Court hits the bull’s-eye

The case reported on today is a good opportunity to remind all readers that the new statutory provisions on heightened examination of patent applications in France will kick off on May 22 (with the entry into force of another part of the loi PACTE).

In other words, all national patent applications filed on or after May 22 will be subjected to full examination and may be rejected for basically the same grounds of refusal as at the EPO, including lack of inventive step.

Therefore, if you want your patent application to be prosecuted under the current regime (wherein the grounds for refusal are much more restricted), there is only one month left for you to file.

As a further reminder, if a refusal is issued in examination proceedings, the means for redress is an appeal in front of the Paris Cour d’appel – this will not change after May 22, so a surge in such appeals is to be expected in a few years’ time.

For the time being, appeal rulings further to refusals are rare. We should thus certainly review them to get a sense of what may lie ahead.

A few months ago, I reported on a judgment overturning a refusal of an application by Thales on an aircraft GUI invention. Today, I will address a case involving Bull, another French tech company.

Bull is the applicant of national patent application No. FR 16/00894, published as FR 3052274. Unfortunately the file wrapper on the INPI website appears to be incomplete, but I can gather the following:

  • The application was filed on June 2, 2016.
  • On November 9, 2016, the INPI examiner in charge of the application issued a communication stating that the claimed invention appeared to relate to a method for performing mental acts as such. The applicant replied, but this reply is missing from the online file wrapper.
  • On March 27, 2017, another communication was issued, stating that no meaningful search could be carried out.
  • On August 21, 2018, the INPI issued the decision of refusal (also not accessible on the INPI website!) based on ineligibility.

As a comment regarding these proceedings, we are looking at a French application which does not claim a foreign priority. Therefore, the application was sent to the EPO for the search, so that it is the EPO examiner who concluded that the search was not possible. The documents from the EPO are regrettably not present on the INPI website, but they can be accessed via the EP file wrapper of the corresponding Euro-PCT application (which was deemed to be withdrawn, in case you are wondering).

It turns out that the EPO examiner justified the absence of search by stating that the claimed technical features at stake were notoriously known from the state of the art. In the written opinion, the examiner argued that the claimed invention lacked inventive step.

As a first remark, the EPO examiner’s position is quite different from that of the INPI. Lacking inventive step is not the same as not being an invention. And, most importantly, lack of inventive step is not a ground for refusal in France – until May 22.

As a second remark, I do not quite understand the EPO’s practice of not carrying out a search in the case of allegedly notorious technical features. After all, if an invention relies on notorious features, the search should be very easy to complete. The absence of search on the other hand has serious procedural consequences for the applicant and does not make it possible for them to properly challenge the examiner’s reasoning.

Let’s now turn to claim 1 of the application, which reads as follows:

A terminal for establishing communications, the communications being broadcasts inside a group of users, a user of the terminal belonging to at least one group of users, the communication terminal including means for:

          • associating a list of user identifiers with a group identifier,
          • associating a plurality of properties with a user,
          • associating a property activation value with each property,
          • recording an identifier of a current group,
          • recording a value of a current state,
          • updating the value of the current state as a function of a user input,
          • adapting a display as a function of:
          • the identifier of the current group,
          • the value of the current state.

According to the refusal decision, the subject-matter at stake does not comprise any specific technical feature but merely sets out a method for carrying out mental acts implemented by generic computing means.

No applicant should get bull-ied by the patent office.

In the judgment, the court emphasized that the claims have to be interpreted in the light of the description and drawings.

The court then noted that the mention of a terminal comprising a microprocessor, storage means such a hard drive or a memory card, a communication interface and a screen, implies that the application does not relate to a purely abstract method.

The court then went on to analyze the problem set out in the application, and concluded that it is indeed a technical problem:

It is set out (on pages 1 and 2) that the invention is in the field of communication devices and in particular of the maximization of a ratio of information/surface comprising a plurality of users, more specifically for portable terminals such as those used on battlefields; and it provides a mode of global visualization of an aspect of a situation on a screen, so as to circumvent the problem of the state of the art per which fighters are endowed with information systems making it possible to display each fighter’s identifier, mission and operational capacities, but not giving any vision for a unit comprising several fighters, so that in a situation of combat stress, it is not possible to remember the corresponding information for each fighter. As a result, the technical problem is that of global visualization of a situation for a unit comprising several fighters, and not of memorization in a stressful situation, which is indeed a problem of a cognitive nature but which is not the one that the invention purports to solve. It thus cannot be considered at this stage that the invention does not provide a technical solution to a technical problem.

The INPI further reasoned that the various claimed means were defined in a purely functional manner and were generic, not clear, and merely related to basic and usual computer tools.

