Summertime

It is this time of year when some readers of this blog may still be enjoying what is left of the summer, albeit the back-to-work frenzy is looming – and is in fact already upon a number of us.

What we need in such a moment of transition is probably a gentle reintroduction to the delights and torment of patent law.

Matthieu Dhenne, attorney at law at Cabinet Schertenleib offers us just that, as he kindly accepted to share some comments with us regarding two decisions recently discussed on the blog.

The typical year of a patent attorney.

The first decision is B/E Aerospace Inc. & B/E Aerospace Systems GmbH v. Zodiac Aerotechnics, reported here. At stake is the hotly debated question of the limitation period for patent nullity actions in France. I may have already mentioned that the recent case law on this issue has drawn a lot of criticisms. It turns out that Matthieu is one of the vocal critics of the new trend.

Having looked in detail at what the essence of a limitation period is, Matthieu writes:

The Paris Tribunal de grande instance states (once again) that the limitation period under ordinary law (i.e. 5 years) applies to an action for patent revocation.

It is an error of law. Two brief explanations hereafter.

First, it does not comply with article 2224 of the Code civil. Article 2224 provides a limitation period for both actions in personam and actions in rem. Yet the action for patent revocation is neither one nor the other. It is not based on a debt obligation (action in personam), nor on a thing (action in rem). It is based on the defense of free competition. In this regard, we should remind that a patent right, as an exclusivity to operate an invention during a certain period of time, constitutes an exception to free competition. Therefore, as an exception, this right is only justified for patentable inventions. Rather, it is not justified for non-patentable inventions. In other words: the purpose of an action for revocation is mainly to avoid unjustified patents that will negatively affect competition.

Then, the purpose of a limitation period does not apply to it. Such a deadline aims at strengthening legal certainty. Thus, a right holder must act within a strict deadline when his right is infringed. Similarly, a right may be created over time, when a defect originally affecting it disappears. For instance, a trademark can acquire distinctiveness through use. However, on the contrary, in patent law, time may only be harmful. An invention which is not novel or inventive at the date of filing will not become novel or inventive afterwards. Rather, one could discover prior art that was not discussed during the examination phase.

Eventually, a limitation period in patent nullity suits will only introduce uncertainty. On the one hand, there are still doubts concerning the starting point of the deadline. According to the case law: date of filing, date of grant or date of formal notice. There is no strict trend concerning this question. Besides, in any event, the plaintiff must prove he was unaware of the existence of the patent: the burden of proof is upon the plaintiff. On the other hand, the defect that originally affects the patent right will not disappear over time. To the contrary, one could discover after grant that a patent is void due to prior art which was not discussed during the examination phase. Therefore, legal protection is not needed and thus not justified because it strengthens situations of facts that will never comply with the legal system. Worse: potentially, a patentee will still be able to use a patent against someone else even after it is found to be invalid.

The above case law obviously deserves much more comments. But, for now, I think there is an urgent need to stress out the fundamental legal issues at stake, hoping that the Courts will quickly remedy them.

Another important decision previously discussed by my partner Aujain Eghbali on this blog is Xaga Network v. Ewalia, in which a patent was revoked because the main claim at stake was held to relate to software as such (the programming activity field not constituting a patentable technical activity), and to actually describe “an abstract scheme which does not offer any technical solution to the application management facilitation problem it pretends to solve since it is not made explicit how the proposed management system effectively helps the user”.

Aujain said he was rather impressed by how French judges seem to have taken over the typical EPO reasoning in connection with computer-implemented inventions – even if the legal basis is not the same – as he explained in his post.

Matthieu, as far as he is concerned, has three remarks:

The Court refers to the “activity of programming” to assess technicity under article 52 EPC. However, only the invention should be technical. The question whether an activity is able (or not) to give birth to an invention exclusively falls under the inventive step assessment under article 56 EPC.

The Court states that claim 1 aims at an abstract scheme which is not explained. I think it is interesting to point out that abstraction is opposed to explanation. Two lessons. On the one hand, technicity does not require a transformation of nature (i.e. material production). On the other hand, further explanations in the description could, in fine, justify technicity. In other words: French judges are bringing the requirements of technicity and sufficiency closer together.

Eventually, the Court evokes the technical effect requirement. Nonetheless, in doing so, the Court unavoidably evokes a further technical effect, to the extent that any software already produces a first technical effect in the machine (i.e. electric current).

