A Measure to Protect Computer-Implemented Inventions in Europe
PhD Candidate, Department for Private International Law and European Law, Eotvos Lorand University of Sciences
This contribution aims to provide an analytical survey on the current Commission legislative proposal for a directive concerning the patentability of computer-implemented inventions in the European Union. The paper presents the legislative approach taken by the Commission, provides a general overview on the Commission proposal and discusses and analyses in depth the most highly debated articles of the Commission proposal.
Keywords:Computer programs, intellectual property, EU legislation, computer implemented inventions, patent law, patentability of computer implemented inventions.
This is a refereed article published on: 15 December 2004.
Citation: Erdos, 'A Measure to Protect Computer-Implemented Inventions in Europe’, 2004 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT).<http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/2004_3/erdos/>
No doubt, both the European Patent Office (EPO) and the national patent offices issue patents for computer-implemented inventions applications. In case of infringements national courts have the jurisdiction to enforce these patents, and during their procedure the national courts are not bound by the EPO case law. This set-up of powers sometimes leads to situations where the same patent can be found valid in one Member State but not in another. The obvious consequence of this scenario is a huge level of legal uncertainty, which can create barriers to cross-border trade and impede the proper functioning of the internal market. Difference alike would just develop and become greater as Member States adopt new and different administrative practices, or where national case law interpreting the current European legislation evolves differently. Thus, there is a strong need for the harmonization of the different ways in which each Member State deal with computer-implemented invention. The European Union has recognized this setback and made a step forward in order to set up a common understanding of issues relating to computer-implemented inventions. The step taken by the European Union was a proposal for a Directive purposed to harmonize how computer-implemented inventions should be dealt with all across Europe. The present contribution provides a general introduction to the proposed Directive, and an in-depth analysis on the most highly debated issues.
2. The Legislature Approach Taken by the Community
By proposing this Directive the Commission intends to create a harmonized framework for the protection for computer implemented-inventions in the European Union without causing any sudden change in the legal position, and in particular any extension of patentability to computer programs ‘as such’. The underlying aim of the proposed Directive is to secure legal certainty and uniform interpretation and application of the law by national courts. In practical terms it means that besides providing statutory patent protection for computer programs, the present legal situation – which excludes computer programs as such from the patentable subject matters - should not be changed. The approach taken by the Community drafters was not a new one, since they followed the EPO course, in particular the principle that an invention to be patentable must make a technical contribution to the state of the art. If the proposed Directive adopted, this technical contribution requirement evolved through the EPO case law will not be overcome. By codifying the technical contribution requirement the supposed patent protection provided for computer-implemented inventions shall not extend to other areas of traditionally excluded subject matters, such as pure business methods.
3. Overview of the Main Provisions of the Proposed Directive
The draft Directive comprises of nineteen recitals and eleven articles. As to the substantive law and the subject of the present paper the first seven articles bear legal relevance. Article 1 sets the scope of the Directive according to which the Directive lays down rules for the patentability of compute-implemented inventions. The term ‘computer-implemented invention’ is defined in Article 2.Article 2 defines certain, so-called key concepts (computer-implemented invention, technical contribution) applied in the Directive. Under art. 2 (a) ‘computer-implemented invention’ means any invention the performance of which involves the use of a computer, prima facie novel computer network or other programmable apparatus and having one or more features which are realized wholly or partly by means of a computer program or computer programs. This definition mirrors the concept developed in the EPO case law. However, the European Parliament in its amendments set the expression ‘prima facie novel’ aside by arguing that it would create a certain level of lack of clarity and could add an additional requirement to assess novelty at the commencement of the examination procedure. The outcome of this approach is that the novelty feature of any invention does not need to reside in a technical feature. It is not necessary to establish actual novelty in order to determine whether an invention falls within the definition of computer-implemented invention.
If adopted, the effect of the abolishment of the prerequisite that the novel feature has to be found in the claimed computer-implemented invention can result in a situation where, for example, a computer apparatus possesses the novelty feature.Article 2 (b) provides that the notion ‘technical contribution’ means a contribution to the state of the art in a technical field which is not obvious to a person skilled in the art. The presence of technical contribution has to be assessed under the inventive step requirement.
Originally the Commission inserted Article 3 in the proposal to ensure that a computer-implemented invention belongs to a field of technology. The underlying rationale of this proposed article can be found in the context of Recital 6 and Art. 27 (1) of the TRIPs Agreement. Under these provisions patents shall be available for any inventions in all fields of technology providing that they comply with the patentability requirements. According to the Commission’s viewpoint it was necessary to declare that a computer-implemented invention belongs to a field of technology in order to make sure that for instance an algorithm which is defined without reference to a physical environment does not meet the definition of ‘computer-implemented invention’ and does not fall within a field of technology. The Parliament ignored this article by stating that this proposed article is unnecessary and unclear in scope. Furthermore, as they said, it would be very difficult to put this provision into effect and its application might lead to some unpredictable results and additionally to the extension of the scope of the patent protection.
