The trend is that, yes, it is incredibly difficult to win a patent nullity case based on public prior use.
On April 4, 2011, Grenoble-based company Smart & Green (formerly IPW Europe) filed a nullity suit against Mr. Christophe Frilley, owner of French patent No FR 2944858. It took 6 years for the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) to issue a decision. But before a rumble of discontent starts spreading in the readership, I should add that the TGI judges cannot be blamed for this long period of time, based on what I could gather from the public inspection of the patent file.
In fact, at the time the nullity suit was filed, the patent had not been granted yet. The judgment does not specify whether a formal stay was pronounced, but at any rate the case could certainly not progress until the grant of the patent.
In addition, the plaintiff apparently also filed a claim for ownership of the patent application. This led the French patent office to stay the grant proceedings, from May 2011 to September 2014, at which point the ownership claim was withdrawn, which led the French patent office to resume the grant proceedings.
The patent finally issued in August 2015. A few days later, the patent proprietor filed a request for limitation of the patent, which was granted a few months afterwards.
Foreign readers may wonder why the applicant did not simply amend the claims before issuance of the patent, as opposed to afterwards. The explanation is simple: there are only limited time frames within which an applicant can amend claims, in French grant proceedings. In this case, the relevant time frame had closed after the applicant responded to the preliminary search report back in 2010. Therefore, the applicant was unable to react to the plaintiff’s nullity arguments by way of a claim amendment in the grant proceedings. He had to take advantage of limitation proceedings after grant.
Let’s now move on to the nullity arguments presented by Smart & Green.
The patent at stake relates to a lighting assembly. Smart & Green argued that the claimed invention had been disclosed in its so-called Rock lamp (for swimming pools) which was allegedly put on the market in 2008.
The court was convinced that the Rock lamp was indeed made available to the public before the filing date of the patent, since at least samples of the lamp were sent to third parties for future marketing.
However, there was not enough evidence that these lamp samples were according to the claims of the patent. In particular, claim 1 of the patent as limited mentions a plurality of diffusers which can interchangeably accommodate a lighting module, in a waterproof manner.
But the documentation from 2008-2009 provided by the claimant did not clearly show whether this feature was present.
By way of example, one email mentioned that any diffuser could be adapted on the lamp, but the court noted that it was unclear whether this meant that the Rock lamp was modular, as required by claim 1; or whether it simply meant that manufacturing could be adapted to include any diffuser.
Smart & Green had also filed two Soleau envelopes in 2008 on a so-called Little Rock lamp (for a presentation of what is a Soleau envelope, see this previous post). But again, the product described in these documents did not clearly comprise interchangeable diffusers.
The court was apparently more convinced that the feature at stake was indeed shown in internal development documents dating back to the summer of 2008. But these documents were not public and related to a so-called “IPW Lamp Project“. It seems that there was no evidence that the IPW Lamp Project was implemented in the Rock lamp which was made available to the public – or that it was publicly disclosed in any other way.
This led the court to reject the public prior use challenge.
Fortunately for the plaintiff, they also had good old traditional prior art in store as well, in the form of a Japanese patent application and a European patent application.
The court held that each of these documents disclosed most of the features of claim 1, except the two which were added in the limitation proceedings, per which the diffuser can interchangeably be fixed to the lighting module owing to clicking or screwing, and a sealing ring is provided between the lighting module and the diffuser.
But these features were found to be obvious for the skilled person, even without referring to any specific secondary reference: the clicking or screwing fixation would be achieved simply based on common general knowledge, whereas the sealing ring was obvious to provide in view of the objective of supplying a waterproof lighting assembly.
Claim 1 was thus canceled for lack of inventive step. The dependent claims were quickly reviewed one by one, and as we like to say in French, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater.
I promised a short post, so now seems like a good time to stop.
But the bottom line is that I am still looking forward to reading a successful public prior use argument these days.
CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 2ème section, March 24, 2017, Smart & Green v. Christophe Frilley, RG No. 11/06949.