Speaking of computer-implemented inventions, those interested in this topic may want to mark their calendars. Indeed, Matthieu is happy to announce that an exciting full-day seminar dedicated to this very topic and put together by the AACEIPI (Association des Anciens du Centre d’Etudes Internationales de la Propriété Intellectuelle) will take place on November 24, 2017, in the prestigious premises of the Cour de cassation.

You can inquire about the seminar and register (by November 10) with Aristide Tenan, at at@schertenleib-avocats.com. Several top speakers are announced, including professors, IP judges and last but not least my partner Patrick Trabé.

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy” – this will just be a memory by the time the seminar kicks off. A belated happy August to all readers!

Unraveling contributory infringement

As a change from GMOs and mathematical methods, today’s patent is about a toilet paper dispenser. Rest assured that I heroically resisted the urge to come up with an introductory pun closely related to the invention at stake – lest this blog be rated by readers as not classy enough.

That said, a relatively simple technical field does not necessarily entail a straightforward ruling. In fact, today’s decision addresses the complex issue of contributory infringement heads on.

SCA Tissue France was originally a subsidiary of the US group Georgia Pacific, a world leader in cellulose-based products. Think Lotus toilet paper. This business has now been acquired by the Swedish group SCA. Tissue France owns European patent No. EP 1799083, on a toilet paper dispenser, and markets the so-called SmartOne dispenser, together with matching toilet paper.

In March 2011, Tissue France started infringement proceedings based on the EP’083 patent against Sipinco and Global Hygiène. An opposition was filed against the patent in parallel. The patent was upheld as granted both by the opposition division and by the board of appeal.

In parallel, the Paris Tribunal de grande instance revoked the French part of EP’083 for insufficiency of disclosure, in March 2013 and therefore rejected Tissue France’s infringement claim.

However, on appeal, the first instance judgment was set aside and the patent was acknowledged as valid.

Tissue France had raised two infringement claims:

  • The defendants had committed direct infringement by putting on the market a toilet paper dispenser as well as toilet paper within the scope of EP’083.
  • The defendants had also committed contributory infringement by marketing toilet paper intended to be used with the patented SmartOne dispensers.

The appeal judges sided with the patentee on the first count but rejected the claim based on the second count. See the ruling dated November 25, 2014.

The patent proprietor did not give up on the contributory infringement count and filed an appeal on points of law. We can imagine that whether contributory infringement is established or not may have a significant impact on the computation of damages.

They did well, as the Cour de cassation has now vacated the appeal judgment and remitted the case back to the Cour d’appel, ordering them to examine again the question of contributory infringement.

In order to understand this whole discussion, it is certainly useful to have a look at the main claim of the patent:

Paper dispenser, comprising a housing in which a roll of a paper strip is housed, which comprises precuts transverse to the strip and defining rectangular paper sheets, of which the width is transverse and the length is longitudinal, the housing comprising a dispensing orifice through which the paper strip is unwound, the width of a sheet being between 125 mm and 180 mm and the ratio of the width of a sheet to its length being between 0.45 and 1, preferably between 0.5 and 0.65, characterized in that the said paper is a toilet paper and the said dispenser comprises a nozzle with the said dispensing orifice, the said nozzle and the said roll of paper being designed so that the paper sheets are unwound one at a time and emerge with less crumpling at the outlet of the nozzle, the paper being consumed in an optimum and pleasant manner.

In other terms, the claimed subject-matter is a paper dispenser which comprises a number of features (notably a housing and a nozzle) as well as a roll of paper strip in the housing.

When in the men / women’s room, always watch out for the bear.

Now, here is the relevant legal provision which defines contributory infringement under French law, namely article L.613-4 Code de la propriété intellectuelle, first paragraph:

Unless the patent proprietor consents, the supply or offer to supply, on the French territory, to another person than those entitled to work the patented invention, of means for implementing this invention on this territory, in relation with an essential element thereof, is also prohibited, when the third party knows or circumstances make it obvious that these means are suitable and intended for this implementation. 

The supreme court judges found that the Cour d’appel erred in three different respects.

First, the original appeal judgment held the following:

[…] Regarding the existence of acts of indirect, contributory infringement […], according to Tissue France […] itself, its invention lies in a new combination between, on the one hand, a specific toilet paper, and on the other hand, the use of a nozzle for dispensing sheets associated with a specific precut paper strop, in order to achieve a dispensing of sheets one at a time, with less crumpling at the outlet of the nozzle […].

[…] Therefore this is a combination invention which lies in the association of means (toilet paper and nozzle) which cooperate, notably due to their particular arrangement as described in the patent, for a common result (dispensing of the sheets one at a time, with little crumpling). Only the arrangement of the means which cooperate together for a common result is protected by the patent. 

