Did you think you would never hear again of the thrilling subject of the French statute of limitations, and of its very controversial application to patent nullity suits? Well, think again.
In a previous post on the loi PACTE, I mentioned that the new provision putting an end to the time bar on patent nullity suits would immediately enter into force but that it remained to be seen how this would be interpreted in practice.
And so it is that, after spending lots of ink and pixels on how the statute of limitations applies to patent nullity actions, we may now have to devote more ink and pixels to a discussion on how exactly the statute will no longer apply.
Without further ado, as they say, I will now leave the floor to Matthieu Dhenne who will provide his insight on this matter.
I would like to come back to an issue close to my heart, as readers of this blog already know: the limitation period of actions for the annulment of industrial property titles.
I will not recall here the entire debate, already mentioned many times on this blog. The issue can be summarized by recalling that French judges applied a 5-year limitation period of the French Civil Code to these actions and that a debate has arisen about this case law, in particular because of the disastrous solutions to which it led.
The legislator has since intervened to combat this case law by declaring that these actions shall not be time-barred.
But a new debate is starting to emerge. Indeed, French Act No. 2019-486 of May 22, 2019, on the growth and transformation of companies – known as the “PACTE Act” – specifies that actions for the annulment of industrial property titles are not subject to any limitation period, while providing that that this applies to the “titles in force on the day of its publication“.
How should we interpret this provision?
Let us immediately rule out the interpretation according to which the parliament, by aiming at the titles in force on the day of the publication of the act, has excluded, on the contrary, the titles that were not (yet) in force on this date. This interpretation is disqualified, because it makes no sense. Indeed, we cannot consider that a transitional provision may have another object than transitional law, which deals with the application of an Act to past facts (i.e. facts that happened prior to its entry into force).
Only one question seems interesting with regard to the transitional provision discussed here: could it induce a retroactive effect by applying to titles in force on the day of the publication of the act, even though this day is after the limitation period has expired?
For instance, could a Court of Appeal apply the new Act to a case in which the limitation period applied at first instance? We should recall that the prevailing principle in French Law is that of the non-retroactivity of new laws, which is deduced from Article 2 of the French Civil Code; and that its counterpart is the immediate effect of new laws. Article 2222 of the same Code specifies that the limitation period, once expired, cannot be called into question.
The legislator may, however, provide, by way of exception, for the retroactivity of a law, if this is clearly and sufficiently stated. In this case, Article 124 of the PACTE Act does not specifically state that it is “retroactive”, but this is not required by Article 2 of the Civil Code or by the interpretation of the French Supreme Court (Cour de Cassation). Moreover, the specific mention that the law is “retroactive” would, as such, be of little use because it would be too vague.
Except if one considered that a specific reference to retroactivity is indeed mandatory – which the Cour de Cassation has never held – there is no evidence to suggest that the transitional provision in question is not clear or sufficient. We are therefore in a situation where it will be up to the judges to interpret the provision as closely as possible to the spirit of the text.
It must be kept in mind that the legislator intended to put an end to a jurisprudence that was belied by its text. It was therefore appropriate to refrain from restricting its application either to ongoing trials or to proceedings for annulment introduced after its entry into force or to actions for annulment based on titles issued after its entry into force. On the contrary, the text had to be worded in such a way that it could apply to all titles in force, which included all the aforementioned cases, but also titles previously issued and which had not given rise to legal proceedings on the date of the publication of the law.
Thus, the wording “titles in force on the day of its publication” seems to cover all pending and future actions and seems therefore retroactive.
I will have the opportunity to come back in more detail to this subject next week on @DeBoufflers Blog and then in the journal Propriété Industrielle (December issue); the latter will include a detailed response to an article supporting the opposite thesis, which was published in the same journal this summer.
Thank you Matthieu.
Transitional provisions are often tricky and can give rise to divided case law.
We have been there before, when the number of courts having jurisdiction in patent matters was reduced from 10 to 7 and then down to 1. And so, I would not be surprised if we got surprised again.
Data scarcity is not the first feature that comes to mind when one thinks about our present time.
Plethora, excess and overplus are probably more accurate descriptors.
But French patent law may be (once again) an exception, as there has been for a number of months a real shortage of online accessible judgments.
