UK: Can You Patent Software?

Last Updated: 30 June 2017
Article by Caroline Day

The information technology sector is incredibly fast moving and new developments have the potential to significantly impact our lives. Whether it be a new phone release, a new processing chip or a new data compression algorithm, behind these technological advances inventors are working towards processing increasing amounts of data through smaller widgets with greater efficiency.

Such innovation can be immensely valuable, and when an innovation is valuable, thoughts turn to patent protection. However, there are particular considerations when patenting code – some computer-implemented inventions are deemed worthy of patent protection and some are not.

The law, as written both in the UK Patents Act and the European Patent Convention can appear confusing – a patent may be granted for inventions which are new, inventive and can be used in industry. However, there is a list of things which are deemed non-inventions for the purposes of the law, which includes scientific theories, mathematical methods, business methods and programs for computers. At this point, you may think there's no hope for computer software, but you'd be wrong. These things are excluded only to the extent that a patent or application for a patent relates to that thing, "as such".

Patent applicants and attorneys spend considerable time arguing that their computer program counts as a 'real' invention, more than just a computer program 'as such'. The boundary can be hard to define simply, but consideration of some example cases which have been considered by the European Patent Office (EPO) and the UK courts can help to identify some ground rules.

An early case considered video image processing software. The invention provided a new computer program for image filtering, suggesting processing a data array representing the image a bit at a time, each time performing a relatively easy computation. (In the context of the patent application, this replaced relative complex processing operations, including those which processed the data array all in one go, and meant that the number of computations required could be reduced while still producing a good result.

The EPO noted that the computer program could be implemented by a computer which was utterly conventional. Moreover, the filters appeared to be essentially mathematical methods. Surely then this idea was directed towards two non-inventions? But the EPO also noted that electrical filters were intrinsically patentable, even when manufactured according to a mathematical method. Furthermore, there was a real technical benefit provided by this invention, which saved processing resources while producing a real world result - an image.

The EPO decided there was no basis for treating digital filters differently from analogue filters. On top of that, in this case, the mathematical methods were used as part of a technical process, carried out by technical means (a computer) on a physical entity (an image stored as an electrical signal). Therefore this was not an attempt to secure protection for the mathematical method or a computer program as such; instead the patent application was directed towards a technical process carried out under the control of a computer.

Compare this to an application directed to a tool for modelling crystal structures, which could automatically combine input compounds and display the structure. This was much more time efficient than the sticks and balls manual techniques previously used. There was no arguing that the innovation was useful, but was it patentable? This case was before the UK courts, but they applied reasoning similar to that used by the EPO: was there a contribution which could be considered to be 'technical'? Despite the fact the invention would save time and frustration, the courts thought no. The invention provided only the advantages you would expect from a computer, mostly speed. This is not technical, and the application was refused.

Inventions to consider

How about X-ray apparatus in which X-ray tubes are controlled by a software routine (operated on a conventional computer) to provide an optimum exposure combined with protection against overloading of the X-ray tubes? Patent eligible? Absolutely! X-ray tubes last longer - a clear technical effect. Any time that running a computer program results in a direct technical effect on a physical entity, it is unlikely to be considered a computer program 'as such'.

What about an automated securities trading system implemented on a conventional computer? Patent eligible? No - the contribution made by the invention (automation of trading) is in the area of business methods, which - as mentioned above - are deemed 'non-inventions' according to the law. The contribution made by the invention should itself be in an area which is outside the listed non-inventions.

In programming for touch screens allowing multi touch input (e.g. 'pinch' actions), a check is made as to whether multi-touch functionality is enabled for a particular portion of a screen before transmitting or ignoring a second touch. This can 'short circuit' a multi-touch event when the functionality is not required so a programmer does not have to consider the possibility. Patent eligible? Yes- the device operates in a new and improved way and presents an improved interface to application software writers.

Using values in RAM to determine if a power up was a 'power on' event or a software reset. If a software reset is identified, the restart could skip re-initialisation and reloading steps. Patent eligible? Yes- It makes a contribution- quicker restarts- which was not in an excluded field, and which employed technical means (in this case, microprocessors communicating a decision as to the type of restart). This changed the way the computer itself worked.

A theme start to emerge: when considering the patentability of computer implemented inventions, consider the contribution provided by your computer program. For example, does it have direct a real world effect, like giving you a longer lasting lightbulb? Does it result in a better computer (for example, providing a better interface, operating at the level of the architecture of the computer and/or resulting in it running more efficiently and effectively as a computer)? If so, it may be patentable. Of course, the idea still needs to be judged to be new and non-obvious.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.