It is becoming clearer when computer-implemented methods are likely, or unlikely, to be deemed patentable subject matter in Australia – Encompass, Rokt and other recent decisions
Published on 26 May, 2020
During the past decade, the patent-eligibility of computer-implemented methods has been a particularly vexing focal point for Australian patent law and practice. With computer technologies now ubiquitous and relatively mature, applying the centuries-old “manner of manufacture” test in a way that is practical and predictable in the eyes of practitioners and their clients has proven somewhat elusive for examiners and hearing officers of the Australian Patent Office and judges of the Federal Court at both first instance and on appeal.
In many ways, this Australian experience has mirrored the challenges faced by US patent practitioners seeking consistency in application of the principles set down by the Supreme Court in Alice Corporation Pty Ltd v CLS Bank International (2014) 134 S Ct 2347 and by UK and European practitioners in grappling with legislative exclusions of computer-implemented schemes and presentations and statements of principle in cases such as Aerotel Ltd v Telco Holdings Ltd (and others) and Macrossan’s Application  EWCA Civ 1371.
The decision in late 2019 of an expanded 5-member bench of the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia in Encompass Pty Ltd v InfoTrack Pty Ltd  FCAFC 161 has provided additional clarity on where Australian law draws the line between unpatentable schemes or ideas with incidental computer-implementation and patentable inventions involving technical applications of ideas or improvements in how computers operate. The principles and approach endorsed in the Encompass decision were followed by another Full Court in last week’s long-awaited decision in Commissioner of Patents v Rokt Pte Ltd  FCAFC 86. Other recent decisions of the Australian Patent Office and Federal Court of Australia have produced outcomes that are generally consistent with the principles articulated in Encompass and applied in Rokt, in finding both for and against patent-eligibility in different cases.
Accordingly, Australian practitioners are now better-placed to advise their clients on the likely strength of “manner of manufacture” issues and grounds relating to methods involving some element of computerisation, both during drafting and prosecution of patent applications, and in connection with both enforcing and seeking to revoke granted patents. In this article, we provide commentary on these recent developments and practical guidance on the new best practice with respect to Australian patents with computer-implemented aspects.
The Encompass Case
The Encompass case concerned two similar innovation patents relating to a method of displaying information related to “entities” (such as individuals and corporations) and the connections between those entities so as to provide business intelligence. The claimed method would allow a user to generate and display a “network representation” by querying remote data sources. The claimed method would then allow the user to select a node (representing an entity) on the network representation, perform further searches to retrieve information related to the selected node and provide the retrieved information to the user – such as by updating the network representation to display further nodes, from which further searches could be performed, and so on.
Encompass’s innovation patents in suit referred in the body of their specifications to each specific function of the claimed method being realised “in a number of ways, depending on the preferred implementation”. The patents did not stipulate any specific hardware, programming or software to perform the invention. Indeed, the specifications repeatedly emphasised that the steps of the claimed method “may be achieved in any suitable manner” or “using any other suitable technique” or “mechanism”.
First Instance Decision
At first instance in Encompass Corporation Pty Ltd v InfoTrack Pty Ltd  FCA 421, Perram J found all claims of both of Encompass’s innovation patents invalid for failing to meet the manner of manufacture requirement. His Honour also found some claims (those which lacked a “purchasing step”, which was held to contribute substantially to the working of the invention) invalid for lacking innovative step in light of a prior art platform known as “They Rule”, and otherwise dismissed InfoTrack’s other challenges to validity based on novelty and innovative step in light of prior art, alleged self-anticipation, secret use and section 40 (clarity, support and sufficiency).
