25 May 2018

T 2330/13 - Parallel processing is technical

Key points
  • " The Board therefore considers that, as in decision T 1321/11, the features supporting parallel processing [of data using a bit matrix] contribute to the technical character of the claim." 

EPO T 2330/13 - link

5.5 It thus has to be determined whether and to what extent the features of claim 1 of the main request - which defines a computer-implemented method for evaluation of selection conditions for consistency - provide a technical contribution. Two main lines of argument may be distinguished here, namely (i) that the task performed by the method and its overall purpose are of a technical nature, and (ii) that the features of the claimed invention specifically take the functioning of a computer into account and result in technical effects such as improved processing speed. [...]
5.6.8 It can be concluded from the above that the task performed by the claimed method, namely verification of the consistency of the selection conditions, i.e. a system of rules, is not of a technical, but of a logical nature. Thus, it does not contribute to the technical character of the invention. [...]
5.7.3 The Examining Division did not find the second line of argument convincing with respect to the then pending requests (which did not contain features which specifically related to parallel processing). It considered that the matrices, bit strings and logical operations were mathematical constructs from the field of Boolean algebra which did not contribute to the technical character of the invention.  [...]
5.7.4 The Board is not fully persuaded by the above reasoning for refusing the requests pending before the Examining Division. However, this point need not be decided, since the appellant amended its requests in a way which, as set out below, overcomes the objections raised in the contested decision.

5.7.5 While information modelling is an intellectual activity and should be treated like any other human activity in a non-technical field, its purposive use in the context of a solution to a technical problem may contribute to the technical character of an invention (see e.g. T 49/99 of 5 March 2002, reasons 7 and T 42/09 of 10 March 2014, reasons 2.4). The case law distinguishes non-technical algorithmic choices based e.g. on mathematical constructs from technical options. According to decision T 1784/06 of 21 September 2012 (reasons 3.1.2), enhanced speed of an algorithm, as compared to other algorithms, is not sufficient to establish a technical character of the algorithm. The deciding board in that case considered that the claimed algorithm did not contribute to the technical character of the classification method. It might allow a data record to be processed in a parallel computer architecture, but the claim was not limited to an implementation on a parallel hardware structure, and the application as a whole was silent on parallel data processing. Decision T 42/10 of 28 February 2013 ruled: "In its full generality, speed of computation is a mathematical problem" (see reasons 2.11). However, in accordance with established case law, computational efficiency achieved by features resulting from technical considerations, e.g. about the internal functioning of a computer, is in principle a technical effect (see T 42/10, supra, reasons 2.11; T 1965/11 of 24 March 2017, reasons 5.1)
5.7.6 Several decisions have affirmed the technical character of particular data structures, such as functional data defined in terms which inherently comprise the technical features of the system (see e.g. T 1194/97, OJ EPO 2000, 525, reasons 3.3), data intended for controlling a technical device such as an index structure directing the computer to the memory location of the data to be retrieved (see e.g. T 1351/04 of 18 April 2007, reasons 7.2), or a functional data structure for facilitating the exchange of data among various application programs independently of any cognitive content (T 424/03 of 23 February 2006, reasons 5.2).
5.7.7 Binary or bit maps have also sometimes been considered technical, see e.g. T 969/12 of 21 June 2017 (reasons 2.1.3 and 2.1.7). Decision T 1954/08 of 6 March 2013 appears to have treated a claim feature defining the use of a binary map of flags in a computer-implemented method as an (obvious) technical implementation of a non-technical algorithm.
5.7.8 Claim 1 of the present main request does not simply describe the computer-implemented method in non-technical terms of the area of product configuration, e.g. in terms of rules. It is true that the claim uses mathematical terms, such as "matrix", and that the claimed method relies on "bit strings" and "bit matrices" which correspond respectively to the mathematical constructs "Boolean vectors" and "Boolean matrices". It nevertheless specifies that the combinations of values of product characteristics and the selection and restriction conditions are represented by specific bit matrices and bit strings, which are processed in a specific manner in order to arrive at the desired result (even if the claim does not define all the details of the necessary operations).
5.7.9 In particular, the specific choice of the claimed bit strings and matrices and respective operations is determined by technical considerations concerning how to efficiently perform the method steps in parallel. In this context, reference may be made to decision T 1321/11 of 4 August 2016 (reasons 5.3.5), in which it was concluded that two distinguishing features concerned the parallel, rather than serial, organisation of two processes and, in doing so, made use of the parallel processing capabilities of a media player. As a consequence, the two features were considered to contribute to the technical character of the claimed invention.
5.7.10 Regarding the present case, the Board recognises that performing the method in parallel usually results in more efficient evaluation of the selection conditions. The "desired number of bit sub-matrices" can be tuned, within the constraints of a particular data set, so that the desired degree of parallelism is achieved. Unlike the case of T 1784/06 (supra), both the present claims and the originally filed description (see page 14, lines 10 to 12) describe parallel processing.
The Board therefore considers that, as in decision T 1321/11 (supra), the features supporting parallel processing contribute to the technical character of the claim. In the present case, a more concrete parallel hardware architecture does not have to be claimed, since it is credible that efficiency gains can be achieved for different technical means used to perform the sub-tasks in parallel.
5.8 In summary, even though the task performed by claim 1 is of a non-technical nature (see point 5.6 above), the specific claimed bit (sub-)matrices, bit strings and steps of the method, especially those of splitting the bit matrix, forming bit strings representing the selection and restriction conditions and determining inconsistent pairs of selection conditions when performed by parallel processing, do contribute to the technical character of the invention and should be taken into account when assessing inventive step. Similar conclusions apply to the other claims of the main request.

Further prosecution
6. The claims of the main request need some minor corrections (see e.g. section VII, "combination of the plurality [of] bit strings" in claim 2 of the main request, and point 4.4 above) but are clear and overcome the objections raised thus far under Article 123(2) EPC.
7. In the Board's view, the features of claim 1 of the main request contributing to the technical character of the claimed subject-matter which were listed above are not notorious. Furthermore, it follows from the technical-character assessment above that the claimed method cannot be seen as corresponding to an obvious "human approach", as argued in decision T 1954/08. Unlike the binary map in that case, the bit (sub-)matrices and bit strings of the present invention are not merely used to store "flagged information", but instead play an important role in the processing steps which are specifically adapted to use those data structures for the efficient parallel evaluation of selection conditions in a computer.
As a consequence, inventive step cannot be assessed without knowledge of prior art relevant to those features (see e.g. decision T 426/09 of 9 September 2014, reasons 5) going beyond a notorious general-purpose computer. The Board assumes that such prior art, e.g. that cited in the search report, exists. Since the decision under appeal did not discuss any such prior art, and the Board considers it inappropriate in the present case to re-assess the application along a completely new line of reasoning, the case is to be remitted to the department of first instance for re-examination of inventive step on the basis of relevant prior art.

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