Like most court decisions in this country, patent law rulings are in theory public documents. But, nowadays, can a document be considered as truly made available to the public if it is not available online, and if you have to place an official written or in-person request with the court’s clerks in order to hopefully get a copy?
In recent years, access to patent law decisions has made huge progress, in particular thanks to the online case law database hosted by the French patent office (INPI). But the database is not up-to-date and has not been for months now.
As far as I understand, the problem was caused by a new general policy of the justice administration, reflected in a memo dated December 2018.
The memo acknowledges that most judgments must be made available to the public, and that copies thereof can be individually communicated, upon request.
But then the memo adds that a massive communication of decisions “should be in principle avoided“. It provides the courts with a number of reasons why they can / should refuse such requests:
Such requests can place an undue burden on the (notoriously understaffed and underfunded, I should add) departments in charge.
Massive communication can breach principles of data protection.
In particular, decisions should not be communicated before being redacted to remove personal information.
I understand that this policy aims at thwarting legaltech companies (as well as more conventional editors?) eager to siphon off all of the justice administration data to process it (and make a profit out of it). And there may be good reasons for this. But the policy apparently had the side effect of also freezing access to legal information on the website of the INPI – a public institution.
A number of appeal and cassation appeal rulings are still published more or less regularly on the INPI website – although there is no way to know if this publication is exhaustive or not.
On the other hand, there are almost no more recent first instance decisions on the database (I can see only two first instance patent-related rulings issued in 2019 as I am writing this post). And the current general justice administration website (Legifrance) has zero – it has always been little useful in the field of patent law. This leaves us with subscription-based websites – but they are subscription-based; and I have heard that their collections may also be incomplete.
I assume that the administration’s plan is to set up its own new platform giving access to all decisions, including first instance ones.
Consider article L.111-13 of the Code de l’organisation judiciaire. When it was introduced in 2016, the initial wording of its first paragraph was:
Without prejudice to particular provisions on access to justice decisions and their publicity, judgments issued by judicial courts are made available to the public for free, making sure that privacy of those concerned is not impinged on.
In March 2019, this paragraph was amended as follows, and another one was inserted:
Subject to specific provisions on access to justice decisions and their publicity, judgments issued by judicial courts are made available to the public for free in electronic form.
Family names and first names of the individuals mentioned in the judgment, when they are parties or third parties, are redacted prior to release. Any element making it possible to identify parties, third parties, judges and court clerks is also redacted when its disclosure may impinge on the safety or privacy of these persons or their relatives.
As you can see, things have gotten more specific: all decisions should fortunately be available online, not just communicable upon manual request. But they have to be carefully redacted first – including possibly by deleting the judges’ names. Could it be that this constraint is what is making everything more complex?
Another paragraph in the same article adds that the specifics of these provisions will be set by way of executive order. As far as I understand, no such executive order has been issued yet – so that the above provisions are not yet applicable.
Interestingly, the December 2018 memo mentions the following:
The fact that article L. 111-13 […] on open data of court decisions is not applicable in the absence of an executive order to this end cannot be bypassed by way of a massive communication process which would not provide useful guarantees for the protection of personal data.
In other terms, until the administration’s intended complete open database materializes, there will be no similar database elsewhere.
If any reader is privy to information on the timing of completion and release of the future database, I would be happy to know. Otherwise, let’s hope that the INPI will soon be able to resume a timely publication of all patent-related rulings.
As shown above, redaction of personal information in judicial decisions seems to be a primary concern of the administration. In this respect, another interesting paragraph was introduced into article L. 111-13 in March 2019:
Identification data of judges and court clerks cannot be reused so as to assess, analyze, compare or predict their real or assumed professional practice. A breach of this prohibition is punished according to articles 226-18, 226-24 and 226-31 of the Code pénal, without prejudice of measures and sanctions provided in Law No. 78-17 of January 6, 1978 relating to computer sciences, data and liberties.
By way of information, article 226-18 Code pénal sets maximum penalties of a five-year imprisonment and a EUR. 300,000 fine. The other two articles add complementary sanctions for legal entities and individuals, respectively.
How very French to try to make us forget that judges are individuals having their own specific views – and what a contrast with what they do in the U.K. or the U.S.