Expanded Full Court Appeal Decision
An expanded Full Court of five Judges (Allsop CJ, Kenny, Besanko, Nicholas and Yates JJ) heard the appeal by Encompass and its exclusive licensee SAI Global. The Commissioner of Patents also exercised her right to appear and make submissions, which were broadly aligned with those of InfoTrack in arguing the Encompass Patents did not satisfy the manner of manufacture test. The Institute of Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys (IPTA) also sought, and ultimately was granted, leave to make written submissions in the appeal as amicus curiae, which were broadly aligned with those of Encompass and SAI Global in arguing the Encompass Patents should qualify as patent-eligible computer-implemented methods.
The Full Court essentially upheld all of the findings of the primary judge, finding all of the claims of both of Encompass’s patents invalid for failing to meet the manner of manufacture test and the claims that lacked the “purchase step” (claims 1 and 3-5 of the 164 Patent) invalid for lack of innovative step.
Generic computer implementation
The Full Court confirmed that where, as a matter of substance, there is “no more than an instruction to apply an abstract idea [or scheme] (the steps of the method) using generic computer technology”, there will be no patentable subject matter. It is not enough that an “uncharacterised electronic processing device (for example, a computer) is employed as an intermediary to carry out the method steps”. An “idea for a computer program” where it is “left…to the user to carry out that idea in an electronic processing device…which itself is not characterised” is not patentable subject matter. The Full Court upheld the primary judge’s findings that Encompass’s innovation patents fell into this category and accordingly failed to claim (or even disclose) any patentable subject matter.
The role of Prior Art in the “manner of manufacture” assessment
An issue raised before the Full Court by IPTA as an intervener was the trend in examination practice before the Australian Patent Office of considering prior art in assessing patentability. The Full Court emphasised the caution expressed in previous judgments against importing concepts of novelty and obviousness in the assessment of manner of manufacture, but declined to comment on the examination practices of the Commissioner of Patents in unrelated matters.
In a seminar delivered in November 2019, the Patent Office stated that to identify the substance of the claim and what is the alleged or actual contribution, the need to understand “inventiveness” may include a consideration of prior art. This approach has attracted criticism from members of the profession. The Full Court in Encompass did not provide any firm guidance as to the approach adopted by the Commissioner. It is important to refer to the Patent Office Manual of Practice and Procedure at 22.214.171.124 identifying the current practice:
“In order to determine the substance [of a claim]…. consideration should be given to the claimed invention and the contribution that it makes to the art. Logically this consideration may take into account the prior art at the priority date rather than merely common general knowledge.”
As outlined below, the Full Court’s comments in the very recent Rokt decision suggest this approach may no longer be followed.
In any event, there are a number of ramifications to the consideration of prior art in assessing patentable subject matter, which have not yet been tested. Of particular concern is Section 24 of the Patents Act 1990 (Cth), which provides a grace period in which authorised or unauthorised publication or use of the invention in certain prescribed circumstances is disregarded for the purposes of novelty and inventive/innovative step. However, this provision does not exclude such disclosures from being considered for the purposes of manner of manufacture. It is currently unclear if, when utilising these grace period provisions, disclosure of the invention before the priority date could prevent a patentee from obtaining a valid patent on the basis of patentable subject matter.
Related Patent Office Opposition Decision
InfoTrack subsequently succeeded in its opposition to the grant of Encompass’ Australian Standard Patent Application No. 2013201921, the parent application of the two innovation patents in suit in the Federal Court proceedings described above: InfoTrack Pty Limited v Encompass Corporation Pty Ltd  APO 48 (31 October 2019). The Delegate followed the reasoning of the Full Court in finding that standard patent application invalid for lack of manner of manufacture, despite some of its claims including more specific steps relating to techniques for disambiguation, and also found the claims to be obvious in light of the They Rule prior art.
The Rokt Case
The case involved a patent application entitled “A digital advertising system and method” belonging to tech company, Rokt Pte Ltd. The application related to a computer implemented system and method that linked users to online advertising by presenting an “engagement offer” when a user accessed a website. The engagement offer was targeted based on a user’s previous interactions. It provided a context-based advertising system in which users who were more likely to engage with advertising were shown specific offers to increase engagement over traditional methods of digital advertising.
