When does a computer program operate at the level of the architecture of a computer?

In a recent UK-IPO hearing UK company ProProcure Ltd had its (first and only) patent application refused because the invention related to a program for a computer as such.

Under UK law the contribution of an invention must not solely relate to a program for a computer.  A “technical” contribution is required.  If a computer program makes a technical contribution then, according to the law, it is more than simply a computer program and might qualify for patent protection.  In practice it is difficult to assess whether any technical contribution is present and so in AT&T/CVON the Courts provided some guidance in the form of signposts that might indicate whether a computer program has a technical effect.  This decision was of interest for its interpretation of signpost (ii), which says one should consider:

whether the claimed technical effect operates at the level of the architecture of the computer; that is to say whether the effect is produced irrespective of the data being processed or the applications being run

In this case the invention addressed a problem associated with object-oriented programs being required to interrogate a relational database when the two are not compatible.  The approach taken in the invention was to send queries from object-oriented programs to a Query Planner module that could process queries against a database in a single batch.  This removed redundant query operations and reduced problems associated with lazy loading and eager loading.

The applicant argued that the technique could be performed irrespective of the data being processed, and irrespective of the applications being run.  Therefore, according to the applicant, the invention is one that operates at the level of architecture of the computer, meaning that it achieves a technical effect.

The UK-IPO did not agree.  According to their reasoning the invention is specific to an object-oriented program querying a relational database.  Therefore, the effect is not produced irrespective of the data being processed or the applications being run.  In contrast, it requires a specific type of program and a specific type of query.  The technique could be operated within the application layer and the underlying computer would use architectural resources in a conventional manner.  Therefore, the invention related to a computer program as such, and is excluded from patentability.

This decision provides some helpful insight into the meaning of the “level of the architecture” of a computer.  If the novel aspects of an invention are reliant on a particular type of data or query then it may be difficult to obtain a patent.

The other AT&T signposts cannot be ignored, however.  In some cases it may still be possible to obtain protection if one of the other signposts is met.  For example, if it can be shown that the invention provides an effect outside the computer, or if the program makes the computer a better computer in the sense of running more efficiently and effectively as a computer.

See here for more information on patenting computer implemented inventions.