Two down, two to go

The Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) has recently handed down an unusually long judgment. But I will refrain from commenting on all 64 pages that the decision comprises. Instead, I will focus on the initial portion.

No, not so much out of laziness – who said that?

But mainly because this initial portion addresses the very important issue of standing in a patent nullity suit, which was already discussed here not long ago.

As usual, a word of context first – which, as usual again, is not so straightforward.

Pellenc is a French agricultural company, which has been marketing an electrical pruner since 1988. From 1989 to 2014, they were involved in commercial and cooperation agreements with Switzerland-based group Felco, which is active in the same field. In particular, Pellenc supplied Felco with batteries for some of their electrical pruners. At some point, Felco drastically reduced the volume of its orders to Pellenc and then introduced a new tool that they had developed.

However, Pellenc had six patents in store: two French patents and four European ones.

Felco, in a bold preemptive strike, filed a nullity suit in France in July 2012 against all six patents.

One of the European patent was revoked in opposition proceedings at the EPO, and the revocation was confirmed by the Board of appeal.

The French part of another European patent was definitively forsaken at the French patent office (presumably to avoid substitution of the original French patent).

All of that left the court with two French patents and two European patents to deal with.

But, in order not to make things easier, Pellenc filed requests for limitation of these four patents. The requests for limitation of the two French patents were accepted by the Institut National de la Propriété Industrielle (INPI) in May 2015. The EPO, on the other hand, initially rejected the central requests for limitation of the two European patents, in June and November 2015.

In view of these lingering limitation proceedings, the case management judge separated the case into two: a first sub-case concerned with the nullity claim regarding the two limited French patents; and a second sub-case concerned with the nullity claim regarding the two European patents still in limbo. Obviously, the first sub-case progressed quicker than the second one, which leads us to the decision at stake.

Let’s not maintain the suspense for too long: the two French patents were revoked in full.

The court made a very thorough job of deciding on the interpretation of a number of contested claim terms, and then reviewed each claim (yes, including all dependent ones) in great detail, finding them all deprived of novelty or inventive step. Hence the lengthy judgment.

Sometimes, patents are like dominos: when you start toppling one…

But most interesting is how the court handled the defense that the nullity complaint was inadmissible due to lack of standing.

In the decision, the court recalled the principles to be applied for assessing whether a nullity claimant has standing to sue:

Therefore, a competitor can file an action for nullity of a patent if they can demonstrate the existence of sufficient interest to free an upcoming exploitation of the patented technology or a similar one: nullity actions are open to an industrialist willing to free a market. 

More specifically, it must be established that the claims which are sought to be nullified “are or may be an impediment to their economic activity, because they have or plan to have an activity in the field of the patented invention“.

The court also made it clear that the claimant does not need to establish the existence or imminence of an infringement of any particular claims of the patents at stake. But it should be explained “how the patent may get in the way of their activity“.

In my previous post on the topic, which was in the pharma field, we could see that the court examined the evidence as to whether the patent stood in the claimant’s way in a very thorough and severe manner. In fact, standing was acknowledged for some of the patent claims but not others.

Now, in the present case, it seems that the analysis was overall easier and more straightforward. 

The court first noted that there it was undisputed that Felco and Pellenc were competitors in France, since both make and market electrical pruners. In fact, it was mentioned in Pellenc’s submissions themselves that the recent tool developed by Felco was in competition with their tools.

The interesting point is that the competing tool was put on the market in France in May 2013, i.e. ten months after the nullity complaint was filed. The court concluded that, even if there was no competition on the day the complaint was filed, there was competition at least thereafter, so that the inadmissibility defense could no longer be relied upon.

In other terms, the relevant date for the assessment of standing in a patent nullity suit is the day on which the court decides on the inadmissibility defense, and not the day on which the complaint is filed – in keeping with the general rules of civil procedure in this country.

The court further remarked that Pellenc sued the Felco companies in Switzerland for unfair competition. It seems that Pellenc claimed in the Swiss lawsuit that Felco had taken unfair advantage of Pellenc’s patented and non-patented know-how which was transmitted to them over the course of their longstanding relationship. This was seen as further confirmation of Felco’s proper standing.