On the one hand, I can see why data analysis targeting specific magistrates can be a problem. What if, knowing that Mr. X or Mrs. Y usually rules in this or that manner, parties are able to go forum-shopping by choosing the judge they like best. My understanding is that this is not possible for cases on the merits, but is possible for ex parte petitions, such as infringement seizure petitions, as different judges of the third chamber of the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) are on duty on different days of the week. And I am talking only about IP here, I am sure there are more serious potential concerns in other areas of the law.
On the other hand, if there are indeed differences of practice between judges, and I am still talking only from an IP law perspective, is this not information the public should be entitled to have?
One of the major issues of patent law, in my view, is unpredictability for all stakeholders. When a company asks whether a patent is valid or not, whether it is infringed or not, or what to do in order not to infringe, those are usually tremendously complex questions.
They make our lives as patent attorneys interesting, I will grant you that. But, on the economic standpoint, not being able to have any certainty on issues of validity and infringement is a problem. It also paves the way for various sorts of abuse. Think about the infringer willing to take a chance with a patent that its owner will not be certain to be able to successfully assert. And think about the patentee knowingly wielding its invalid title as a sword of Damocles.
Therefore, isn’t all information allowing stakeholders to reduce the level of uncertainty as much as possible legitimately useful?
Last week’s post on the different insufficiency doctrines used by Board 3.2.05 and Board 3.2.06 of the EPO offers a nice example. Isn’t this discrepancy important to know as a patentee, opponent or third party involved in the diaper industry or any other relevant technical field?
Even though the judges of the TGI work together in order to harmonize their judgments as explained in this post, they may still have different approaches. Even more importantly, the appointment of new judges to the IP chamber may also bring about significant changes.
By restricting (heck, by outlawing) any judge-based data analysis, stakeholders will be left in the dark.
In fact, this may even foster inequality between patent professionals, and between patent stakeholders. There will always be lawyers in the know, because they regularly handle many cases in front of the same judges and may even occasionally have informal discussions with them – and all the others.
Now, I would like to bring these thoughts to a conclusion, on a more self-centered point of view.
Obviously, this blog cannot properly report on French case law without any court decisions.
I do have a couple of sources, and appeal rulings seem to still be forthcoming. But first instance decisions are also essential to review; because many cases don’t give rise to an appeal ruling, and because first instance judgments tend to be more thorough and thus more interesting to analyze.
So I would be most grateful if readers could pass on what they have, so that it can be shared here.
I am happy to cite my informants or to keep them anonymous. And if you supply a decision and would like my post to include a comment from you on the decision, I am also happy to oblige.
Rulings from the Enlarged Board of Appeal of the EPO are scarce – this is what makes them so eagerly awaited by the patent profession.
2019 may turn out to be an exceptional year in this respect though, with already three official referrals so far and an imminent fourth one which has not yet been officially issued as of today.
But sometimes I wonder whether these rulings are not in fact too scarce. Overall, the case law of the Boards of Appeal is consistent and contradictions between decisions are infrequent. But there is always room for improvement, right?
Case in point: sufficiency of disclosure and the issue of so-called unclear parameters.
If you read sections II.C.4.5 (“Parameters“) and II.C.7.2(“Article 83 EPC and Clarity of Claims“) of the EPO case law book, and if you are able to summarize the standard to be applied regarding this question, you will deserve some kudos.
The issue is the following. Some claims contain parameter features, such as “Property X is more than threshold Y“. There are cases wherein the application or patent at stake does not explain in a satisfactory manner how to measure property X. As a result, property X may be close to impossible to measure for the skilled person; or the skilled person may be aware of different possible ways to proceed, leading to wholly different results.
There is little doubt that this can give rise to an objection of lack of clarity of the claims (art. 84 EPC). The real head-scratcher is whether it also gives rise to an objection of insufficiency of disclosure (art. 83 EPC), or can give rise to this objection in some special circumstances.
This is of course extremely important because insufficiency of disclosure is a ground for opposition (and nullity, for that matter), whereas lack of clarity is not. In other words, if the answer to the above question is no, then an ill-defined parameter already present in the granted claims cannot be challenged after grant, no matter how serious the problem is.
Let me just state, incidentally, that on a practical standpoint this can be a major concern for third parties, who can be at a complete loss as to whether they infringe or not, and what to do in order not to infringe.
A large number of Board decisions have addressed this question, in various ways. The question has however never been referred to the Enlarged Board of Appeal.