The court was not convinced, as these remarks are not relevant to the issue of whether the claimed subject-matter relates to an invention or not:

The use of technical means to implement a method within the framework of mental activities, thus totally or partly excluding human intervention, can confer to said method a technical character and therefore make it possible to consider it as an invention, just as the patentability of a combination of technical and non-technical features is admitted.

[…] The Director of the INPI can refuse a patent application on the ground of a manifest lack of novelty, and argues that the EPO examiner working on the search report stated that the computer technology relied upon is universally known and widespread, so that the notoriety of such prior art cannot be reasonably challenged. [But he] did not base the refusal decision on a manifest lack of novelty but on article L. 612-12, 5° which only excludes patentability when the subject-matter of the patent application can “manifestly not be considered as an invention under article L. 611-10 Code de la propriété intellectuelle”. The requirements of sufficiency of disclosure, novelty and inventive step cannot be taken into account in the application of this provision. 

Based on these findings, the court considers that the subject-matter of claim 1 relating to a terminal for establishing communications comprising various mutually interacting technical means does not concern a method of performing mental acts as such. It is thus not excluded from patentability for this reason.

All in all, applicants and patent attorneys alike will likely rejoice, as the court has drawn a clear and sound distinction between patent eligibility and the other patentability requirements, in keeping with the case law of the Boards of appeal of the EPO. Also, this approach is consistent with the earlier Thales ruling mentioned at the beginning of this post. This means more international uniformity and more legal certainty.

The issue remains that the main claim does have a broad and somewhat vague flavor to it (which is what the EPO examiner had to say in the first place). If the examination proceedings continue, will the INPI try to refuse the application a second time, this time for a manifest lack of novelty? Or will they conclude that, for a pre-PACTE application, they simply do not have the right legal tools to challenge such a claim?

At any rate, the fate of the first computer-implemented invention applications filed as from May 22 will have to be closely monitored, to see which way the new winds will be blowing.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 2, November 22, 2019, SAS Bull v. Directeur Général de l’INPI, RG No. 18/21161.

Best FRAND forever

One common trait of all standard essential patent (SEP) disputes is their procedural complexity. A lawyer’s dream come true.

A few weeks ago, I reported on the IPCom v. Lenovo litigation. The apparent conclusion was that, in the context of a multidimensional and multinational lawsuit, French courts were not ready to forgo their say. This seems to be confirmed in another high profile case, brought to my attention by Denis Schertenleib.

The case pitches the Dutch giant Philips against Hong Kong-based TCL.

Philips owns a portfolio of patents declared as essential for the 3G and 4G standards with the standard-setting organization ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute). According to a classical plot, Philips and TCL negotiated a patent license for this portfolio and the negotiations failed. It seems that one of the bones of contention was the scope of the license, both in terms of patents and countries.

Philips sued TCL in the UK for infringement of two patents, in October 2018.

TCL started a legal backfire by suing Philips in front of the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI). By the way, have I already mentioned on this blog that the TGI has been renamed TJ (tribunal judiciaire) since January 1, 2020?

What is much less conventional in this plot is that TCL sued not only Philips, but also the ETSI itself.

As a main request TCL asked the court:

  • to declare that Philips’ essentiality declaration to the ETSI amounts to a promise to grant a FRAND license to TCL on all patents declared as essential for the 3G and 4G standards;
  • to determine FRAND conditions for the license and to enjoin Philips to grant it;
  • to enjoin the ETSI to participate in the license granting process;
  • to declare that the conditions offered by Philips are not FRAND-compliant.

At the risk of disappointing readers, we do not have the court’s ruling yet. What we do have is an interim order by the judge in charge of case management dealing with a number of preliminary objections raised by Philips.

A blogger working on his next SEP post during the lockdown.

First, Philips argued that the Paris court lacked jurisdiction.

The discussion here revolves around article 8.1 of Regulation (EU) No. 1215/2012 (known as the Brussels I bis regulation) per which “a person domiciled in a Member State may also be sued where he is one of a number of defendants, in the courts for the place where any one of them is domiciled, provided the claims are so closely connected that it is expedient to hear and determine them together to avoid the risk of irreconcilable judgments resulting from separate proceedings“.

Again, Philips is a Dutch company. The ETSI, on the other hand, is located in Sophia Antipolis, on the French riviera. Philips argued that the claim against the ETSI was artificial so that the institute was not a “real defendant“. Philips further challenged that the claims against it and against the ETSI were closely related.