Yet another factor taken into account by the court was that Pellenc opposed two European patents owned by Felco. Frankly, I think this is a very indirect factor. It is more a possible indication of Pellenc’s activity being impeded by Felco’s IP than the other way around.

Apparently, there was also a dispute as to the legal consequences of the agreement between Felco and Pellenc on Felco’s standing. It was probably an exciting one, at that, as both parties filed consultations by renowned legal experts, respectively Prof. Reboul and Prof. Galloux. But the decision does not say much as to which arguments were made. It is simply stated that:

Regarding the contractual relationships which existed between the parties, it should be noted that they have ceased; besides, the existence of contractual relationships does not deprive the contracting party of their right to seek the invalidation of the patents, and does not render standing illegitimate per se. 

Indeed, if the patents were to be held invalid, the standing of [Felco] would be legitimized and Pellenc would have illegitimately asserted worthless patents against their co-contracting party. 

Therefore, the existence of contractual relationships cannot make a contracting party’s standing to seek nullity of patents belonging to the other contracting party illegitimate. 

It is unclear whether the agreement explicitly contained a provision prohibiting Felco from seeking revocation of the patents, or whether the argument was that the agreement indirectly or implicitly prevented Felco from pursuing this course of action. Probably the latter.

But at any rate, the principle seems to be clearly established in this judgment that an agreement cannot restrict a party’s right to seek invalidation of a patent, and in particular cannot annihilate said party’s standing to sue. This is in addition to the serious concerns that non-challenge clauses may raise under competition law.

Good to know!

At that point, the court rejected Pellenc’s defense and, as mentioned above, held all claims of both French patents invalid, after carefully reviewing them one by one.

With two of Pellenc’s patents down, there are two more to go – namely the two European ones, which were also sought to be limited.

I checked on the European patent register, and it turns out that both patents were finally limited at the EPO, in June 2016. So, unless the parties settle, these patents should soon also be subjected to the firing squad of the TGI’s third chamber. Stay tuned.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre, 1ère section, March 2, 2017, Felco SA et al. v. SA Pellenc, RG No. 12/15393.

Identifying technicity

What does a patent-eligible invention have in common with obscenity? Some may be tempted to answer that, in both cases, I know it when I see it, as the famous phrase goes. 

But the EPO would certainly not share this view, as the Boards of appeal have consistently worked on framing elaborate eligibility / inventive step tests so as to exclude any intuitive approach to the issue – the prize to pay being that this body of case law makes for a difficult read.

In today’s post, Aujain Eghbali examines if and how said extensive case law can be applied to the examination of French patent applications as well.

The examination of applications related to software inventions in France has been known to yield unpredictable outcomes. This is because, while substantive grounds provided to the French patent office (INPI) to refuse applications include the manifest exclusion from the scope of patentability (ineligibility) and the manifest lack of novelty in view of the search report, they do not include the lack of inventive step (which is only a ground for nullity).

Now, readers familiar with EPO practice know that software inventions are nowadays almost systematically examined under the scope of inventive step at the EPO. The mere mention of the use of a computer in a method claim allows passing the eligibility bar.

In this context, it has not been clear whether INPI examiners can rely on the ineligibility ground to refuse applications, or whether on the contrary they have to comply with EPO case law and conclude that there is no ground for a refusal.

Recent French court decisions, some of which were commented on this blog (here, here, here and there), seem to favor the first solution. The Sesame decision in particular confirmed the refusal by the INPI of a computer-implemented business method on the ground of ineligibility.

While this increase in legal certainty is surely appreciated, these recent developments raise other issues. One may notably ask the following question:

To what extent could INPI examiners apply principles established by the EPO in relation with the inventive step analysis in order to assess the patentability of software inventions, when they can only raise another ground?

EPO board of appeal decision T1992/10 of September 8, 2016 may be a good basis for the beginning of an answer.

SAP had filed a European patent application related to a solution to check the integrity of a shipment. The solution consists in calculating an initial identifier of a set of objects of the shipment based on individual identifiers, before sending the shipment. When the shipment arrives, the same algorithm is used to compute a set identifier for all arrived objects and the result is compared to the initial identifier. A match indicates integrity of the shipment.

