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The patent US 7,346,545, relating to delivering copyrighted media products through a server free of charge in exchange for watching advertisements, has been enforced by Ultramercial against a number of Internet media competitors, like HuluWildTangent and YouTube. In August 2010 the 545 patent has been found invalid by a California District Court in view of the Bilski v. Kappos ruling which has been issued shortly before by the US Supreme Court (CV 09-06918). For further information on this case, please see my earlier posting here.

To be on the safe side, the District Court applied a two-stage approach, that is, as a screening filter, the CAFC’s machine-or-transformation test and then the SCOTUS abstract idea test.

The MOT test failed as the District Court found that the “mere act of storing media on computer memory does not tie the invention to a machine in any meaningful way”. Further, the Court identified “using advertisement as a currency” as the core principle of the patent, while the claims do not cite any concrete features as to how the core principle can be implemented.  

Some observers criticised the District Court’s reasoning as being capable to kill any invention where a key concept can be labelled ‘abstract’ even if the invention is clearly limited to an electronic implementation and even if the electronic implementation is central to the idea.

Now, as the Federal Circuit under Chief Judge Radar reviewed the case in appeal, it turns out that such criticism hit the mark (see decision of June 21, 2013), as the case was reversed and remanded. In its decision the Federal Circuit referred multiple times to the term “technology”, e.g.:

  • The plain language of the [patent act] provides that any new, non-obvious, and fully disclosed technical advance is eligible for protection.
  • After all, unlike the Copyright Act which divides ideas from expression, the Patent Act covers and protects any new and useful technical advance, including applied ideas.
  • Far from abstract, advances in computer technology—both hardware and software—drive innovation in every area of scientific and technical endeavor.

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In this ealier posting on the America Invents Act we reported on the new Covered Business Methods Review (faqinfo) which allows to challenge any business method patent before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) as soon as it is enforced against an accused infringer.

From a European perspective, this new proceedings seems particularly interesting as the question as to whether or not a claim falls under the CBM review is answered by 37 CFR § 42.301 as follows:

(a) Covered business method patent means a patent that claims a method or corresponding apparatus for performing data processing or other operations used in the practice, administration, or management of a financial product or service, except that the term does not include patents for technological inventions.

(b) Technological invention. In determining whether a patent is for a technological invention solely for purposes of the Transitional Program for Covered Business Methods (section 42.301(a)), the following will be considered on a case-by-case basis: whether the claimed subject matter as a whole recites a technological feature that is novel and unobvious over the prior art; and solves a technical problem using a technical solution.

This definition is surprisingly similar to what European case law (and German case law) has developed to define “methods for [...] doing business [...] and programs for computers as such” according to Art. 52 (2), (3) EPC (and § 1 (3), (4) PatG). Even further, the requirement of a “technological feature that is novel and unobvious” seems to correspond to the well-established Comvik approach (cf. T 641/00, 2002) of the EPO Boards of Appeal, according to which non-technical features cannot contribute to novelty and inventive step.

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(parts of the) cover page of a related EPO brochure

During the past 15 years the Boards of Appeal of the EPO have developed a consistent case law as to the pragmatic problem/solution approach for assessing patentability pursuent Art 52 -57 EPC. In our earlier overview on

EPO case law regarding patentability of software inventions,

to which this posting is meant as a more practical continuation, we briefly characterised the EPO’s main examination approach:

[M]odern case law [of the EPO Boards of Appeal on software inventions], especially the suggestion in T 1173/97 that the “technical contribution” is an inventive step consideration and the observation in some early cases (e.g. T 38/86 and T 65/86) that the “inventive contribution” must lie in a “field of technology”, almost naturally lead to the problem-solution approach as developed in T 641/00 (COMVIK) and T 258/03 (Hitachi) and theoretically justified in T 154/04 (Duns).

This approach nowadays is the crucial test to differentiate between a technical contribution implementing a non-technical concept (e.g. a business method) and an inventive contribution in a technical field (e.g. an embedded control software). Its general idea is that only the technical features of a claim may be taken into account for assessing inventive step, while the non-technical features form a basis for formulating the underlying problem, with the effect that the non-technical features may render the technical solution obvious.

