06 June 2022

Aristocrat’s EGM Inventions Set for Showdown in the High Court

Arm WrestleOn 10 March 2022, the High Court of Australia granted Aristocrat’s application for special leave to appeal the decision of a Full Bench of the Federal Court, which found its claims directed to an Electronic Gaming Machine (EGM) implementing a new ‘feature game’ to be ineligible for patenting under Australia’s ‘manner of manufacture’ test of subject matter.  The case – which is Case No. S40/2022 – has since been making rapid progress.  Aristocrat filed its written submissions [PDF, 711kB] on 20 April 2022.  Two parties have applied for leave to appear as amici curiae: the Institute of Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys of Australia (IPTA), which filed its written submissions [PDF, 483kB] on 5 May 2022; and Fédération Internationale des Conseils en Propriété Intellectuelle (FICPI), which filed its written submissions [PDF, 382kB] on 4 May 2022.  The Commissioner of Patents filed her written submissions in response [PDF, 718kB] on 11 May 2022.  Finally Aristocrat filed its reply [PDF, 310kB] on 20 May 2022.  The scene is now set for a hearing, which is set down to take place on 9 and 10 June 2022 before a Full Court of seven judges, which is somewhat unusual (a panel of five judges is more common) and suggests that the High Court may have decided that it is finally time to settle the question of patent-eligibility of computer-implemented inventions in Australia.

The Aristocrat case raises interesting questions.  The claims of the patents at issue recite various hardware elements, some of which are common to all computers and some of which are specific to EGMs, along with software-implemented processes comprising the ‘feature game’.  (A ‘feature game’ is a secondary, or bonus, game triggered by the occurrence of a defined event in the ‘base’ game of spinning reels.)  It is common ground that the hardware elements are well-known in the field of electronic casino gaming, and that the new and inventive contribution resides wholly in the feature game implementation. 

At first instance, the primary judge (Justice Burley) considered that the appropriate approach to such a case involves a ‘two step’ analysis.  The first step is to construe the patent specification, from the perspective of the person skilled in the relevant art, to identify the claimed invention.  This is to be determined as a matter of substance, and not merely based on the particular form of the claims.  If the invention thus identified comprises patent-ineligible subject matter, such as a mere scheme, idea, or business method, then the second step involves an enquiry into whether the claimed computerisation involves some further contribution sufficient to render the invention patent-eligible.  Applying this approach to Aristocrat’s claims, Burley J found at the first step that Aristocrat’s claims were for ‘a machine of a particular construction which implements a gaming function’.  As a result, the question of patent-eligibility was resolved immediately – an EGM is not a mere scheme or a business method, and is thus a ‘manner of manufacture’.  There was, the judge concluded, no need to proceed with step two.

On appeal, a Full Bench of the Federal Court rejected the test proposed by the primary judge.  The majority (Middleton and Perram JJ) proposed an alternative two step test which asks firstly whether the claimed invention is ‘a computer-implemented invention’ and then – if so – ‘can the invention claimed broadly be described as an advance in computer technology’.  They determined that Aristocrat’s EGM was in substance a computer-implemented invention, and that the asserted contribution of the claimed invention ‘pertains only to the use of a computer’ and not to ‘the development or advance of computer technology’, such that the claims were not directed to patent-eligible subject matter.  In a separate judgment (which Aristocrat characterises as a ‘dissent’), Nicholas J arrived at the same ultimate conclusion, but disagreed with the majority that ‘an advance in computer technology’ is necessary for a computer-implemented invention to be patent-eligible.  In his view, such an invention may be patent-eligible if it results in innovation in ‘different fields of technology’ where technical problems that lie ‘outside the computer’ may be solved using ‘generic computing technology.  He proposed that the proceeding therefore be remitted to the primary judge to consider whether the inventions may be patentable as an advance in the field of gaming technology.

With all of these different lines of reasoning present in the judgments of the lower courts, the stage is surely set for a showdown before the High Court.  So what are the main arguments that each of the parties will be relying upon?

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