Article 4 sets up the requirements of patentability. In order to be patentable, a computer-implemented invention must be susceptible of industrial application and new and involve an inventive step.  In order to involve an inventive step, a computer-implemented invention must make a technical contribution. Simultaneously, a computer-implemented invention making a technical contribution constitutes a necessary condition of involving an inventive step.
In the light of the European approach expressed in the proposal the requirement of technical contribution is to be considered as a kind of qualification of the inventive step as it is in Art. 56 of EPC, and not a substitute for that. The elements to be taken into consideration in the assessment of the existence of the necessary technical contribution are the state of the art and the scope of the patent claim. These elements must be considered as a whole, and must comprise technical features, irrespective of whether or not such features are accompanied by non-technical features.
The Commission’s approach – that computer-implemented invention it must be assessed as a whole for the purpose of the examination of the technical contribution requirement – is consistent with the EPO Technical Board of Appeal case law. According to EPO case law there must be no room for any assessment of weighting between technical and non-technical features in determining which of the two aspects makes more important contribution to the invention success. On the basis of these rules an invention having a non-obvious technical contribution may still merits to be patentable. Although in the case where no technical contribution is present, the invention falls within the category of excluded subject matters. If a valid claim contained both technical and non-technical aspects, there is no possibility to monopolize the sole non-technical features in isolation from the technical features. When assessing whether an inventive step is involved (and so technical contribution), the examiners turn to the application of the so-called problem-solution approach. Technical contribution can arise from the underlying problem solved by the claimed invention, the effects achieved in the solution of the underlying problem, the need for technical considerations to arrive at the computer-implemented invention as claimed, and from the means constituting the solution of the underlying problem.In order to make sure the exclusion of pure software and business methods from the circle of patentable subject matters, a few weeks after the Parliament had issued its Report, some additional proposals were introduced. An additional test was proposed for patentability, according to which an invention must teach a new way to use ‘controllable forces of nature’ and have an ‘industrial application’.
A simple specification of a technical mean does not amount to meet the requirement of patentability. As argued above, a technical contribution is needed. In order to exclude any possible misunderstanding of this issue the Parliament proposed an additional article, article 4 (a) titled ‘Exclusions from patentability’. Furthermore, by way of the interpolation of this new article, the EP makes clear its intention that computer-implementation of a business method shall not qualify as patentable invention.
The drafters had and still have to face a very intensive load of criticism coming from all over Europe. Some of those relate to the issue of claim formulation. According to Article 5 of the Commission¢s proposal – which leaves the path levelled by the practice of the EPO – computer-implemented inventions can be claimed either as a product claim or as a process claim. According to the wording of the Proposal, a computer program on its own or on a carrier can be available for patent protection, if the program when it runs on an apparatus carries out a process or implement a product, which qualifies for patent protection under the articles of the directive.
However, if the contribution to the state of the art relates solely to an unpatentable subject matter - irrespective of the claim formulation- there can be no patentable invention. The most heavily attacked provisions of the Proposal are the ones dealing with the relationship between the scope of the patent protection and the exemptions provided by copyright protection under the provisions of the Directive 91/250/EEC on the legal protection of computer programs by copyright. Here the problem was that unlimited patent protection would make acts initially permitted under the existing copyright legislation allowing reverse engineering in order to achieve interoperability illegal.
It was necessary to ensure that the same acts to achieve interoperability are allowed both under copyright law and patent law. Article 6 of the proposed Directive is to settle this dilemma. According to this article the rights conferred by patents shall not affect the acts permitted under Article 5 and 6 of the Directive 91/250/EEC, in particular in respect of decompilation and interoperability. In particular acts which under Articles 5 and 6 of Directive 91/250/EEC do not require authorization of the rightholder with respect to the rightholder's copyrights in or pertaining to a computer program, and which, but for Articles 5 or 6 of Directive 91/250/EEC, would require such authorization, shall not require authorization of the rightholder with respect to the rightholder's patent rights in or pertaining to the computer program. It seems to be a fair solution for the problem, but this would create an uncertain legal situation in the sense that the exemptions under traditional patent law are broader than the ones allowed under Art 5 and 6 of Directive 91/250/EEC.
For example, experimental use and research exemptions – as fair use exemptions - are usual exemptions provided under patent law, but under the current legal regime the practice of these acts might amount to copyright infringement. Furthermore, the Parliament proposed a new article to ensure interoperability in case of networks. According to this new proposal, wherever the use of a patented technique is needed for the sole purpose of ensuring conversion of the conventions used in two different computer systems or network so as to allow communication and exchange of data content between them, such use is not considered to be a patent infringement.