Patent Office and First Instance Appeal Decisions
In 2017, an unsuccessful hearing decision issued in which the Delegate of the Commissioner of Patents decided that the application was not patentable on the basis that it was not a “manner of manufacture”. In 2018, Rokt successfully appealed the outcome of the hearing decision to the Federal Court, in which the primary judge (Robertson J) ruled that the invention of the application was directed to patentable subject matter. Disagreeing with the Federal Court’s judgement, the Commissioner of Patents appealed the Federal Court’s decision to the Full Federal Court.
Full Court Appeal Decision
Overturning the primary judge
The judgement of the Full Court (Rares, Nicholas and Burley JJ) closely followed the guidance of the expanded Full Court’s earlier decision in Encompass in assessing patentable subject matter by focusing on the disclosure and detail provided by the specification, assessing whether the invention is a scheme, and then considering the implementation of the scheme in the computer.
The Full Court found that the primary judge erred in his findings in the original decision by relying too heavily on the opinion of Professor Verspoor, Rokt’s technical expert, in adopting her answers to the questions which characterised the substance of the invention. The primary judge was also found to have relied on the technical problem and solution identified in the specification, without addressing the question of whether the technical solution was actually claimed.
The Full Court found that the primary judge did not engage in any analysis of the central question of whether invention was found to lie in the implementation, or whether it amounted to simply “an instruction to ‘put’ the scheme into computer technology.” Their Honours emphasised the danger in adopting an expert’s opinion without additional legal analysis, noting the importance of the legal approach to understand the invention under assessment of manner of manufacture.
Limiting the use of common general knowledge to construing the claims and specification
The Full Court’s decision emphasised that consideration of the common general knowledge should be used only for construing the specification, and not to provide characterisation or evidence of what constituted ’generic software’ or the use of computers for their ‘well known’ purpose. The approach endorsed by their Honours was to carefully review the specification to ascertain whether the computer technology is being utilised for its basic, typical or well-known functions to implement anything more than a mere scheme.
Following the decision in Encompass, their Honours considered the matter of whether the claimed method was implemented using generic software. The Full Court observed in Encompass that the claims of the invention did not define any particular software of programming to carry out the invention, and so it was left up to those using the method to implement a suitable computer program for the purpose of carrying out the method. Agreeing with that approach, the Full Court in the Rokt case identified the problem addressed by Rokt’s invention as enhancing consumer engagement levels. The solution was determined to be the provision of an intermediate “engagement offer” targeted to a user interacting with digital content.
A Marketing scheme
In light of these observations, the invention was classified as “a marketing scheme”. This gave rise to a key consideration in assessing patentable subject matter: whether the computer is a mere tool in which the invention is performed, or whether the invention lies in the computerisation. Following the approach laid out in Encompass, their Honours came to some strikingly similar conclusions regarding the detail in the specification:
“in our view nothing about the way that the specification describes the computer hardware or software indicates that either is any more than a vehicle for implementing the scheme, using computers for their ordinary purposes”
“The specification does no more than describe the architecture of the hardware in a most general sense.”
“…the claim provides no content to suggest a different conclusion. Despite its length and detail, it contains no integer that serves to characterise the invention by reference to the implementation of the scheme beyond the most general application of computer technology utilised in an online environment.”
Although it was determined that the specification represented a solution to problems in marketing, the lack of detailed description suggests that the scheme in which this solution was achieved did not involve the use of computer technology “other than as a vehicle to implement the scheme”.
In drawing a direct parallel between the position of the patentee in Encompass, their Honours concluded that the claimed invention amounts to an instruction to carry out the marketing scheme, and that the invention provides no more than a list of steps which may be implemented using computer technology for its well-known functionality.
At the time of publication of this article, Rokt still has the ability to seek special leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia.
