The opposition battleground

As regular readers of this blog now know very well, the recently enacted loi PACTE authorized the government to rule by way of an ordonnance in order to set up a procedure for third parties to oppose a granted patent in France.

This is of course a major change and an exciting development for patent professionals, in particular patent attorneys – but also INPI examiners.

I have had the privilege to work with them over the past few months as part of an opposition training program, and I must say that it has been a real pleasure. They are very well aware of the various challenges that they will face, but also enthusiastic and eager to get into it all.

A draft of the ordonnance as well as of the implementing rules (décret) has been released on November 22. It is in the process of being dissected and commented upon by various professional associations. Just like in my previous post on the draft provisions regarding utility certificates and provisional applications, there may be some changes in the final version. But we now probably have a pretty good idea of what the system will look like.

Ready for battle?

One convenient way to look at it is to break down the various provisions into two groups: those which are identical to EPO opposition proceedings, and those which are different, or which are specific to French opposition proceedings.

Oh, and I have focused on the main points only.

As an initial warning, whenever I refer to the INPI in the following, it is in fact the Director of the INPI who is formally mentioned in the draft. French law  peculiar: it is drafted as if the head of the patent office were the only person working on cases and issuing decisions…

Let’s start with the familiar waters of EPO-like provisions:

  • The time limit for filing an opposition is 9 months from the publication of the mention of grant of the patent. There can be no restoration of right with respect to this time limit, if the would-be opponent misses it.
  • Any person can file an opposition. In other terms, no standing is required, and straw man oppositions are allowed.
  • Parties must be represented by a patent attorney or an attorney at law if they reside outside of the European Economic Area.
  • The grounds for opposition will be extension of subject-matter, insufficiency of disclosure, lack of novelty, lack of inventive step, and the various sorts of exclusion from patentability / exception from patentability.
  • The opposition can be filed against all claims or only some of them.
  • The notice of opposition must comprise the identity of the opponent, the reference of the opposed patent, a statement of grounds, facts and evidence, the justification that the opposition fee has been paid (the amount of this fee has not been published yet) and optionally the appointment of a representative.
  • If the notice of opposition is defective, the opponent gets an opportunity to regularize its filing, but this needs to be done within the 9-month deadline (except for the appointment of the representative). Otherwise, the opposition is rejected as inadmissible.
  • If several oppositions are filed against the same patent, they are joined into a single opposition procedure.
  • The opposition proceedings comprise a written phase and an oral phasei.e. oral proceedings are summoned upon request of at least one party or upon decision of the INPI itself.
  • The opposition procedure is adversarial – there is thus a right to be heard for each party at every step of the procedure.
  • During the opposition proceedings, the patent proprietor may modify the claims of the patent to address a ground for opposition (but please note that the current draft specifies: a ground for opposition raised by the opponent, which is more restrictive than R. 80 EPC).
  • Of course, any amendment filed during opposition must not introduce any extension of subject-matter, nor any extension of the scope of protection. The amended claims must comply with the requirements of clarity and sufficiency of disclosure (let’s see whether the INPI adopts the same approach as G 3/14).
  • The decision on the opposition has retroactive effect back to the filing date of the patent.
  • If the patent is amended, a new patent document is published, once the decision has become final.

Let’s then turn to those provisions which are so French:

  • Oppositions can be filed not only against patents but also against utility certificates. However, SPCs cannot be opposed.
  • The timeline of the opposition proceedings is slightly different.
    • First the patentee is invited to reply to the opposition, with a deadline prescribed by the INPI (and thus not set in the draft provisions).
    • Then, the INPI sends a preliminary opinion on the case within a 2-month deadline from the expiry of the patentee’s response deadline.
    • This preliminary opinion is communicated to the parties, who are invited to file written submissions within a prescribed deadline.
    • If at least one party files written submissions at this stage, the other parties are invited to file a response within a prescribed deadline.
    • Parties are optionally summoned to oral proceedings.
    • Finally the INPI issues its decision.
  • The opposition is deemed rejected if the INPI fails to issue a decision within 3 months from the closure of the examination of the opposition. Said closure takes place either when a deadline to file observations expires, if the parties fail to file observations or request oral proceedings; or at the latest on the day of the oral proceedings.
  • Not only the scope, but also the reasons for the opposition cannot be extended after the expiry of the opposition time limit.
  • There is no equivalent to art. 105 EPC, i.e. no possible intervention of an alleged infringer after the 9-month deadline.
  • The opposition is stayed in case of claim for ownership of the patent in front of the Paris TGI, or if a claim for revocation is pending in front of a court when the opposition is filed, or if the INPI is waiting for information relevant to the opposition or the situation of the parties, or if all parties request so (for a maximum duration of four months, renewable once). This latter provision will be useful in case the parties are in a negotiation process.
  • There are four possible outcomes of the opposition proceedings: rejection of the opposition, maintenance of the patent in amended form, full revocation. And the fourth one is: partial revocation. In other terms, the INPI will look at all of the challenged claims one by one and may decide that some of them are invalid and others are valid. In that case, only the invalid claims will be revoked. This stands in sharp contrast with the EPO practice of looking only at a set of claims as a whole, a single defect in the set meaning that it has to go down completely.
  • In case of a partial revocation, the patent proprietor will be requested to provide a modified set of claims complying with the partial revocation. The modified set of claims is refused if it is not compliant.
  • The INPI may not continue the opposition proceedings in case all opponents have withdrawn their oppositions, or in case the patent has ceased to be in force.
  • An examiner having examined the patent application may not work on the opposition, but he or she can be heard during the opposition proceedings.
  • A request for limitation is inadmissible if filed when an opposition is pending. If a limitation procedure is ongoing when an opposition is filed, the limitation procedure is closed. But there is an exception if the request for limitation is in the context of a nullity suit.
  • Upon request of the winning party, the losing party is ordered to pay part or all of the costs of the winning party, within the boundaries of an official fee schedule (to be determined).
  • An appeal against the opposition decision can be filed in front of the Paris Cour d’appel within a one-month deadline from the communication of the decision. The statement of grounds of appeal needs to be filed within a three-month deadline from the notice of appeal. The defendant has a three-month deadline from the communication of the grounds of appeal to file its reply brief and possibly a counter-appeal. The parties will need to act through an attorney at law.
  • Third parties may intervene in these appeal proceedings, either in a voluntary or forced manner. Normal rules of civil procedure will apply here.
  • The court re-judges the entire case, in fact and in law. It is explicitly stated that the parties can file further grounds, evidence and arguments relative to the first instance. This does not extend to new requests, in the general sense of the term (“prétentions“), unless they are related to an intervention on appeal, occasioned by a new fact, or have the same aim as those filed in first instance, even on different legal grounds.
  • All deadlines on appeal are extended by one month for parties residing in French overseas territories and by two months for parties residing abroad.
  • The INPI will not be a party to the appeal proceedings. But it gets the opportunity to make written or oral submissions.
  • After the appeal ruling, the parties can file an appeal on points of law in front of the Cour de cassation. The INPI can also file such a cassation appeal.
  • There is an estoppel principle: a claim for nullity of a patent is inadmissible if a final decision on an opposition having the same object and the same cause has already been issued between the same parties.

This is a lot to process, and it is actually unfortunate that stakeholders have been given only something like two weeks and a half to provide their comments.

This new opposition procedure is a major development, and many provisions may have unforeseen consequences which it would be good to have time to think about.

So far, I have heard colleagues wonder or worry about two points in particular.

One is the automatic rejection of the opposition if the INPI does not issue its decision in due time.

This is one of those so-called SVR (“silence vaut rejet“) provisions that popped up everywhere a few years ago. Such automatic rejection would of course be highly unfair to the opponent.

However, I am not excessively preoccupied. We already have to live with SVR deadlines, and I am certain that the INPI will do whatever it takes not to fall into the trap of an automatic rejection. Besides, we are actually lucky that the SVR deadline is computed from the closure of the examination of the opposition: thus, the INPI will have the complete submissions at hand and can work on its decision within the deadline. It would have been much riskier if the SVR deadline had been computed, say, from the filing of the opposition – regardless of the number and timing of the parties’ submissions.

Another point that has everyone gossiping is the role of the INPI on appeal.

Indeed, the INPI can make submissions. If they make use of this right, it means that they will necessarily side with one party or the other. Besides, they even have the right to file a cassation appeal once the appeal decision has been issued. Isn’t it strange for the patent office to first have to act as an impartial arbitrator between the parties and then become a quasi-party or an actual party to the proceedings at a later stage?

Like my colleagues, I also have questions of my own.

For instance, will the INPI apply EPO-like standards or rather French court standards when examining oppositions?

I am not talking here about the problem and solution approach or about the gold standard, because I do not believe that there is a huge difference between Munich and Paris in this respect. I am mainly talking about claim interpretation. On this particular topic, the EPO and French courts could not be further apart.