The aim of this provision is - by allowing acts in order to achieve interoperability - to ensure the development of open networks and avoiding abuse of dominant position. The scope of permissible acts is broader then the specific activities allowed under Directive 91/250/EEC, because the copyright directive refers only to computer programs and not to computer systems or networks, like the proposal does. The reason why the drafters put this provision into the proposal was a very obvious one. Whereas patent rights should not be used in an anti-competitive manner, software companies always want to control data exchange standards in order to deny competitors access to the market, which is an anti-competitive behaviour.
However, as it turned out for example in the Microsoft case, it is extremely difficult to handle these situations on a case-by-case basis, so there is a need that patent law should deal with this competition law considerations. The Commission has to monitor and to report if there is any difficulty in respect of the coexistence of the protections provided by patents and by copyright and whether any abuse of the patent system has occurred in relation to computer-implemented inventions.As to the effect that the patent protection for computer-implemented inventions may have on competition, it is the Commission’s obligation to monitor and to prepare a Report for the European Parliament and the Council. Furthermore, the Commission also has to monitor the impact of patents granted for computer-implemented invention on SMEs and electronic commerce.The last four articles contain administrative provisions in respect of the implementation of the proposed Directive.
The question of patentability of computer-implemented invention is becoming steadily more and more important in the light of the fact that such inventions are estimated to cover 15% of new patent applications in Europe. The patentability of computer-implemented inventions is already accepted in the EPO practice. In September 2003 the European Parliament adopted the proposal with certain amendments, concerning mainly the issues of interoperability, claim formulation, etc. According to the European Parliament’s findings these amendments were necessary in order to ensure that patents will not be used to block competing innovations. The amended proposal passed back to the Commission, and the Commission had to decide on whether the amendments proposed by the European Parliament were acceptable or not. The answer was pretty much predictable. As the speaker on behalf of the Commission during the EP debate expressed: ‘…many of these amendments are fundamental…There are some interesting points, but in the main, I am afraid that the majority of those amendments will be unacceptable to the Commission.’ In May this year the Competitiveness Council reached a political agreement on a common position on the proposal. The Commission supports the text adopted by the Council, however, this text is still not in fully compliance with the position of the EP. The EP was to introduce a wider system for exclusions covering the use of patented inventions for the purpose of interoperability and data handling. Both the Commission and the Council found this initiative as a possible harm to EU competitiveness – since it went so beyond the level what can be required to reach a healthy balance between rewarding the inventors and allowing competitors to build on the inventions. The common position went back to the EP for a second reading, which takes place after the EP has reconvened in September 2004. Since there are many controversial issues in respect of the patentability of computer-implemented inventions in Europe there is a strong need for a clear and coherent legal regime. This aim could be achieved by the adoption of the proposal. As it seems, there is still a long way to go until the final adoption of the Directive, but the significance of the steps taken by the European Parliament by having a debate and adopting the proposal with amendments and by the Council by adopting the common position is indubitable. It shows up a light at the end of the tunnel. Meanwhile the debate continues, and not only within the European Institutions but also at the level of different interest groups as well.
Notes and References
 Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the patentability of computer-implemented inventions (COM/2002/0092 final - COD 2002/0047) OJ C 151 E , 25/06/2002 P. 0129 – 0131.
Furthermore, Amendment 3 proposed by the Parliament makes the legislative purpose very clear by stating ‘The aim of this Directive is not to amend the European Patent Convention, but to prevent different interpretations of its provisions’. However, as to the amendment of the relevant provisions of the EPC, it is important to note that in November 2000 a Diplomatic Conference was organized with the purpose to undertake the modernization of the EPC. A specific proposal from the Committee on Patent Law and the EPO Administrative Council was put on the table advocating the abolition of programs for computers from Article 52 (2) (c) of the EPC, in the light of the EPO practice (see e.g. Decisions T 84/0284, T 97/0935, T97/1173).
The conference dismissed the proposal by saying that ‘the matter had not yet been sufficiently thought through for this to be the right time to make a binding decision’. (See: BOOTON – MOLE (2002) p293) Should someone have more interest in the subject, the following literature provides a good background: BASINSKI (2000) p1, Revision of the European Patent Convention: Background and outline proposals at <http://european-patent-office.org/epo/dipl_conf/background.htm> (26/08/2003), European Patents: Amendments to the European Patent Convention at <http://www.newburnellis.co.uk/epcamtxt.htm> (26/08/2003)) However, the question whether the lawfulness of the Directive (if adopted) will be questionable on the basis that it contains provisions contrary to international obligations of the member states is a more interesting one (supposing, that the provisions of the Directive are contrary to the relevant provisions of the EPC).
