No way back

There once were submarine patents, living a quiet and inconspicuous life underwater, only to surface one day with a resounding splash.

Turns out what we do sometimes have in France is submarine patent cases. A recent ruling by the Lyon Cour d’appel could be considered as one of those.

In fact, Paris has exclusive jurisdiction over patent matters since November 1, 2009. Thus, I was more or less convinced I would never see again a patent revoked in a provincial court – but I was wrong.

Chavanoz Industrie, proprietor of European patent No. EP 0900294, filed an infringement suit against Mermet SAS in 2009, a couple of months before the November 1 date, and thus in Lyon. The first instance judgment was issued in September 2016.

I assume that the main reason why this lingered for such a long time is that the defendant merged in 2011, and then underwent insolvency proceedings in 2012. In 2013, a so-called continuation plan was ordered.

At any rate, the Lyon TGI hit late, but it hit hard, as the patent was held valid and infringed, and a damages award amounting to a total of more than 25 million euros was issued.

However, the ruling was fully overturned on appeal, a few weeks ago, as the Cour d’appel had a different appreciation of a key aspect of the case from the TGI.

The patent at stake was filed on April 16, 1997, claiming a French priority of May 7, 1996. It was granted in 1999 and limited by the French patent office (INPI)… in 2017, just a few days before it expired. Unusual enough, but wait until you read about the rest of the case.

Claim 1 of the patent as limited reads as follows:

Composite yarn for making a technical fabric for an awning, said yarn comprising a core composed of a continuous yarn made of glass, and a coated sheath composed of a matrix consisting of at least one chlorinated polymer material, for example a polyvinyl chloride or PVC, and a fire-retarding filler incorporated into and distributed within the said matrix, characterized in that, in combination, on the one hand the fire-retarding filler comprises a ternary composition which combines an oxygenated antimony compound, for example antimony trioxide, a hydrated metal oxide, the metal of which is chosen from the group consisting of aluminium, magnesium, tin, zinc and lead, for example an alumina hydrate, and a zinc borate and, on the other hand, together with the said ternary composition, the total weight content of inorganic matter in the yarn is between 4% and 65%.

The alleged infringer asserted that the invention had been made available to the public before the priority date of May 7, 1996, because the patent proprietor Chavanoz had supplied the patented yarn to (among others) a third party, Helioscreen.

Chavanoz responded by relying on a confidentiality agreement signed with Helioscreen on April 9, 1996.

The court had to deal with three thorny issues:

  • Chavanoz stated that most of Mermet’s exhibits relating to the alleged public prior use were illegally obtained, in view of the confidentiality agreement, and that they should thus be disregarded by the court.
  • Then there was the question of whether the supply of the yarn in question was indeed a public disclosure or whether it was confidential.
  • Then there was the question of whether the skilled person would have been able to arrive at the claimed invention by analyzing the supplied yarn, at the priority date.

First things first, the fate of the exhibits.

In support of the public prior use allegation, the infringement defendant filed a number of documents, such as invoices, orders, letters, between the patent proprietor and the third party Helioscreen. These documents were, as far as I understand, willingly provided by Helioscreen. Chavanoz protested that this was in breach of the Chavanoz-Helioscreen confidentiality agreement of April 9, 1996.

The first instance judges agreed and thus discarded the evidence. But the appeal judges came to a different conclusion.

The 1996 confidentiality agreement recites that the parties have been cooperating since May 9, 1994 in the business of technical fabric. Helioscreen provided specifications, Chavanoz made yarn and supplied it to Helioscreen, together with some technical information, Helioscreen made fabric with this yarn and supplied samples of said fabric to Chavanoz for testing. The agreement then basically states that all information, documentation, products exchanged between the parties is confidential, and that the agreement itself is confidential. The agreement also mentions that it is retroactive back to May 9, 1994 and that it will remain in force as long as all of the confidential information has not been made available to the public.

The appeal judges held that the confidentiality agreement expired in November 1997, when the patent application was published. Therefore, Helioscreen was free to provide any documents and information to Mermet. Besides, Mermet was anyway not bound by the confidentiality agreement and was free to provide any material obtained from Helioscreen in order to build its defense. In fact, Helioscreen was not sued by Chavanoz for breach of the confidentiality agreement.

As a result, all of the exhibits filed by Mermet were deemed admissible.

I am not necessarily convinced by the argument that the confidentiality agreement expired when the patent application was published. Indeed, the information exchanged by the parties could possibly extend beyond the contents of the patent application. Notwithstanding, it seems only fair that Mermet, as a third party to the agreement, should be allowed to rely on whatever evidence is at its disposal as a defense in the infringement suit.