Claim 1 according to the auxiliary request read as follows:

A computer-implemented method for checking the integrity of a shipment that includes multiple products, the method comprising:

calculating, prior to shipping, a set identifier for the shipment, the calculating comprising:

– receiving (210), at a tag reader, a first identifier from a first identification tag (130a; 570a; 730a) associated with a first physical object (120a; 560a; 720a);

– receiving (220), at the tag reader, a second identifier from a second identification tag (130b; 570b; 730b) associated with a second physical object (120b; 560b; 720b);

– determining (230) the set identifier at the tag reader, the set identifier corresponding to a set (110) of physical objects that includes the first physical object (120a; 560a; 720a) and the second physical object (120b; 560b; 720b), based on the first identifier and the second identifier, wherein the determining further includes:

— sorting (440) the first identifier and the second identifier to produce sorted identifiers, such that, for all pairs of identifiers, a first identifier of a pair appearing before a second identifier of the pair indicates that the first identifier is less than the second identifier;

— combining (450) the sorted identifiers to produce a combined set identifier by concatenating the first identifier and the second identifier in sorted order; and

— applying (460) the SHA1 algorithm to the combined identifier to produce the set identifier;

– associating (240-270) the set identifier with a web page (180a) that corresponds to the set (110);

calculating a set identifier for the shipment after shipping to verify the integrity of the shipment;

when the set identifier calculated prior to shipping matches the set identifier calculated after shipping, determining that no products have been removed from or added to the shipment in the time between the calculation of the two set identifiers, and

when the set identifier calculated prior to shipping differs from the set identifier calculated after shipping, determining that at least one product has been removed from or added to the shipment in the time between the calculation of the two set identifiers.

According to SAP, both with and without the invention, it was necessary to scan all arriving objects; but with the invention, only one comparison subsequently needed to be made: the identifier calculated on arrival had to be compared with the identifier calculated before shipping. Without the invention, many individual comparisons would be needed. Furthermore, SAP argued that the specific algorithm used to produce the set identifier performed speedily. Also, the final comparison could be made fast, thanks to the format of the set identifier.

A non-computer implemented identification tag – therefore a technical one?

The Board considered that the contemplation of a set identifier in particular to perform a shipment integrity check did not involve any technical consideration as such. Furthermore, the Board was not persuaded that the effects argued by the appellant were actually obtained (speedy identifier calculation and fast comparison).

Also, the Board did not buy the argument related to only one set identifier comparison to be eventually made instead of many individual comparisons. On this topic, the Board not only noted that a database programmer would tend to send one composite query rather than a series of individual queries, but the Board also considered again that the alleged effect was not credible since no details about the comparison were provided in claim 1.

As a conclusion, the algorithm did not seek to overcome a limitation of a computer, but was imposed from the outside for the non-technical purpose of providing a set identifier.

Whether we agree with this reasoning or not, the part of the decision most interesting to me lies elsewhere, where the Board considered:

10. This is not a case in which a clearly non-technical method, consisting of non-technical steps, is performed by a computer, essentially by telling it to carry out the steps involved. Such cases normally fail under the approach in T 0641/00, Two identities/COMVIK, OJ 2003, 352, which, by placing the steps in the statement of the objective technical problem, in essence ensures they do not contribute to inventive step. With such a method, the novelty and obviousness of the steps themselves need not be assessed and the salient question for inventive step is often only whether the implementation of the steps using a computer would have been obvious. In most cases, it would have been.

11. This contrasts with the present invention, in which, although the steps are per se non-technical, a technical contribution cannot be immediately ruled out. The need to investigate the obviousness of these steps depends on such a contribution. The aim of the invention is a non-technical one: identify objects and sets of objects, and keep track of them. The present invention, however, starts from an existing technical method of identifying objects. It seeks to overcome shortcomings in that technical method, and raises rather more problems than the cases referred to above. Are the shortcomings themselves technical? Are technical means used to overcome them? In short: what is the technical effect on the prior art system?

12. That is a matter that requires care. On one side, the technology of the starting point, or its shortcomings, should not be trivialised. On another, circumventing a problem, rather than solving it, is no basis for an allowable claim.

