An objective technical problem that literally recites the solution?

Reading time: 7 minutes

Case No. O2020_008 | Judgment of 10 January 2022

We have reported about the main hearing in this matter on this Blog here.

CABB logo

In short, Lanxess Deutschland GmbH, had sued CABB AG for infringement of the Swiss part of EP 2 468 653 B1, i.e. EP(CH) 2 468 653 H1.

EP 653 as initially granted pertained to a bunghole closure for closing a transport drum containing thionyl chloride (claim 1), a transport drum comprising a bunghole closure (claim 6), and a use of perhalogenated polymers for sealing a transport drum which at least partly contains thionyl chloride (claim 11).

Lanxess logo

The key feature of the patent pertains to a sealing which consists essentially of a perhalogenated polymer, in particular PTFE (more widely known as Teflon®) and/or PCTFE. According to EP 653, such sealings significantly reduce the corrosion of the transport drum which would occur if the thionyl chloride escaped and reacted with the humidity of ambient air.

Lanxess drum

With the partial waiver published as EP(CH) 653 H1, the independent claims directed to the bunghole closure and the use were deleted, and the remaining claim on the transport drum was limited, inter alia, to the feature that the drum is actually filled with thionyl chloride (and not only that it is suitable for this purpose).

Only (in)validity of the patent was at stake. CABB had relied on various public prior uses as closest prior art. One of the prior uses related to a drum with a PTFE seal. However, the drum had been used for storing oxalyl chloride instead of thionyl chloride.

It had already been clear from the pleadings at the main hearing that the expert opinion of the judge-rapporteur had held that the patent was invalid. Accordingly, the actual outcome in the final judgment that the complaint is dismissed (for invalidity of the patent in suit) does not come out of the blue.

Discussion of (non-)obviousness is always highly case-specific and rarely of broader interest. Not so here. Two aspects of how obviousness is assessed are seriously confusing me.

The ‘objective technical problem’

The judgment holds that what had been known from the closest prior art was a transport drum with all constructive features with respect to the sealing etc., and that this drum had already been suitable for storing thionyl chloride. However, it had not actually been filled with / used for storing thionyl chloride; which accordingly is the distinguishing feature.

Now, what is the ‘objective technical problem’ then?

Assuming the skilled person was the transport drum expert, I was prepared to read something like «Coming up with a new use for the known transport drum», or maybe «Expanding the application of the known transport drum to other corrosive liquids», or similar.

Alternatively, from the viewpoint of a chemist as the skilled person (but not necessarily with the known transport drum as closest prior art), something like «Identifying an alternative (or better / safer?) transport / storage means for thionylchloride» would have made sense to me.

However, the judgment holds that the objective technical problem is to use the known transport drum for the transport of thionylchloride, and to at least partially fill it with thionlychloride.

Notably, that’s not meant to be the claimed solution. It’s the ‘objective technical problem'(?).

I was taken aback. An ‘objective technical problem’ that literally recites the claimed solution?! The EPO Guidelines in G VII, 5.2 explicitly hold that this is a no-go:

[T]he objective technical problem must be so formulated as not to contain pointers to the technical solution, since including part of a technical solution offered by an invention in the statement of the problem must, when the state of the art is assessed in terms of that problem, necessarily result in an ex post facto view being taken of inventive activity.

I understand from the judgment that Lanxess objected to the formulation of the objective technical problem in that way. To no avail. The judgment holds that the claim essentially («im Kern») is a use claim, and that it is common for use claims to phrase the ‘objective technical problem’ in the above manner.

That is somewhat surprising to me. I would say that I am a heavy user of use claims, but I have not yet been faced with an ‘objective technical problem’ formulated like this. The judgment itself does not refer to any precedent, and I am not aware of any case-law or other authority either.

These remarks on the formulation of the objective technical problem for use claims leave me perplexed. It remains to be seen how use claims will henceforth be dealt with at the FPC. If this approach will be followed, I fear that use claims are effectively dead on arrival.

Long-felt need

I understand that plaintiff had argued that the invention cannot have been obvious because even though the issue of corrosion with other transport drums that contained thionyl chloride had been known in the art, the invention had not been made for years. I cannot know the exact pleadings, but this appears to be what is commonly referred to as a secondary indication of non-obviousness, i.e. a long-felt need.