This brings us to the second point, namely whether the exchanges between Chavanoz and Helioscreen were confidential or not.

The court analyzed in detail the evidence at hand, and concluded that several dozens of tons of so-called M1B1 yarn were sold by Chavanoz to Helioscreen before the priority date of May 7, 1996. The yarn was first experimented in 1992, but by 1995, the production of the yarn was on an industrial scale. The court further noted that there is no evidence that the formulation of the yarn changed as from 1995-1996, or that the product was still in development – even though further yarn colors were later designed.

Besides, the M1B1 yarn was also supplied to other fabric manufacturers, including Mermet itself and another company called Brochier, in the context of the professional association ScreenGlass, in order for all manufacturers to provide feedback on the yarn.

The court also established that the fabric made by Helioscreen from the M1B1 yarn was sold to various clients before May 7, 1996.

No written confidentiality agreement was in place when all these exchanges took place; in particular, no exhibit on file bears the mention “confidential“.

The court then stated that “there is never a presumption of confidentiality in the context of a relationship with a buyer“.

Next, the appeal judges turned to the confidentiality agreement of April 9, 1996, which, as a reminder, states that all prior exchanges with Helioscreen were confidential. The court was unimpressed by this statement:

The reality of the amounts supplied to Helioscreen and the reality of the industrialization phase emphasized by Chavanoz Industrie itself in its commercial correspondence are never mentioned [in the agreement]. The content of the deliveries that are mentioned only relates to “samples”. 

[…]

It is thus important to determine if a company that has already disclosed its invention to a partner not subjected to an obligation of confidentiality at the time of the disclosure can erase the existence of this disclosure, which may be novelty-destroying, by signing a confidentiality agreement after the facts. 

The public policy provisions of patent law prevent parties to an agreement, from depriving a disclosure which has already occurred of legal effect, even with a retroactive effect.  

An invention is made available to the public when it is disclosed to a person not bound by confidentiality at the time of the disclosure, so that the retroactive provision in the above confidentiality agreement has here no effect on the appraisal of the validity of the patent. 

Is it possible to go back to the pre-disclosure situation?

Long story short, the particulars of the supply of M1B1 yarn by Chavanoz were deemed incompatible with the notion of an implicitly confidential sampling. And a public disclosure cannot be turned confidential ex post.

There was a side argument by the patentee that Helioscreen’s sale of fabric to their client Krüland was a non-prejudicial disclosure under article 55 EPC. This was considered as irrelevant by the court, since overall the public prior use took place even before 6 months prior to the priority date.

The third point at last. Chavanoz argued that the skilled person would not have been able to know the composition of the M1B1 product at the priority date without undue burden.

The defendant performed a number of experimental tests to counter this theory. First, they made the patented product according to the method taught in the patent, and then had the product analyzed. Second, they had a bailiff collect samples of the M1B1 yarn dating back to 1994 in Helioscreen’s premises, and had those analyzed as well.

The manufacturing was performed in the presence of a bailiff. All analyses were conducted in two independent labs, using analysis methods available at the priority date. Various experts’s reports were produced on both sides, either to challenge the results of the analyses, or to support them.

I will not go over the details of the discussion, which was technically quite complex, but it will suffice to say that the court was ultimately not persuaded by Chavanoz’ criticisms, and accepted Mermet’s conclusion that the M1B1 yarn could indeed be determined by the skilled person as falling within the patent claims.

As a result, claims 1, 2, 3, 5, 7 and 8 of the patent were deemed to lack novelty and were revoked, and Chavanoz’ infringement claim was dismissed.

Let me say that this decision is overall well reasoned and makes for an excellent read. I am therefore looking forward to the next submarine from Lyon – if any.

As a take home message, confidentiality agreements should really be put into place initially. There is no way back once a business relationship has started on a non-confidential basis.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Lyon, 1ère chambre civile A, September 12, 2019, SAS Mermet et al. v. SARL Chavanoz Industrie, RG No. 16/06896.

OK oral

As a patent professional well used to the EPO’s way of reasoning, the aspect of French patent litigation which often strikes me as the most fascinating one is claim interpretation.

This is because there is such a significant difference between the EPO and French courts when it comes to deciding what is and what is not covered by a patent.

Today’s case, Bayer v. Ceva, provides a noteworthy example.

I have actually already talked about this case in a previous post. It is indeed one of these disputes which gives rise to a large number of procedural developments.