[…] In such a case, the means in relation with an essential element of the patented invention under article L. 613-4 cannot only consist in one of the combined means, just because this means (here, the paper roll) is part of the constitution of the invention and contributes to the result that it provides. 

The Cour de cassation disagreed and held that this was a breach of article L. 613-4, because:

[…] contributory infringement of an invention consisting in a combination of means can result from the supply of a means relating to an essential element thereof […] even if it is a constitutive element thereof. 

By the way, don’t look for more detailed explanations in the ruling. There are none. It is the unfortunate tradition of cassation judgments that they have to be drafted as concisely and cryptically as possible. Basically, the cassation judges just cite relevant parts of the appeal judgment and state: “this is wrong“. Period. Sometimes, the statement of cassation appeal which is annexed to the decision provides useful additional information. But not so much in this case.

That said, I think what can be taken from this part of the ruling is that article L. 613-4 should apply in a similar manner to combination inventions and non-combinations inventions. No distinction between these two types of inventions is made in the statute.

As far as I understand, combination inventions are those where the contribution of the invention to the art lies in special features present in two different means which cooperate together. Here, the toilet paper is specially adapted to the dispenser, and the dispenser is specially adapted to the toilet paper.

To my mind, this clarification by the Cour de cassation is rather well in line with previous case law on this matter.

For instance, in at least two distinct cases related to an invention associating a dispenser with plastic bags, it was held that the supply of plastic bags was an act of contributory infringement: see Publi Embal v. Coprima and Simahee v. MultyPack. In another case where the invention related to the association of special fixing means on a digger with a special bucket intended to be placed on the fixing means, the supply of buckets was also viewed as an act of contributory infringement: see Morin v. Magsi.

The important point for contributory infringement to be established always seems to be that the means which is supplied should play an important role in how the invention works.

In contrast, if the invention lies entirely elsewhere than in the supplied means, there should be no contributory infringement. See Calor v. Filtech for an example of a demineralizing cartridge for an iron.

The second passage of the appeal judgment that the Cour de cassation did not like was the following:

[…] Besides, there can be no contributory infringement when the means which are supplied are, as in the present case, consumables which are to be integrated to the patented device, which exists independently of the consumables.  

The Cour de cassation noted that

it does not matter whether the means may consist in consumables, if they have an essential character. 

Again, it seems that the Cour d’appel imposed another criterion which is simply not present in the statute. No distinction is made depending on the nature of the supplied means. The only important thing is whether the supplied means relate to an essential element of the invention or not.

In fact, what the appeal judges probably had in mind is the second paragraph of article L. 613-4:

The provisions of [the first paragraph] are not applicable when the means for implementing [the invention] are products which are commonly on the market, unless the third party incites the person to whom the supply is made to commit the acts prohibited by article L. 613-3 [i.e. acts of direct infringement]. 

This is a special provision for products which are “commonly on the market“. But those are not the same as “consumables“. It is easy to picture consumables which have very peculiar features and are thus not really commonly on the market. Conversely, products commonly on the market certainly encompass other products than consumables (screws and nails, for instance).

So, the test applied by the Cour d’appel as to the nature of the supplied means was not the right one.

Last, the Cour d’appel had held that:

[…] no document from Sipinco mentioned that its toilet paper rolls were compatible with the dispensers marketed by Tissue France […]. 

Here is the Cour de cassation comment on this, which is slightly more detailed this time:

[…] By making this determination, whereas Tissue France argued in its appeal submissions that, due to its specific dimensions, the paper at stake did not correspond to toilet papers commonly on the market, the Cour d’appel, that did not investigate whether this was correct, and in this case whether this should be taken into consideration to examine whether Sipinco and Global Hygiene knew, or circumstances made it obvious, that these rolls were adapted and intended for implementing the invention, the Cour d’appel did not provide a legal basis for its decision.

Now, the issue is that the Cour d’appel did not find evidence that there was any incitation to customers for them to use the toilet paper at stake with the patented dispensers, which is the test under paragraph 2 of article L. 613-4.

But, before making that determination, it should have been checked whether the toilet paper was a product commonly on the market or not.

If not, then paragraph 2 should not come into play. And in this respect, the patentee’s argument was that the dimensions of the toilet paper were so specific that it could not be considered as a product commonly on the market, so that only paragraph 1 should apply. While the Cour de cassation did not formally endorse the patentee’s argument and just requested that it should be further considered by the Cour d’appel on remand, it certainly looks like they thought that it had merit.