Other Recent Federal Court and Patent Office Decisions
Technological Resources Pty Limited v Tettman  FCA 1889 (2019)
The Federal Court of Australia recently overturned an Australian Patent Office (APO) opposition decision regarding the “manner of manufacture” requirement for patentable subject matter. In the Federal Court appeal, Jagot J found that the Delegate had mischaracterised the claimed invention and that the claimed invention was not analogous to those considered to be mere schemes.
After Mr Tettman successfully opposed the grant of Australian Patent No. 2011261171 entitled “Separating mined material” (171 Application) before the Commissioner of Patents, Technological Resources Pty Limited filed an appeal to the Federal Court of Australia.
The 171 Application claims methods and apparatus for identifying and separating mined material on a bulk basis (a form of ore sorting in which a sensor is used to make an assessment of material on a bulk basis) and describes how low grade iron ore can be upgraded by implementing a system that assesses the grade of segments of ore and then separates the ore based on the assessed grade of segments of ore. The main ground of contention in the decision was that the claimed invention was not a manner of manufacture (i.e. not patentable subject matter) on the basis that what was claimed was a mere scheme, involved only mere working directions and was a mere collocation.
Arguments – mere collocation, mere scheme and working directions
Mr Tettman argued that the individual integers of the claimed method were known and the claimed invention involved the use of known systems to a purpose to which they were all well suited.
Technological Resources argued that the invention of its method claims was not a combination of parts at all, but rather a method comprising a series of steps undertaken in a sequential manner for the processing of ore, and does not proceed to the next step until it has completed the previous step. Accordingly, it was argued that the steps plainly have a working inter-relationship.
Mr Tettman relied upon the initial reasoning of the Delegate which found that the claimed invention did not involve a manner of manufacture since what was claimed was a mere scheme and mere working directions. Technological Resources argued that the 171 Application did not involve a business method or scheme and is distinct from gathering, processing or presentation of information in the fields of finance or business. The “…claimed invention resides in the field of mining or mineral processing, a technical field, and involves methods and apparatus for the processing of ore in a series of physical process steps to produce upgraded material, a physical and tangible result. So understood, the invention is a classic example of a manner of manufacture according to traditional principle”.
Justice Jagot found that the methods and apparatus claimed were in fact different to anything that formed part of the common general knowledge that had been supported by the parties’ expert evidence.
Justice Jagot also found that the claimed invention was not analogous to those considered to be mere schemes. Her Honour found that the Delegate’s reasoning involved a mischaracterisation of the claimed invention, which “involves physical steps carried out on a physical product using physical apparatus, to produce a physical and tangible result. It does not bear a resemblance to the cases on which the Delegate relied” Importantly, no meaningful analogy to Commissioner of Patents v RPL Central Pty Ltd  FCAFC 177 or Research Affiliates LLC v Commissioner of Patents  FCAFC 150 could be drawn.
Repipe Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Patents  FCA 1956 (2019)
Two innovation patents directed to software inventions were revoked after the Court determined that a lack of technical detail in the specifications meant the patents were not patentable subject matter. The claimed inventions failed to provide sufficient technical detail to be considered more than mere generic computer implementation.
Repipe Pty Ltd (Repipe) was the owner of two similar innovation patents, directed to methods of providing information to a portable user device to improve compliance by employees with field risk management procedures and requirements in industries such as construction and mining.
After three adverse examination reports issued in relation to each of the Patents, and an unsuccessful hearing in which a delegate of the Commissioner of Patents issued a decision (Repipe Pty Ltd  APO 42), Repipe appealed that decision to the Federal Court. Both parties agreed that the only issue disputed was whether the Patents claimed inventions that were a manner of manufacture under s 18(1A)(a) of the Patents Act 1990 (Cth).
Repipe submitted the substance of the invention claimed in the first patent was the combination of the server, communications network and a portable computing device configured and controlled in the specified way by a specific software application so the user can use and create an expanding collection of items to select from as each field worker completes his or her own risk management document. It was submitted that each of the inventions claimed in the Patents provided a technical solution to a technical problem.