Here is the context, in quite a few bullet points:

  • Bayer Intellectual Property GmbH owns European patent EP 2164496 (EP’496), granted in April 2017, on “Formulations containing triazinones and iron”.
  • Bayer Animal Health GmbH, a licensee, developed a veterinary product named Baycox Iron®. The product is an injectable formulation of a combination of toltrazuril and a dextran iron (III) complex. The veterinary indication is the treatment of coccidiosis in piglets.
  • In parallel, Ceva Santé Animale developed a similar veterinary product, called Forceris®.
  • Ceva contacted Bayer in November 2017 to let them know about their intention to market Forceris®. Ceva argued that their product was out of the scope of the EP’496 patent.
  • Ceva filed an opposition against the patent. The opposition was rejected by the EPO in a decision dated July 16, 2019. An appeal is pending.
  • Bayer disagreed and filed a petition for preliminary injunction against Ceva in France, in December 2017.
  • Ceva Santé Animale filed an opposition against EP’496 in January 2018.
  • In parallel, Ceva filed an action for a declaration of non-infringement in France, in January 2018. As far as I understand, this action is still pending.
  • In April 2018, the judge in charge of urgency proceedings rejected Bayer’s request for preliminary injunction, because Ceva’s letter of November 2017 was not enough to represent an imminent threat, and because there were serious doubts as to the scope of the patent.
  • In February 2019, Ceva obtained its marketing authorization for Forceris®.
  • Ceva started marketing Forceris® in France in April 2019.
  • In May 2019, Bayer obtained its marketing authorization for Baycox Iron®. The product started being marketed in France a few weeks thereafter.
  • Still in May 2019, the oral proceedings of the opposition against EP’496 took place, and the opposition was rejected (the written decision was issued on July 16, 2019; an appeal is pending).
  • On the same day, a cease and desist letter was sent by Bayer to Ceva.
  • An infringement seizure was carried out at Ceva’s French premises a few days later.
  • Ceva countered by requesting that the seized evidence be placed under seal. In a judgment dated June 7, 2019 (commented upon in my previous post), the judge rejected most of Ceva’s requests.
  • On June 20, 2019, Bayer filed a second petition for preliminary injunction against Ceva.
  • Petitions for preliminary injunctions have also been filed at least in Italy, Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands. It seems that Bayer prevailed at least in Spain, an ex parte injunction having been issued on July 17, 2019.

Not a straightforward case indeed.

A first interesting question is why Bayer filed a second petition for preliminary injunction (PI) in June 2019, after having lost its first petition for PI in April 2018.

This is probably an easy one: the main reason for the April 2018 decision was that it was not established at that time that there was an imminent infringement threat. Obviously, the situation had changed once Ceva had obtained its marketing authorization and started marketing its product.

However, there was a second reason for the April 2018 ruling, which was the existence of doubts as to the validity and scope of the patent. Bayer probably took a gamble on the fact that the rejection of the opposition which took place in May 2019 would be a game changer and would lift all doubts that French judges could have regarding the validity of the patent.

But the gamble was lost.

The court in charge of urgency proceedings (unusually a full panel, and not a single judge) quickly agreed that there was indeed an imminent threat this time.

But when they turned to the issue of the likelihood of infringement, things got trickier.

Claim 1 of EP’496 is directed to a formulation containing triazinones of formulas (I) or (II) (let me spare you the details), as well as polynuclear iron (III)-polysaccharide complexes.

Ceva’s argument was that the scope of the patent was limited to formulations for an oral administration. Remember that Forceris® (just like Bayer’s Baycox Iron®) is an injectable formulation, not an oral formulation.

Ready for oral administration?

In front of the EPO, especially when looking at novelty and inventive step, I think that there would never be the slightest doubt that claim 1 of EP’496 covers all formulations, whether oral, injectable or other.

This was actually confirmed by the opposition division in its written decision.

In fact, claim 13 is directed to the use of the formulation for making a drug. And dependent claim 15 adds that the drug is for oral administration. This can be viewed as further confirmation that claim 13 and hence claim 1 are not limited to an oral administration.

But national courts, and especially French courts, can be much more creative when it comes to claim interpretation.

Making reference to article 69 EPC and its protocol, the court performed a detailed analysis of the description of the patent. They noted that all examples relate to oral formulations, and that the general part of the description is also very much concerned with the provision of oral formulations. The technical effects of the claimed combination were also demonstrated in the context of oral formulations. The technical problem was thus formulated in relation with an oral administration, and the court was persuaded by Ceva’s argument that the same technical problem did not arise in connection with injectable formulations.

To put it otherwise, the inventive step of the claimed invention seems to be closely related to the oral mode of administration.