However, the judgment holds that this does not count at all; only a prejudice could serve as an indication of non-obviousness:

On the contrary, the EPO Guidelines in G-VII, 10.3 hold that addressing and solving a long-felt need may well be considered as an indication of non-obviousness:

Where the invention solves a technical problem which workers in the art have been attempting to solve for a long time, or otherwise fulfils a long-felt need, this may be regarded as an indication of inventive step.

What is more, the FPC did refer to the secondary indication of a long-felt need in a decision last year, i.e. O2019_005 in ¶47. The present decision, however, does not refer to O2019_005 in this respect; an editorial glitch? It is currently not fully clear to me whether these considerations on a long-felt need in the present decision amount to a change of practice or not. Time will tell …

Reported by Martin WILMING


Case No. O2020_008 | Judgment of 10 January 2022

Lanxess Deutschland GmbH

Panel of Judges:

    • Dr. Mark SCHWEIZER
    • Dr. Tobias BREMI
    • Dr. Martin SPERRLE


    • Dr. Tobias BREMI

Court Clerk:

    • Susanne ANDERHALDEN

Representative(s) of Plaintiff:

Representative(s) of Defendant:

    • Klaus FEGER (Holzach)
    • Dr. Cornelia HOFFMANN (SBMP), assisting in patent matters



As initially granted:

After the partial waiver:


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My constant struggles with how the problem-solution approach is applied (or not)

Reading time: 10 minutes

Case No. O2018_004 | Decision of 14 December 2021

Part 1 of 2; to be cont’d in a separate post.

There is so much to write about this judgment that I hardly know where to begin. You might want to catch a glimpse of what is at stake on this Blog here. In my opinion, it is a judgment that would have deserved a headnote, maybe even more than one. A thorough discussion of all aspects will take some time. This is why I chose to take baby steps, to at least get things going. In this post, I will only address a tiny bit of the judgment concering the assessment of inventive step / problem-solution approach. A separat post will cover the other aspects of the decision, hopefully soon.

It hardly ever happens that I disagree with the assessment of inventive step in judgments of the FPC — as far as the result is concerned. But the reasoning sometimes puzzles me.

Case law should be predictable. Towards this end, it is comfy to have standardized tools at hand. This is where the EPO’s problem-solution approach comes into play (Guidelines, G-VII, 5) which the FPC has repeatedly indicated to apply. O2018_004 is no exception to the rule:

As a quick recap, the problem-solution approach involves three main steps:

    1. determining the ‘closest prior art‘;
    2. establishing the ‘objective technical problem‘ to be solved; and
    3. considering whether the claimed invention would have been obvious to the skilled person.

Even though case law should be predictable, individual judgments must be ‘right’. Accordingly, the judgment holds that the problem-solution approach shall not be formalistically but critically applied, to avoid hindsight bias, in particular in the formulation of the objective problem. I do concur (it’s even in the Guidelines, G-VII, 5.2, third but last paragraph).

The judgment goes on to explain why:

Losely translated to English:

If the effects or problems associated with the distinguishing features cannot be inferred from the closest prior art and are not obvious for the skilled person in light of the teaching of the closest prior art, the schematic application of the problem-solution approach can and usually will result in the identified ‘objective technical problem’ already giving an indication of problems or improvements in a certain direction which cannot be inferred from the closest prior art and which is remote therefrom.45

45 T 5/81 of 4 March 1982, OJ 1982, 249, ¶11; T 63/97 of 1 December 1997, ¶3.5; T 170/97 of 23 February 1998, ¶2.3; T 414/98 of 30 November 1999, ¶6.1.

That’s a looong sentence that I had to rehash several times to swallow it — and I am not sure if I’m done yet.

The decision goes on to hold:

In such situations, the objective technical problem must not be formulated in terms of the specific effects associated with the differentiating features; otherwise it would already give the skilled person a retrospective indication to even consider changes in a certain direction for improvements.

