2 Jun 2021 | Patents and Utility Models

Computer-implemented simulations and designs - a comparison of case law at the EPO and in Germany

Decision G1/19 of the EPO’s Enlarged Board of Appeal has recently caused some turmoil in the field of computer-implemented simulations and beyond. We provide a comparison of how computer-implemented inventions can be protected in Europe and in Germany.

Decision G1/19 of the Enlarged Board of Appeal of the EPO

In 2019, a Board of Appeal of the European Patent Office (EPO) disagreed with the findings of the earlier – and to that date generally accepted – decision T1227/05, which had ruled that a computer-implemented simulation of an electronic circuit subject to 1/f noise does have technical character. In referral decision T0489/14, the Board demanded stricter minimum requirements for affirming the technical character of a simulation (or a design process). In the Board's view, a technical effect requires, at a minimum, a direct link with physical reality, such as a change in or a measurement of a physical entity, a view which goes significantly beyond the requirements of T1227/05.

In its decision on the referral, the Enlarged Board has now ruled that computer-implemented numerical simulations and designs of a system or process should not be treated any differently from any other computer-implemented invention, thereby rejecting the “extreme position” in referral decision T0489/14. While the Enlarged Board did not reject the earlier decision T1227/05 outright, the Enlarged Board indicated that the findings in T1227/05 would not be generally applicable, due to the specific facts of the case underlying T1227/05, and thereby deprived this earlier decision of its former landmark character.

The Enlarged Board considers the “de-facto standard” at the EPO for the assessment of inventions consisting of a mix of technical and non-technical features (the so-called COMVIK approach) to be also suitable for the assessment of computer-implemented simulations. According to the COMVIK approach, the decisive question for the assessment of which features of a simulation of a system or process are technical features, and thus relevant for the assessment of inventive step, is whether the simulation or design process contributes to the solution of a technical problem by producing a technical effect. Therefore, the technical considerations relevant for the assessment of inventive step are only those technical considerations that pertain to the invention, i.e., to the simulation of the device or process, rather than the simulated system or process.

Referring to its earlier decision G3/08, the Enlarged Board acknowledges that a simulation is necessarily based on the principles underlying the simulated system or process, and that technical considerations associated with the system or process to be simulated typically form the basis of the mental act of establishing the model of the technical device or process being used in the simulation. However, the Enlarged Board holds that such a mental act of establishing the model (and equations/algorithms) underlying the simulation is devoid of technical character, because the technical considerations being used in establishing the model do not normally translate into a technical effect in the execution of the simulation. If technical considerations associated with the system or process being simulated were sufficient for the simulation to have technical character, then computer-implemented simulations would be privileged within the wider group of computer-implemented inventions, without any legal basis for such a privilege.

Along the same lines, the Enlarged Board also holds that a direct link with (external) physical reality, as demanded by T0489/14, is not a requirement for the technical character of a simulation or design process, even though such a link would likely be sufficient in most cases. However, it was held that only those technical effects that are at least implied in the claims should be considered in the assessment of inventive step, because if the claimed process results in a set of numerical values, whether a resulting technical effect can lend technical character to the claimed invention will depend on the further use of such numerical values.

Lessons from G1/19

The Enlarged Board’s finding that computer-implemented simulations and design processes are not to be treated differently from any other computer-implemented processes, and the Board’s reliance on the COMVIK approach, are a renewed confirmation and manifestation of the EPO’s established case law on computer-implemented inventions. While the good news for applicants is that the Enlarged Board did not follow the stricter approach of the referral decision T0489/14, the Enlarged Board confirmed the overall high standards of the assessment of computer-implemented inventions, which from now on will also apply to computer-implemented simulations and design processes. As simulation and design processes are often developed to run on conventional computer hardware, it will become even more difficult for applicants to claim and protect the simulation or design process independently of a particular and specific technical input or output or implied use of the results of the simulation or design process, e.g. for controlling a machine or manufacturing a product.

“Logikverifikation” decision of the German Federal Court of Justice

On multiple occasions, decision G1/19 refers to the earlier (December 1999) “Logikverifikation” (“logic verification”) decision of the German Federal Court of Justice. The latter decision relates to the field of production of highly-integrated circuits.