Here are some relevant excerpts of the decision:

The technical problem described by the patent is thus the absence of formulations available in the prior art for treating piglets simultaneously against coccidiosis and anemia, which the skilled person would be dissuaded from doing because the appropriate administration timing of each treatment to ensure efficacy is not the same. If an administration by injection is contemplated, this problem does not arise in the same terms since, as mentioned in the description, this iron compound is then efficiently absorbed and can be administered on day 3 at the same time as toltrazuril. 

[…]

Therefore, the purpose of the formulations of the patent is to efficiently treat piglets against coccidiosis and iron deficiency with a single operation and with an oral administration. It is indeed either the absence of a common treatment window, or the difference in mode of administration, which did not suggest to couple the two active substances at stake in a single formulation.

[…]

Beyond this particular context of oral administration [Bayer] does not demonstrate – and does not in fact claim – that its combination formulation would be more efficient than the separate intake of the two products.

[…]

It is only this surprising effect obtained in the context of an oral administration, and not of an injection (the alternative use of which on the third day is known and is clearly not encouraged), which is shown and that the patent intended to protect.

Most interestingly, the court also made reference to statements made by Bayer during prosecution of foreign patent applications.

This is a form of unofficial file wrapper estoppel which I would say is quite uncommon in French decisions. But I think the court only made reference to foreign prosecution in this particular case because it nicely confirmed their understanding of what the invention is about:

[…] This scope of protection was claimed by Bayer in the context of examination proceedings of the same patent in front of the Canadian patent office. On June 9, 2015, Bayer mentioned in its response to the examiner’s report that “the present formulation is related to addressing two problems simultaneously. One of which is to arrive at an orally administrable formulation, the other being that this formulation thereby allows for the treatment of anemia in animals that are affected by coccidiosis even via the oral route (being biased in the prior art per se to be the less reliable route even in otherwise healthy animals – see D5 above)”.

It is also emphasized that “the presently claimed invention does provide a non-obvious formulation over the art cited. Moreover, as it is clear from pages 10 and 11 of the application, providing an oral formulation that can be used to address both anemia and coccidiosis is clearly advantageous over problems associated with the monotherapy, such as the use of non-oral formulations and divided administration times” […]. The Canadian version of the granted patent is directed to “an oral formulation” […]. 

In front of the Indian patent office, it was also stated that the invention provided “means to simultaneously treat iron deficiency and coccidiosis by an (oral) mode of administration”.

As a result, the court rejected Bayer’s second petition for PI.

For other striking instances of narrow claim interpretations by French courts, see for instance this post, or this one, or this one.

I do find some merit in this way of looking at things. Assuming that the court was indeed right in finding that the actual contribution of the invention to the art was limited to an oral administration (which I have not formed an opinion on), it then seems only fair that the scope of protection should be limited to this contribution. One major issue is legal uncertainty, though: the more the scope of protection may differ from the literal wording of the claims, the more difficult it is for all stakeholders to know where they stand.

Another possible way to handle this situation would be to accept that claim 1 of the above patent is broad and covers all kinds of modes of administration, but that it may then lack inventive step over the entire scope of the claim, if indeed only the oral administration is truly inventive.

Yet, again, I do not believe that this would be a typical EPO-approved approach. When a combination of compounds provides a certain technical effect in a very specific context, in my experience the EPO generally allows a claim to the combination per se, without any restriction to the specific context in which the technical effect actually arises. But could this tradition in fact be too generous?

** Update (Sept. 30, 2019) **

Amandine Métier, counsel for Ceva, has kindly informed me that, in the parallel European lawsuits, a request for PI filed by Bayer in the Netherlands was also rejected on September 17, 2019, due to a serious doubt as to the existence of an inventive step. The Dutch judge analyzed the opposition division’s decision of rejection of the opposition and came to the conclusion that there is a reasonable chance that it will be overturned by the technical Board of appeal.

Amandine has also confirmed that an ex parte PI was issued in Spain. The inter partes hearing will take place next November.

Finally, an ex parte PI was also issued in Germany, which was then confirmed inter partes. The grounds for the decision are not yet known, and an appeal is pending.

Many thanks for this information! As always, pan-European litigation is a roller-coaster for litigants.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, September 11, 2019, Bayer Intellectual Property GmbH & Bayer Animal Health GmbH v. SA Ceva Santé Animale, RG No. 19/56082.

Where is the finish line?

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?

The statute of limitations – the finish line.

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

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?

Do not expect to find this type of functionality in the future government case law database.

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.

More than just diapers

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.

Fish density on an absorbent article: an ill-defined parameter?

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.