Well, … I disagree. It is perfectly fine in the problem-solution approach to include effects (Effekte) or problems (Problemstellungen) into the definition of the objective technical problem which are not disclosed or rendered obvious by the closest prior art. If that was not a given anymore, one would push the door gaping wide open for the test to deliver obviously wrong results.

Here is an example:

Let’s take a prior art document D1 that discloses a snow plow for mounting on a truck. The whole document is about the clever geometry of the plow itself. The mounting for connecting the plow to the truck is only shown schematically, not described in any detail. No discussion whatsoever about the mounting, or that there could be any issues with the mounting. Taken to the extreme: Let’s assume that D1 boldly holds that any mounting will be equally fine.

The later invention builds on the plow of D1, and improves the mounting. Let’s say, the inventive mounting for the plow is more strain resistant than any other mounting that had been known for snow plows of any kind. Let’s assume that this is due to rivetting instead of welding.

There is nothing wrong about a formulation of the objective technical problem to make the mounting of the plow according to D1 more strain resistant: If there is a secondary document or other teaching that fairly suggests a strain resistant mounting for a plow of the kind of D1, the invention is dead on arrival (rightly so). If not, an inventive step is to be acknowledged.

I would only see it differently in the rare case of the discovery of a previously unrecognised problem, so-called problem inventions. In the above example, let’s assume that previously known snow plow mountings rapidly broke and noone had ever understood why. If the issue of strain in comparable mountings had never ever been mentioned in the prior art, the formalistic appplication of the problem-solution approach would indeed lead to ‘wrong’ results. But, frankly, arguing for a problem invention typically is a desperate last resort, evidenced be a whole body of Case Law of the Boards of Appeal. What is more, posing of a new problem must be shown over the prior art as a whole (similar to a technical prejudice), not only vis-à-vis the closest prior art. And the burden is on the applicant / patentee to do so, not on the office or court to come up with it.

If it would happen once in a while that the problem-solution approach cannot / must not be applied as we all know it, then I would expect that this would be mentioned in the EPO Guidelines. But there is … nothing.

Next, the references to case-law of the Boards of Appeal in fn 45 (see above) made me worry whether I missed anything.

Let’s see:

T 5/81 of 4 March 1982 (OJ 1982, 249) is so old, it’s almost prehistoric. The decision even predates T 24/81 of 13 October 1982 which has outlined the problem-solution approach for the very first time. The reasoning in ¶11 of T 5/81 evolves around a comparison of the problem indicated in the closest prior art document and the problem defined in the application as filed. That had been one of many approaches at the time to tackle obviousness. But not so anymore today. T 24/81 in no way sets itself apart from the problem-solution approach.  

As to T 63/97 of 1 December 1997, I feel that the reference to ¶3.5 is besides the point. The definition of the problem (step ii., above) is already done in ¶3.4; ¶3.5 deals with the assessment of obviousness of the solution (step iii., above). I have a vague fealing that the reference is meant to point to ¶3.5.3, holding the following:

An interpretation of the documents as influenced by the problem solved by the invention while the problen was neither mentioned or even suggested must be avoided, such an approach being merely the result of an a posteriori analysis (see decision T 5/81, OJ EPO 1982, 249)

I do concur: Prior art documents must not be interpreted with hindsight. But this concerns the assessment of whether or not the solution had been obvious (step iii., above), not the definition of the objective technical problem (step ii., above).

Reference to T 170/97 of 23 February 1998 does not add much, at least at first glance. The objective technical problem is merely stated without any further ado in ¶2.3. What is interesting, though, is the reference to T 13/84, which is the decision that had introduced the concept of re-formulation of the problem in view of newly cited prior art. In T 13/84, the applicant argued that the preamble of the claim (reflecting the closest prior art) should relate to the same or a similar problem. The Board explicitly disagreed:

I have discussed a very similar issue on this Blog here in relation to the choice of the closest prior art, i.e. when it had been held in O2015_008 that the objective technical problem that is used for the problem-solution approach shall have a «basis or motivation in the closest prior art» document. I feel that T 13/84 supports my view that this is not correct.

T 414/98 of 30 November 1999 is besides the point, again. Reference to ¶6.1 concerns the assessment of obviousness of the solution in the problem-solution approach, i.e. step iii., above. The definition of the objective technical problem is being dealt with in ¶5, in no special way.