Only the Boards of Appeal or the President of the EPO can refer a question to the Enlarged Board “to ensure uniform application of the law, or if a point of law of fundamental importance arises” (art. 112 EPC). Parties can only request a referral but without any power whatsoever to force a referral.
Can the case law of the Boards on the relationship between art. 83 and art. 84, in particular as far as ill-defined parameters are concerned, be considered as uniform or not?
My personal impression is that there is some degree of divergence, although this is in fact denied in some decisions.
One approach in particular that has been applied is that the impossibility for the skilled person to know whether he/she is working within the scope of the claims (“forbidden area“) is tantamount to an impossibility of carrying out the invention.
In T 1811/13 (November 8, 2016), Board 3.2.05 noted that this approach originates from decision T 256/87 and “appears to have gone unnoticed until 2003” (reasons 5.1); that it was adopted by four decisions issued by Board 3.2.06 between 2004 and 2007, including in particular T 464/05; and that on the other hand many other decisions have rejected this approach since 2003, because “the definition of the scope of a claim was related to Article 84 EPC rather than Article 83 EPC“.
Board 3.2.05 concluded (reasons 5.1) that:
It may, therefore, be said that today there is agreement or at least a clearly predominant opinion among the boards that the definition of the “forbidden area” of a claim should not be considered as a matter related to Article 83 EPC. The present board shares this opinion.
Decision T 647/15, issued by the same Board 3.2.05 almost contemporaneously (September 8, 2016), states pretty much the same.
So far so good. Except that Board 3.2.06 in fact stands by its earlier case law.
This was notably illustrated in T 1188/15 of November 24, 2016.
In T 626/14 of May 24, 2018, Board 3.2.06 explicitly disagreed with the comments made by Board 3.2.05 in T 1811/13 and T 647/15 regarding the earlier 3.2.06 case law, embodied by T 464/05. Said the Board (reasons 1.4.1):
Yet, T1811/13 and T647/15 themselves concentrate only on an individual aspect in e.g. T464/05, namely ‘the area covered by the claim’ without addressing the actual findings in that decision regarding the issue of Article 83 EPC. In fact, T464/05 draws a distinction between the two objections under Articles 83 and 84 EPC respectively and explains the significance thereof. For example, T464/05 considers in Reasons 3.3.2 not the boundaries of the claimed subject-matter which was the subject of T1811/13 and T647/15, but the lack of indications in the patent concerning the measurement of a particular parameter. This is stated in T464/05 as resulting in ‘an undue burden for the skilled person trying to reproduce the invention’. Likewise, in Reasons 3.2, the crucial issue in respect of sufficiency of disclosure concerns the issue of whether a skilled person ‘is capable of reliably measuring (the) parameter’. Thus, T1811/13 and T647/15 do not cause the present Board to see anything which would undermine the reasoning in T464/05 concerning Article 83 EPC. In the sense that a parameter to be measured was at issue in T464/05 with regard to Article 83 EPC, the Board in the present case is faced with the same issue, i.e. the undue burden created by the lack of any information allowing the skilled person to reliably measure the defined thickness. This, as explained supra, results in the skilled person being unable to know whether he has arrived at the invention or not, such that the invention is not sufficiently clearly and completely disclosed.
In summary, Board 3.2.06 in T 626/14 maintains its position, and insists that if the skilled person is unable to know whether he or she has arrived at the invention, due to a lack of information in the patent, this amounts to an insufficiency of disclosure.
How did the other Board 3.2.05 react? In case T 250/15 (July 20, 2018), one of the opponents requested that the Enlarged Board of Appeal be consulted regarding the question of sufficiency of disclosure in the case of an ill-defined parameter. The Board found the requirements of sufficiency of disclosure to be met in the case at hand, and rejected the request for a referral.
In particular, the Board had this to say regarding the latest comments by Board 3.2.06 (reasons 2.6, translated from French):
The present Board notes that decision T 626/14, just like case T 464/05, concerns a particular constellation in a certain technical field. The present case is however different in that the parameter of the number-average molecular weight Mn relates to a clearly defined property which is inherent to the material. Besides, it has not been challenged that the skilled person has a limited number of appropriate and generally known measurement methods. Therefore, T 626/14 cannot put into question the conclusions expressed above regarding the sufficiency of disclosure of the invention, and the request for a referral to the Enlarged Board of Appeal which was orally presented by respondent I must be rejected.