If this is correct, then it means that a relatively cheap and commonplace product such as toilet paper is not a product “commonly on the market” if it has some specific features which make it original relative to other, similar products. 

In summary, this Tissue France decision will probably be important for future cases involving so-called combination inventions, as well as cases where a defense related to “products commonly on the market” is raised.

And now the Cour d’appel will have to dispense another judgment in this litigation.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour de cassation, ch. com., June 8, 2017, Tissue France v. Sipinco & Global Hygiène, pourvoi No. 15-29.378.

A new hope

Biotech and IT are complex areas, not only on the technical standpoint, but also in terms of patent law.

Reading about U-turns on plant patents or about the tricky transposition of the EPO’s software concepts into French national practice, one could be tempted to once and for all switch DNA sequences and algorithms for braking mechanisms and meat mincers. But one might be wrong. It turns out that even the most difficult of topics are not hopeless.

Today, Aujain Eghbali tells us about a new hope for patent software applicants. All sci-fi geeks will agree that a new hope can be a great beginning. But in order to find out what today’s hope is really about, you may have to read through the entire post.

Aujain reports.

Decision T 1227/05 (Circuit simulation I/Infineon Technologies) of December 13, 2006 has become a major reference for EPO examiners who need to assess the inventive step of computer-implemented mathematical methods.

The invention in Infineon related to the simulation of a circuit subject to 1/f noise. After establishing the principle that, beyond its implementation, a procedural step may contribute to the technical character of a method only to the extent that it serves a technical purpose of the method, the Board chaired by Mr. Steinbrener considered that:

  • The simulation of a circuit subject to 1/f noise constitutes an adequately defined technical purpose for a computer-implemented method, provided that the method is functionally limited to that technical purpose.
  • The metaspecification of an (undefined) technical purpose (simulation of a “technical system” as in original claim 4), on the other hand, could not be considered adequate, as the purpose of a claim in this context is not to quote the technical character requirement, but to identify clear features supported by the description which meet that requirement (Article 84 EPC).
  • A circuit with input channels, noise input channels and output channels the performance of which is described by differential equations does indeed constitute an adequately defined class of technical items, the simulation of which may be a functional technical feature.
  • Specific technical applications of computer-implemented simulation methods are themselves to be regarded as modern technical methods which form an essential part of the fabrication process and precede actual production, mostly as an intermediate step. In that light, such simulation methods cannot be denied a technical effect merely on the ground that they do not yet incorporate the physical end product.

Based upon these considerations, most EPO examiners seem to nowadays apply the following standard:

If claimed mathematical steps form a method functionally limited to an adequately defined technical purpose and related to an adequately defined class of technical items, then these mathematical steps can be taken into account in the assessment of inventive step, otherwise they cannot.

Obviously, this standard is not self-explanatory. Not only because it relies on the notion of “technical” items and purposes, and we know that the Boards of appeal are careful not to provide a generic definition of the term “technical”. But also because the standard refers to the unspecified notions of “functional limitations” of methods and of “adequate definitions” of purposes and classes of items.

A secret method for properly drafting software patent applications.

Probably without any such aim in mind, Board 3.4.01 has now expressed what could be construed as a liberal view on these notions, in decision T 0625/11 of January 19, 2017.

The decision was issued further to an appeal during examination by French nuclear power company AREVA NP. Areva

had filed European patent application No. 03775483.5 broadly relating to the use of a “transitional operation simulation” to calculate a “limit value of at least a first operating parameter of a nuclear reactor” in view of the subsequent safe operation of the nuclear reactor. Areva argued that limit values of operating parameters in the prior art were empirically determined without using a transitional operation simulation and the invention was therefore in total breach of normal practice and involved an inventive step. The application was however refused by the Examining division on the ground that the claims related to method steps without any technical character going beyond their normal interactions with a computer.

Claim 1 of the main request read:

A method for determining by a computer system at least one limit value of at least a first operating parameter of a nuclear reactor comprising a core in which fuel assemblies are charged, the fuel assemblies comprising fuel rods each having nuclear fuel pellets and a sheath surrounding the pellets,

characterized in that it comprises the steps of:

b) simulating at least one transitional operation of the nuclear reactor,

c) calculating the value reached by a physical quantity during the transitional operation in at least one sheath of a fuel rod,

d) determining, as a limit value, the value of the first operating parameter at the time when the value calculated in step c) corresponds to a value of the physical quantity characterizing a rupture of the sheath.