The many differences between the proceedings in front of the INPI and at the appeal stage also raise some concerns.

For instance, there can be no intervention in first instance, but there can be on appeal. Furthermore, as far as I understand, the opponent will be severely limited in terms of any new objections that it may come up with in first instance, after the expiry of the 9-month time limit; but new objections, on the other hand, may be allowed on appeal. Isn’t this contradictory?

Once we have the final provisions in front of us, there will be a lot of strategic planning to make, both in terms of patent drafting (think about this notion of partial revocation, which is certainly an incentive to have as many validity fallbacks in a granted patent as possible) and in terms of freedom-to-operate / litigation.

To be continued, for sure!

Divide and not conquer

Many decisions that I have commented on relate to complex cases, involving multiple patents, or various actions in front of different courts, or endless back and forth bouncing between the Cour de cassation and the Cour d’appel.

So I am grateful, that, just this once, the mailman has delivered a short decision on a relatively simple legal point.

On March 21, 2008, Kubota Corporation filed a French patent application on a lawn mower, published as FR2915847.

On April 22, 2015, they filed a first divisional patent application, published as FR3019966.

On March 1, 2018, they filed a second divisional patent application. However, on August 27, 2018, the INPI (French patent office) refused this second divisional application as inadmissible.

The reason for the refusal was that the second divisional application was filed after the fee for grant for the grandparent application (FR’847) had been paid, back in April 2015.

Indeed, the INPI Guidelines for examination recite the following (section B.III.2):

A division can only be requested until the date of payment of the fee for grant and printing for the initial application. When this fee has already been paid or when the grant procedure has ended because of a refusal, withdrawal or lapse of the initial application, the division is refused. […]

When the division relates to a divisional application (B) stemming from an initial application (A), this control concerns application (A), and not divisional application (B)

French practice therefore differs from EPO practice.

At the EPO, you may file a second generation divisional application as long as the first generation divisional application is still pending, even if the grandparent application has already proceeded to grant. This is not possible according to the INPI guidelines.

Kubota filed an appeal against the refusal with the Paris Cour d’appel. They challenged the INPI’s interpretation of the statute.

The provision at stake is article R. 612-34 of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle:

Until the payment of the fee for grant and printing of the patent, the applicant may, on its own initiative, file divisional applications of its initial patent application. 

The key issue is how to understand to which application the time limit refers. The INPI’s position is that it is the original application in the family; whereas the appellant’s position is that it is rather the application from which a division is filed.

In this case, the fee for grant and printing for the first divisional application (FR’966) was paid on March 7, 2018, i.e. after the filing of the second divisional application at stake here – so that the filing would be admissible under the appellant’s interpretation of R. 612-34.

The court sided with the INPI on this interpretation issue.

First, they made reference to article L. 612-4:

The patent application can only relate to one invention or a plurality of inventions which are related so as to form a single general inventive concept. 

Any application not meeting the requirements of the previous paragraph must be divided within the statutory deadline; divisional applications benefit from the filing date and optionally priority date of the initial application

Thus, the court concluded that the “initial application” is the first one in the family – the one that defines the filing and priority dates for the entire family.

Second, the court stated that, in article R. 612-34, the term “patent” (cf. “until the payment of the fee for grant and printing of the patent”) refers to the same IP right as the “initial patent application” (cf. “may […] file divisional applications of its initial patent application“).

Ergo, the time limit condition applies to the payment of the fee for grant and printing in connection with the original application in the family.

In its submissions, Kubota made reference to articles L. 612-12-3 and L. 613-25 which prohibit extension of subject-matter in a divisional application, beyond the content of the “initial application as filed“. But the court was not convinced, noting that, precisely, this prohibition applies to a comparison with the original application in the family.

The court also remained insensitive to a comparison with other patent offices having a different practice: “the harmonization objective relates to the principle of the ability to divide a patent application, not the modalities of this division”.

All in all, the court’s position does not appear unreasonable. But is it compelling?

This lawn mower looks skeptical about the appeal decision.

Let’s take a step back. Article R. 612-34 does not strike me as being crystal clear. I suspect that this may be because its drafters did not have in mind the case of cascading divisional applications, i.e. divisional applications of divisional applications.

Furthermore, both main points of the court’s reasoning could potentially be challenged.

Starting with the second point in the court’s reasoning, how can we be certain that the term “patent” and the term “initial patent application” in R. 612-34 relate to one and the same thing? After all, they are not the same terms.