In sum, none of the references in fn 45 supports the view that there is a systematic issue with the problem-solution approach when «effects or problems associated with the distinguishing features cannot be inferred from the closest prior art.» If that was indeed an issue, it would almost certainly have been dealt with in quite a number of decision of the Boards of Appeal meanwhile: There are thousands of decisions that have applied the problem-solution approch, over a timeframe of four decades. But it appears that there is not a single precedent.

Now that you followed me through this lenghty exercise to establish a line of reasoning why this approach is mistaken, you might wonder:

Does it make a difference?

Not in the present case, I believe. The secondary reference is technologically so remote from the closest prior art that one could well have denied obviousness in step iii. of the standard problem-solution approach.

But that does not mean it is irrelevant. It significantly impairs predictability of case-law, without any apparent need.

What is more, it might well make a difference in another case, which it shouldn’t. The problem-solution approach is an extremely valuable tool to ensure predictability of case-law since about 40 years in thousands of Boards of Appeal decisions, and tens of thousands of decisions to grant or refuse patent applications at the EPO on (non-)obviousness — each year.

The problem-solution approach surely is not the one and only tool to assess obviousness. But since the FPC opted to apply it as a rule, I would hope that it is only modified with a trembling hand if there really is a need for it. Apart from problem inventions, I cannot see any.

UPDATE 14 May 2021:

The decision has been appealed.

Reported by Martin WILMING


Case No. O2018_004 | Decision of 14 December 2021

Synova AG
Avonisys AG
Stephan MOHREN

Panel of Judges:

    • Dr. Andri HESS
    • Dr. Tobias BREMI
    • Lara DORIGO


    • Dr. Tobias BREMI

Court Clerk:

    • Susanne ANDERHALDEN

Representative(s) of Plaintiff:

    • Dr. Michael RITSCHER (MLL)
    • Louisa GALBRAITH (MLL)
    • Werner ROSHARDT (Keller Schneider), assisting in patent matters
    • Stephan KESSLER (Keller Schneider), assisting in patent matters

Representative(s) of Defendant:

    • Dr. Ralph SCHLOSSER
    • Dr. Regula RÜEDI (Blum), assisting in patent matters
    • Dr. Christoph ENGELBRECHT (Blum), assisting in patent matters
    • Dr. Zacharias STELZER (Blum), assisting in patent matters



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Roses are red; violets are blue — It’s all obvious! Well, is that true?

Reading time: 7 minutes

Case Nos. O2016_010, O2016_011 | Hearing of 20 March 2019

Twice upon a time …

I have attended the main hearings in both these nullity cases, i.e. O2016_010 relating to EP 2 347 250 B1 (see EPO Register and Swissreg ) and O2016_011 relating to EP 2 352 018 B1 (see EPO Register and Swissreg). Note that EP’018 is based on a divisional application of EP’250.

The inventions are all about the capacitive testing of yarns or fabric, wherein the dielectric property of a capacitor arrangement is determined.


It became clear from the pleadings that the defendant’s main request in both cases was that the patent be maintained in amended form only. In my understanding, the expert-opinion of the judge-rapporteur had held that the main request in O2016_010 / EP’250 was allowable, but not in O2016_011EP’018.

Novelty has not been an issue anymore, in both cases. Only obviousness, undue extension of subject-matter (interim generalisation) and clarity (of the additional feature) have been discussed. D2 (US 4,843,879; referred to in EP’250, ¶[0007]) was apparently agreed to be the closest prior art, and was combined in the assessment of obviousness with either D4 or D11 — both of which have unfortunately not been identified.

For me as a chemist, the highlight of the day was the plaintiff’s emotional release:

That’s not chemistry here; it’s physics!

The formulation of the ‘objective technical problem’ was quite a big deal in the hearing. This is what EP’250 says in ¶[0009] (emphasis added):

It is therefore the aim of the present invention to provide a method for the symmetry adjustment of a device for the capacitive examination of a moving elongated textile test sample which does not have the above disadvantages. The device should be simple, fast, cost-effective and, in particular, automatically adjustable.