In its refusal decision, the Examining division held that the Infineon decision did not apply since Areva’s claim 1 was not limited to the simulation of a nuclear reactor.

The first instance examiners considered in particular that:

  • In Infineon, the invention related to a numerical simulation procedure to test an already designed circuit subject to noise.
  • Claim 1 did not have a concrete technical application of a computer-aided numerical simulation method.
  • Claim 1 did not relate to the use of a simulation step in a very specific and eminently practical and technical application.
  • Claim 1 did not define simulation steps, but a very general step of simulating a transitional operation in order to subsequently calculate values.
  • Transitional operation simulations were well known at the priority date of the application. And anyway claim 1 did not define specific characteristics of the transitional operation simulation, but a very general step of simulating a transitional operation in order to subsequently calculate values. Thus, there were no steps going beyond what was common practice for the person skilled in the art at the priority date.

During the appeal procedure, the Board first followed this reasoning but later changed its mind and admitted the main request. From a procedural point of view, it is worth noting that Areva asked in an auxiliary request introduced during the oral proceedings that two questions be referred to the Enlarged Board of Appeal. The Board actually did not consider this request lightly. They even suggested a rewording of the questions and did not reach a decision during the oral proceedings, such that the procedure was resumed in writing. But after all, the case was resolved without any referral.

The Board compared at length the Infineon liberal approach and the opposite approach which consists in ruling out method claims which do not incorporate the alleged technical goal (such as via a final step of operating a nuclear reactor). And the Board decided to follow Infineon. Furthermore, the Board considered that the fact the claimed method merely recited the calculation of a limit value did not prevent one from applying the Infineon approach to the present case.

The Board notably noted that the calculation of the value and the later use of this value were performed by different economic actors in different geographic locations, such that requiring the integration of said later use in the claim would reduce the efficiency of the patent, given the specificity of contributory infringement rules.

T 0625/11 thus constitutes a confirmation of Infineon’s principles and of its taking industrial evolution into account. But considering how Infineon is widely followed by EPO examiners, it is questionable whether such thoroughly reasoned confirmation was even needed in the first place.

But T 0625/11 is of particular interest for yet another reason.

As readers may have noted, claim 1 of the main request eventually granted by the Board is very broad. I bet drafters used to prosecuting software applications are counting the number of clarity-related objections they could raise.

The Board itself conceded:

The terminology used in claim 1 leads to the recognition of a very broad scope for the claimed process. This observation stems from the fact that a transitional operation of the nuclear reactor is reported without specifying its parameters. Similarly, the reference to the notion of “physical quantity” and “first operational parameter”, without specifying its nature, permits an in-depth interpretation of the claimed process.

But then:

The Board notes that the skilled person would have immediately recognized that the problem posed is in no way limited by the nature of the parameters chosen. Similarly, whatever the degree of sophistication of the transitional mode of operation selected, its modeling will only involve well-known operating principles, which finite element calculation algorithms can account for.

The fact that the principles we are discussing incorporate a complex set of laws relating to nuclear physics, to the resistance of materials, to thermal physics, to thermodynamics does not affect this observation. In this respect, the teaching of the initial application, combined with the general knowledge of a person skilled in the art, justifies the degree of generalization resulting from the formulation adopted for the application.

Regarding sufficiency of disclosure, the Board held:

With regard to the disclosure of the invention, the Board deems that the broad scope of the claims does not in any way impede the achievement of the invention over the entire area claimed. The laws of physics mentioned above are in fact able to account for the evolution of the relevant parameters, in spite of the complexity of the phenomena at hand, since the transitional operation and the operating conditions and parameters are sufficiently defined.

And regarding clarity issues when assessing inventive step:

In this case, the definition of the technical problem adopted by the applicant appears realistic. The invention aims at determining at least one limit value of an operating parameter of a nuclear reactor in order to allow better exploitation of the capacities of the latter.

Similarly, the nature of the parameters involved in the simulation (constraints, temperatures, heat capacity, pressures, dimensions, etc.) also confers a technical character to the claimed invention.

The bar on clarity at the EPO has always been high for software inventions in general and computer-implemented mathematical methods in particular, leading to a number of issues. It can of course be very costly for applicants in this field to ensure that all implementation details are included in the application in case there is a clarity objection. But there is also a specific issue related to the way Infineon is applied by examiners in practice: if a method claim is broad or unclear, it is easy for them to hold that the method is not “functionally limited” to a technical purpose or that said purpose is not “adequately defined”.

The generosity of Board 3.4.01 in decision T 0625/11 might constitute a source of hope for applicants who had become desperate because of this difficulty.