The judge in charge of case management disagreed:

It must be noted in this case that the claims against the ETSI on the one hand and Philips on the other hand relate to a same factual situation resulting from the fact that, according to the plaintiffs, Philips does not comply with the IP rules established by the ETSI. 

Although the legal grounds for the requests against the ETSI and Philips are different […], this is not an obstacle to the acknowledgment of an identity of legal situation, […] especially since in this case all requests are expressly subjected to French law, as provided in the rules of procedure established by the ETSI. 

The identity of legal situation supporting these requests is thus characterized. 

It must also be noted that the ETSI is endowed with legal means to ensure that IP obligations are complied with by its members, so that the claims against this institute cannot be held as artificial.

In addition, it must be noted that a decision enjoining the ETSI to participate in the grant of a license if needed by implementing the measures provided in its internal regulations, and one holding that Philips complied with its obligation to offer a license to TCL under FRAND conditions would be incompatible and not only diverging.  

Second, Philips relied on a lis pendens objection (due to the preexisting British lawsuit).

The basis for this objection is article 29 of the Brussels I bis regulation, per which “where proceedings involving the same cause of action and between the same parties are brought in the courts of different Member States, any court other than the court first seised shall of its own motion stay its proceedings until such time as the jurisdiction of the court first seised is established“.

Again, the judge disagreed:

[…] The claim in front of the High court of justice of England and Wales is based on infringement of the British part of European patents No. […]. It only concerns Philips and TCL. 

The present lawsuit concerns Philips, TCL, and also the ETSI. It consists in determining whether Philips […] offered a worldwide license on a [patent portfolio] under fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory conditions. 

As a result, the condition of triple identity of cause of action, subject-matter and parties is not met, and there is no reason to decline jurisdiction in favor of the English court.

Third, Philips relied on a related actions objection (still due to the preexisting British lawsuit).

This time, it is article 30 of the Brussels I bis regulation that comes into play:

1. Where related actions are pending in the courts of different Member States, any court other than the court first seised may stay its proceedings.

2. Where the action in the court first seised is pending at first instance, any other court may also, on the application of one of the parties, decline jurisdiction if the court first seised has jurisdiction over the actions in question and its law permits the consolidation thereof.

3. For the purposes of this Article, actions are deemed to be related where they are so closely connected that it is expedient to hear and determine them together to avoid the risk of irreconcilable judgments resulting from separate proceedings.

This objection was no more successful than the previous ones:

As mentioned by TCL, the trial on the FRAND license issue will only proceed in the UK if TCL does not renounce requesting such a license […]. No risk of irreconcilable judgments under article 30 of the Regulation is established, so that the objection based on related actions cannot be sustained and the present court does not have to decline jurisdiction. 

I must say that this part of the judgment is somewhat less clear to me than the rest. I assume that what the judge meant is that the objection is premature as there is no indication at this time that the same question will be asked to the British court and the French court.

As a result, the judge rejected all objections raised by Philips, so that the litigation can proceed further.

The ETSI also requested that the claims against it should be declared inadmissible. However, this other objection needs to be examined by the full court, so that the judge in charge of case management has not ruled on it.

This interim judgment is of particular interest because the jurisdiction of the Paris TJ was acknowledged with respect to TCL’s FRAND determination requests, independently of any infringement, non-infringement or validity claims regarding any French patent or French part of a European patent.

Suing France-based ETSI as a co-defendant was what made it possible to achieve this outcome.

If this strategy continues to prove successful (which remains to see), it will mean that it can be replicated in any other 3G or 4G standard-related dispute, in other words that any IP right owner can be sued in France with respect to FRAND determination claim. So this is kind of a big deal.

On the other hand, I have read comments on this judgment according to which the decision was the first one to qualify the promise by a patent owner to grant a FRAND license under the ETSI IPR Policy as a “stipulation pour autrui”, namely a third-party beneficiary clause that creates a direct contractual relationship between the ETSI member (patent owner) and a third party (would-be licensee).

It has indeed long been proposed that an essentiality declaration with the ETSI amounted to this contractual mechanism of “stipulation pour autrui“. But I personally fail to find in the judgment any clear confirmation that the judge agreed with this qualification.

What I do find in the judgment is a mention that the ETSI agrees with this qualification; and a discussion on the legal grounds of the claims against Philips and the ETSI, the latter one being the “stipulation pour autrui“. But I do not understand this discussion as an acknowledgment that the proposed legal qualification is correct. However, it is likely that future judgments in this litigation will provide more clarity.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal judiciaire de Paris, 3ème chambre 1ère section, ordonnance du juge de la mise en état, February 6, 2020, SAS TCT Mobile Europe et al. v. Koninklijke Philips NV et al., RG No. 19/02085.