The High Court has granted Aristocrat special leave to appeal the Full Federal Court’s ruling that Aristocrat’s application for an electronic gaming machine (EGM or “pokie”) was not patentable subject matter.
The patent application
Aristocrat’s application is entitled ‘A system and method for providing a feature game’ – App. No. 2016101967; yet another problematic “innovation” patent.
The Commissioner and Aristocrat were in agreement that the case rose or fell on the patentability of claim 1:
(1) A gaming machine comprising:
(1.1) a display;
(1.2) a credit input mechanism operable to establish credits on the gaming machine, the credit input mechanism including at least one of a coin input chute, a bill collector, a card reader and a ticket reader;
(1.3) meters configured for monitoring credits established via the credit input mechanism and changes to the established credits due to play of the gaming machine, the meters including a credit meter to which credit input via the credit input mechanism is added and a win meter;
(1.4) a random number generator;
(1.5) a game play mechanism including a plurality of buttons configured for operation by a player to input a wager from the established credits and to initiate a play of a game; and
(1.6) a game controller comprising a processor and memory storing (i) game program code, and (ii) symbol data defining reels, and wherein the game controller is operable to assign prize values to configurable symbols as required during play of the game,
(1.7) the game controller executing the game program code stored in the memory and responsive to initiation of the play of the game with the game play mechanism to:
(1.8) select a plurality of symbols from a first set of reels defined by the symbol data using the random number generator;
(1.9) control the display to display the selected symbols in a plurality of columns of display positions during play of a base game;
(1.10) monitor play of the base game and trigger a feature game comprising free games in response to a trigger event occurring in play of the base game,
(1.11) conduct the free games on the display by, for each free game, (a) retaining configurable symbols on the display, (b) replacing non-configurable symbols by selecting, using the random number generator, symbols from a second set of reels defined by the symbol data for symbol positions not occupied by configurable symbols, and (c) controlling the display to display the symbols selected from the second set of reels, each of the second reels comprising a plurality of non-configurable symbols and a plurality of configurable symbols, and
(1.12) when the free games end, make an award of credits to the win meter or the credit meter based on a total of prize values assigned to collected configurable symbols.
(emphasis supplied by Middleton and Perram JJ).
The new or innovative feature lay in the feature comprising the free game integer – integers 1.10 to 1.12. It was apparently common ground that the other features were part of the common general knowledge for electronic gaming machines.
In the Full Court, Middleton and Perram JJ at  and  explained:
3 It is not suggested that there is anything inventive about Claim 1’s EGM except for its feature game and it is in all other respects an unremarkable EGM. (Because the 967 Patent is an innovation patent strictly the question is whether there is anything innovative about it, but nothing turns on the distinction between inventive and innovative for present purposes). A feature game is a secondary game awarded to a player on the occurrence of a defined event in the ordinary or ‘base’ game of spinning reels, termed a ‘trigger event’. Once the feature game is enlivened by the trigger event the feature game appears and the player is able to play it and potentially to win further prizes. When the feature game is completed the EGM reverts to the base game.
4 The point of feature games is to encourage players to keep wagering on the EGM by making it more interesting to do so. Since the revenue generated by an EGM is a function of the amount wagered upon it – in New South Wales up to 15% in the long run – the more successful a feature game is in keeping the player wagering, the more lucrative the EGM is for its operator. A successful feature game is therefore commercially valuable both from the perspective of the class of persons who operate EGMs and from the perspective of those who manufacture and distribute them to that class. The Respondent (‘Aristocrat’) is part of a world-wide group of companies engaged in the manufacture and distribution of EGMs and is the particular member of the group which owns the 967 Patent.