CASE REFERENCE: T 0625/11, Board 3.4.01, January 19, 2017, AREVA NP.

U-turn at the EPO

Who said patent law is boring? Sometimes, it can be as hectic as an episode of 24.

Look at the unitary patent package. One day it is supposed to enter into force anytime soon, then a UK referendum creates mayhem. In the following episode, the project is back on tracks. Next thing you know, bang, a constitutional challenge in Germany pops up in the season’s finale, and this is your cliffhanger until the next season.

These days, the same seems to be true of the issue of patentability of plants and animals obtained by essentially biological processes. Lionel Vial reports.

Some news regarding the patent eligibility of plants or animals obtained by essentially biological processes, which was previously discussed here and there on this blog.

On June 29, 2017, the Administrative Council of the EPO took a decision amending Rules 27 and 28 of the Implementing Regulations to the EPC.

Here are the amended Rules (with the amendments underlined):

Rule 27 – Patentable biotechnological inventions

Biotechnological inventions shall also be patentable if they concern:

(a) biological material which is isolated from its natural environment or produced by means of a technical process even if it previously occurred in nature;

(b) without prejudice to Rule 28, paragraph 2, plants or animals if the technical feasibility of the invention is not confined to a particular plant or animal variety;

(c) a microbiological or other technical process, or a product obtained by means of such a process other than a plant or animal variety.

Rule 28 – Exceptions to patentability

(1) Under Article 53(a), European patents shall not be granted in respect of biotechnological inventions which, in particular, concern the following:

(a) processes for cloning human beings;

(b) processes for modifying the germ line genetic identity of human beings;

(c) uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes;

(d) processes for modifying the genetic identity of animals which are likely to cause them suffering without any substantial medical benefit to man or animal, and also animals resulting from such processes.

(2) Under Article 53(b), European patents shall not be granted in respect of plants or animals exclusively obtained by means of an essentially biological process.

Breaking news: Archie Asparagus and Charlie Carrot remain patentable.

The decision also provides that amended Rules 27 and 28 entered into force on July 1, 2017 and that they apply to European patent applications filed on or after this date, as well as to European patent applications and European patents pending at that time.

The interpretation of the amendments appears to be quite straightforward: plants or animals which are exclusively obtained by means of an essentially biological process are not patent eligible.

To make a long story short, this decision aims at putting an end to a story which began with decisions G 2/12 (Tomatoes II) and G 2/13 (Broccoli II) of March 25, 2015 of the Enlarged board of appeal (EBA) of the EPO. These decisions held that the exclusion of essentially biological processes for the production of plants in Article 53(b) EPC does not have a negative effect on the allowability of a product claim directed to a plant or plant material such as a fruit or plant part. The EBA decisions caused a certain turmoil in Europe, triggering fears among the public that producers and growers of plants obtained by essentially biological processes might be patent barred from practicing their activity.

As a consequence, France excluded from patentability products exclusively obtained by essentially biological processes for the production of plants and animals on August 8, 2016 (the Netherlands and Germany had already done so in 2010 and 2013).

Furthermore, the European Commission issued a notice on November 8, 2016 taking the view that the EU legislator’s intention in the so-called Biotech Directive 98/44/EC was to exclude from patentability products (plants/animals and plant/animal parts) that are obtained by means of essentially biological processes.

Eventually, a notice from the EPO dated November 24, 2016 informed the public that follow-up measures further to the Commission’s notice were under discussion with representatives of the member states of the European Patent Organisation. Pending this discussion, proceedings before EPO examining and opposition divisions in which the decision entirely depended on the patentability of a plant or animal obtained by an essentially biological process were stayed ex officio.

So, is the decision of the Administrative Council of June 29, 2017 the end of the story?

Well, we are not so sure.

Indeed, there are at least two points which will require some clarification in our opinion.

The first point regards the interpretation of the word “exclusively”, which happens to be found nowhere in the EPC nor in the Biotech Directive. Besides, to our knowledge, no guidance has been offered by the legislator either (the Administrative Council in this case) on its intent when using that word.

Let’s try by ourselves then.

The first interpretation which comes to mind is that “exclusively” is merely meant to emphasize that plants or animals which are obtained by means of a mix of an essentially biological process and a non-essentially biological process are not excluded from patentability.

In that case, “exclusively” may seem a little superfluous, as simply providing that European patents shall not be granted in respect of plants or animals obtained by means of an essentially biological process would probably also have made the job.