Flower power, with roses in particular

Now, can automation be considered as the ‘objective technical problem’? In the plaintiff’s view, the ‘in particular’ is an emphasis of the aim of automation. The defendant disagreed: Automation was an add-on, and the other advantages could well be realised without automation. On the funny side, the following example has been used:

She likes flowers, in particular roses.

Now, imagine that the rose-loving woman visits a florist. Which flowers will she recognise first, amidst all the other flowers? The roses, of course!


Compensation of the ‘necessary expenses’ for the assisting patent attorney pursuant to Art. 3 lit. a and Art. 9(2) CostR-PatC was yet another point of discussion. The plaintiff requested reimbursement of about kCHF 45 for each case and argued, that the defendant triggered the additional costs because the amended claims had only been filed with the rejoinder which then had effectively restarted the whole discussion. I did not get the value in dispute, but the presiding judge indicated that kCHF 45 is about twice as much as the amount that would be awarded for legal respresentation, i.e. ‘according to the tariff’ that is based on the value in dispute.

Now, why is that important?

Since O2012_043, the FPC’s practice is that, as a rule, the ‘necessary expenses’ for the patent attorney may well be within the same order of magnitude of the costs for legal representation. But what about nullity cases? A patent attorney could do that on his/her own, without any legal representative; Art. 29(1) PatCA. Compensation would then be awarded according to the tariff for legal representatives; Art. 9(2) CostR-PatC.

The defendant questioned whether costs incurred for the assisting patent attorney are ‘necessary expenses’ at all, on top of the costs for legal representation according to the tariff, if he/she could have done the whole case on his own.

Use of the technical infrastructure in the court room

It is quite hard for the public to follow the arguments when the representatives just argue with acronyms and references. It’s sometimes frustrating, but I got used to it. But still, one of the basic ideas of a public hearing is to give the public the opportunity to follow the proceedings, isn’t it? But how would you even get a glimpse of what is really at stake when the parties only refer to ‘EP’111’ or ‘D1’ or ‘feature 1da’. That’s not information — it’s just noise.

I was very happy that the recent hearing in case S2018_006 was different (see this Blog here): Whenever someone referred to a specific document, the President put the same on the screen for it to be easily recognisable by the whole audience and the judges; projector and screen are fixedly installed in the ceiling anyway (see yellow arrow in the image below). Much appreciated!

Let there be information …

But that’s not only great for the audience; I strongly feel that it is also beneficial for representatives when arguing their case. When referring to a certain paragraph in a specific document in your pleadings, or a technical drawing, you always want to make sure that all the judges are on the same page, right? But how would you know that, with the judges sitting on a podium that even has an elevated front side that makes sure that nobody reveals a hand up there, behind the monitors. Yes, there are fixedly installed monitors (green arrows in the above image).

Now, did they all pick up the document that you are upon to discuss? You never know. So, why not actually use the monitors that each judge has in front of him/her, and the projector/screen for the audience, to make sure that everybody sees what you want to be seen? I could not think of any more powerful way to focus the discussion and thoughts on a specific argument.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way in this hearing even though the defendant suggested it. I hope this was for technical reasons only, and does not indicate a general change of practice again.

Reported by Martin WILMING


Case Nos. O2016_010, O2016_011 | Hearing of 20 March 2019

Gebr. Loepfe AG
Uster Technologies AG

Panel of Judges:

  • Frank SCHNYDER
  • Dr. Tobias BREMI
  • Christoph MÜLLER


  • n/a

Court Clerk:


Representative(s) of Plaintiff:

  • Dr. Simon HOLZER (MLL)
  • Dr. Kurt SUTTER (Blum), assisting in patent matters

Representative(s) of Defendant:

  • Dr. Andri HESS (Homburger)
  • Dr. Pavel PLISKA (inhouse)


Official announcement:

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Patent in suit:

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Official announcement:

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Patent in suit:

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The objective technical problem should not be that much of a problem

Reading time: 14 minutes

We have seen some interesting decisions lately that deal with basic principles in the assessment of inventive step / obviousness. For instance, the Supreme Court provided guidance how to deal with a non-enabling disclosure as a closest prior art document; see this Blog here. But there is yet another decision of potentially wider relevance, i.e. in that it apparently re-defines how to formulate the ‘objective technical problem’.