In a nutshell, for Board 3.2.05, the facts of the case are different from those of T 626/14, and the parameter at stake here does not raise any difficulty for the skilled person.
Again, so far so good. But the comment on “a particular constellation in a certain technical field“, on the other hand, is puzzling.
The technical field of T 464/05 and T 626/14 is that of sanitary articles, such as diapers and the like.
What could be so special about this technical field? In T 464/05 the contested parameter was a “weighted average mass vapor transmission rate (MVTR)” and in T 626/14 it was simply a thickness which is nevertheless difficult to measure as it relates to a fibrous layer, so that a certain pressure needs to be applied in order to make the measurement.
Admittedly, these two parameters were very specific ones, but there is no doubt that other problematic examples can be found in many other technical fields. There is nothing unique about the diaper constellation.
A divergence of approach between some Boards, each one consistently applying its own case law, is not unheard of.
For example, novelty of dosage regimen claims led to disagreements between Boards 3.3.02 and 3.3.04, before the Enlarged Board issued its decision G 2/08.
Is it fair to say that there is such a similar divergence nowadays between Board 3.2.06 and (at least) Board 3.2.05?
If so, would a referral to the Enlarged Board of appeal (in a case fit for this purpose of course) not be a much better solution than putting any divergence under the rug?
The legal standard to be applied to a patent should not depend on its IPC classification and the business distribution scheme of the Boards.
As a disclaimer, what is discussed above is not the full picture of ill-defined parameters. Yet further legal standards have been suggested and debated.
For example, in T 1845/14 of November 8, 2018, Board 3.3.03 analyzed another line of case law, embodied by T 593/09, T 608/07, T 815/07 and T 172/99, according to which “the criterion applied for assessing sufficiency of disclosure was whether the unclear parameter of the claim was so ill-defined that the skilled person would not have been able, on the basis of the disclosure as a whole and using their common general knowledge, to identify (without undue burden) the technical measures (e.g. selection of suitable compounds) necessary to solve the problem underlying the patent at issue“.
After a very thorough analysis, Board 3.3.03 came to the conclusion that this “is not a suitable criterion for assessing sufficiency of disclosure when the problem or an effect derivable from it are not explicitly or implicitly part of the definition of the claimed subject-matter” (reasons 9.8).
The Board then added (reasons 9.9):
The view expressed above could be perceived as a deviation from the above cited decisions or other decisions of the Boards of Appeal in which a criterion for assessing sufficiency of disclosure was whether the ambiguity of a parametric definition deprived the person skilled in the art of the promise of the invention. However, there is no need to refer a question to the Enlarged Board of Appeal as the diverging views arise from a different approach regarding the meaning of the term “invention” in relation to the issue of sufficiency of disclosure and the approach taken in the present decision is supported by the decisions of the Enlarged Board of Appeal G 2/98 (see above) and G 1/03 (see above).
Interestingly, the Board in this case did find the claimed invention to be insufficiently disclosed despite setting aside a legal standard which would have been more demanding for the patent in suit. Said the Board (reasons 11.3):
The ambiguous definition of a parameter in a claim may result in the scope of the claim to be broader than the patentee might have intended. In such a case the question arises whether the teaching of the patent in suit, which was directed to the claimed subject-matter having regard to a specific meaning of that parameter (which, however, was omitted), would nevertheless have enabled the skilled person to carry out the invention outside of the scope intended by the patentee, using common general knowledge and a reasonable amount of experimentation.
It was decided that the teaching was insufficient in this respect.
Anyway, this was another example of a criterion previously applied in the EPO case law, now said to be erroneous by a Board, on the same topic of unclear parameters.
Time will tell whether T 1845/14 will be followed or not, and whether a unanimous frame of reasoning regarding ill-defined parameters will finally emerge from the case law, with or without the involvement of the Enlarged Board.
In the meantime, we may have to deal with a constellation of approaches.
The new set of rules recently adopted in France on the protection of trade secrets can potentially affect many aspects of IP litigation, including in particular the handling of evidence that may contain confidential information.
New judgments are therefore bound to come under scrutiny in order to determine whether there is a change in practice or not: in particular is there any heightened effort by the courts to preserve the parties’ confidential information? In Conversant v. LG, it seemed that maybe there was.