And then, going back to the first point, the court referred to L. 612-4 and concluded that the term “initial patent application” refers to the original application in the family.

But: 1, even if this is the case, the term “initial patent application” may or may not have been used perfectly consistently in the Code de la propriété intellectuelle; where is the evidence that it has exactly the same meaning in R. 612-34? And 2, “initial patent application” in L. 612-4 could also be interpreted as relating to the (immediate) parent application based on which the division is performed. It is true, that ultimately, the same filing date / priority date applies to the entire family, but in the case of cascading applications, it could simply be because the filing date of the “initial” application (meaning the parent application) is itself defined by reference to the filing date of its own “initial” application (meaning the grandparent application). A transitive definition, if you will.

Again, article R. 612-34 recites that “the applicant may, on its own initiative, file divisional applications of its initial patent application“. On the face of it, isn’t the “initial patent application” in this provision the one based on which the division is made, i.e. the immediate parent?

If so, we would come to the conclusion that:

  • Either it is only possible to file a divisional application based on the original application, i.e. cascading or second generation divisional applications are not allowed.
  • Or else, cascading applications are allowed, and the time limit in R. 612-34 applies to the previous application in the cascade, not to the source of the cascade.

In turn, if the above reasoning is correct, then this means that the INPI’s position that has just been validated by the court (cascading divisional applications are OK but the time limit applies to the original application) is contradictory.

In fact, on a practical standpoint, what is the point in allowing cascading divisional applications if you can only file a divisional application when the original application in the family is still pending? This is rather useless, and you may as well decide that only divisional applications stemming from the original application are possible.

As a final and important remark, the court acknowledged in passing that the INPI’s practice prior to 2011 was different, but added that this does not matter.

Well, does it not? I am quite curious about this. Do readers have any information to share about this change of practice and what caused it? Article R. 612-34 has been here and has not been modified since 1995.

Now that it is time to finish this post, I am left with the impression that even simple legal points are not necessarily straightforward.

Let’s see if there is a cassation appeal, and if so, what the court will make of this.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 2, November 22, 2019, Kubota Corporation v. Directeur Genéral de l’INPI, RG No. 18/27433.

The provisional provisions

Further to the recent enactment of the loi PACTE, a game changer for French patent law, a whole bunch of implementing rules was due to ensue.

We have now had a glimpse of what the first salvo of the implementing rules will look like, as the DGE (Direction Générale des Entreprises) has just released a draft of executive order. Comments are in the process of being collected by various professional associations such as the CNCPI, the French AIPPI group, and others.

The purpose of this draft executive order is twofold: to redesign the rules on utility certificates; and to introduce the concept of provisional patent applications.

Let’s start with utility certificates. As a reminder, according to article 118 of the loi PACTE, the maximum duration of utility certificates is supposed to be brought from 6 years to 10 years; and it will now be possible to convert a utility certificate application into a patent application, whereas only the opposite is possible as of today.

The draft executive order specifies that the request to convert a utility certificate application into a patent application needs to be filed within 18 months from the filing or priority date, and at any rate before technical preparations for publication are completed. The deadline for requesting the opposite conversion (from patent application to utility certificate) will be aligned accordingly.

Protection of legal certainty for third parties was certainly the main concern here. By the time the patent application or utility certificate gets published, the fate of the IP right will be fixed – either patent or utility certificate application.

The main difference then between a patent application which was filed as such and a patent application stemming from a utility certificate application is that the former will generally be published together with a search report (assuming that it is a first filing), while the latter may not (since no search report is established for utility certificates). I wrote “assuming that it is a first filing“, because search reports for patent applications claiming a foreign priority are generally established at a (much) later stage.

The deadline for paying the search fee for a utility certificate application converted into a patent application will be 1 month from the request for conversion.

Regarding the increase in duration of utility certificates, from 6 to 10 years, a big question mark at the time the loi PACTE was published was that of transitional provisions.

A note issued by the DGE together with the draft executive order mentions that, in the absence of any specific provision in the law, the 10-year duration will apply to all utility certificates in force at the date of entry of the law into force.

The note explains that an IP right is not an “acquired right” but an “ongoing legal situation“, which justifies this solution – which would be different if, for instance, we were talking about a statute of limitations.

I guess the protection of interests of third parties was not so much of a concern for this part.