It’s silly season now, and I could not help but reflect a bit about the typical learning curve of a patent attorney trainee when getting acquainted with such basics. If you are in a rush, feel free to jump over here.

Patent law is somewhat mysterious. The basics of patentability are very simple: The claimed subject-matter shall

  • be new (‘just don’t claim exactly what has been out there already’); and
  • involve an inventive step (‘a bit creative, please – not just obvious’);

On the merits, that’s pretty much it. Admittedly, there are some side aspects to observe, e.g.

  • it should have industrial applicability (‘it should be useful’);
  • it should not be excluded from patentability by law (‘don’t do what is explicitly forbidden’);
  • it should be sufficiently disclosed (‘tell the world how to make use of it’).

But that doesn’t seem to be a big deal. A quite common first thought of a patent attorney trainee goes like:

Well, that’s it? Why do I have to wait three years to sit (and pass!) the exam?

Learning by doing

Later, one realizes that things are much more complicated than it seemed at first glance — and that it’s probably not a bad idea to test these basic concepts in real cases for a while, and one is grateful for some supervision before actually sitting the exam (while still at least hoping to pass).

Thereafter, it’s like driving a car. Passing the exam does not yet mean that you are a good driver. Still, at some point sooner or later and with some experience in the field, almost everybody will fairly get along on the streets.

This is no invention. No way!

It’s the same with patent attorneys: We are said to have quite firm opinions (when we finally have made up our mind), and it’s our bloody job to transfer this opinion to whoever needs to be convinced, every single day.

But patent attorneys constantly fail. Just look at all the negative office actions in the mailbox every day. Still, we know how to play the guitar. No doubt that a case only failed because the specific piece of music was not well perceived by the audience.

But once in a while, even the basic concepts are challenged. Things are heavily on the move in recent times, e.g. in terms of the assessment of infringement under the DoE or the abolition of the infringement test for SPCs. Still, all this is not too much out of the ordinary.

But when the common general understanding of how to assess inventive step / obviousness is whobbling, I am getting concerned. That’s my day-to-day business! Do I still play the game correctly?

Assessment of ‘inventive step’

In knowledge of what the invention is, it’s hard (if not impossible) to objectively evaluate whether or not it had been obvious before the invention has seen the light of day. As soon as you are aware of the invention, the unavoidable hindsight bias undermines any objective assessment.

Case law should be predictable, and individual judgments must be ‘right’. That’s a tricky balance — and whenever things are tricky, it’s comfy to have standardized tools at hand. This is where the EPO’s problem-and-solution approach comes into play (Guidelines, G-VII, 5), and which the FPC has repeatedly indicated to apply. It aims to avoid hindsight bias, and it does so with a rigid framework to be worked through. In brief, the problem-and-solution approach involves three main steps:

  1. determining the ‘closest prior art‘;
  2. establishing the ‘objective technical problem‘ to be solved; and
  3. considering whether the claimed invention would have been obvious to the skilled person.
Close, but hard to reach

Step i), i.e. the question of whether or not something should be considered as the ‘closest prior art’, is mostly a major issue in any discussion of inventive step. I won’t dive into this now, but I strongly recommend Oliver Randl’s Post on an his Blog ‘K’s Law‘. (The Blog is dormant now because he became a member of the Boards of Appeal.) His comparison of assessment of inventive step with mountaineering is just great.

Further, one may well discuss for quite a while in step iii) what a skilled person would actually have done or not. The EPO’s could-would approach requires that

[…] the prior art as a whole […] would (not simply could, but would) have prompted the skilled person, faced with the objective technical problem, to modify or adapt the closest prior art while taking into account of that teaching, thereby arriving at something falling within the terms of the claims, and thus achieving what the invention achieves.