But as far as today’s ruling is concerned, I am not so sure the recent law had any impact on the judge’s assessment of seized evidence.
Here is the context.
Bayer Intellectual Property GmbH owns European patent No. EP 2164496, on a formulation for treating coccidiose and iron deficiency in farm animals, such as piglets.
In November 2017, the French company Ceva Santé Animale let Bayer know that they intended to launch a veterinary product in several European countries, and Bayer replied that the product would infringe their patent. Ceva nevertheless continued to prepare for the launch of the product.
The dispute suddenly crystallized a few months ago. First, Ceva obtained a marketing authorization for their product, Forceris, in April 2019. Then, on May 16, oral proceedings took place in connection with Ceva’s opposition against EP’496 at the EPO, and the opposition division rejected the opposition. On the same day, Bayer sent a cease-and-desist letter to Ceva. Ceva postponed the launch in the Netherlands and agreed to give Bayer a 2-month advance notice prior to such launch. But no similar undertaking was made with respect to France.
Still on May 16 (definitely a busy day for Bayer’s legal team), an ex parte order for infringement seizure was issued. The seizure was carried out 4 days later at Ceva’s headquarters.
Ceva immediately filed a motion in court to request the placement of the seized documents and information under seal.
In fact, the bailiff who performed the seizure had spontaneously placed some of the seized evidence under seal and had redacted some of the seized information – but Ceva deemed that this was not enough.
The interim order further to Ceva’s motion was issued on June 7.
In summary, Ceva argued that Bayer did not need the seizure, as they already had information on the composition of the Forceris product; and that the seized information was highly confidential and could unfairly distort competition if revealed to Bayer.
Unsurprisingly, Bayer disagreed and requested on the contrary that the evidence placed under seal by the bailiff should be released to them.
In her order, the judge first noted that Bayer’s knowledge of technical information on the allegedly infringing product (due to prior exchanges between the parties) was irrelevant.
Indeed, the infringement seizure procedure aims at collecting evidence relating not only to the existence of an infringement, but also to the extent of the infringement.
Second, she noted that the provisions on the protection of trade secrets not only apply to seized exhibits, but also to mentions contained in the bailiff’s report:
[…] The abovementioned provision (article R. 615-2 par. 5) only cites “seized exhibits” but it must also apply to mentions in the infringement seizure report which derive from these exhibits. Otherwise, as stated by Ceva, the protection of trade secrets would be circumvented simply by mentioning the contents of the seized documents in the report.
Pragmatic and fair.
Then, the judge deemed that a redaction of the bailiff’s report was not required in this case; nor was the placement under seal of most of the seized exhibits.
Here is the standard to be applied, as reminded in the order:
The judge of the infringement seizure should only order justified and proportionate measures, taking into account the opposite interests and rights at stake: on the one hand, [the interests and rights] of the seized party to enjoy the protection of its trade secrets and confidential information, if it can prove this qualification; and on the other hand, [the interests and rights] of the proprietor to gain access to any relevant documents which may enable to characterize the infringement, even before any finding by the court as to the existence of the infringement, including confidential information, provided that it appears to be necessary for demonstrating infringement, in order not to deprive the infringement seizure of any efficacy.
I don’t think this standard is substantially different from the one that was traditionally applied before the 2018 trade secret law.
In this case, the judge refused to seal information appearing on one page of the bailiff’s report and in two seized exhibits, relating to commercial plans regarding Forceris.
Ceva stated that Bayer could use the information to adjust the launch of its own competing product, Boycox Iron. But the judge noted that “the countries [where Forceris is to be marketed] are more or less those countries where pigs are raised“. In other terms, the information was obvious and not protected.
I am not sure this reasoning is completely convincing, especially in view of the “more or less” language (“peu ou prou” in the original version).
The judge further noted that the business plan had already been disclosed in the Dutch proceedings, so that the information was not confidential. This, to me, is a much stronger point.
One of the exhibits contained the price of the Forceris product. But the judge also refused to seal it.
The first reason was that Bayer needed the information for the assessment of damages. The second reason was that Ceva has disclosed its recommended price in Italy, so that the judge could not see why the information would be confidential in France (even if the French price was different from the Italian price).