The Commissioner argued that the substance of the invention in both Patents was a mere scheme for sharing and completing workplace health and safety documents, emphasising that there was a lack of any meaningful technical detail in the claims or the accompanying description of the specification. In particular, the claims recited ordinary computer functions without prescribing the technical means by which any such functions must be performed. The lack of detail left the selection of hardware and creation of software to implement the steps entirely up to the person skilled in the art.
The decision of the Court hinged on the question of whether or not the method of each invention merely required generic computer implementation of a scheme or abstract idea. Justice McKerracher determined that there was “no meaningful technical content” in either specification, despite providing detail as to the computing device functionality, and highlighted the absence of specific application software being claimed or even identified in any claim of the Patents, as well as drawing attention to the absence of computing programming logic or code being disclosed. In paragraph 93, His Honour noted:
“To implement the scheme, a reader must use his/her own skill and knowledge to write an appropriate software application. No such application is disclosed in the Patents.”
Justice McKerracher relied heavily on the authority of the recently issued expanded Full Federal Court decision in Encompass. His Honour found the claimed methods merely required generic computer implementation and therefore could not be a manner of manufacture.
Watson v Commissioner of Patents  FCA 1015 (2019)
In this Federal Court of Australia decision, Mr Dale Watson appealed a decision by the Delegate of the Commissioner of Patents to revoke an innovation patent entitled “A Method of Innovation”.
Mr Dale Watson was the owner of an innovation patent entitled “A Method of Innovation”. Method claim 1 of the innovation patent recited:
A method of innovation comprising the steps of an organisation engaging with an innovation services provider to innovate, said organisation disclosing aspects of the organisation to said innovation services provider and specifying a financial return to said innovation services provider for said innovation, wherein said innovation services provider describes or defines said innovation as a corresponding IP right prior to its disclosure to said organisation and the amount of said financial return is determined, at least partially, from the value or benefit or advantage of any sort or any other consideration or value of any kind to said organisation of said IP right.
During examination for certification of the innovation patent, five examination reports were issued, all of which concluded that the invention was directed to a business model, and therefore was a mere scheme and not a “manner of manufacture”. After the fifth examination report, a hearing was requested. In the resulting hearing decision, the Delegate of the Commissioner of Patents also concluded that the claims were directed to a business scheme or model. That decision of the Delegate was appealed to the Federal Court.
Mr Watson submitted that a necessary step in the method of the claims was the definition of the innovation as a corresponding IP right (such as a patent, trade mark, design, plant breeder’s right or copyright). Mr Watson then contended that the product of the claimed invention was the IP right created by following the method of the invention, and as such the product consisted of an “artificial state of affairs”. Mr Watson argued that the invention claimed was patentable because it was “something that can be made by man… or at the least [was] some new mode of employing practically his art and skill”, thereby amounting to an observable phenomenon. Mr Watson further submitted that the IP right, as claimed in claim 1, was “a useful product” that was a “tangible, physical and observable effect”.
Justice Rares dismissed Mr Watson’s appeal, concluding that the claimed invention is directed to an abstract idea for a business scheme under which persons can agree to contract for intellectual property services, where those services might result in the creation of an IP right that might be useful and, if so, make an additional agreement as to a reward.
The claims were considered to involve a collocation or combination of well-known steps. The idea of providing remuneration on the basis of success and the calculation of a reward based on some relationship of the value of what is created for the engaging party was not considered to be new, nor was the combination of such a method of remuneration with the engagement of a professional. The claims were determined to amount to no more than assertions of a method that might produce a result.
Justice Rares noted that one would have to follow the claimed method in full before knowing whether or not the original engagement of the innovator fell inside or outside of the scope of the claims. As Rares J put it, “to allow such a… monopoly would have a chilling effect on all intellectual property professionals… because they would be at risk of infringing the patent if they followed the supposed method and succeeded in producing a useful result”. Consequently, his Honour concluded that the method was not considered to be patentable based on the claimed subject matter being a mere scheme or business model and the unsettling ramifications of allowing such subject matter to be deemed eligible for a patent.