Interestingly, special transitional measures are planned for utility certificates which are almost 6-years old when the law enters into force. It will exceptionally be possible to pay the 7th renewal fee up to four months after the entry into force of the executive order (or within an additional 6-month grace period starting from the expiry of the above deadline).

Stretching utility certificates.

This now brings us to the second aspect of the draft executive order, namely the advent of provisional patent applications.

This was not mentioned in the loi PACTE and is a complete creation of the executive order. But we knew that it was coming, since rumor has it that it has been one of President Macron’s pet projects for a number of years.

So here is what we will be looking at:

  • A provisional application shall comprise a request for grant, a description and drawings. Claims and an abstract may be included – but they are not required. Similarly, when a French priority is claimed, a marked up copy of the prior filing must be included when a regular patent application is filed, but this will not be necessary if a provisional patent application is filed.
  • Only the filing fee is due, within one month after filing (whereas, for a regular patent application, also the search fee is due within the same deadline).
  • The applicant may request that the provisional application be made “compliant”, i.e. that it be transformed into a regular patent application, or into a utility certificate application, within 12 months from the priority date. I understand that this will require filing the claims / abstract / marked up copy of the prior filing, if these elements were not provided on the filing date – though I must say that this is not clear in the draft.
  • If this is not the case, the provisional application will be deemed withdrawn (this notion of fictional withdrawal is one which we are very familiar with under the EPC, but it is new in French patent law).
  • The deadline for paying the search fee will be one month after filing the request to make the application compliant.
  • A patent application cannot be made “provisional” after filing, it has to be marked as provisional from the start.
  • The defense administration will review provisional patent applications and authorizations to disclose the invention will be issued, similarly as for regular patent applications.
  • The provisional application can claim a French priority, as suggested above.
  • However, if there is a Paris Convention priority claim, then this will be interpreted as a request to make the application compliant – so, the applicant will not be able to keep its application as a provisional one. My understanding is that this may be because a Paris Convention priority claim can be filed up to 16 months after the earliest priority date, which sort of conflicts with the 12-month deadline for making the provisional application compliant.
  • If the applicant files a request for early publication, a request to make the provisional application compliant will have to be filed at the same time, otherwise the request for early publication will be inadmissible.

So, what can we make of these new provisional patent applications?

This is a new tool that few – if any – in the patent profession asked for. In fact, most of us did not understand at all what the point was.

It should be borne in mind that getting a filing date for a (regular) patent application (which may thus serve as a basis for claiming priority in France or abroad) only requires filing a description.

The claims and abstract are not necessary. Neither is the payment of any fee (not even the filing fee). So, regular patent applications already provided the same benefits as the future provisional patent applications.

The way I see it, the only difference is that a provisional application can be made into a regular patent application without having to refile. But this is a very slight advantage, and it will also result in an overall duration of scope of protection which will be reduced (since, when you refile 1 year after the initial filing, you can get 20 years of protection from the second filing).

Even after reading the draft executive order, I still cannot see in what circumstances I would recommend filing a provisional patent application.

The answer to the conundrum can probably be found in the following statement in the DGE’s explanatory note:

Feedback from innovative business and start-up entrepreneurs has shown that they are reluctant to undertake to protect their inventions. The patent filing system, due to its formalism, is often perceived as onerous and costly. 

I would thus say that all of this is really about communication and perception, not about actually providing additional useful legal tools to applicants.

After all, this can be a valuable reason. Let’s not underestimate the importance of communication and perception.

However, one major concern is that this communication and perception effort may ultimately result in miscommunication and misconception.

If “innovative business and start-up entrepreneurs” believe that filing a draft of scientific paper, or even an invention memo, as a provisional application, without drafting claims and without working with a patent professional, can serve as a basis for a strong future patent application, or even can secure them a priority date, they are in for some serious disappointment. Think G 2/98; and think “gold standard“, which is applied under French law in a similar manner as at the EPO.

Patent law is complex, patent rights are difficult and costly to obtain and enforce. This is a fact, not an erroneous perception. Aren’t people better off if they are aware of this reality, rather than believe that a provisional filing is a cure-all?

A last word on the date of entry into force of the new system.

The rules on the transformation of utility certificate applications into patent applications will enter into force the day after the publication of the executive order. As for the rules on provisional patent applications, they will enter into force on July 1, 2020.

Please bear in mind that the executive order is not yet in its final form and that the draft may still be amended, especially based on input from stakeholders. But I suspect that only minor bugs will be fixed, and only clarifications / editorial changes will be made.

A technical silver lining

They say that every cloud has a silver lining.