Again, I tend to find this latter reason not fully satisfactory. The fact that a company has decided not to keep some information confidential does not mean that they have given up on confidentiality of all information.
As for the usefulness of the price for the computation of damages, this is of course a central point. In some cases, courts have decided that there should be a ruling on infringement first, before the patentee can access any price-related information. But in other cases, such as this one, they have decided otherwise. This is a delicate case-by-case balance, which, again, has apparently not really been altered by the new trade secrets provisions.
Other exhibits were OKed by the judge as well, as they related to invoices, orders and the like and were therefore relevant for the patentee as they contained information on the distribution network.
Only one exhibit was withheld by the judge, namely some commercial documentation which “it does not appear justified and proportionate to disclose to Bayer in view of the information already collected“.
On the other hand, the judge granted Bayer’s counterclaim for disclosure of the evidence spontaneously placed under seal by the bailiff during the seizure.
The last nail in the coffin was the following sentence:
There is no legitimate reason to prohibit Bayer from using the elements [thus] lawfully obtained in other proceedings in France or abroad.
This is an important reminder of how useful the French infringement seizure can be in a situation of global litigation.
All in all, the judge’s ruling seems to favor efficiency of the proceedings: lengthy expertise proceedings on the exhibits are avoided, and the patentee has now all the necessary information to sue other parties if needed, and file submissions on all aspects of the case including damages. But whether the defendant’s trade secrets were sufficiently preserved in the process may be open for discussion – with the caveat that, as is often the case, the order is relatively brief and does not make it possible to fully appraise the entire context.
Glad to be back on the blog, with a report on a decision which already has the flavor of a thing from the past. I am very grateful to Philippe Schmitt for providing this judgment, after commenting it on his blog.
Thales, the famous electronics company, filed a French patent application at the INPI (Institut National de la Propriété Industrielle) on December 17, 2010. It was published under No. FR 2969124. A decision of refusal of the application was issued on July 17, 2018. Thales appealed, which leads us to the judgment at stake.
Here is claim 1 of the application, as modified during examination proceedings:
A method for displaying the steps of a mission of an aircraft on a screen of a display device, the mission being a flight plan, wherein each step corresponds to a waypoint of the flight plan, characterized in that the different steps are displayed in a first graphical window comprising a time scale, or “timeline” (TL), the different steps being displayed opposite the schedule corresponding to their accomplishment, and the length of the “timeline” is longer than the length of the first graphical window, and the graphical window therefore displays only a part of the “timeline”, this part being imposed by the user of the display device.
The application was refused by the INPI as they deemed that:
The application merely relates to a presentation of information associated to a mathematical method, without any technical features.
The claimed subject-matter cannot be searched and thus compared with the state of the art.
More precisely, the INPI considered that the problem at stake in the application was to facilitate the reading and correlation of data relating to the steps of an aircraft mission, provided by different display windows. In the absence of any such facilitation, operators have to check themselves the consistency of the information provided by various windows. Thus, the INPI held, the problem at stake relates to the interpretation of the data by the operators, and not to a technology of data representation. In other terms, the problem at stake is intellectual and not technical.
Regarding the last feature of claim 1, per which “the length of the “timeline” is longer than the length of the first graphical window, and the graphical window therefore displays only a part of the “timeline”, this part being imposed by the user of the display device”, the INPI remarked that the description of the application does not specify by which technical means the user displays “a part of the timeline“. Therefore, this feature is not characterized on the technical standpoint and no technical effect deriving from human-machine interactions is disclosed in the application.
The Paris court of appeal set aside the refusal, on the following grounds.
First, the court referred to the INPI guidelines and also to the EPO guidelines, regarding the definition of a “presentation of information“. The court thus held that information that is presented is not patentable, but that the way information is presented may comprise patentable technical features if it is distinct from the information itself. In particular, a feature which credibly helps the user perform a technical task owing to a continuous or guided human-machine interaction process provides a technical effect.
Next, the court analyzed that the objective of the patent is to transmit information to a user, more specifically the pilot or copilot of an aircraft, so that he/she has a consistent and integrated representation of the mission, in order to make decisions based on a complete knowledge of the state of the aircraft and of its environment.