Leave to Appeal Refused
An application by Mr Watson for leave to appeal was recently refused in Watson v Commissioner of Patents  FCAFC 56. The Full Court refused leave to adduce fresh evidence to challenge the primary judge’s observations. Despite Mr Watson’s attempts to align the claims of the application to those of NRDC (National Research Development Corporation v Commissioner of Patents (1959) 102 CLR 252), the Full Court rejected this assertion and instead considered the claims to be more in line with the scheme of Grant (Grant v Commissioner of Patents (2006) 154 FCR 62), stating that “at most, the claimed invention is a business innovation, not a technological or technical innovation.” Ultimately, the Full Court confirmed the primary judge did not err in his findings, and concluded that the claim was “a description of an idea, said to be new, as to how parties might go about organising their affairs in relation to the creation of an intellectual property right and payment for it. There is no greater specificity or substance in the claim than that.”
Apple Inc.  APO 32
An invention relating to computer user interfaces, and more specifically to context-specific user interfaces for indicating time, was found by the Patent Office to be a manner of manufacture. Whilst the original Examiner and the Delegate were divergent in their characterisation of the substance of the invention, it was ultimately found that the claimed invention of re-using animation sequences to produce user interface objects provided a technical advantage in reducing computational burden.
Apple Inc (Apple) is the owner of Australian Patent Application 2015298710 (710 Application). The 710 Application was the subject of an earlier Patent Office decision, in which the Delegate remitted the application back to examination to determine the state of the art so that an informed decision could be made on whether the substance of the invention was a manner of manufacture.
Upon the application returning back to examination, the original Examiner maintained that “the substance of the alleged invention is a presentation of specific aesthetic content” and concluded that the invention as claimed was not a manner of manufacture. On 20 November 2018, Apple then filed a request to be heard a second time, which resulted in a further decision from the Australian Patent Office (the later decision)
During examination and in submissions for the hearing of the earlier decision, Apple argued that the substance of the invention lies in the re-use of animation sequences in order to generate varied presentations while using less memory to store the animations used as compared to individually storing each full presentation (and thus storing duplicated content multiple times). Apple disagreed with the Examiner’s characterisation, that the substance of the invention “is a presentation of specific aesthetic content” and submitted that instead, the characterisation set out in the earlier decision should be adopted.
In assessing manner of manufacture requirements, the Delegate referred to the principles set out in D’Arcy v Myriad Genetics Inc  HCA 35, Commissioner of Patents v RPL Central Pty Ltd  FCAFC 177 and Research Affiliates LLC v Commissioner of Patents  FCAFC 150.
The Delegate ultimately found that the claimed invention was directed towards a manner of manufacture. In particular, the Delegate was of the view that the specific manner in which the invention re-used animation sequences to produce user interface objects provided a contribution to the art. That contribution, which reduced computational burden in producing user interface objects, was technical in nature and therefore lies within established principles of what constitutes a patentable invention.
Facebook, Inc.  APO 19
In this recent Patent Office decision, it was found that claims to a method that helps applications share information are directed to patentable subject matter based on the technical improvement provided by the invention, despite concluding that the claims only required generic computer implementation.
The subject of the long-awaited decision is Australian Patent Application 2014209546 (546 Application) in the name of Facebook, Inc (Facebook). The 546 Application provides a method which enables applications to communicate with each other by accessing a shared memory. Most applications, when installed on a mobile device, are “sandboxed”, which means that application data and code execution are isolated from other applications. As such, the applications do not have the ability to communicate with each other. Facebook’s invention enabled data to be written to a shared memory location that is outside of the application’s sandbox, thereby allowing information to be shared.