Thinking about a recent Philips case in which not one, not two, but three patents were revoked by the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI), this saying seems quite fitting.

From the perspective of IP right holders, the dark cloud is of course that we have just been presented with yet another confirmation that patent validity is severely appraised in France. But the silver lining is that, although software patents were at stake, the court did not strike them down for just being that, but on the contrary fully acknowledged the technical nature of the inventions.

The case at hand was certainly a big one for Philips.

Not only were three patents involved, but there were also parallel proceedings against several unrelated defendants.

So much so that there were in fact four judgments issued on the same day: one pitching Philips against HTC, another against Asus, another against Archos and the last one against Wiko.

Philips reproached all defendants for not joining their “Touch enabled device” license program, and retaliated by filing an infringement action based on European patents No. EP 1384134, EP 0888687 and EP 1571988.

The four judgments look substantially identical, so it should be sufficient to look at only one of them.

Claim 1 of EP’134 reads as follows:

A data processing apparatus having a user interface assisting in searching for information from an ordered list a data array, the apparatus comprising:
an array scroller responsive to user actuation; and
a helper character-generator, actuated by continued user actuation of the array, the helper character generator being operative to display a helper character representative of a portion in the list being scrolled.

In brief, this is a user interface invention. The context is that of a long list of elements. In order to facilitate the retrieval of one element in the list by the user, a so-called “helper character” appears. This helper character may represent e.g. a first letter of a name or a first digit of a telephone number. It is thus representative of a cluster of entries in the list. By scrolling from helper character to helper character, the user may select a desired cluster, and then browse within this cluster instead of browsing through the entire list.

Choosing the right song in a menu, a critical decision to make.

The defendants argued that this was a mere presentation of information, and thus not an invention under art. 52 EPC.

Here is the court’s position on this objection:

Displaying the helper character involves continuous actuation by the user in a scrolling array. 

The patent thus relies on the user taking an active part, via an improved interface interacting with him, thus creating a particular technical effect due to the actuation by the user, allowing a faster choice in an array of elements. 

By combining several modes of scrolling down a list of elements, the patent teaches an adaptive user interface for searching and displaying, and thus does not just present information “as such”. It should also be emphasized that the purpose of the invention is to facilitate the selection of an element in a large set of data, on small size devices, taking into account their specific ergonomic design. 

Therefore, the EP’134 patent undeniably implements technical means to obtain a technical solution to a technical problem. Its subject-matter is thus patentable. 

I asked my partner Aujain Eghbali, who is an ace at computer-implemented inventions, what we can make of this.

His main comment was that this is the same type of reasoning that the EPO could have made. He added that the court’s reasoning is in fact quite patent-friendly even by EPO standards.

In particular, the court relied on the ergonomic character of the human/machine interface when assessing the technical nature of the invention. The Boards of appeal of the EPO have sometimes adopted a similar approach (see T 1779/14) but the Guidelines for examination do not take any clear position on the technical nature of such innovations. Section G-II, 3.7.1 suggests that a “physical ergonomic advantage” could be considered as a technical contribution, but specifically in relation with user input.

The court also took note of a statement in the description of the patent, per which human-machine interaction is particularly challenging when the device is small, due to the physiology of the user. Although effects relying on human physiology are acknowledged in the EPO Guidelines (section G-II, 3.7), they are not commonly accepted by examiners as having a technical character, Aujain said.

Going back to the judgment, the EP’134 patent was thus found to meet the requirements of article 52 EPC.

Further objections of insufficiency of disclosure and lack of novelty were also rejected. But the patent finally died of lack of inventive step.

However, it is important to note that all features of claim 1 were fully taken into account in the inventive step reasoning, in keeping with the court’s finding that the claim related to a technical solution to a technical problem.

The court’s negative opinion on the patent was thus fully based on relevant disclosures identified in the prior art. So, this is your good old, traditional, prior art-based lack of inventive step, if you will; not a this-is-not-technical-enough lack of inventive step.

In more detail:

The EP’036 document teaches that, upon continuous actuation of the scrolling key, the first names are sequentially displayed, in the alphabetic order, for each letter, thus providing a search tool. 

Starting from this search tool disclosed in EP’036, the skilled person, namely an electrical engineer experienced in designing user interfaces for portable electronic devices, confronted with the problem of selecting an element in a scrolling list on a small size screen, would achieve claim 1 of the EP’134 patent, since the search tool of the EP’036 prior art (underlining the first letter of a name) is only a visual alternative to the generation of a help character, which is anyway taught by the US’949 document. 

