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Displaying internet search results: mostly non-technical presentation of information

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This examination appeal decision concerns one of the items on the list of things excluded from patentability that is often encountered when dealing with graphical user interface design: the presentation of information.

As we will see, unless the displayed information relates to an internal state of a technical system, or the way of displaying it facilitates a continued human-machine interaction, such things are hardly considered technical at the European Patent Office. Especially, lowering the cognitive burden of the user is regularly not accepted as a technical effect:

The invention

The invention underlying this examination appeal related to the presentation of search results from an internet search engine. Search results are typically presented as a list that includes the title, a snippet, and a link. A snippet may include a small portion of the result document that contains some of the search terms from the query.

According to the patent application, the snippet may not provide enough information to enable the user to make a meaningful decision about which search results to select from the list. The invention therefore addresses the problem of how to enable a user to choose more intelligently which search result document to access.

The solution was to provide a user interface which shows, in response to the user’s selection of a snippet, further extracted information in the form of an expanded text excerpt of the document containing the snippet, so that the user is better informed before making his decision.

The claimed solution differed from the closest prior art by two feature groups, none of which were considered technical by the board:

Selecting what should be displayed – not technical

The features in the first group of differences relate to the selection of textual content for the excerpt and the expanded excerpt from the search result document and have the effect that they restrict the selection of the presented content based on the paragraphs as structural components of the document.

The Board considers that these features specify which part of the document is selected for presentation to a human user. These features concern only the selection of cognitive content according to certain rules, i.e. they specify what is presented to the user. None of these features concerns the actual implementation of the selection rules in a computer system. These features solve the non-technical problem of determining what information should be presented as a text excerpt or as an expanded text excerpt to the user.

In general, when a computer program is developed, the algorithm underlying the program is first developed on a conceptual level before it is actually implemented in a computer system by means of program code. When the claimed solution is analysed with respect to its underlying algorithm on an appropriate conceptual level, the selection rules themselves can be conceived as rules that could provide a human user with instructions on selecting further text deemed to be informative. For the technical functioning of the computer system it is irrelevant according to what rules the content of the text excerpts or the expanded text excerpts is selected. Hence, the Board does not see that these features have a credible technical effect. As the Board does not consider that these features contribute to the solution of a technical problem, they cannot be taken into account in the assessment of inventive step (see decision T 154/04, OJ EPO 2008, 46, reasons, point 15).

The same goes for the second feature group:

How to present the information – not technical

The features in the second group of differences concern primarily the manner in which the expanded excerpt is presented on the display to the user, i.e. the question of how the information is presented. In this respect the Board refers to decision T 1143/06 of 1 April 2009, reasons 5.4, which states “… a feature which relates to the manner how cognitive content is conveyed to the user on a screen normally does not contribute to a technical solution to a technical problem. An exception would be if the manner of presentation can be shown to have a credible technical effect.” In the present case, there is no credible technical effect of a superimposed presentation according to feature (c)(ii)(1), of a presentation “in connection” with the search results according to feature (c)(ii)(2) or of an “inline” presentation according to feature (c)(ii)(3). Hence, the desired manner of presentation is a non-technical aim that may legitimately appear in the formulation of the technical problem to be solved.

The Board shares the view taken by the Examining Division that frames, superimposed windows and “inline” presentations were well-known techniques at the priority date and the appellant has not contested this.

The Board notes that only feature (c)(ii)(2), which mentions frames, defines a specific feature of an implementation. As this feature is well known in the context of implementing user interfaces, the Board considers that the implementation detail proposed in feature (c)(ii)(2) could be implemented by the skilled person as a matter of routine. Moreover, the Board observes that features (c)(ii)(1) to (c)(ii)(3) are claimed as alternatives in claim 1. Consequently, if one of these alternatives is considered to be obvious, the assessment of the inventiveness of the further alternatives is not decisive for the overall assessment of claim 1.

The applicant managed to insert some technical features in auxiliary request II, but these features were considered obvious by the board:

Trade-off between response time and memory consumption/processing load – technical but obvious

The expanded text excerpts are provided together with the search results if the user configures the method accordingly (see the following features of claim 1: “receiving user input relating to a manner for providing expanded text excerpts” and “providing an expanded text excerpt, corresponding to the text excerpt, with the search results when the user input indicates that expanded text excerpts are to be provided with search results, the expanded text excerpt being displayed only in response to the text excerpt being selected”).

This configuration shortens the time taken to respond to the user’s selection of the text excerpt compared to a retrieval of an expanded text excerpt in response to the user’s selection of the corresponding excerpt in the displayed search results.

The claimed solution is a trade-off between, on the one hand, shorter response time and, on the other hand, additional costs of higher memory use and processing time at the server and the client and of increased network traffic (as, for each search result, the expanded text excerpt needs to be generated, stored, transmitted and cached). Such a trade-off is within the normal development skills of the skilled person, who in the present case is a software engineer familiar with processing, on a search server such as a web search engine, search requests received over a network from remote clients. The skilled person is aware of slow response times for remote requests due to communication overhead and latency (see the abstracts of documents D3 and D4). For example, document D4 (see e.g. abstract and section 1.1) shows that caching and prefetching were well known in the context of web browsing. Hence, shipping the expanded text excerpts in advance (together with the search results) for caching at the client lacks inventive step. Moreover, it was generally well known at the priority date to configure software systems by means of user input to enhance flexibility with respect to different requirements.

Finally, in auxiliary request III, the applicant tried to persuade the board by inserting features that concerned how information (the text excerpt and the search terms) is visually distinguished when it is presented on the display. As the reader might guess, with no success:

Lowering the cognitive burden of the user – not technical

Displaying visually distinguished textual information to a human user does not, at least in the context of claim 1, serve a technical purpose, but aims to lower the cognitive burden on the user when he attempts to identify certain elements (e.g. the search terms, the excerpt) in the displayed information.

Consequently, the Board does not consider that these features contribute to a credible technical effect. Hence, it is legitimate to add the non-technical requirement that the search terms and the selected text excerpt be visually distinguished by means of different manners of presentation in the expanded text excerpt to the objective technical problem to be solved (see decision T 641/00, COMVIK, OJ EPO 2003, 352).

You can read the whole decision here: T 0912/12 (Expanded snippets/GOOGLE) of 13.2.2018

Photo by Anthony Martino on Unsplash

About Bastian Best

Bastian Best

I'm a European patent attorney specializing in software patents and a partner in one of the most renowned IP only firms in Europe.

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bastianbest.com Software patents for emerging tech since 2008