In the invention underlying the “Logikverifikation” decision, a hierarchically structured logic diagram of a chip is designed as a first step. Then, depending on this hierarchically structured logic diagram, a physical layout of the chip is designed. The physical layout of the chip specifies an exposure mask used for the actual chip production. This design process, at the time, was only partially carried out by a machine, i.e. a computer. Therefore, a crucial step in the design process (which lend its name to the decision) is the verification of the correct conversion of the hierarchically structured logic diagram into the corresponding physical layout.

To solve the problem at hand, the invention taught and claimed a method for hierarchical logic verification of highly integrated circuits, in which a hierarchical layout circuit obtained from a physical layout of the respective highly integrated circuit is compared to a hierarchical logic layout circuit determined by a logic layout. When the claimed comparison method yields that the compared layouts are identical to one another, the circuits are considered verified. Based on this verification result, silicon chips can be manufactured which complied with the desired specification. Notably, however, the step of manufacturing a chip was not recited in the claim under review.

The Federal Court of Justice found that there is a connection (not direct but indirect) to the manufacture of highly integrated circuits, because in subsequent stages of the integrated design and manufacturing process the masks, and ultimately the semiconductor integrated circuits, are created from the verified layout data stored in the memory of the data processing apparatus.

On that basis, the Federal Court of Justice ruled that the claimed invention relates to an intermediate step in a process which ends with the manufacture of silicon chips. Thus, the claimed teaching can be used to ensure that the chip to be manufactured consists of verified circuits. Therefore, according to the intended purpose of the claimed teaching, the teaching is part of a recognized field of technology.

Case Law of the German Federal Patent Court

In line with decisions 19 W (pat) 63/03, 19 W (pat) 314/05, 19 W (pat) 5/06, 21 W (pat) 46/07, 19 W (pat) 7/08, and 17 W (pat) 20/14, it appears that simulations in the field of Computerized Numerical Control are generally recognized to have technical character. This can be seen from the fact that in these decisions, the issue of technical character has not been questioned at all.

However, quite remarkably, the German Federal Patent Court considered that a system for traffic simulation did not provide a technical contribution. The Court found that the claimed simulation program would allow insights into the effect of road design measures on traffic flow and allow users to study ways to ease traffic congestion. However, the Court reasoned that the claimed teaching would be merely a planning aid and would have neither an outwardly directed controlling effect nor a monitoring effect (23 W (pat) 8/10).

Further, in 17 W (pat) 26/06 a method for generating a hierarchical netlist for simulating a circuit with a plurality of electronic components was considered not to provide any technical contribution. This reasoning was based on the finding that the actual contribution of the claimed teaching would be to arrange and compare already available information on components and sub-circuits in such a way that, in the netlist of components, sub-circuits could be detected with the aid of rules, and then replaced by substitute components, wherein the process was largely automated by a computer. This was considered mere data processing without a technical contribution.

In summary, the case law of the German Federal Patent Court appears, for the most part, to be consistent with the Logikverifikation decision of the German Federal Court of Justice: if a recognized field of technology is simulated, the claimed simulation can contribute to the technical character of the invention. On the other hand, some diverging decisions have been issued by the German Federal Patent Court as well.

Key Differences between EP practice and German practice

The German Federal Court of Justice generally accepts a technical contribution even if a computer-implemented simulation method only specifies an intermediate step of a process in a recognized technical field. In contrast, the EPO demands that technical effects can only be considered when assessing inventive step if these technical effects are at least implicitly defined in the claimed subject-matter. This difference requires extra effort and careful consideration when drafting claims for computer-implemented inventions in general, and simulations in particular.

In the area of computer-implemented simulations, the jurisprudence of the Federal Court of Justice in Germany has essentially been in agreement in recent years with the previously established case law by the EPO Boards of Appeal, which has provided more room for the patenting of such inventions compared to the standards now defined by G 1/19. Applicants may thus want to consider the filing of applications pertaining to such inventions in Germany in addition to or instead of filing at the EPO.