The second interpretation is that “exclusively” relates to the different ways the plant or the animal can be obtained. According to that interpretation, European patents would be denied only for plants or animals which at the filing date could only be obtained by an essentially biological process, whereas plants or animals which at the filing date could be obtained by an essentially biological process but also by an independent non-essentially biological process would still be patentable.

As readers will surely have noticed, this interpretation is reminiscent of decision G 2/06 of the EBA according to which, with respect to Rule 28(c) which prohibits the patentability of uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes, the prohibition only concerns claims directed to products which – as described in the application – at the filing date could exclusively be prepared by a method which necessarily involved the destruction of the human embryos from which said products are derived (even if said method is not part of the claims).

It could thus be possible, under this interpretation, that a European patent could still be granted for a claim pertaining to a plant or an animal, which is only described in the application as being obtained by means of an essentially biological process, provided this plant or animal could also have been obtained by a non-essentially biological process at the filing date.

The second point to be clarified regards the application of amended Rules 27 and 28 EPC to European patent applications and European patents pending on July 1, 2017, i.e. filed before their entry into force, which in our opinion does not follow as evidently from the decision of the Administrative Council as the latter may consider.

Here again, G 2/06 offers some guidance.

The EBA further decided in that case that Rule 28(c) EPC (formerly Rule 23d(c) EPC), which was introduced by decision of June 16, 1999 of the Administrative Council of the EPO, applied to all pending applications, including those filed before the entry into force of the rule. It seems quite clear.

However, in point 13 of the decision the EBA notes that:

The introduction of this new chapter without any transitional provisions, can only be taken as meaning that this detailed guidance on what was patentable and unpatentable was to be applied as a whole to all then pending applications. It has not been argued that Rule 28 (formerly 23d) EPC took away the possibility to patent anything which had previously been regarded as patentable under Article 53(a) EPC, nor that the Directive did so (see in this respect the reference in Art. 6(1) to what is contained in Article 53(a) EPC as well as the reference to the TRIPS Agreement in Article 1(2)). Already by 1984 (see Dolder, Mitteilungen der Deutschen Patentanwälte, 1984, 1, “Barriers to patentability of biotechnological inventions under the EPC”), instrumentalization of the human body (as opposed to parts of it), thus degrading it to an object of technology, had been considered as a barrier to patentability. There is no indication that the commercial exploitation of human embryos was ever regarded as patentable.

Well, in the case at hand, it appears that plants or animals obtained by means of essentially biological processes were indeed previously regarded as patentable under Article 53(b) of the EPC (remember G 2/12 and G 2/13?).

Accordingly, there does appear to be a ground to challenge the application of amended Rules 27 and 28 EPC to applications and patents filed before July 1, 2017 before the boards of appeal of the EPO.

In fact, clarifications will surely be brought to the above points, as the agriculture industry is not deprived of deep-pocketed applicants who will fiercely defend their applications before the examination/opposition divisions and boards of appeal of the EPO.

Thank you Lionel. Let’s wait for the next episode then. But, dear readers, don’t hold your breath, though. 24 hours is not exactly the kind of time scale we are talking about in the patent law saga.

Patent on respiratory support

Many patents discussed on this blog die one way or another. Who by fire, who by water, who in the sunshine, who in the nighttime…

One reason for this is that revocation verdicts often tend to be quite interesting to comment upon. For a change, the patent at stake today did not fully die. But you could say that it is on respiratory support. And how appropriate, given that the title of the patent is “a respiratory gas supply circuit for an aircraft carrying passengers“.

This patent (EP 2004294) was filed by Intertechnique in 2006 and granted in 2010. This French company has been part of the Zodiac group since 1999.

In 2011, Intertechnique sent a warning letter to B/E Aerospace Systems GmbH in which they enquired about the possible development of products by the B/E Aerospace group similar to those claimed in the patent. The official answer was that no current product infringed the patent, and that all rights were reserved regarding the development of new products as well as a possible challenge of the validity of the patent.

In October 2012, B/E Aerospace Systems GmbH filed a nullity suit against the German part of the EP’294 patent in front of the Bundespatentgericht. The German court held that the patent as granted was invalid, but that it could be maintained in amended form according to an auxiliary request. This ruling became final in March 2015.

Immediately thereafter, B/E Aerospace threatened Zodiac Aerotechnics (the new name of the patent proprietor Intertechnique) with a similar nullity suit in France, and asked them to either withdraw the French part of the European patent or to grant them a free license. Zodiac Aerotechnics refused, so that B/E Aerospace filed the French nullity suit in June 2015.

