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.