Their Honours then explained how the free game feature worked at  – :
11 The game defined by integers 1.10–1.12 is in fact not a single game at all but rather a family of games with particular common attributes. On the occurrence of a trigger event (integer 1.10) the player is awarded one or more free games of the feature game (integer 1.11). The feature game (integer 1.11) consists of a second set of reels. Amongst the symbols on these reels are ‘configurable’ symbols. The patent does not define a configurable symbol but it does provide for them to be assigned prize values by the computer on which the game is played, which is known as the game controller (integer 1.6). A preferred embodiment of the invention suggests that the configurable symbol may be overlaid with the amount of the prize which has been assigned to it (although this is not a necessary feature of integer 1.11 and any symbol will do). In that preferred embodiment, the configurable symbol is an image of a pearl and it is configured by the overlaying on that image of different prize amounts, e.g., some pearls appear with ‘250’ and others with ‘1000’, where those figures represent credits.
12 Returning to the feature game, each time a configurable symbol appears in the display grid at the end of the free game that particular symbol position on the relevant reel stops spinning for any remaining free games and the configurable symbol remains locked in place in any subsequent play of the feature game (i.e. if the player still has any free games left). When the player eventually runs out of free games in the feature game a prize is awarded related to the number of configurable symbols which have been locked in place (integer 1.12). In the preferred embodiment the prize is the sum of the assigned values on the pearls which have been frozen on the display grid but integer 1.12 is consistent with the prize being calculated in some other way.
At first instance (on appeal from the Commissioner), Burley J considered that the case law required a two stage assessment of patentable subject matter:
- The initial inquiry was whether or not the claim was for a mere scheme or business method of the type that was not the proper subject matter for a grant of a patent.
- If so, a second inquiry arose: whether or not the claim involved the creation of an artificial state of affairs where the computer was integral to the invention, rather than a mere tool in which it was performed. That is, was there invention in the computerisation of the claimed method?
Each step was to be undertaken as a matter of substance rather than mere form.
Applying that methodology, Burley J avoided the whole mere scheme or business method controversy by holding that the claim was for a mechanism of a particular construction where the integers interacted to produce a particular product – an EGM.
While this blogger welcomed the result, it did raise a rather awkward question: why did putting the integers in a box create patentable subject matter when essentially the same functionality could also be supplied over a network including, dare one say it, the Internet.
The Commissioner appealed.
The Full Court
All three judges (Middleton, Perram and Nicholas JJ) unanimously allowed the appeal. Middleton and Perram JJ delivered the main opinion and Nicholas J delivered a separate concurring opinion.
All three judges accepted unreservedly that a mere scheme or abstract idea was not patentable subject matter.
All three judges also accepted that whether something is patentable subject matter was to be determined as a matter of substance rather than mere form.
Middleton and Perram JJ
At  – , Middleton and Perram JJ considered that the feature game itself defined by integers 1.10 to 1.12 was a mere abstract idea for purposes of patent law. This was because either it was the definition of a family of games with common attributes and so akin to the rules of a game. Or it was because it was a method of increasing player interest in the EGM and so increasing the operator’s gaming revenue. On that view, it was just a business scheme or scheme.
At , their Honours accepted that an invention which physically embodied an abstract idea and gave it some practical application could be patentable subject matter. Thus, a mechanical poker machine which allowed a game (the abstract idea) to be played could be patentable. In such a case, however, the patent would protect the physical embodiment and not the abstract idea:
But the patent protects the invention which is the poker machine and not the abstract idea consisting of the game which it plays. This is consistent with decisions on board or card games to the effect that the game itself, no matter its ingenuity, does not comprise patentable subject matter but the physical apparatus used for playing the game (such as cards or the board) may do so ….
Crucially, their Honours then held that the implementation of the game by means of an unspecified computer program could not be a manner of manufacture unless the implementation resulted in some development of computer technology rather than its utilisation. At , their Honours said:
The implementation of an abstraction such as that disclosed by integers 1.10–1.12 by means of an unspecified computer program to be executed on the computer which is the game controller will not give rise to a patentable invention unless the implementation itself can be seen as pertaining to the development of computer technology rather than to its utilisation ….
Middleton and Perram JJ next accepted that Burley J’s approach could be workable where the subject matter of the claimed patent was obviously implemented in a computer. In other cases, however, it had the potential to lead to a wrong result especially where “for example, whether a claimed physical apparatus such as an EGM is, in truth, no more than a particular kind of computer.”