The gist is that hindsight should not be an issue if there is a pointer or an objective incentive to combine two pieces of prior art. Fine. But …

The definition of the ‘objective technical problem’

Everything hinges on the definition of the objective technical problem in step ii), and this is what this Post is all about. According to the EPO Guidelines (G-VII, 5.1),

[…] one establishes in an objective way the technical problem to be solved. To do this one studies the application (or the patent), the ‘closest prior art’ and the difference (also called ‘the distinguishing feature(s)‘ of the claimed invention) in terms of features (either structural or functional) between the claimed invention and the ‘closest prior art’, identifies the technical effect resulting from the distinguishing features, and then formulates the technical problem. […]

It is noted that the objective technical problem must be so formulated as not to contain pointers to the technical solution, since including part of a technical solution offered by an invention in the statement of the problem must, when the state of the art is assessed in terms of that problem, necessarily result in an ex post facto view being taken of inventive activity (see T 229/85).

That’s how I’ve learned to play the game. A plain and simple mechanism:

  • identify the distinguishing feature (e.g. bolt and nut instead of a nail);
  • identify the technical effect of the distinguishing feature in the context of the invention (e.g. ease of detachability)
  • define the objective technical problem based on the technical effect of the distinguishing feature (e.g. facilitate detachability)

Does O2015_008 lower the bar?

When re-reading the judgment O2015_008 of 14 March 2018 (commented on this Blog here), I stumbled upon a general remark in ¶66 that I had overlooked before. It reads as follows (translated from French):

Nevertheless, the question must be asked whether the objective problem that is used for the problem-and-solution approach […] finds a basis or motivation in the closest prior art document or is part of the standard problems for the skilled person, and does not incorporate elements of the proposed solution into the patent (cf. T 59/90, r. 8). This is important to avoid hindsight bias.

(A reasoning along these lines, but in less explicit terms, can also be found in ¶33 of the decision O2015_018 of 15 June 2018, with the very same reference to T 59/90; see this Blog here.)

First, I just don’t know for sure what is meant with ‘standard problems’; but maybe this refers to e.g. ‘less expensive’, ‘faster’, ‘more efficient’ or similar things.

But be that as it may, I feel that the whole approach is flawed.

Why should it be required to have a basis or motivation for the ‘objective technical problem’ in the ‘closest prior art’?

Let’s take a simple example:

The invention is a car with an allegedly clever engine — but there is a lot of other stuff recited in the claim, e.g. wheels, mirrors, bumper, a radio, etc.

Obviously great

The ‘closest prior art’ shows almost everything, in particular the allegedly clever engine. So this really is a reasonably chosen ‘closest prior art’. In fact, it is almost novelty destroying. It is only silent about the radio.

Car radios are perfectly known, but in no way mandatory. Thus, there clearly is no implicit disclosure of a radio in the ‘closest prior art’, and one has to deal with it as a matter of obviousness.

In my perception, a proper definition of the objective technical problem will somehow need to address entertainment and/or information in a car, while carefully avoiding to mention a radio.

The alleged invention correctly just cannot survive the problem-and-solution approach because there are a lot of car radios in the prior art as a whole, and the skilled person would surely have integrated them as a straight-forward solution to the objective technical problem to be solved.

But I am not so sure about this if the reasoning in ¶66 of O2015_008 was correct. To be frank, I don’t even have a clue how the objective technical problem should then be defined. There just is no ‘basis or motivation’ towards entertainment or information in that document.

Alternatively, let’s start from a car with wheels, mirrors, bumpers and a radio as the ‘closest prior art’, and then try to combine it with the (not anymore) ‘closest prior art’ showing the engine. Assume the clever engine is just shown somewhere in the smallprint, without any indication of advantages or further explanations. It’s just there, and it’s not immediately apparent why it actually is clever. You will then have a hard time to hunt this April Fool’s joke of an ‘invention’ down with the problem-and-solution approach, in the absence of any pointer towards the invention, i.e. to use  the engine from the prior art in a car with wheels, mirrors, bumper and — believe it or not — a radio.

Frankly, this cannot be it. I feel there must be a bug in a test that does not reliably sort out such non-inventions.

