20 Mar 2017

T 2073/11 - Package delivery at storage site

Key points

  • The claimed invention is, essentially, a system wherein packages are not delivered to the home of the customer or to a local post office, but to a delivery and storage stations with lockers. The customer picks up the package from the delivery station. 
  • The Board fins the claimed invention to lack inventive step based on D1 and common general knowledge, e.g. the use of a unique identifier such as a bar code for the package was obvious.
  • The filing date is in 2000, regional entry in 2002, refusal by the ED in 2011 after only one Communication in 2009, and a decision of the Board finding lack of inventive step was issued in February 2017. So the EPO took about 15 years for one communicatoin from the ED, and oral proceedings before the ED and the BoA.
EPO T 2073/11 -  link 



Reasons for the Decision
The invention
1. The application relates to the delivery of packages to customers, which has become increasingly important for instance due to online shopping (page 2, lines 34-37).
1.1 It is explained that the conventional prior-art solutions, namely home delivery and delivery to a local post office, were inconvenient both for the customer (e.g. because the customer had to be at home at delivery time or drive to the post office during office hours) and for the delivery service (e.g. because it needed to drive to unfamiliar parts of town with potential parking problems; see page 2, line 41, to page 3, line 75). Other known solutions, such as the use of a "smart" locked box at the customer's house or delivery to businesses other than post offices, did not fully overcome these disadvantages (see page 3, line 81, to page 4, line 2).
1.2 The invention thus proposes to use dedicated "smart" storage devices (claimed as "package holding facilities") to which packages may be delivered for the customers to pick up and to which customers may return packages (see page 11, lines 287-293). These storage devices are meant to be placed at locations where parking is not a problem and which customers routinely visit anyway, such as gas stations and the like (see page 10, lines 259-262).


