The new normal

What the heck is going on with preliminary injunctions (PIs) in France right now?

Let’s face it, France is not particularly renowned for its patentee-friendliness. But different winds seem to be blowing these days over the Batignolles. Is this mere happenstance? Could it have anything to do with recent judicial appointments? Is there a feeling among our judges that the pendulum should swing back a little bit towards IP right holders? Or has there been a change in the behavior of third parties?

Preliminary injunctions in France: the new normal?

Hard to tell of course, so readers will have to make their own opinion based on a report kindly provided by Lionel Vial on a PI issued just a few days ago. I will now leave him the floor.

There has been a second high-penalty preliminary injunction in a row in the pharma field that we will comment on today after Renaud’s post on darunavir.

The drug at stake is a combination of ezetimibe and simvastatin (Inegy®, MSD France) which is prescribed for reducing cholesterol levels. Ezetimibe reduces intestinal absorption of cholesterol while simvastatin is a HMG-CoA reductase inhibitor (i.e. a statin) which inhibits cholesterol biosynthesis.

The case opposes Mylan, which has been marketing a generic version of the combination since April 18, 2018, and Merck (Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. & MSD France) before the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance (TGI).

Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. holds French Supplementary Protection Certificate (SPC) FR05C0040, of which MSD France is a licensee. The SPC is based on European patent EP0720599 (EP’599) for the product “ezetimibe optionally in the form of its pharmaceutical acceptable salts in combination with simvastatin” and is set to expire on April 2, 2019.

EP’599 specifically claims ezetimibe in claim 8 and a pharmaceutical composition for the treatment or prevention of atherosclerosis, or for the reduction of plasma cholesterol levels, comprising an effective amount of ezetimibe, alone or in combination with a cholesterol biosynthesis inhibitor selected from the group consisting of lovastatin, pravastatin, fluvastatin, simvastatin, CI-981, DMP-565, L-659,699, squalestatin 1 and NB598, in a pharmaceutical acceptable carrier (claim 17).

On October 17, 2017, Mylan started nullity proceedings against the SPC, to which Merck responded by requesting, on November 30, 2018, that a preliminary injunction to stop selling the ezetimibe/simvastatin combination and to pay provisional damages be issued against Mylan.

Mylan countered that the SPC was invalid because:

    • It was granted for a combination which is not protected as such by the basic patent, in breach of Article 3(a) of the SPC regulation (No. 469/2009), since it would not form the core inventive advance of the patent, which is centered on ezetimibe, in particular in the absence of any research conducted on the ezetimibe/simvastatin combination.
    • The product protected by the basic patent had already been the subject of a certificate (i.e. SPC FR03C0028 granted for ezetimibe) in breach of Article 3(c) of the SPC regulation.

However, principally applying C-121/17 (Teva UK Ltd. et al. vs. Gilead Sciences Inc.), the judge in charge of case management (JME) decided on March 7, 2019 that:

The Court of Justice of the European Union thus considers that a product which is a combination of active ingredients is “protected by a patent in force” where, even if the combination of active ingredients of which that product is composed is not expressly mentioned in the claims of the basic patent, those claims relate necessarily and specifically to that combination. The product must, from the point of view of a person skilled in the art and in the light of the description and drawings of the basic patent, necessarily fall under the invention covered by that patent and each active ingredient must be specifically identifiable.

As such, a product which is a combination of active ingredients pursuant to the first article of regulation (EC) No. 469/2009, necessarily relates to the invention covered by the patent if each of these ingredients is specifically identifiable according to the claims of the patent, without it being necessary that the second active ingredient of the combination be a new compound taught by the patent and protectable on that basis.

In this regard, in view of the GILEAD decision, the Court of Justice of the European Union does not require that the active ingredients, the combination of which is intended, should be an invention of the basic patent, provided [these ingredients] are identifiable. [The Court] only holds that the combination must necessarily relate to the invention covered by that patent.

This thus applies to a novel composition relating at least to an active ingredient taught by the patent.

[…]

Claim 17 of the patent claims a pharmaceutical composition according to claim 16 (which relates to the pharmaceutical composition according to any of claims 9, 12 or 15 wherein the cholesterol biosynthesis inhibitor is selected from the group consisting of HMG CoA reductase inhibitors), wherein the cholesterol biosynthesis inhibitor is selected from a group to which simvastatin belongs.

The association ezetimibe/simvastatin, which is thus taught, therefore necessarily relates to the invention deriving from the basic patent, simvastatin being specifically identified by the patent.

The product sold under the trademark INEGY®, which is a combination of the active ingredients ezetimibe and simvastatine, therefore appears to be “protected by a basic patent in force”, pursuant to article 3(a) of regulation (EC) No. 469/2009.