Struggling with this, I sought for guidance in T 59/90 (¶8) referred to in ¶66 of O2015_008. But there is none. It might be the last paragraph of ¶8 that appears to support the view taken in ¶66 of O2015_008, at least at first glance. It reads as follows:

Daraus muss geschlossen werden, dass aus [dem nächstliegenden SdT] das der patentgemässen Aufgabe zugrundeliegende Problem nicht bekannt war, und demzufolge auch die Lösung der Aufgabe aus [dem nächstliegenden SdT] in Verbindung mit dem allgemeinen Fachwissen nicht nahegelegt gewesen sein kann.

Loosely translated:

It must be concluded that the actual technical issue underlying the objective technical problem was not known from [the closest prior art], and therefore the solution of the problem could not have been obvious from [the closest prior art] in connection with the general technical knowledge.

However, the Board did not deal with the formulation of the objective technical problem here. It took the objective technical problem as it had been properly defined beforehand, and then summarized its assessement according to step iii), i.e. the could-would approach.

At closer scrutiny, it turns out that all this was only intended to sum up the reasons in respect of a single attack based on the ‘closest prior art’ per se, only in further view of the common general knowledge of the skilled person. Thus, it had essentially been argued by the opponent that the ‘closest prior art’ in itself would render the claimed subject-matter obvious for the skilled person. In that case, I might agree that the ‘objective technical problem’ needs to have a basis or motivation in the ‘closest prior art’ because it is not combined with yet another document but rather is considered self-contained, only seen with the eyes of the skilled person (common general knowledge). Where else should the pointer come from, if not from the ‘closest prior art’ in such a case?

But as soon as the ‘closest prior art’ is considered in further view of yet another document, the basis or motivation may well be derived from that further document.

And this is exactly what has been done in T 59/90. The Board moved on to assess in ¶9 whether there is any incentive towards the solution of the objective technical problem in any other prior art document:

It remains to be checked whether a suggestion for the solution of the objective technical problem can be derived from any of the other documents on file.

Note that the Board did not touch the wording of the ‘objective technical problem’ when moving on to check the combinations with the other documents on file. This is the problem-and-solution approach; nothing more, nothing less.

Further, I strongly doubt that this decision is of much relevance at all. It had been only distributed to Chairmen of other Boards (classified as ‘C’), and it has been cited by other Boards only once in 25 years (T 1009/96), for an unrelated aspect. And it is not that this Board had cited it by its own volition. Rather, it had to bother with T 59/90 because a party brought it up. It had been argued that a piece of prior art cannot be considered as ‘closest prior art’ at all because it did not deal with the specific problem of the invention. But this is not my point here, and the argument failed anyway. What is more, T 59/90 is not even mentioned in the reference book ‘Case Law of the Boards of Appeal‘. Thus, the decision has effectively been ignored by other Boards for a quarter of a century. Rightly so, because there is nothing special in it.

Concluding, I don’t see that T 59/90 supports the view taken in ¶66 of O2015_008 (except for the special situation where lack of inventive step is argued based on a single reference, i.e. the ‘closest prior art’ per se), and the above example shows how it would almost inevitably lead to obviously wrong results. In my perception, there is no need to spice up the well established framework of the problem-and-solution approach with yet further requirements. Rather, it can and should be applied as set forth in the Guidelines, for that case law remains predictable. And I have no reason to doubt that it leads to ‘right’ decisions — if applied correctly.

UPDATE 26 Sep 2018:

Decision T 910/90 states the following in ¶5.1 (and I fully concur with this):

Dabei kommt es nicht darauf an ob diese Aufgabe bereits im nächstkommenden Stand der Technik angesprochen ist, sondern darauf was der Fachmann beim Vergleich des nächstkommenden Standes der Technik mit der Erfindung als Aufgabe objektiv erkennt.

Loosely translated:

It does not matter whether this problem is already addressed in the closest prior art; rather, it is decisive what the skilled person objectively recognizes as the problem when comparing the closest prior art with the invention.

Reported by Martin WILMING


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T 59/90

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¶33, translated from French:

However, [the definition of the objective technical problem according to the problem-and-solution approach] is only valid insofar as the technical problem thus determined can reasonably be presumed to be a problem that arises without inventive effort within the general framework of the closest prior art document. Otherwise, this approach would focus the disclosure of the closest prior art and its interpretation in the direction of the invention, and introduce hindsight. (cf. T 59/90, ¶8)


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