An uplifting patent

It seems that we will not be getting any UPC case law to comment on any time soon after all… In fact, some in the European IP profession have expressed quite a bit of distress at last week’s political upheaval. So I thought that today’s post had better be uplifting in order to curb current gloominess.

Unfortunately all that I have been able to find in terms of uplifting is… a patent case related to a lifting platform. Well, at least that’s something, isn’t it?

So, cheer up and back to good old national case law!

There are two different aspects which may be of some interest in today’s decision. One relates to patent substitution, and the other one relates to public prior use.

But first things first with the basic facts of the case.

FOG Automotive Distribution is the owner of a French patent No. FR 2896785 and of a corresponding European patent No. EP 1813568, claiming the priority of the French one. Or rather, was, as the company was liquidated during the litigation, its interests being then represented by the liquidator.

FOG sued three interrelated companies Launch France, Launch
Europe GMBH and Launch Tech, for, ahem, “launching” lifting platforms infringing the patent.

At first instance, the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) held that the French patent had ceased to be in force but that the French part of the European patent was indeed valid and infringed.

On May 27, 2016, the Cour d’appel confirmed most of this ruling and put an end to the case by directly awarding the liquidator a (relatively modest) amount of damages.

As I explained in a previous post, a European patent is said to substitute for a French patent, when both patents have three elements in common:

  • Same inventor(s).
  • Same filing or priority date.
  • Same invention.

By way of analogy with the assessment of a priority claim, the most frequent issue is whether both patents actually relate to “the same invention“. In order to properly answer the question, you need to look at the claims and more particularly the main claims of both patents.

In this case, claim 1 of the French patent reads as follows:

Lifting platform, in particular for a motor vehicle, comprising at least one column (1), at least one carriage (2) which is movable along the at least one column (1), and designed to support the motor vehicle or part of the latter directly or by means of a support element, and means forming a locking/unlocking lock designed to lock in a given position the said at least one carriage or allow it to be movable along the column, the locking/unlocking means consisting of a rail comprising a plurality of slots (6) and means forming a locking/unlocking (20) catch, characterised in that along the at least one column there are at least two catches (20, 40) spaced apart from one another in respect of their height, the height dimension of the rail being approximately equal to the distance between the at least two catches (20, 40).

Claim 1 of the European patent is identical but for the last underlined part, which reads as follows: “the height dimension of the rail being lower than the height of the catch (40) furthest from the base of the at least two catches“. 

The court held:

[…] The European patent was more specific than the French patent claim. The latter only specified approximately equal heights, while the European patent was more specific by indicating a height dimension for the rail which is lower than the height of the catch. […] Therefore, the first instance judges rightly held that FOG’s claims relating to the French patent are inadmissible due to the grant of the European patent on the same invention which results in the French patent no longer being in force. 

I think the conclusion is correct but the reasoning is not very accurate. Indeed, unless I missed something, I think it is the European claim which is broader than the French claim and not the other way around.

The European claim merely recites a maximum value for the height dimension of the rail, whereas the French claim demands that the height dimension be approximately equal to a certain value. Therefore, it certainly makes sense for the European patent to fully substitute for the French patent. The most usual situation is for a European patent to be more restricted than the French priority patent. In this case, part of the broader French patent survives the substitution. But the present situation is different.

Another form of platform: a platform shoe with a storage compartment. The application suggests to use this compartment for "keys, driver’s license, money, and other small but necessary articles".
Another form of platform: a platform shoe with a storage compartment. The application conveniently suggests to use this compartment for “keys, driver’s license, money, and other small but necessary articles”.

The second point of interest in the decision is the novelty challenge raised by the appellant, which was based on an alleged public prior use. Launch Tech first argued that they had publicly presented several lifting platforms to the public before the priority date of January 27, 2006: some at a fair in Frankfurt in September 2004 and others at the Equip’auto fair of October 2005.

As evidence, Launch offered photographs of the equipment presented at the fairs. Those were however quickly dismissed by the court, since their date was not proven.

Then Launch made reference to a lifting platform referenced as TLTE 240SBA and delivered to a workshop in Dillenburg, Germany.

Launch filed a report written by a patent attorney. The patent attorney stated that he went to the workshop and took pictures of the platform. He noted the presence of a metal plate under the platform bearing the reference number TLTE 240SBA, the manufacturing date “2005/08” and the name and address of Launch Tech.

The court noted:

[…] He indicates that the information was engraved on the plate which was connected to the column and adds: “at first sight this is the original plate i.e. I do not think that it was replaced by another plate”. This indication is obviously an impression reported by Mr. T. which cannot prove the date of the lifting platform at stake and does not make it possible to retain it as prior art. 

Still concerning this lifting platform in the Dillenburg workshop, the alleged infringer also filed an affidavit by one of its technicians. The technician stated that he remembered delivering and putting the machine into service in December 2005. A copy of the corresponding intervention request was annexed to the affidavit.

Again, the court rejected the evidence.

First, the court noted a discrepancy between the platform reference number in the document in annex (TLTE 40SBA) and the actual platform reference number (TLTE 240SBA). An explanation for the discrepancy, though: the first number was an abbreviation for the second number, the missing figure 2 simply meaning a platform with two columns.

Second, the court more generally put the credibility of the witness into question:

[…] Nevertheless this affidavit was drafted by an employee of Launch Tech; and it is also questionable because, although Launch Tech markets different types of materials and lifting platforms, he stated that he remembered the serial number of a platform sold in 2005 when he wrote the affidavit on May 2, 2014. 

As a final remark on this issue, the court blamed the appellant with simply stating that the claims of the European patent were anticipated by its platforms TLTE 232SBA, TLTE 240SBA, TLT 235SBA and TLT 235SCA, without explaining the differences between the models and without describing their specific features (including the catches).

Consequently, the novelty challenge failed. So did the inventive step challenge. And the appeal judges also confirmed the first instance finding of literal infringement based on a bailiff’s saisie report of October 2011.

Interestingly, the infringing platforms bore the reference numbers TLTE 32SBA and TLTE 40SBA, i.e. similar references to those used in the unsuccessful public prior use defense. So at least the fact that the alleged prior use apparatuses had all claimed features appears relatively credible – although it can always be theoretically contemplated that the design of a device with a certain reference number can change over time.

In summary, the demonstration of public prior use in this country requires a high burden of proof – as in “Everest high” – just like at the EPO, although we do not use the warlike expression “up to the hilt”. 

On the one hand it is certainly very reasonable to demand absolute certainty when the patent proprietor has no personal knowledge of the alleged prior use and no access to the relevant evidence.

But on the other hand, this situation can also be quite frustrating for a nullity plaintiff (or similarly for an opponent at the EPO). You sometimes get the feeling that actual public prior uses are impossible to rely on in practice because there will never be enough records from that time and because every document or affidavit can be criticized one way or another as being incomplete or doubtful.

How a more fair balance could be reached is a tricky question. Maybe through greater resort to depositions of witnesses under oath?

CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5, chambre 2, May 27, 2016, Launch Tech Company Ltd. v. FOG Automotive Distribution, RG No. 14/02829.

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