Instead, Middleton and Perram JJ proposed at  a different two-step analysis:
(a) Is the invention claimed a computer-implemented invention?
(b) If so, can the invention claimed broadly be described as an advance in computer technology?
In the present case, the claimed invention was a computer-implemented invention.
First, although the apparatus claimed was an EGM (or poker machine), it was in substance a computer. At  – , their Honours found that the EGM was a game control computer (integer 1.6) attached to a random number generator (integer 1.4, another computer) with some input and output devices (respectively, integers 1.2, 1.3 and 1.5 (input) and 1.1 (output)) with associated software instructions (integers 1.7, 1.8 and 1.9 and the feature game 1.10 – 1.12).
Secondly, to avoid the (erroneous) conclusion that the claimed invention was for the practical implementation of an abstract idea in a device, at  their Honours considered it was necessary to distinguish between a claim for an invention which was a computer and a claim for an invention implemented in a computer.
As a claim for either type of invention could appear to be a claim for a computer, it was necessary to identify what was in fact the substance of the claimed invention.
Here, the correct characterisation of the claim had to take into account the two elements of the claim: one element being the EGM (in effect, the computer) and the other element being the feature game and, importantly, the feature game was the only innovative feature of the claim.
As the feature game was to be executed in the computer, at  Middleton and Perram JJ considered the relationship of the feature game elements to the computer elements was one of implementation. Accordingly, the claim was to a computer-implemented invention.
Turning to the second question (b), Middleton and Perram JJ held that the claimed invention was not directed to an advance in computer technology. At , their Honours said:
Because the invention is the implementation of a feature game on the computer which is an EGM, the next question is whether what is put forward as inventive (or innovative) about Claim 1 pertains to the development of computer technology or merely its use. The fact that integers 1.10–1.12 leave it entirely up to the person designing the EGM to do the programming which gives effect to the family of games which those integers define inevitably necessitates the conclusion that Claim 1 pertains only to the use of a computer. Indeed, it purports to do nothing else. Claim 1 is silent on the topic of computer technology beyond that the person implementing the invention should use some.
It did not matter that the claim improved player engagement or improved subjective satisfaction. That had nothing to do with developing or advancing computer technology. Similarly, the use of configurable symbols for prizes was of no assistance. That might advance gaming technology but was not an advance in computer technology.
Nicholas J reached the same conclusion but by a somewhat different route.
Like Middleton and Perram JJ, his Honour started from the proposition that mere schemes and abstract ideas are not patentable. At  Nicholas J considered that to be patentable the case law required a claimed invention to relate to some technological innovation:
The Full Court noted at  the distinction drawn in Research Affiliates at  between a technological innovation which is patentable and a business innovation which is not. The use of the expression “technological innovation” emphasises the need to identify a technological contribution in a field of technology. The desirability of providing patent protection to technological innovations is reflected in Art 27(1) of the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights which relevantly provides that “… patents shall be available for any inventions, whether products or processes, in all fields of technology, provided that they are new, involve an inventive step and are capable of industrial application …”. The language of “technological innovation” has now been adopted in s 2A of the Act which refers to the promotion of economic wellbeing through technological innovation as an object of the Act.
An interesting invocation of the new Objects clause in the Act.
At , Nicholas J considered it was important to avoid an excessively rigid or formulaic approach to this issue. This was because the technological advance may lie in the field of computer technology. However, the required technological advance could also lie in a field of technology outside the computer:
… it is not appropriate to adopt an excessively rigid or formulaic approach to the question whether a computer implemented scheme is a manner of manufacture. This is especially true in situations where there may be no clear distinction between the field to which the invention belongs, and the field of computer technology. There may well be a technological innovation in the field of technology to which the invention belongs even though it cannot be said that there has been some technological innovation in the field of computers. The field of the invention may encompass different fields of technology that have their own technical problems that lie “outside the computer”. Moreover, the solutions to these problems may necessarily rely upon generic computing technology for their implementation. That does not necessarily render such solutions unpatentable.