As we can see, the Board introduced a distinction here between SAP’s invention and others which consist in performing a clearly non-technical method, consisting of non-technical steps, by a computer.

The Board considered that, in the shipment integrity check case, care should be taken before ruling out the technical contribution of a step apparently non-technical. The Board suggested performing a thorough analysis of effects alleged to be provided by the invention in view of the prior art, and then only searching for those effects which are technical and credibly achieved.

This decision therefore stresses that, when a computer-implemented invention does not relate to performing a clearly non-technical method by a computer, it is of the utmost importance to assess its patentability within the scope of inventive step, such that the prior art can be discussed. The Board thus reminded us that the approach developed by EPO case law is not merely cosmetic.

Now, once again, the ground provided to INPI examiners to refuse computer-implemented inventions is the manifest exclusion from the scope of patentability.

We know that although the INPI can refuse an application on the ground of a manifest lack of novelty, the lack of novelty has to be really blatant for the INPI to refuse the application. We also know that the INPI cannot refuse an application on the ground of a lack of inventive step. As mentioned in the Sesame post, when there is room for discussion on patentability the legislator probably wanted said discussion to occur within a trial rather than during examination.

I believe that this principle should fully apply to computer-implemented inventions: when there is room for discussion on the presence or not of a technical contribution, said discussion should not occur at the examination stage. In other words, there should be situations where the INPI admits that exclusion from the scope of patentability is not manifest.

Decision T1992/10 not only provides a reason why but also a criterion that the INPI could apply: is the computer-implemented method merely a clearly non-technical method implemented by a computer?

Thank you Aujain. Who knows, maybe we will get some clarification in the next version of the French guidelines for examination? Those may still have a long way to go before they can match the completeness and reliability of the EPO guidelines.


CASE REFERENCE: T1992/10, Board 3.5.01, September 8, 2016, Set Identifiers / SAP.

French courts get IT

Some patent attorneys are more passionate about IT than others. See, when I read this acronym, the first thing that comes to my mind tends to be Stephen King’s classic goosebumps-giving novel. My partner Aujain Eghbali, on the other hand, immediately thinks of databases, networks and the like.

This is why I am particularly delighted that he has taken it upon himself to update us on the increasing alignment of French courts on EPO case law regarding computer-implemented inventions.

Here is to him.

Although the provisions of article 52 EPC regarding the ineligibility to patent protection of computer programs as such are repeated word-for-word in article L.611-10 of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle, French practitioners like to remind applicants that French courts are not bound by EPO case law.

Such precaution used to be particularly appropriate in the field of computer-implemented inventions, as only very little national case law was available until recently.

The situation has however started to become clearer since a few decisions commented on this blog were issued (see here, here and there). I have notably written on this blog based on my understanding of the Sesame decision that, when the EPO does not grant patents for software for implementing business or administrative methods, applicants probably do not have much more to expect from French courts.

A recent decision Xaga Network v. Ewalia of November 18, 2016, by the Paris Tribunal de grande instance seems to extend this principle to other types of computer-implemented methods.

In this decision, French patent No. FR 2948788 (corresponding to EP App. No. EP 2460112 and to US App. No. US 2012/311525) owned by Xaga Network was revoked. The patent was directed to a system allowing users to easily customize generic applications without any coding, such that the users need not be skilled programmers.

Claim 1 of the patent read:

An application management system, characterized in that it comprises at least one dataspace adapted to be associated to an application, said dataspace comprising:

– at least one organizational entity able to be linked in at least one other dataspace and comprising a plurality of first components;

– at least one operational entity comprising a plurality of second components;

the first and second components being able to be activated/deactivated by parameterization within said dataspace according to the managed application.

The owner stated that the claimed system enabled the development of preconfigured applications adaptable and customizable by a simple activation-deactivation of the modules, without any new coding. The patent addressed a technical problem, namely, how to select the components that will be used in an entity for an application. The patent further solved this problem by a component activation/deactivation system within a dataspace. The proposed technical solution thereby made it possible for the user not to necessarily have technical knowledge to implement the invention.