Facebook requested the hearing back in August 2018, reaching an impasse with the Examiner after a fourth Examination Report was issued. The only matter under consideration was the outstanding patentable subject matter / manner of manufacture objection. After the initial hearing on 21 November 2018, Facebook was invited to file further submissions on three different occasions, including to make comments on a piece of prior art raised by the Delegate as evidence of the state of the art.
The Delegate’s Decision
The Delegate’s decision focused predominately on consideration of five questions taken from Aristocrat Technologies Australia Pty Limited  APO 49 (Aristocrat). These questions included:
- Is the contribution to the claimed invention technical in nature?
- Is the computer merely the intermediary, configured to carry out the method, but adding nothing of the substance of the idea?
- Does the claimed invention merely require generic computer implementation?
- Does the invention result in an improvement in the functioning of the mobile device?
- Does the claimed invention solve a technical problem in the functioning of the computer?
The Delegate considered that the substance of the invention lies in a series of steps where data is received, executed, an indication is stored and then the indication is transmitted through a different application along with user information. The claims allow for advertising attribution and conversion tracking, and the Delegate concluded that the conversion tracking was not technical in nature.
The Delegate accepted the use of the computer was intrinsic to the claimed method, as the invention operates entirely between a mobile device and an online system and therefore requires the use of a computer. However, he was not convinced that the steps of the claim (including executing data and installing an application) were more than generic computer implementation.
In considering whether the invention resulted in an improvement in the functioning of the mobile device, the Delegate agreed with Facebook that the claimed method appeared to be performing something new. There was enough detail to confirm that the method provides a technical improvement as “the device is now able to do something that it could not do previously”.
The Delegate also agreed that the “sandboxing” of native applications was a technical limitation faced by application developers. Interestingly, whilst it was recognised that “sandboxing” still exists in light of the method being utilised, the Delegate concluded that the invention works around the existing sandboxing, and therefore ruled that there was a technical improvement in the device.
After determining the substance of the invention to be a technical improvement in the functioning of the device, which worked around a technical limitation, the claims were found to be a manner of manufacture.
Implications, Commentary and Practical Guidance
Australia’s legal test for patent-eligibility of computer-implemented inventions
Australian patent law does not explicitly exclude software or computer-implemented inventions from patent-eligibility. Computer-implemented inventions may still be patentable in Australia on a case-by-case basis, particularly where they result in an improvement in computer technology. The scrutiny applied to computer-implemented inventions arises as computers can readily be programmed to perform all manner of schemes, tasks or ideas that might improve the human experience, but which are not themselves patentable subject matter.
Recent guidance in this area has made it easier to predict when inventions are likely, or unlikely, to meet the requirements for patentable subject matter, by considering whether the inventive concept of the invention lies in an idea or scheme which can be generically implemented using computers, or in a technical application which makes an improvement to computer technology or otherwise involves some physical effect or phenomenon.
Inventions involving physical steps carried out on a physical product using physical apparatus, to produce a physical and tangible result, remain patentable if they give rise to an artificially created state of affairs of utility in a field of economic endeavour (the useful arts), as established by the High Court of Australia in NRDC. Applications directed to abstract ideas, schemes and intellectual information have never been held to be patentable in Australia. The Patent Office remains poised to reject applications if they lack a useful physical result or technical effect, if they lack well-defined boundaries, or if granting the patent would be negative effects on innovation.
However, the implementation of an idea in a computer may be considered patentable if the invention lies in the computerisation. There is required some ingenuity in the way in which the computer is used, rather than simply using the computer for its well known or generic functions. Implementation of an abstract idea can be characterised as “generic” when an invention claimed is indifferent as to the particular device or lacks detail as to the particular means of implementation. Where the claims identify wholly generic or conventional means of carrying out some part of an abstract idea or scheme – any ingenuity is in the scheme and not in the computerisation or use of a computer. That is, the computer is considered as acting only as a tool for implementing the abstract idea.