The EP’036 document also taught scrolling cluster by cluster, allowing the user, by maintaining the scrolling key pressed, to go from letter to letter in the directory, without having to go through all names starting with the same letter. 

Therefore, the features of claim 1 of the EP’134 patent derive from the state of the art. 

Next up was EP’687, another user-interface patent.

See in particular claim 1:

An electronic device comprising:
– at least one display;
– a controller arranged to cause the display to show a rotating menu comprising a plurality of menu options,
which menu is disposed off centre in the display so that at least one option is rotatable off the display at any one time, whereby an arbitrary number of options may be added to the menu without changing its format.

Again, the court fully acknowledged the technical character of the invention:

[…] The EP’687 patent aims at improving a user interface for a screen. To this end, it allows displaying a menu comprising a plurality of options as well as adding an arbitrary number of options to the menu without changing its format. It thus provides a better identification of options. 

The objective of the EP’687 patent is to facilitate adding more articles to the menu without making the display more complex, as long as at least one option in the menu is out of the screen due to the rotating menu being off-centered. 

Therefore, the patent makes it possible for the user to interact with the device, while adding any number of options to the menu, without modifying the format and while keeping their own character making their identification easier.

Consequently, the EP’687 patent, which ensures a better identification of menu options for the user, by means of a controller which combines a particular option display format and a double function of rotation and addition of options, obviously implements technical means to provide a technical solution to a technical problem. Its subject-matter is thus patentable. 

Like for the previous patent, Philips was also able to fend off insufficiency and lack of novelty challenges, but then stumbled on inventive step, as the prior art was deemed to be very similar to the invention.

The third patent was directed to an activity monitor. Its technical character was not challenged. It was revoked for lack of inventive step all the same.

In summary, the present case seems to confirm a trend recently seen in a Thales decision and on the contrary to drift further away from past case law in which the stance on patent eligibility was considerably stricter.

How apropos then that the INPI (French patent office) has just published an updated version of its examination guidelines containing two new sections C.VII.1.3.1 and C.VII.1.3.2 on computer-implemented inventions.

One section is dedicated to CAD and computer simulations. The other one relates to AI. Both provide additional guidance as to what should be considered technical or non-technical, again quite in line with the EPO approach. Maybe the next revision will contain some additional thoughts on graphical user interfaces?


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 1ère section, July 11, 2019, Koninklijke Philips NV v. SAS HTC France Corporation & HTC Corporation, RG No. 16/02073.

Would a “could” suffice?

Comparing EPO and French case law on validity is one of this blog’s favorite topics.

Today’s post will be dedicated to a cornerstone of the EPO doctrine: the could/would approach in the inventive step reasoning.

The could/would approach was actually nicely summarized by the Paris Cour d’appel in a Sandoz v. Eli Lilly decision (January 13, 2012), making explicit reference to the European case law book that all European patent attorneys have on one of their shelves:

As can be derived from established case law of the Boards of appeal of the EPO, the question is not whether the skilled person could have made the invention by modifying the state of the art, but whether he would have done so in the hope of achieving the advantages that were really obtained in the light of the technical problem at stake, because the state of the art contained suggestions in this respect. 

So far so good, and all supporters of pan-European harmonization must be satisfied.

Not so fast, though, as some recent decisions seem to show that the could/would approach is not as inscribed in the DNA of French IP courts as it is in the EPO’s DNA. Here is an example. 

Modelabs Mobiles is a French company which distributes mobile phones and other IT devices. Modelabs Mobiles filed a French patent application No. FR 3063299 on February 24, 2017, directed to a casing for locking and immobilizing a phone.

Just after the publication of the application, Modelabs Mobiles proceeded with an infringement seizure against its competitor Wiko, on October 23, 2018, and soon thereafter filed an infringement suit, based on the FR’299 application (yes, this is possible before the grant of the patent under French law).

The patent was granted on April 12, 2019. On June 7, 2019, Modelabs filed a claim for preliminary injunction with the judge in charge of case management, and further requested a provisional damages award of more than 2 million euros. Modelabs argued that the existence of infringement acts was likely, and that since the defendant was in a restructuring process, there was a risk that damages could not be recovered.

The judge in charge of case management ruled on September 13, looking first at whether the patent was apparently valid.

