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Wednesday, 18 May 2011

German Federal Court: bread crumbs navigation is not patentable

In a judgment of 24 February 2011, the reasons for which only became available recently, the German Federal Court (BGH) upheld a decision of the Federal Patent Court which invalidated Siemens' German patent DE 101 15 895 C1, which I take the liberty of referring to as the "bread crumbs patent".


Siemens' patent, filed in March 2001 and issued in December 2002, claims a method for navigating websites, comprising the following steps (unofficial and slightly abbreviated translation from German):

Method of generating a display for retrieval (Wiederfinden) of a page already visited from the home page of a content provider and subsequently left, which is accessible over the internet, an intranet or an extranet, which comprises the following steps executed on the server
a) registering the user when accessing the home page,
b) registering the pages visited immediately or subsequently from the home page by the user,
c) generating a display which shows the sequence of the pages visited by the user.

The patent explains that the registration of the user may occur, for example, by placing a "Cookie" on his access device. It is evident that the patent claims the very popular bread crumbs navigation.

Someone - the judgment is anonymous - took issue and filed for a declaration of nullity, citing lack of patentable subject matter, lack of novelty and lack of inventive step. The Federal Patent Court agreed with the plaintiff and declared the patent null for lack of patentable subject matter.

On appeal, the BGH confirmed. The claimed method was technical in nature, since it concerned the storage, retrieval and transmission of data by technical means (para. 16). However, since computer programs "as such" are not patentable, case law requires that the claimed method comprises instructions for the solution of a technical problem by technical means (para. 17). Here, the claimed method merely taught to register and display the information entered by the user. The usability of the navigation method depended on the interaction of the user and the visual display of the information. Merely implementing this method by technical means known in the state of the art did not make it technical in nature (para. 23).

Since the claims lacked patentable subject matter, neither court needed to address the issues of novelty and inventive step. For website owners in Germany, the nullification of the bread crumbs patent is certainly good news. This is one of those patents that must have been infringed by thousands of people. Whether Siemens ever tried to enforce the patent is unclear.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

huh? is this reasoning a little self contradictory?

admittedly I haven't read the decision but the summary seems to say the method was both technical and non-technical....

Mark Schweizer said...

The decision is indeed a bit difficult to understand. In para. 16, the court says:

"Die erforderliche Technizität ist im Streitfall zu bejahen, weil das unter Schutz gestellte Verfahren der datenverarbeitungsmäßigen Abarbeitung von Verfahrensschritten in netzwerkmäßig verbundenen technischen Geräte dient, wobei die von einem Benutzer bei einem Internetbesuch aufgerufenen Webseiten registriert werden und eine anzeigbare Darstellung dieser Seiten erzeugt wird. Dabei handelt es sich um typische Schritte der Verarbeitung, Speicherung und Übermittlung von Daten mittels technischer Geräte"

To sum: it is technical because it handles data. Then, in the next para:

"Auch ein auf dem Gebiet der Technik eingesetztes Verfahren ist nach der ständigen Rechtsprechung des Bundesgerichtshofs nicht schon deswegen dem Patentschutz zugänglich, weil es zur Herbeiführung des angestrebten Erfolgs auch den Einsatz eines Programms zur Steuerung einer Datenverarbeitungsanlage vorsieht (...). Da das Gesetz Programme für Datenverarbeitungsanlagen als solche vom Patentschutz ausschließt, muss die beanspruchte Lehre vielmehr über die für die Patentfähigkeit unabdingbare Technizität hinaus Anweisungen enthalten, die der Lösung eines konkreten technischen Problems mit technischen Mitteln dienen."

To sum: because the law prohibits to patent computer programs "as such", the technical nature of the invention is not enough in case of computer programs, these also need to teach the solution of a specific technical problem with technical means.

Personally, I believe these "technical/non-technical" tests are still very aleatory.

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