As the Full Court in Encompass warned, a patent specification should not, “…having identified the cardinal steps of the exemplified method, [leave] it to the user to implement the method in the way he or she might choose to do so, assisted by broadly-expressed and non-limiting suggestions or possibilities.”
If the invention includes or uses more than generic software or hardware, this must be reflected in the claims and supported in the specification by meaningful technical detail. Claims reciting specific (non-generic) software or programming steps, rather than just the idea or information flow, may satisfy the manner of manufacture test.
Further, as demonstrated in Facebook, Inc., an invention which overcomes or circumvents a technical limitation by providing a technical improvement to how a device functions may still be considered patentable subject matter where the use of the computer is intrinsic to the method, even if the steps are themselves considered to be generic.
Practical guidance for drafting and prosecuting Australian patent applications for inventions with computer-implemented aspects
The recent decisions on computer-implemented inventions have provided practical guidance for drafting and prosecuting Australian patent applications in this space.
Many of the inventions which were the subject of recent decisions failed the patentable subject matter test based on a lack of technical detail as to the function, implementation and application of the software and hardware of the invention. The key takeaway is that technical detail within the specification is crucial to showing that the contribution of the invention is technical and provides an improvement to computer technology, or that the inventive concept lies in the computerisation of the method.
Accordingly, it is necessary to avoid using only functional language to describe the result or purpose of a step in an invention. An application should describe how the invention is actually performed and implemented, in a technical sense, rather than broadly describing an idea or information flow. Specifications should include sufficient technical detail on how any hardware, computer functions or software used for carrying out the invention actually perform their technical functions and improve computer technology. Describing the details of a particular algorithm or technical effect may reduce the risk of the invention being characterised as abstract or requiring mere generic computer implementation. Similarly, figures should have detail and support the technical description of the invention.
Broad, sweeping statements such as “any appropriate manner”, “any generic system” or “any suitable manner”, “mechanism” or “technique”, or “can be implemented in any manner, such as executed by a computer” should be avoided or at least minimised if the patentee wants to show that the computerisation is more than generic utilisation of a computer. Phrases such as these leave the details of the implementation up to the user, and during later prosecution, can give rise to difficulties in arguing that these are more than just generic steps. Similarly, generic figures or paragraphs which could appear in any patent application in the computer-implemented space can result in adversely diluting the technical effects and advantages of the invention. These may additionally give rise to potential section 40 support/enablement or sufficiency issues.
There should be a focus on understanding and describing the detail of how the computer-implemented invention works, rather than focusing solely on what it achieves or the end result. Engaging with the inventors and programmers or technical staff when having the application drafted is good practice as it provides good technical description as well as insight into the unique details of the inventiveness. This information can then be used to support arguments and assertions made by the patentee of the technical effects and advantages when prosecuting the applications.
Every application is examined on a case-by-case basis. Drawing analogies with other issued decisions or cases may not prove persuasive if there is not a significant overlap in the technology. However, arguments against patentable subject matter objections can ultimately be strengthened by technical detail disclosed in the specification.
Whilst the test of patent eligibility remains somewhat nebulous, and that is appropriate given there is a need to provide flexibility, it is becoming easier to predict which side of the line a purported invention is likely to fall by considering where the inventive concept lies: in the idea/scheme which can be routinely implemented using computers (unlikely to be patent-eligible), or in some technical application which either improves the use of the computer or otherwise involves some tangible product or effect beyond the idea (more likely to be patent-eligible).
Shelston’s deep expertise and experience with patents for computer-implemented inventions
Shelston’s team includes experienced ICT-focused patent attorneys who can consult as to relevant questions of patent drafting and patentable subject matter. Our expert litigators are very well-placed (particularly having represented clients in both the Encompass and Research Affiliates matters) to advise on enforcement or revocation strategy in this important and highly active area of patent law.
* The authors were engaged by InfoTrack in its successful challenge to the two Encompass innovation patents at first instance and before an expanded bench of five Judges in the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia and its successful opposition to a related patent application in the Australian Patent Office.