Here is claim 1 of the patent:

Casing, in particular intended to contain a telephone, comprising:

– a first shell and a second shell that close onto one another so as to close the casing by rendering its contents inaccessible,

– a slide that is movable in translation on the first shell, comprising at least one coupling member, and which can be actuated from outside the closed casing so as to be positioned by translation in a first, a second or a third positions, wherein the first shell, the second shell and the coupling member(s) are arranged so that, when the casing is closed:

– at least one coupling member is coupled to the second shell when the slide is in the first position, thus opposing the opening of the casing,

– at least one coupling member is coupled to the second shell when the slide is in the second position, thus opposing the opening of the casing,

– the coupling member(s) is/are free when the slide is in the third position, thus allowing the opening of the casing, the casing further comprising:

– a device for locking the slide on one of the shells in the first position, actuable only by means of a dedicated tool from the outside of the casing when this casing is closed,

– first means for reversible immobilization of the slider in the second position,

– second means for reversible immobilization of the slider in the third position.

In summary, this casing can be used for protecting a phone in a store. The casing has three configurations: one which is fully locked, and which requires a tool (e.g. a magnetic one) to be unlocked; one which is unlocked and closed; and one which is unlocked and open. The transitioning between the unlocked / closed and unlocked / open positions can be performed without using an external tool.

Locked – unlocked

Wiko relied on three prior art documents against the novelty and inventive step of the main claim. The judge found that the claim was novel.

Regarding in particular the so-called EP’090 prior art reference, the judge held:

[…] The “movable member” which can correspond to the “slide” of the invention of the patent can be positioned in two different positions, and not three. In order to ensure an anti-theft function, a safety device must be added, comprising an “inserted” external element whereas, in the casing claimed by Modelabs, the safety device is fully part of said casing even if it requires the use of an external tool to be deactivated. 

A similar conclusion was reached regarding the two other prior art references.

However, regarding inventive step, the judge made the following comments:

In view of the state of the art […], the skilled person already knew casings for products on sale, having an integrated locking system, which can be actuated by a dedicated external tool such as a magnetic tool, preventing access to the content of the casing in the absence of said tool without breaking the packaging itself. 

Admittedly, the casing at stake, relative to [this prior art], provides an intermediate position in addition to the mere locked/unlocked alternative. but this mode of using the casing (simply closed in a reversible manner) does not address the technical problem that the invention purported to solve, which was to make the content of the casing safer. 

Besides, it can be legitimately questioned whether the skilled person requires a particular inventive step in adding an intermediate position between the locked/unlocked positions for the coupling member supported by the slide […], in order to keep the casing closed in a reversible manner (thus that can be manually actuated, without a dedicated tool), in view of the state of the art. Indeed, the addition of such an intermediate position prima facie seems to rather logically derive from [the prior art]. 

Therefore, the prior art submitted as a defense provides a serious possible ground for nullity [of the patent]. 

As you can see, the judge does not seem to reason in terms of what the skilled person would have done, but rather in terms of what he or she could have done.

Indeed, although there does not seem to be any suggestion or motivation in the prior art to have this intermediate closed/unlocked position for the slide, as far as I can tell from the judgment, the judge nevertheless concluded that it would have been “logical” for the skilled person to include such an additional position.

By way of comparison, here is the position taken by the EPO examiner in charge of the search report for the French application (based on different, but presumably similar prior art):

Such a casing with three positions for the slide and “reversible immobilization means” […] is completely unknown in the state of the art. Hints pointing to this direction are also absent. 

So, what can we make of this? One interpretation of course is that the inventive step threshold is higher in France than at the EPO. This is of course very possible. Another interpretation is that the judge had questions or doubts and simply did not want to grant a preliminary injunction and preferred to let the case continue on the merits.

That said, my attention was also drawn by the following statement:

Modelabs did not provide any argumentation regarding the inventive step of its patent which differs from the novelty argumentation. 

As always, we should keep in mind that, in view of our rules of civil procedure, and based on a longstanding tradition, French judges limit the scope of their decisions to the arguments put forward by the parties. Therefore, in the absence of any reference in the patentee’s submissions to the could/would approach, it is unsurprising that the judge did not use this reasoning.

Thus, I could say (or make that rather: I would say), that argumentation in French patent litigation has to be complete, including explanations on the legal standards to be applied – or else… 

As a next step, if the case continues on the merits, we will see whether the three-judge panel of the court uses the same or a different approach.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 3ème section, ordonnance du juge de la mise en état, September 13, 2019, SAS Modelabs Mobiles v. SAS Wiko, RG No. 18/13517.