the revision of the Guidelines for Examination (see our October 2018 IP Alert), the European Patent Office has also revised its practice for the assessment of claims related to the presentation of information and GUIs.
Presentation of information in the sense of Art. 52(2)(d) EPC is understood as the conveying of information to a user and concerns both the cognitive content of the information presented (“what” is presented) and the manner in which (“how”) the information is presented. It is to be distinguished from technical representations of information directed to a technical system. I.e., features of data encoding schemes, data structures and electronic communication protocols are not regarded as presentations of information in the sense of Art. 52(2) EPC.
If a claim as a whole specifies any other technical means such as, e.g., a computer display, it has, as a whole, technical character and is thus not excluded from patentability. It is then assessed by the Examining Division whether, in the context of the invention, features related to the presentation of information contribute to producing a technical effect serving a technical purpose. Features related to the presentation of information can support the presence of an inventive step only, if such is the case.
A feature that defines a presentation of information produces a technical effect if it credibly assists the user in performing a technical task by means of a continued and/or guided human-machine interaction process (cf. decisions T 336/14 and T 1802/13 of the Technical Boards of Appeal). Such a technical effect is considered credibly achieved if the assistance to the user in performing the technical task is objectively, reliably and causally linked to the feature. This is not the case if the alleged effect depends on subjective interests or preferences of the user.
For assessment whether a feature related to the presentation of information produces a technical effect the Examining Division will typically first compare the invention with the prior art and limit its analysis to the remaining distinguishing features.
Regarding the cognitive content (“what”) of the information presented the revised Guidelines state the following: If the cognitive content of the information presented to the user relates to an internal state prevailing in a technical system and enables the user to properly operate the technical system, it has a technical effect. Such an internal state is, for example, an operating mode, a technical condition or event which is related to the internal functioning of the system. Its presentation typically prompts the user to interact with the system, for example to avoid technical malfunctions (cf. T 528/07).
Static or predetermined information about technical properties or potential states of a machine, device specifications or operating instructions do generally not qualify as an internal state prevailing in the device, as their presentation typically merely has the effect of helping the user with non-technical tasks such as not having to memorize a sequence of buttons that have to be operated.
Regarding the manner in which the information is presented (“how”) the Guidelines state that a feature in this category typically specifies the form or arrangement in which, or the timing at which, information is conveyed to the user. Features defining a visualization of information in a particular diagram are normally not considered to make a technical contribution, even if the diagram conveys the information in a way which the user might intuitively regard as particularly appealing, lucid or logical. For example, dealing with limited available screen space by arranging objects such that “white space” is eliminated as much as possible, or sequentially replacing one image of a plurality of images by another image is considered a matter of layout design and not as an indication of technicality.
In exceptional cases technical effects may also arise from a manner of presentation that facilitates a continued human-machine interaction or enables the user to perform a technical task. For example, storing images at different resolutions and displaying several images side by side in low resolution, while allowing selection and display of an image at higher resolution has the technical effect of enabling a user to perform the technical task of interactively searching and retrieving stored images more efficiently (T 643/00). As a further example, if in the course of a surgery the current orientation of a medical ball joint implant is displayed in a manner which credibly allows the surgeon to position the implant more precisely, this is considered to provide a technical effect. A technical effect may also arise if information is presented in a proactive and timely manner to enable the user to perform a technical task more efficiently or precisely.
Also, when a manner of presenting information produces in the mind of the user an effect which depends on physical parameters that are based on human physiology and can be precisely defined (instead of on psychological or other subjective factors) that effect may qualify as technical effect. For example, displaying a notification on one of a plurality of computer screens near the user´s current visual focus of attention is considered to have the technical effect of more or less guaranteeing that the notification is immediately seen. As a further example, displaying a stream of images such that delay and change in the content between successive images are computed based on physical properties of human visual perception is considered technical (cf. T 509/07). Furthermore, presenting information to a person to produce a physiological reaction (e.g., involuntary eye gaze) which can be measured may be considered to produce a technical effect. In contrast, displaying only urgent notifications to a user is considered to be based on psychological factors and has the non-technical effect of minimizing information overload and distraction (cf. T 862/10).
It is noted that if the layout of information presented aims exclusively at the human mind, in particular to help the user in taking a non-technical decision, e.g., which product to buy based on a diagram showing properties of products, no technical contribution is made.
Regarding GUIs the Guidelines emphasize that features defining user input are typically more likely to have a technical character than those solely concerning data output and display, because input requires compatibility with the machine protocol, whereas output may be largely dictated by subjective user preferences, aesthetic considerations or administrative rules. Such should be taken into account during claim drafting.
Mechanisms enabling user input are normally considered to make a technical contribution. For example, providing a GUI that enables a user to directly initiate a printing process and set the number of copies to be printed by dragging and reciprocated movement of a document icon onto a printer icon is considered to make a technical contribution (providing an alternative graphical shortcut). However, a technical contribution is denied if simplifying user input depends exclusively on subjective user abilities, such as a user´s level of expertise, or subjective preferences, such as gestures or keystrokes without physical ergonomic advantage unless the gestures/keystrokes allow faster or more accurate recognition or reduce processing load.
For the entire text of the relevant chapters G-II, 3.7 and 3.7.1, of the Guidelines for Examination see https://www.epo.org/law-practice/legal-texts/html/guidelines/e/g_ii_3_7.htm and https://www.epo.org/law-practice/legal-texts/html/guidelines/e/g_ii_3_7_1.htm.
- Publication date: November 2018
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