A similiar question has already been analysed by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in regard to the lawfulness of the 98/44/EC Directive (on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions). (see: Case C-377/98 Kingdom of the Netherlands v European Parliament and Council of the European Union E.C.R. 2001 page I-07079). The ECJ declared in the case, that ‘…the lawfulness of a Community instrument [i.e. a directive] does not depend on its conformity with an international agreement to which the Community is not a party, such as the Munich Convention on the Grant of European Patents…’ Furthermore, ‘Nor can its [a Community instrument] lawfulness be assessed in the light of instruments of international law, which like the Agreement establishing the World Trade Organization and the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual property Rights (TRIPs) … are not in principle, having regard to their nature and structure, among the rules in the light of which the Court is to review the lawfulness of measures adopted by the Community institutions’. (point 5.) The ECJ, in regard whether a Community instrument such as a directive can be used as a mean to establish common interpretation of provision of international treaties (i.e. EPC) all across the member states, found ‘…The purpose of harmonization is to reduce the obstacles, whatever their origin, to the operation of the internal market which differences between the situations in the Member States represent. If divergences are the result of an interpretation which is contrary, or may prove contrary, to the terms of international legal instruments to which the Member States are parties, there is nothing in principle to prevent recourse to adoption of a Directive as a means of ensuring a uniform interpretation of such terms by the Member States.’ (point 20) moreover, ‘…it does not appear [ in the present case] that such an approach is inconsistent with the Member States' honouring their obligations under the EPC or is unsuitable for achieving the objective of creating uniform conditions for the patentability of biotechnological inventions.’ (point 21).
As to the legal basis of the Directive in question the ECJ explained by referring to the Opinion 1/94 of 15 November 1994 ( ECR I-5267), that ‘…the Community is competent, in the field of intellectual property, to harmonize national laws pursuant to Article 100 of the EC Treaty (now Article 94 EC) and Article 100a of the Treaty and may use Article 235 of the EC Treaty (now Article 308 EC) as the basis for creating new rights superimposed on national rights’ (see: point 24 – 29). (see also SCHIUMA (2000) p36).
(see: <http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/com/hearings/software/analysis/files/guides.doc> footnote 2, (24/08/2003)), in JAPAN, the Draft of the Revised Examination Guidelines for Computer Software Related Invention does not define this concept, only talks about ‘applications relating to computer software related inventions (later referred to as ‘software related inventions’) whereas software means ‘a program relating to the operation of a computer’ provided, that a program is ‘a sequence of instructions suitable for a computer to perform a particular processing.’ (See:<http://www.jpo.go.jp/iken_e/pdf/feedback_121102_2.pdf> (25/09/2003) p 4).
 See also: Recital 11 of the amended proposal.
 These requirements are identical to the ones laid down in Article 52 (1) EPC.
 For instance if the contribution to the state of the art has purely non-technical aspects, like in the case of a method of doing business.
In ALCAN/Aluminum alloys ((T-465/92) ALCAN/Aluminum alloys  E.P.O.R. 501.) the Technical Board of Appeal expressed that the weakness of the problem-solution approach is that it relies on the results of a search of the relevant prior art, which is made with actual knowledge of the invention and is thus inherently based on hindsight, and thus requires care in its application. Furthermore, this approach can result in a complicated multi-step reasoning where the facts are clear, either for or against inventiveness. (for more comments on this case see: GTRITTON (2002) p94. On the issue of ‘could-would’ approach see: SINGER-STAUDER (2003) p155.
 i.e. a process carried out by such an apparatus through the execution of a software
. Article 5 (2). A claim to a computer program, on its own, on a carrier or as a signal, shall be allowable only if such program would, when loaded or run on a computer, computer network or other programmable apparatus, implement a product or carry out a process patentable under Articles 4 and 4a
 See: Article 8 (a).
 See: Press release IP/04/659 Brussels, 18th May 2004.
 See, for example, Protecting Innovation against Patent Inflation (available at <http://swpat.ffii.org>), ‘270,000 votes 2000 firms against software patents’ (available at <http://noepatents.org>), or email lists such as <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
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EPO Case Law
Decision T 84/0284
Decision T 97/0935
Decision T97/1173Controlling pension benefits system/PBS T-0931/1995
Koch & Sterzel T26/86 (21.5.87)  OJEPO 19
ALCAN/Aluminum alloys ((T-465/92) ALCAN/Aluminum alloys  E.P.O.R. 501.)
ECJ Case Law
Case C-377/98 Kingdom of the Netherlands v European Parliament and Council of the European Union E.C.R. 2001 page I-07079