I initially thought today’s decision raised an exciting conundrum. But after figuring it out, I must say I feel sort of disappointed. Like someone having heard of the famous curious incident of the dog in the night-time may be underwhelmed to hear that the incident was that there was in fact no incident.
Speaking of dog incidents, the decision is precisely related to serious dog incidents and how to prevent them. Indeed, the invention at stake is in the field of dog collars – the kind that contain chemicals to prevent severe parasitic diseases. The invention is protected by European patent No. EP 1022944 (EP’944), which was initially filed by Hoescht Roussel Vet and later assigned to Akzo Nobel and then Intervet International.
Two companies from the Bayer group jointly filed a nullity suit against Intervet in front of the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI). The patent proprietor counterclaimed for infringement of the patent.
The patent contains three independent Swiss-type claims. The first one is worded as follows:
Use of a pyrethroid in the manufacture of a medicament in the form of a collar for the protection of dogs from bites of phlebotomine sandflies.
The other two are similar except that the use is respectively “for the control of leishmaniasis in dogs“, and “for the control of human visceral leishmaniasis“.
Bayer argued that the three main claims lacked novelty over an article authored by the inventors themselves. There seems to have been little debate over the fact that, in terms of contents, the article was indeed prejudicial to the novelty of the claims. But the central discussion was rather whether the article belonged to the state of the art in the first place.
The patent claims a priority date of June 18, 1997. The article was published in the issue of Medical and Veterinary Entomology of April 1997. But the patent proprietor’s defense was that:
Back in 1997, the publication of this type of document took a certain time and […] contrary to what one could think in view of the journal, it was published for the first time on June 19, 1997, after the priority date of the EP’944 patent.
Hmm, as far as I can remember, back in 1997 journals were no longer delivered by stagecoaches, but why not. Which evidence did the patentee provide? Two faxes.
The first fax was sent from the editor Blackwell Sciences to one of the inventors on January 6, 1998. The fax indicates that the article dated April 1997 was published for the first time on June 19, 1997. By the way, this is exactly the day after the priority date.
The second fax was sent from the British Library to the original applicant two days later, on January 8, 1998. The fax mentions that the issue of the journal at stake was received by the library on June 25, 1997 and made available to the public on that same date.
The court was not convinced by these messages faxed during the priority year.
The court’s appraisal of the second fax seems to make perfect sense: the fact that one particular library (however prestigious it may be) received a copy of the journal issue on a certain date does not disprove that other recipients may have received their own copies significantly earlier.
The fate of the first fax is probably more debatable. The court noted that the recipient was one of the inventors, just like the recipient of the other fax was the applicant. These are “persons or companies having a vested interest in the patent […], which weakens the probative value of these documents“.
Now, this is tough! How were the inventors / applicants supposed to proceed in order to determine the exact date of publication of the article other than try to obtain a statement from the editor?
The court also remarked that the context of the faxes is unknown, i.e. Intervet did not explain why these faxes were requested from the editor and the library. I personally do not think that this is critical. What is important is the contents of the faxes. Besides, it can be fairly assumed that the applicant was aware of a possible novelty challenge due to the April 1997 article and thus sought to preserve evidence that the article was not prior art. This does not look particularly suspicious.
Finally and more importantly, the court stated that
This statement was not accompanied by any further evidence confirming the publication delay and was not supplemented by other documents from the edition services.
So, one isolated piece of evidence was not sufficient for the court in view of the basic and natural presumption that a journal issue dated April 1997 was indeed published during that month.
Now, here comes the conundrum that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The court noted in passing that
The fact that the examining division of the EPO in the context of the examination of the patent acknowledged the date of June 19, 1997 is not sufficient to convince the court.
I was curious about this acknowledgment by the examining division, and I therefore looked at the file wrapper of the patent as well as of the priority application (which was also a European application). In both cases, the article is cited in the search report in category X (highly relevant prior art). But then, in subsequent communications from the examining division, it is indeed acknowledged that this document was published on June 19, 1997 and is thus not prior art.
I wondered whether the EPO databases contained additional information on the publication date of the article; and if such additional information existed somewhere, I wondered why the patent proprietor did not make use of the information to strengthen its case.
But upon closer inspection, what actually happened is probably less remarkable. The first document in which the statement by the examiner can be found is the international preliminary examination report (IPER) issued in connection with the PCT application on which EP’944 was based. The exchanges between the applicant and the EPO in its capacity of IPEA (international preliminary examination authority) are not accessible online but it can be assumed that the applicant filed the faxes of January 1998 and made the argument that in view in particular of the first fax, the actual publication date was June 19, 1997. The examiner was likely convinced, which led to the statement in the IPER. This statement was then later repeated in communications from the examining division, not only in the EP’944 examination proceedings, but also in the corresponding examination proceedings in connection with the priority application (which initially puzzled me).
So if my assumption is correct and if the mystery is indeed solved, it simply means that the examining division reached a different conclusion from the French court based on the same evidence – business as usual.
At any rate, the three independent claims were invalidated for lack of novelty in view of the inventor’s article, as well as dependent claims 5 and 6. Dependent claim 4 was found to lack an inventive step over the same disclosure.
The court did not stop there and committed what some professors at the CEIPI patent course like to call overkilling.
Namely, the main claims were also found to lack an inventive step irrespective of the disputed article.
The reasoning in the decision is relatively short in this respect, but it seems that a veterinary thesis published in 1991 was very relevant as it disclosed a plate impregnated with cypermethrin (a pyrethroid) as a means for preventing phlebotomine bites, in the context of leishmaniosis prophylaxis. The only difference between the claimed invention and this disclosure was the impregnation of a dog collar instead of a plate. This was seen by the judges as an obvious development since impregnated dog collars have been known for a long time.
It is also noted in the decision that the German part of EP’944 was revoked by the Bundespatentgericht in April 2015. Furthermore, a parallel lawsuit is pending in front of the Turin court, and the court-appointed expert issued a report in which the patent was considered to lack an inventive step. It seems that the French court has relied on this report to some extent in its own analysis. So, as far as one can tell from the decision, Bayer seems to be sweeping the board across Europe.
But Intervet will certainly get another shot on appeal.
Indeed, it can be seen from the European patent register that a central request for limitation of the patent was filed in July and is currently pending. One main request and two auxiliary requests were filed. Independent claims 2 and 3 were deleted and independent claim 1 was inter alia restricted to a particular compound, deltamethrin.
If the limitation is accepted by the EPO, I guess the court of appeal will have to look at the case starting from scratch…
CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre, 4ème section, April 14, 2016, SAS Bayer Healthcare & Bayer Animal Health GmbH v. Intervet International BV, RG No.14/05992.