Thursday, 22 March 2012

T 1575/07 – When Things Get Narrow

This appeal was filed against a decision to refuse a European patent for lack of inventive step.

Claim 1 of the main request before the Board read as follows:
A method for managing maintenance of equipment comprising:
storing, in a database (116), first data defining a plurality of planned maintenance tasks for equipment (302,304,306);
storing, in the database (116), second data defining a plurality of unplanned maintenance tasks for the equipment (310,312,314);
storing, in the database (116), location data associating the planned maintenance tasks (302,304,306) with the unplanned maintenance tasks (310,312,314) where the location data identifies the physical location on the equipment associated with completion of the planned maintenance tasks and associated with the unplanned maintenance tasks;
identifying using a user interface a planned maintenance task for the equipment (308); and
based on the location associated with completion of the planned maintenance task, retrieving from the database (116) all unplanned maintenance tasks (310, 312, 314) that are associated with the identified planned maintenance task (308).
The Board came to the same conclusion as the Examining Division (ED). When applying the problem-solution method, it made an interesting statement on technical problems.

The application

[2] When performing routine maintenance work an unfortunate problem tends to occur, namely that unplanned work is discovered, also termed “above and beyond” or “emergent” work […]. The invention is concerned with the identification and categorisation of the extent of such work, which is crucial to dealing with it successfully and managing the maintenance schedule.

[3] The solution offered is essentially to store all the planned routine maintenance tasks in a database along with unplanned work that is likely to be found at the same physical location as the routine work. When an intended planned maintenance task (e.g. “inspect left wing hydraulic lines”) is entered into the system, the location associated with that task (e.g. “left wing”) is used to retrieve associated possible unplanned tasks that should be checked at the same time (e.g. “left wing airframe damage”) […].

[4] In another aspect of the invention, the location can be entered and the system shows all the tasks (both planned and unplanned) associated with that location […].

Main request

[5] The appellant’s essential argument is that displaying only unplanned maintenance tasks based on the location of the given planned maintenance task solves the technical problem of filtering data retrieved from the database so that only the most useful or relevant data is presented to a user. This is said to be a technical problem in the light of T 49/04. This is because this decision concludes that
“the presentation of natural language text on a display in a manner which improves readability, enabling the user to perform their task more efficiently, relates to how, i.e. by what physical arrangement of the text, cognitive content is conveyed to the reader and can thus be considered as contributing to a technical solution to a technical problem”.
This decision is based on the judgement in that case that the physical arrangement of text (the “how”) was a technical solution to the technical problem of improving readability of the text. However, the present Board does not consider that it is a general statement to the effect that any feature that relates to “how” information is conveyed to the user involves technical considerations. In particular, if the “how” simply concerns putting data in a table for easier comprehension, this is clearly still only a presentation of information, excluded from patentability. As stated in decision T 1143/06 [5.4], which discusses T 49/04 at more length, the manner of presentation has to have a credible technical effect.

[6] In the Board’s view that is not the case here. The Board agrees with the ED […] that showing data that is useful or relevant to an administrative maintenance scheme is essentially a part of that administrative scheme and not part of a technical process. Basing the choice on the “location” of the maintenance task does not change that. The only link to anything technical is that the maintenance is on “equipment”. However, this is a remote connection and is not directly related to the displaying, which has to do with the administrative process, and thus cannot contribute to the technical nature of the problem.

Similarly, in the Board’s judgement, there is no interaction, in the sense of T 154/04, of these non-technical features with the technical features of the database and the user interface, which operate in a conventional manner. In particular, there is no functional modification of the database, just a storage of different data. Thus in the Board’s view, the problem reduces to that of implementing such a filtering. The claim gives no details of the actual implementation, and the Board agrees with the ED that it would be obvious to consider using standard data processing hardware containing a database and a user interface for this purpose.

[7] The above also explains the apparent paradox in the ED’s reasoning alluded to by the appellant that a broad problem cannot be formulated despite the lack of relevant prior art. According to the problem and solution approach, the objective technical problem is based on the distinguishing features. It is therefore true that when there are many distinguishing features, as when there is no close prior art, the problem tends to be broad. However, only the features having technical character should be considered. If these are few in number a narrower, more specific, formulation of the problem is appropriate. Since this is the situation in the present case, the Board judges that the ED was correct in identifying only the implementation of the filtering as the technical problem. […]

[10] Accordingly, claim 1 […] lacks an inventive step (A 56 EPC 1973), so that the appeal must be dismissed.

Should you wish to download the whole decision, just click here.

The file wrapper can be found here.