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21 December 2020
Is an animated lung on the display of a ventilator machine merely an unpatentable display of information or a technical feature that can provide an inventive step? For the first time, the Federal Supreme Court recently addressed the issue of whether such graphical user interfaces can be technical and affirmed a Federal Patent Court's decision.(1)
The courts' holdings are in line with the case law of the European Patent Office's boards of appeal and lay out the requirements that can render the display of information for technical purposes under the European Patent Convention (EPC).
In this case going back to 2017, the Federal Patent Court prohibited imtmedical AG (IMT, which has since been acquired by Vyaire Medical) from trading certain ventilating machines because they infringed Hamilton Medical AG's Swiss designation of the EP 1 984 805 B1 patent. IMT appealed to the Federal Supreme Court, claiming, among other things, that:
The Federal Supreme Court dismissed the appeal and affirmed the Federal Patent Court's decision.
Hamilton Medical's patent concerns medical machines called ventilators that physically move breathable air in and out of a patient's lung to deliver breath when they are unable to breathe unaided. Similar machines are frequently in the news at present as part of COVID-19 treatment. The patent also concerns the machine's display: it includes, among other things, an animated lung that contracts and expands with the patient's breath and uses graphical elements to illustrate a number of relevant machine parameters in this single, graphical animation.
The features of the independent patent claim read as follows:
1A A device with a screen
1B in order on this to represent acquired, changing values with a mechanical ventilation of a patient,
1C with means for acquiring at least three changing values of different origin,
1D [a] and means for representing the values,
[b] which permit the acquired values to be qualitatively represented together on the screen
[c] in a single element
1E [a] said graphical element including
[b] a pictorial representation of a lung shape,
[c] a current design of the lung shape containing qualitative information on the compliance of the lung,
characterized in that
1F [a] the means for representing [the] values are designed such
[b] that a volume change of the ventilated lung which is acquired with each breath, is represented in an animated manner
[c] by way of a size change of the lung shape corresponding to this volume change,
[d] involving an animation of a contour line of the lung shape,
[e] the design of which containing qualitative information on the compliance of the lung. (Emphasis added.)
It was disputed among the parties whether the features 1F[b] and[c] are decisive for novelty and inventive step.
IMT argued that the claimed animation of the lung was not a technical feature because it represents a mere "aesthetic creation" for the "presentation of information" and makes the invention unpatentable under Article 52(2)(b) and (d) of the EPC, respectively. IMT argued that such a non-technical animation could not be used to establish an inventive step under Article 56 of the EPC. IMT argued that there was no improved assistance of a user of a claimed ventilation machine and there was no plausible contribution to a solution of a technical problem at all.
Relying on COMVIK, the court restated that a single technical feature suffices to render a combination invention of technical and non-technical features, a so-called 'mixed' invention, patentable.(2) The court clarified that whether the patent improves the prior art was irrelevant for examining an invention's technical nature. In the case at hand, the court held that undisputedly technical features such as the machine's display clearly made the invention as a whole technical and, therefore, patentable.
The next issue was the examination of the inventive step.
It is well established that a claim feature that does not technically contribute to a claimed invention cannot be used to establish inventive step.(3) Accordingly, the crucial question was whether displaying the animated lung according to the features of 1F[b] and 1F[c] on the machine's display could be considered a technical feature for the purposes of Article 56 of the EPC.
Agreeing with the Federal Patent Court and referring primarily to the EPO decisions in T 1802/13 and T 336/14, the Federal Supreme Court held that the presentation of information can be technical when the information presented:
The court affirmed that the Federal Patent Court correctly held that Hamilton Medical's patented ventilator display meets these requirements.
The Federal Patent Court had found that the volume changes that the animated lung displayed for a patient's breath reflected the breath's volume and frequency set on the ventilator. Hence, this information illustrates the settings (ie, the technical state) of the machine.
With regard to whether the user assistance was 'credible', the Federal Supreme Court held that the Federal Patent Court had not expressly addressed the question, but found that credible assistance was evident because the animated lung was useful for medical personnel to set the machine's operating parameters according to the patient's needs.
The court also affirmed that the animation of the lung provided for continued and guided human-machine interaction. Specifically, the court seems to have interpreted this element as information that guides the user and changes in response to the user's action. In other words, the element is to be interpreted as a feedback loop in which the user's actions feed back into the information display, thus providing the user with continued guidance.
The court supported its finding by referring to T 1802/13 where the board of appeal held that merely displaying the information in a way that is easier to understand does not suffice if there is no guided interaction that causally supports the user. Similarly, referring to T 336/14, the display of static data is not enough because again the element of continued interaction, of feedback, between human and machine is lacking. On the other hand, the court referred to the depiction of the orientation of a medical ball joint implant during surgery as an example of where the surgeon is credibly assisted in correctly positioning an implant.(4)
The Federal Patent Court left it open as to whether the technical solution was an improvement or a mere alternative over the prior art because also a mere alternative would be inventive.
Therefore, the Federal Supreme Court affirmed the Federal Patent Court's holding that the animated lung on the ventilator machine's display was a technical feature and found that Hamilton Medical's patent was inventive and upheld a finding of infringement and confirmed the injunction against IMT.
For further information on this topic please contact Simon Holzer or Christian Fischer at Meyerlustenberger Lachenal by telephone (+41 44 396 91 91) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com). The Meyerlustenberger Lachenal website can be accessed at www.mll-legal.com.
(2) See also the EPO boards of appeal, Decision T 641/00.
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