The court then turned to the first characterizing feature of the claim, and concluded that it is not a technical feature. Namely:
The first feature relates to a window comprising the “timeline”, which displays the different steps opposite the schedule corresponding to their accomplishment. […] Such a window, oriented with past at the bottom and future on top, vertically divided in its center by a timeline, comprises way times on its left and remarkable way points on its right, including mentions such as speed, altitude, beside the current position of the aircraft represented by a symbol “A”. It thus appears that this feature, although it is key to the patent applied for, only relates to the transmission of information to the pilot of the aircraft, both concerning the cognitive information content (way times and way points) and the manner it is presented (as a function of a timeline). There is no distinct technical feature and it is thus not patentable per se.
However, the court’s take on the very last claimed feature was quite different:
On the other hand, the second feature recites that when the length of the timeline is longer than the length of the first graphical window, the user (pilot) may display only part of the timeline (imposed by him/her). This is a technical means distinct from the content of the information itself. It should be added that this means helps the pilot select the most relevant of said information and thus produces a technical effect […].
In order to conclude that this feature is nevertheless not patentable, the [INPI] asserts that it only mentions a result to be achieved, namely imposing the display of part of the timeline, without clearly setting out the technical means allowing such result to be achieved. However, during examination proceedings, the [INPI] does not have the power to rule on the insufficiency of disclosure of the patent, so that this reasoning is moot. [The INPI] also asserts that this insufficiency of disclosure does not allow a comparison with the state of the art and the preparation of a search report. However, nothing prevents a prior art search, for instance in the “WL” window displaying the list of way points as a table, [to check] if the user can, when the length of this list is greater than the length of the window, display only part of this list.
In summary, the court held that the last feature of the claim is a technical feature, so that the claimed subject-matter is an invention (or rather, is not a non-invention, as patent law is somewhat Carrollian).
The absence of disclosure of precise technical means in the description of the application should not be taken into account, the court added, since insufficiency of disclosure is not a ground for refusal of a French patent application.
In fact, the current list of grounds of refusal of a French patent application is quite limited. For example, lack of inventive step is not one of these grounds, and this is why there is no discussion of inventive step whatsoever in the judgment. This is also why the decision will be outdated soon, as additional grounds of refusal (including lack of inventive step) will be taken into consideration in the near future – see my previous report here on the Pacte bill.
A case like this one is actually probably a good argument in favor of this bill. Indeed, it makes little sense for the court of appeal to set aside a refusal without having to discuss or consider inventive step at all – which of course should be an important point to look at, since lack of inventive step is a ground for nullity of a granted patent.
This case has also made me realize that insufficiency of disclosure has not been introduced as a new ground for refusal in the Pacte bill. Why that is is a conundrum. If the aim is to strengthen French national patents and beef up examination proceedings, why leave a ground for nullity out of the INPI’s purview?
As a final remark, I am, like the court of appeal, unconvinced by the alleged impossibility to perform a prior art search. This is a current and actual ground for refusal, but in my view it should be limited to extreme cases in which the claims are for instance so poorly drafted that they are not understandable. On the other hand, as a matter of policy I do not believe that this provision should apply to features which are alleged to be non-technical – which is always a debatable notion, as shown above.
Now, here is another interesting thing. There is no European patent application equivalent to the French application at stake. But the French application was sent out to the EPO for a prior art search, as is the case for all French applications which do not claim a foreign priority.
And the file wrapper shows that the EPO examiner refused to perform the search, and noted that the claims “relate to a an abstract and generic process of displaying data, independently from any technology. This subject-matter is excluded from patentability, like any abstract method of graphical representation as such, as it is equivalent to a mathematical method“.
Therefore, to some extent, the INPI’s refusal was really based on an EPO examiner’s position.
The feature found to be technical by the court was present in claim 2 of the original claim set. So perhaps the EPO examiner did not pay as much attention to it as he should have. Or perhaps the Paris court of appeal has a more generous view of technical features than the EPO, when it comes to graphical user interfaces. Or perhaps the court would have found the claims invalid based on another ground if all grounds were within its purview.
When the new examination proceedings come into force, it can be expected that the number of refusals will markedly increase, especially in the particular field of technology of graphical user interfaces. This could give the court of appeal the opportunity to further elaborate on its views on this topic.
And if it turns out in the end that its stance is less strict than the EPO’s, this could entail a dramatic shift in filing strategies.