Obviously, the nullity claimant did their homework and duly noted that the EPO had refused the corresponding application, although claim 1 was very extensively amended during examination at the EPO to eventually recite:

A system for managing applications (APP), characterized in that it comprises:

– a web server (SRVW) including: 

– objects comprising one or more predefined and pre-assembled components (Cp), said objects forming:

– a generic model of Organization (MGO) composed of logical organizational entities (ST) forming sets of identified physical persons, said logical organizational entities (ST) being possibly configured to be linked together;

– a generic management model (MGG) composed of logical operational entities (EO), an operational entity comprising at least one task which can be implemented by at least one person, said logical operational entities being possibly configured to be linked together;

– a generic pilot model (MGP) consisting of data analysis tools (OA) so as to monitor, owing to a set of indicators, actions performed on at least one operational entity (EO);

– a generic model (MGS) of screens and kinematics (SCR) for a user interface (Ul), said kinematics corresponding to a sequence of screens;

– a set of tables and files (G_TAB) characterizing the possibilities of activation and personalization of the objects and characterizing the processes, flows and rules associated with the objects;

– identification tools (ID_T) of the possible activations of objects linked to an initial activation of an object;

– management tools (MG_T) allowing the construction of logical networks comprising data spaces, and preassembled links that can be activated and customized, each data space being composed of all the objects,

– a connector object (ML) searching for tables and files corresponding to the activation and personalization of components of the object and object data to be displayed in the areas of the corresponding screen;

a data server (SRVD) including a predefined single physical database (DB1) comprising the data corresponding to said objects.

A figure as scary as a lengthy claim to an application management system.

The EPO examining division construed the application as relating to an abstract model comprised in a Web server, consisting in a collection of generic objects and data, and meant to facilitate the programming of applications by unskilled users.

The EPO considered that such a purpose was not of a technical nature and referred to the old decision T 0204/93 which had previously held that “generating concrete software programs from supplied generic specifications, i.e, reusable software modules, involving computer programs as such, and a computer implementation of mental acts, does not make a contribution in a field outside the range of excluded matters”. This decision has been constantly followed by the EPO boards of appeal.

Examiners are used to overkilling applications when they refuse them.

Accordingly, the examining division further added that claim 1 in any case did not clearly provide a solution to the problem of facilitating the management of applications, the claimed model being too vague for that. The division probably wanted to remind the applicant, before they considered filing an appeal (which they did not), of the particularly high bar regarding clarity when it comes to computer-implemented inventions.

The question of whether both the problem and its solution are technical is critical here. Thus, the EPO is particularly strict on the requirement that all “ingredients” for solving the alleged problem should be present in the claim, so that the problem is effectively solved on the whole claimed range. While practitioners used to chemistry or biotechnology inventions are familiar with this approach, European patent attorneys know that the EPO is sometimes more lenient in other technological fields, such as mechanical engineering.

Interestingly, the French court followed both lines of reasoning, holding first that the claim related to software as such and that the programming activity field did not constitute a patentable technical activity, and second that claim 1 described “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”.

Like in the Sesame decision, I must say that I am quite impressed by the capacity of French legal judges to level up to EPO case law’s subtleties in the area of software patentability, which is not known as the most limpid literature even to technical practitioners such as European patent attorneys.

These recent developments teach us that French courts are probably taking the path of European legal harmonization in the field of software patentability by integrating principles well-established at the EPO in that area. This increase in legal certainty will surely be appreciated by most applicants, especially by those who understood early on that a patent granted by the INPI (French patent office) for a computer-implemented invention meant so little that they played the game of filing directly at the EPO.

But this leaves open the question already asked at the end of the Sesame post: how will the INPI deal with an application blatantly not providing any technical solution to a technical problem, from now on?

As a final word, Aujain also wanted to draw our readers’ attention to the U.S. counterpart of the patent at stake. He says the applicant also had a very hard time at the USPTO, as the claims were deemed not to relate to statutory subject-matter, but were also held to lack the equivalent of clarity in Europe. And yet, this happened pre-Alice.

So, this may be a sign of a growing harmonization also across the Atlantic.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 2ème section, November 18, 2016, Xaga Network SAS et al. v. Ewalia et al., RG No.2013/11351.