His Honour gave as an example at  a computer-implemented invention for running a refrigerator in a more energy-efficient way. This might not involve an advance in computer technology but could well be patentable where the invention lay in the field of refrigeration technology. So, there could also be patentable subject matter in the way a gaming system or machine functioned even if there had not been an advance in computer technology.
Turning to Aristocrat’s patent application, Nicholas J considered at  that Burley J’s two-step test did not adequately address the Commissioner’s submission that the claim was for nothing more than the (unpatentable) rules of a game implemented in generic computer technology for its well-known and well-understood functions.
Citing RPL at , the fact that the feature game instructions were embodied in a computer was not sufficient to qualify as patentable subject matter. While the purpose of the invention was to provide a different and more enjoyable playing experience, the claim was not directed to overcoming any technological problem. At , his Honour explained:
The specification does not identify any technological problem to which the patent purports to provide a solution. Nor did the expert evidence (insofar as it was made available to us) suggest that the invention described and claimed in the specification was directed to any technical problem in the field of gaming machines or gaming systems. Rather, as the specification makes clear, the purpose of the invention is to create a new game that includes a feature game giving players the opportunity to win prizes that could not be won in the base game. Ultimately, the purpose of the invention is to provide players with a different and more enjoyable playing experience. The invention is not directed to a technological problem residing either inside or outside the computer.
Generic computer technology / software
While acknowledging that the phraseology had been used in earlier Full Court decisions, Middleton and Perram JJ considered at  to  that testing whether the claimed invention merely involved a generic computer or generic software was not “especially helpful”. It was preferable to focus on whether the claimed invention related to an advance in computer technology.
In contrast, Nicholas J (who had participated in the earlier cases) was not so troubled. At , his Honour considered it could be a useful signpost to patentability (or not) to ascertain whether the computer or software was just conventional computer technology being used for its well-known and well-understood effects.
Where to now
The law relating to “manner of manufacture” is a mess.
Following NRDC and before about the mid–2000s, the issue hardly, if ever, came up. Since the mid–2000s, there have been numerous cases; it is perhaps no exaggeration to say there are more, indeed way more, cases each year than in the previous 50 years.
And, unless one is prepared to say that it’s a computer-related invention and so it is not patentable subject matter (which the Courts repeatedly do not say), it is very hard to say what will pass the threshold and what will not.
One issue is that the cases are replete with comments like there is nothing new or inventive about that. That suggests that what is really the issue is lack of novelty or inventive step.
That though gives rise to a whole set of sub-issues. First, the whole situation is exacerbated by the abominations called “innovation patents”, which don’t actually require any invention, just that what is claimed (in effect) be new.
Secondly, proving lack of inventive step is a complicated, expensive and risky gamble – especially under our law before the Raising the Bar amendments.
Thirdly, while cases like CCOM, IBM and Welcome-Catuity could provide a principled approach to this issue, that could well end up with Australian law granting patents in circumstances where the USA and the EU would not. Not a situation the Productivity Commission would favour. And, it is far from clear that any clear or consistent approach has emerged in either jurisdiction, especially the USA.
The reason, or at least one of the reasons, why NRDC was a “watershed” in patent law was that it got rid of the artificial pigeon-holes or categories of “vendible product” which, as the NRDC judgment so tellingly demonstrated, had resulted in such inconsistent and unpredictable results to the test of manner of manufacture. Instead, it adopted an open-ended, flexible approach directed to achieving the objects of patent law.
Against that background, one might argue that Nicholas J’s approach, with respect, allows a degree of flexibility and forward-thinking which may not follow from the approach taken by Middleton and Perram JJ. Whether his Honour’s approach provides any more certainty may be debated but at least it would avoid a narrow categorisation. Whether that is an approach that finds favour with the High Court, or what direction it might take, remains to be seen.
[Some typos were corrected on 24 June 2022]