This approach is widely accepted among practitioners as enhancing legal security for applicants since it represents a comprehensible benchmark against which EPO decisions are subject to verifiction.

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3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing technology where a three-dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers of material. Since 2003 there has been large growth in the sale of 3D printers. Additionally, the cost of 3D printers has declined.

Just in these days and within the framework of the London Design Festival, the London Albert & Victoria Museum is staging an exhibition ‘Industrial Revolution 2.0: How the Material World will Newly Materialise’ . The exhibition is a showcase displaying works made by 3D printing by Stephen Jones, Patrick Jouin, Iris van Herpen, and many others. Renowned New York-based design gallerist and curator Murray Moss has collaborated with industry provider Materialise, Belgium to create a special exhibition which pushes the parameters of 21st century 3D printing. A series of unique ‘printed’ works, using cutting edge laser and digital technologies to build three-dimensional objects, are placed throughout the Museum’s most important galleries, wittily referencing eight of the Museum’s key pieces and spaces; see also this report on i.materialise.

With regard to patent law, 3D printing taken as such appears to bear no particular implications out of the normal routine: We may assume that professional providers like Materialise NV and others know what they are doing and have some legal or patent department giving suitable advice.

However, as 3D printing technologie gets mature, two developments are foreseeable:

  • In a first stage, perhaps to be experienced in a few years of time, heavy-duty 3D printing equipment might be generally available but too expensive to be bought by broader consumer circles. Maybe that costs for such devices will be comparable to large professional photocopying machines. If such assumption should become reality, there might be room for new business models of 3D copy shops:  Small businesses loacted in your town around next corner where you can show up with a memory stick or something like that storing a 3D model of some object you would like to have produced. Perhaps such shop even might provide 3D scanning services as well; in such case the customer simply shows up with some 3D object in his pocket and goes away with one or more exact replicas thereof.
  • In a second stage, costs of 3D printing equipment might drop to levels comparable to today’s laser printer devices. Maybe that 3D printers will be heavily cross-subsidised by surcharges on printing raw materials in the same manner as 2D printers today are subsidised by expensive ink or toner cartridges. This would mean that consumers can produce a broad range of 3D objects at home without need to contract any external service provider.

Of course, there is some hype in the current reporting on 3D printing: For many practical applications, not only the 3D shape is of relevance but also more elaborate characteristics, e.g. in view of a specific electrical conductivity, hardness, heat-resistance and/or elasticity. Those who fear that in the age of 3D printing everyone might be able to produce firearms at home might be reminded that the functionality of a gun is not determined by its 3D shape alone; it must also bear the heat and the enormous forces of the explosion of the propellant.

But nevertheless surely there will be many useful real world applications of 3D printing, most of them perfectly legal, some, of course, blatantly illegal or serving illegal ends. There are, for example, reports saying criminals stole more than $400,000 using ATM skimming devices made from high-tech 3D printers.

But what we might see, if the above-noted assumptions are true, is that another front of legal battles will be opened where John Doe and Max Mustermann risk entanglement with Intellectual Property laws.

In the first half of the 20th century, virtually no private individual living a mainstream-style life ever was in risk of infringing copyright laws: Printing presses were as expensive as, later in the century, radio and TV broadcasting equipment and out of reach for private consumers. Mass media were, due to economic necessity, owned by larger corporations which could afford to take legal advice and which could held liable easily in case of wrongdoing.

But in the age of PCs connected to the Internet we today see an epic battle of rights holders attempting to defend and to enforce their exclusion rights in the field of Copyright in the courts against countless private individuals engaging e.g. in file-sharing activities at home on the basis of their own PC and Internet infrastructure.

The PC and the Internet are also the tools which even today might bring individuals in conflict with patents on computer-implemented inventions or software patents. However, contrary to many fears of open source advocates, up to now the mainstream of litigation e.g. in the smartphone patent litigation business is directed against major players in that market, not against more or less private individuals. Exceptions are a few commercial developers creating smartphone apps sued by Lodsys; however, the particulars of such cases appear to hint that the main direction of attack was meant to be platform providers like Apple or Google.

