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What, technically, are technical features?

In an effort to (once again!) raise the bar for Australian patents, it would appear to be the case that the Australian Government is currently intent on modifying Australia’s patent system so that it is more aligned with the laws and procedure of the European Patent Office (EPO).

Further to our earlier post about the proposed reforms to inventive step, the Government has also recently announced that it supports seeking legislative amendments that will require patent applicants to identify the technical features of the invention in their patent claims. The Government also proposes to update the Patent Office’s procedures so that the technical features of an invention must be considered when its novelty and inventive step is evaluated during prosecution.

It is not currently clear what amounts to “technical features” and, unless properly clarified in the relevant legislation, this will likely cause significant uncertainty and woes for patent applicants and their advising attorneys. I suspect that at least part of the policy behind these changes is to equip the Australian courts and Patent Office with some flexibility to adopt the principles and approach of the EPO when assessing inventive step, particularly so in relation to software and business-related inventions.

Currently, the patentability of software and business method inventions is determined in Australia by reference to principles established in a substantial body of case law (which I’ll save for another post one day). Underpinning these cases is a core requirement that in order to be patentable an invention must constitute a “manner of manufacture”. This is a rather vague phrase which has its roots in The Statute of Monopolies, an antiquated English statute repealed many moons ago. This vagueness has, however, given the Australian courts a considerable freedom to define the scope of what does, and does not, constitute a patentable invention.

At the EPO, when software and business methods are being evaluated the non-patentable subject matter test is combined with the inventive step test. Firstly, the EPO identifies the technical and non-technical features of the claimed invention. They then consider if the technical features solve a technical problem. Finally, the EPO considers if the technical features would have been obvious to a skilled person in light of the technical problem and the prior art.

The Australian Government’s proposed changes in relation to “technical features” may prove to be a step in getting our Patent Office (and Courts) to adopt the EPO's approach.


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