Two classical legal defenses were raised by the patent proprietor, both recently addressed on this blog: first, the nullity claim was inadmissible as the claimant did not have standing to sue, and second the nullity claim was time-barred.

Both defenses failed.

Regarding standing, the current state French case law was already summarized a few weeks ago and then again just last week. Today’s ruling is on the same page:

[…] The nullity claimant must justify that, at the time the complaint is filed, there is a sufficient interest to free an upcoming exploitation of the patented technology or a similar one, and establish that the patent at stake seriously threatens to impediment its economic activity. 

The court noted that the respective parties were competitors as they were both active in the field of in-flight oxygen supply. Most importantly, B/E Aerospace received a warning letter in connection with the EP’294 patent and did not exclude in its response that products under development may ultimately fall within the scope of the patent. B/E Aerospace also asked Zodiac Aerotechnics to forsake the French part of the patent or to grant a royalty-free license.

The court further noted that B/E Aerospace filed two French patent applications claiming a Germany priority of 2014, relating to a similar subject-matter, and in which the EP’294 was mentioned in the background section.

Said the court:

Under these circumstances, […] B/E Aerospace Inc. as well as its subsidiary B/E Aerospace GmbH not only demonstrate the existence of a competition context, but also of an objective link between the products that they develop and the EP’294 patent. 

Finally, they demonstrate that they have exploitation plans regarding devices which, although they are not necessarily already on the market nor analyzed as being within the scope of the patent, may possibly be threatened by the rights that it confers. 

Therefore, standing was acknowledged.

This makes sense, and it would actually be quite surprising if the recipient of a warning letter mentioning a certain patent, even in a different European country, had no standing to request the cancellation of that very patent.

In the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will automatically drop in front of you, and the front part of the aircraft will be shot forward like a bullet.Second legal defense raised by Zodiac Aerotechnics: that the action was time-barred. 

Here, again, the court’s position seems consistent with what was reported in other recent decisions, such as the Actelion case, although the outcome was different this time:

The starting point of the limitation period is appraised in concreto. Therefore, beyond any reference to publication dates which would require constant monitoring by stakeholders and which, even in a small market, seems to be hardly feasible, it should be determined at which date B/E Aerospace knew or should have known that the EP’294 patent was a threat for their economic activity, in view of their development plans and in view of their products under development. 

As a reminder, the limitation period is 5 years. Zodiac Aerotechnics argued that the starting point for this limitation period was either the publication of the PCT application on which the patent was based (namely October 25, 2007) or the formal publication date of the application at the EPO (namely December 24, 2008). In both cases of course, the action filed in June 2015 would be time-barred.

However, in accordance with the principles recalled above, the court refused to take either of these publication dates as an automatic starting point for the limitation period. The court noted that B/E Aerospace may have been unaware of the application at these publication dates. Also, there was no evidence that there was any product related to this patent under development at that time.

The court rather decided that the starting point was September 2, 2011, i.e. the day on which B/E Aerospace received the warning letter: 

This letter must be analyzed as the cause for B/E Aerospace’s standing to file an action for nullity of the patent at stake, since it is at this stage that they became aware on the one hand of the existence of the patent and on the other hand of the fact that it could lead Zodiac Aerotechnics to possibly assert the EP’294 patent against them, based on the information that they had. 

In summary, the court thus considered both issues of standing and limitation period in combination.

The day on which a party acquires standing is also the starting point for the limitation period. 

Another possible take-away message is that the sending of a warning letter is likely to grant standing to sue to the recipient and to start the time-bar clock.

Of course, the circumstances of each case are unique, and this may not always be true, but at least this can be a reasonable prima facie assumption.

As a result of both legal defenses being discarded, the court reviewed all claims and came to the conclusion that claims 1 to 6 lacked inventive step. However, dependent claims 7 to 9 were found to be valid. It is not apparent from the decision whether the auxiliary request based on which the patent was maintained in amended form in Germany corresponds to the subject-matter of one of these claims 7 to 9 or not.

Anyway, a few years ago, it was commonly thought that only the main claim mattered in nullity proceedings, and that if this main claim fell, then all dependent claims would be only superficially examined and would be very likely to get stroke out as well.

I don’t know if this thought used to be correct, but at least it is probably not correct anymore, as today’s ruling, just like the decision discussed last week, illustrate that French courts now provide detailed reasons as to why each and every claim is or is not valid.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 3ème section, April 28, 2017, B/E Aerospace Inc. & B/E Aerospace Systems GmbH v. Zodiac Aerotechnics, RG No. 15/09770.