Things might again change in an age where 3D printing techniques have matured and are cheaply in everybody’s reach.  3D copy shops will probably not benefit from any exemptions in patent law privileging private and non-commercial use of patented technologies as they are present e.g. in national German patent law. I don’t talk here on patents covering the 3D scanning / printing processes and devices (these problems should be dealt with by the manufacturers of such equipment) but on patents (and, by the way, also registered designs) infringed not by the technology provided in the 3D printing shop but by the specific 3D objects or object models brought in by the non-commercial customers. Will rights holders attempt to shut down such small 3D copy shop businesses by filing lawsuits on the basis of secondary patent infringement? Anyway, consumer-oriented 3D copy shops would face utter difficulties in assessing if replicating some object brought in by a customer infringes third party’s IP rights if they were legally required to do so.

Even if the 3D technology gets operated at home by the consumer, problems remain. For example, the German patent exemption covers only acts that are cumulatively of private nature as well as non-commercial. Excange of money is not a necessary precondition to get out of the scope of this exemption. For example, producing a small lot of object for free distribution amongst friends might, under some circumstances, be considered lying outside the scope of the German private-use patent infringement exemption.

Will we see in, say 10 years from now, a discussion on liability of ISPs for not filtering out 3D model data utilisable for 3D printing if they are suspected of infringing patent / design rights?


Today we have seen general elections to the Berlin City Parliament. Perhaps you may know that Berlin is not only a big city with some 3.5 Million inhabitants which also is the capital of Germany. In addition, Berlin constitutes one of the 16 states of Germany. Hence, Berlin City Parliament plays its role not only in the context of the City but also with regard to the federal structure of Germany.

At the time of writing of this posting, exit polls show that the Berlin chapter of the German Pirate Party will surpass the 5% quorum by a quite sensational 8-9% share on votes. This result shows that the mood especially of younger voters and first time voters is changing, moving away from all of the established parties including the Greens and the Left (Die Linke). At the occasion of the last Germany-wide general elections to the federal parliament in September 2009, the Pirate Party had got less than 2% of the votes. Many voters are reluctant to cast their vote for any party that is well below the 5% hurdle because of the high probability that voting for such party has no power to change anything. However, now, after the Berlin chapter of the German Pirate Party not only got over the 5% quorum by some narrow margin but obtained a sensational surplus of up to 4 percent points over the 5% hurdle, such reservations dwindle and, hence, I expect to see them in more State Parliaments of other Bundesländer in the coming years. And, like it or not, taking the history of the other German grassroots party, the Greens, as a precedent, the Pirates might well sit in the lower chamber Bundestag of the German Parliament in 2017 if they miss the 5% hurdle in the next general elections scheduled for fall 2013.

What does this mean with regard to Intellectual Property politics and business?

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Amazon’s so called “One-Click Patent” is one of the most controversially discussed software inventions ever. The term, which nowadays is used as a cipher for a prototypical business method patent, was originally coined for US 5,960,411 titled “method and system for placing a purchase order via a communications network” (filed 12 Sep 2007, granted 28 Sep 1999; pdf), which has been enforced against competitor Barnes & Noble and licensed to Apple.

The respective teaching enables easy Internet shopping in that a customer visits a website, enters address and payment information and is associated with an identifier stored in a “cookie” in his client computer. A server is then able to recognize the client by the cookie and to retrieve purchasing information related to the customer, who thus can buy an item with a “single click”.

EP Parent Application: The first “1-click” application in Europe, EP 0 909 381 A2, related to an Internet-based customer data system and claimed a “method for ordering an item using a client system“. The application has been withdrawn on 08 June 2001 in view of approaching oral proceedings that had been summoned by the Examining Division with a negative preliminary opinion saying that the claimed teaching was not inventive over prior art document D3 (Baron C: “Implementing a Web shopping cart”, Dr. Dobbs Journal, Redwood City, CA, 01.09.1997). During the proceedings, Dutch Internet bookseller BOL.COM supported the Examining Division by a number of third party observations according to Art. 115 EPC, all of which pointing the Examining Division to the relevance of D3 (see e.g. here or here).

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