At the end of August, Middleton J overturned the Commissioner’s refusal to grant an innovation patent for RPL’s computerised method entitled ‘Method and System for Automated Collection of Evidence of Skills and Knowledge’. Instead, his Honour held that the method was a manner of manufacture and, novelty and inventive step having been satisfied, patentable.

What the claimed invention was

In essence, the claimed invention allowed a user to access a single point of entry (for example, over the internet using his or her browser), retrieve information about particular qualifications, which was presented in the form of questions to the user, then provide answers and supporting documentation (still for example over the internet), which was then processed by a relevant certifying institution and, if the relevant criteria were satisfied, the relevant qualification would be awarded or, if not, the user could be presented with information about what further steps needed to be undertaken to satisfy the necessary criteria.[1]

This bald summary hardly does justice to what was involved. For example, there are a large number of registered training organisations or TAFEs (RTOs). Collectively, they offer some 3,500 different qualifications and some 34,000 Units of Competency. Any individual RTO therefore offered only a very small set of qualifications or units. RPL’s method, first, circumvented the need for an individual user to identify which RTO was appropriate as RPL’s method retrieved all the necessary information from online databases. Then, RPL’s method converted the criteria into a form of questions which the user could answer. So, to take an example from the judgment, the element of competency required for a particular unit relating to aged care:

demonstrate an understanding of the structure and profile of the aged care sector

became:

Generally speaking and based upon your prior experience and education, how do you feel you can demonstrate an understanding of the structure and profile of the aged care sector?

and a particular performance criterion associated with that:

all work reflects an understanding of the key issues facing older people and their carers

was converted in RPL’s method to:

How can you show evidence that all work reflects an understanding of the key issues facing older people and their carers?[2]

for enabling individuals to get their competency or qualifications recognised under the nationally accredited Unit of Competency scheme.

The specification identified the advantages flowing from this method with its single point of contact:[3]

Individuals are provided with a service which simplifies the identification of relevant Units of Competency, and the gathering of associated assessment information to enable [recognition of prior learning] to be performed. Training organisations are relieved of much of the administrative cost associated with performing [recognition of prior learning]. By the time the training organisation is contacted, the relevant Unit of Competency has already been identified, and required information associated with each of the assessable criteria has already been gathered and packaged in a form enabling an efficient assessment in relation to the [recognition of prior learning] process.

Why this constituted a (patentable) manner of manufacture

Middleton J noted at [127] that the test for “manner of manufacture” laid down in NRDC, CCOM and Grant required that the claimed invention result in an artificially created state of affairs in which a new and useful effect may be observed. This had to be of utility in practical affairs or be of an industrial, commercial or trading character and belong to the useful arts, not the fine arts, so that its value lay in a field of economic endeavour.

These criteria were satisfied. The results of the method were useful because at [129] it overcame difficulties involved in seeking out education providers and enabled recognition of prior learning. This was relevant to a field of economic endeavour: the education sector of the economy and thus had the necessary industrial, commercial or trading character.

While the information about RTOs and particular Units of Competency could be accessed individually in undifferentiated form over the internet, the method provided a single point of entry. In addition to the single point of entry:

[141] The computer programmed in accordance with the Patent further operates to process the retrieved information and to automatically generate data comprising an alternate means of presentation. This alternate means comprises a series of questions which can be presented to an individual user along with user interface elements which implement an online form suitable for the receipt of responses to those questions. An assessment server is programmed, again according to the teaching of the Patent, to present the form to the computer of an individual user, who preferably requires only conventional web browser software to access the assessment server via the internet. In particular, the form provides not only for user-entered responses, but also for upload of one or more files stored on the user’s computer which may comprise, for example, evidence of the user’s competency with regard to the recognised qualification standard. This access to an online form occurs as a result of the retrieval, processing and presentation steps being conducted according to the teaching of the Patent.

The various stages in this process each gave rise to the physical effect required under Grant in the various changes of state in the computer’s memory.[4] Grant itself of course involved no such transformation since it did not involve any use of any computer – just a scheme for the use of a trust.

The Commissioner had recognised that such a transformation did take place, but it was not sufficient. In a line of decisions beginning with Invention Pathways, the Commissioner had ruled that: [5]

the “concrete effect or phenomenon or manifestation or transformation” referred to must be one that is significant both in that it is concrete but also that it is central to the purpose or operation of the claimed process or otherwise arises from the combination of steps of the method in a substantial way. Consequently while the step of building a house involves a concrete physical effect it is peripheral to the method of acquiring a house and indeed could hardly be said to characterise the subject matter of the method such that it is considered an artificially created state of affairs. I consider the same to apply to a business scheme implemented in some part by computer and do not believe the patentability of such a method can arise solely from the fact that, in a general sense, it is implemented in or with the assistance of a computer or utilises some part a computer or other physical device in a incidental way.”

The Commissioner argued that the use of the computer here was not central to the method, being merely a “common mechanism to carry out the method in a convenient way.”

At [147], Middleton J rejected the Commissioner’s view that NRDC, CCOM and Grant required the requirement of substantiality or centrality of a physical effect in the sense the Commissioner contended for.

In addition, Middleton J rejected the Commissioner’s argument that the claimed invention could not be a manner of manufacture as it could be performed without the use of a computer. His Honour rejected this as a matter of principle at [157]: it was not an appropriate way to approach the assessment required under NRDC, CCOM and Grant. In any event, as a matter of fact, the magnitude of the task meant it wasn’t practicable without the use of a computer:

[158] … as a matter of fact I accept that the magnitude of the task performed by the invention (as previously described) and the express terms of the claims themselves mean that the computer is an essential part of the invention claimed, as it enables the method to be performed.

While his Honour accepted that US cases could be persuasive, he noted he was required to apply the tests developed under Australian law and did not find any assistance in the present context.[6]

At [171] – [172], Middleton J distinguished the recent rejection by Emmett J of Research Affiliates claims for a method of generating an index of securities and assets. In Middleton J’s view the central difference was that the specification in Research Affiliates “contained virtually no substantive detail about how the claimed method was to be implemented by a computer”.[7] In contrast, there was detailed information about these matters in RPL’s specification and the computer was central to the method’s working.

RPL Central Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Patents [2013] FCA 871


  1. The terms of claim 1 are set out here.  ?
  2. Taken from [21] and [24] of the Reasons.  ?
  3. At [42] of the Reasons.  ?
  4. At [143] – [144].  ?
  5. Myall at [53].  ?
  6. While his Honour did not put it this way, that is perhaps unsurprising given the rather uncertain state of the US case law, e.g.  here and here.  ?
  7. An application for leave to appeal from Emmett J’s decision has been filed: NSD328/2013.  ?