1.3 The invention further proposes that the holding facilities are networked and "in communicative association" with a number of central services and the recipients. As a whole, this system provides routing, notification and information services to merchants and customers.
1.4 More specifically, every package is identified by a machine-readable label such as a bar code (see page 12, lines 310-313, page 19, lines 522-530, page 26, lines 701-705, and page 33, lines 909-920). When an item is delivered to a storage location, the recipient is informed of this fact and the location (e.g. by email; see page 14, lines 356-362). The recipient may also be informed if the preferred storage space is occupied and be given the choice between delaying delivery or accepting delivery to a different location (page 17, lines 443-451). Customers can interact with the tracking service, for instance to decline acceptance of a package or to return a package (see e.g. page 17, line 467, to page 18, line 482). Various scenarios are described in which the combination of storage space and tracking system might be useful.
The prior art
2. D1 discloses a networked system of lockable storage devices (see figure 1, no. 1) used for the delivery of packages in spite of the recipients' absence (page 1, lines 6-16). The storage device may have a single compartment or several of (see figure 1 and page 6, lines 27-35). Customers can, via a central server, determine remotely whether a compartment in a particular storage device is available and, if so, reserve and lock it, and they can unlock a compartment to free it for other customers (see page 2, lines 21-27, page 3, line 33, to page 4, line 8, and page 5, lines 15-17). The server communicates with the customers via a "telematic" service (see page 2, lines 15-27). The recipient can determine remotely whether a parcel has been delivered and is awaiting collection (page 5, lines 18-23). The storage devices may also store messages from the delivery service to the customer or vice versa. For instance, the customer might thus inform the delivery service that a package should be delivered elsewhere (see page 5, lines 5-14).
3. D2 discloses a system for package delivery in urban environments (see figures 1 and 3), preferably to a decentral location in order to avoid parking problems (page 1, lines 4-9). Each package is identified by an attached bar code label which the storage facility reads on delivery (page 5, lines 1-4, and figure 3, no. 13). The same bar code is sent by regular mail to the recipient (see figure 3, no. 14, and page 1, lines 30-33), who has to present it or the associated code at the storage facility to retrieve the package (page 1, lines 18-29, page 4, lines 24-28, page 5, lines 15-18, and claim 1).
Clarity, Article 84 EPC 1973, and claim construction
4. It is claimed that each "package holding facility" is "located on the premises of a respective site selected for its centrality and/or general convenience to a target community or market such that consumers may visit the site at any convenient time".
4.1 The examining division took the view that this feature was not technical (see e.g. page 4, last paragraph). The board however, while not necessarily disagreeing with this view, considers it above all to be unclear and, thus, to render claims 1 and 4 unclear, Article 84 EPC 1973.
4.2 Firstly, it is impossible to determine what is central or convenient for an undefined "target community". Secondly, in particular what is or is not "convenient" for a target community is a subjective, and variable and therefore unclear notion. Thirdly, even assuming that "centrality" and "convenience" had any meaning for a particular target community, it would not have one for all possible target communities. Hence, at least without identifying the target community, the feature in question does not impose a clear limitation on the claimed invention.
5. The system of claim 1 is specified to comprise "means for uniquely identifying a package by means of a unique, machine readable package identifier". The board takes the "unique, machine readable package identifier" and the "means for [...] identifying" to comprise, in particular, a bar-code label and the associated bar-code reader.
Inventive step
6. The board agrees with the decision that D1 is a suitable starting point for assessing inventive step of the claimed invention.
6.1 D1 discloses the following features of claim 1:
- a package transference system comprising
- networked self-service package-holding facilities as claimed,
- a routing system which stores, for each package, the identity of the recipient, the delivery address, and a delivery status (for the latter see e.g. page 5, lines 24-28), and
- a recipient notification system connected to the holding facilities which can be accessed by the recipient to see whether the package has been delivered yet.
The board also considers that D1 implicitly discloses a way to "uniquely" identify each package, because customers inquiring at the server must identify the package of interest.
6.2 D1 does not disclose
1) a unique, machine-readable package identifier and the corresponding reader,
2) the recipient notification system actively notifying the recipient that a package has been delivered, or
3) an information management system with which at "any time prior to the release of the package" the identity of the recipient, the delivery address or the "delivery status" can be changed.
6.3 During oral proceedings, the appellant substantially agreed with this analysis of claim 1 vis-à-vis D1.
6.4 As regards 1), the board notes that packages can, for most practical purposes, be identified by the names of the sender and the recipient, the date of dispatch and their size. However, this approach fails if, as may well happen, a customer orders several same-size packages from the same merchant.
6.4.1 Using "unique identifiers" for the packages is the obvious solution to avoid any confusion, apart from their utility as database keys. Moreover, when attached in machine-readable form to the packages (e.g. as bar code labels), unique identifiers simplify the physical handling of packages in an obvious way. In the board's view, the utility of unique, machine-readable package identification is generally known in the art, but it is also known from D2 in the pertinent context (see page 1, line 20).
6.4.2 During the oral proceedings, the appellant argued that the use of bar codes in D2 was disclosed for use in a specific procedure which involved, in particular, postal delivery of the bar code to the customer. The skilled person would, therefore, not have incorporated the bar code of D2 without, at the same time, also incorporating its postal delivery. This however would be at odds with the claimed electronic recipient notification. The board disagrees. Firstly, and as already mentioned, the board considers the use of bar codes to be of obvious utility in tracking systems, independent of D2. Secondly, D2 discloses the delivery of the bar codes to the customers to enable them to retrieve the right packages from the storage facilities. For this function, the means used to inform the customers of the bar code is immaterial. Therefore, the skilled person would not have hesitated to use other forms of communication, for instance in the course of modernising the system of D2.
6.4.3 As regards 2), recipients are obviously inconvenienced by the obligation to inquire whether a package has already been delivered, for instance because they then have to keep track of the expected packages. Likewise, recipients who are not expecting a package (a gift deli­very, for example) have no reason to make such an inquiry. The board considers the idea of relieving customers of the need to keep track by actively informing them of a delivery to have been common place. Using means of communication other than the conventional telephone network of D2, for instance cellular phones or email, is, in the board's view, an obvious matter of modernising the system of D1; cellular phones and email were well-established in 1999, the priority date of the present application.
6.5 As regards 3), the board considers that the customers' wish to be able to change, "at any time prior to the release", the recipient's name or address or even the "delivery status" (into, for instance, "return to sender") is both obvious and non-technical. Whether a service provider is prepared to satisfy these wishes is a matter of choice, influenced by questions of practicability and cost. If, however, the service provider wants to offer these services, it is obvious that the modifiable parameters must be accessible in association with the package identity.
6.6 In summary, the board agrees with the decision under appeal that system claim 1 - and a fortiori the more general method claim 4 - lack inventive step over D1, Article 56 EPC 1973.
Order
For these reasons it is decided that:
The appeal is dismissed.

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