Out-Law News 1 min. read

Image processing software not excluded from patentability, IPO rules

A computerised method of processing images and categorising features within it into database-searchable words is not excluded from patentability, a hearing officer at the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) has ruled.

An IPO examiner had previously ruled that the invention was excluded from patentability on the grounds that the invention consisted solely of a computer program. Hewlett Packard, the company trying to patent the invention, appealed against the examiner's ruling and the hearing officer has now upheld that appeal on the basis that the invention uses mathematical techniques that are sufficiently technical in nature to avoid being excluded from patentability.

Under the UK's Patents Act inventions must be new, take an inventive step that is not obvious and be useful to industry in order to qualify for patent protection. An invention cannot be patented, according to the Act, if it is "a scheme, rule or method for performing a mental act, playing a game or doing business, or a program for a computer … as such".

However, as a result of UK case law if computer programs are shown to have provided a "technical contribution" they can be patentable, for example if image data is processed to generate a better quality image.

Hewlett Packard's software uses a computerised method to process images and assign words to it based on the image features such as its colour. The words allow the images to be searched for and found within a database.

The IPO's hearing officer, Dr Porter, said that when the different elements of Hewlett Packard's computerised processing of images were considered as a whole, the invention could be said to have made a sufficiently technical contribution to human knowledge.

The processing also applied "mathematical techniques" that result in "a representation of the image" being created to which words can be assigned, the hearing officer ruled (8-page / 57KB PDF). Because of this Hewlett Packard's invention was not solely reliant on a computer program running and was not excluded from patentability, Dr Porter said.

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