It is reminded that pursuant to article 3(c) of this regulation, the SPC can only be granted if the product has not already been the subject of a previous SPC.

The condition provided by article 3(c) of regulation (EC) No. 469/2009 therefore also appears to be fulfilled.

As such, the arguments put forward by MYLAN to demonstrate that there is a doubt as to the validity of SPC No. 05C0040 appear to be lacking seriousness, this SPC obviously fulfilling the requirements of article 3 of regulation (EC) No. 469/2009. It can neither be seriously argued against the sufficiency of disclosure nor against the inventive step, since these conditions are not envisioned by article 3 of the regulation for obtaining a SPC, due note being taken that the disclosure of the ezetimibe/simvastatin combination allows the one skilled in the art to easily reproduce it, while this combination was not known at the filing date of the basic patent.

It follows that by marketing, since April 18, 2018, the generics “EZETIMIBE/SIMVASTATIN MYLAN” comprising a combination of ezetimibe and simvastatin, in violation of SPC No. 05C0040 granting the market exclusivity of this combination to MSD, MYLAN likely infringed.

Too bad for what appears to have been a test by Mylan of the application in France of Justice Arnold’s proposal that, in order to be granted an SPC, a product must infringe the basic patent because it contains an active ingredient, or a combination of active ingredients, which embodies the inventive advance (or technical contribution) of the basic patent.

It is also very surprising that there has been a complete change of appreciation of the validity of this SPC, since on April 5, 2018 the judge in charge of urgency proceedings refused to issue a preliminary injunction against Biogaran on the basis of the same SPC because the latter was considered likely invalid, which was confirmed on appeal on June 26, 2018 (see Renaud’s post on the subject here). But then, C-121/17 (July 25, 2018) had not been issued yet and the Cour d’appel mostly relied on C-443/12 (Actavis Group PTC EHF & Actavis UK Ltd v. Sanofi).

However, perhaps the interpretation of the evolving case law of the CJEU by French judges is not the most notable part of this decision.

Indeed, the following substantial damages were awarded:

    • 2,901,779 euros to MSD France
    • 1,460,889 euros to Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp.

As a reminder, in the darunavir case (GD Searle LLC et al. v. SAS Sandoz) the judge in charge of urgency proceedings ordered on January 11, 2019 a preliminary injunction against Sandoz, under a 50,000 euro-penalty per violation of the injunction (Renaud’s post on the subject).

Before that, on June 7, 2018, the judge in charge of case management awarded 5,846,628 euros to Novartis Pharma AG and 7,308,285 euros to Novartis Pharma SAS as provisional damages in the valsartan/amlodipine patent infringement case (see here for a report).

Besides, a preliminary injunction was also recently issued on July 6, 2018 against a potential infringer in a chemistry case, but without provisional damages (see here for a report by Renaud).

Therefore, we may be currently observing a new trend setting in that could make France a very attractive forum for preliminary injunctions, in particular in the pharma field.

An open question is whether this trend could weigh in favor of Paris in relation to the still undecided relocation of the London UPC central division, which is in particular competent for pharmaceuticals.

Out of luck for the time being (the decision on the merits is yet to come) with the ezetimibe/simvastatin combination, maybe Mylan could consider a combination of ezetimibe with atorvastatin, since a recent decision from the Paris Cour d’appel rendered on January 22, 2019 has upheld the decision of the Director of the INPI (French Patent Office) to reject French SPC application No. 14C0068 for “ezetimibe in combination with atorvastatin or pharmaceutically acceptable salts thereof, including the calcium salt of atorvastatin”. But that will be our next post on Patent My French, so stay tuned for more on SPCs!

As always I would like to thank Lionel for this thorough report. The story does indeed need to continue with this appeal ruling of January 22, 2019, which in my view is closely connected to today’s decision – and (spoiler alert) basically contradicts it.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 1ère section, ordonnance du juge de la mise en état, October 17, 2017, Mylan v. Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. & MSD France, RG No. 17/14664.

Red tape on a dyesheet

Let’s start with the dyesheet first – the red tape part of the title will become self-explanatory only at the end of this post I am afraid.

European patent No. EP 2035233 is co-owned by a French company, Evolis SA, and a U.S. company, Illinois Tool Works Inc. The patent is entitled Thermal Transfer Dyesheet and Method of Manufacture. The corresponding Korean patent was asserted against a local competitor, Digital Printing Solution. This action was dismissed by the Korean court in April 2016.

In the meantime, in November 2015, the Korean company presented some of its products in an international trade show in Villepinte – just one stop before CDG airport, for those familiar with RER line B… The patent proprietors obtained a court order so as to perform an infringement seizure at the professional fair. A few weeks later, they filed their complaint for infringement of the EP’233 patent.

Today, I will skip the validity part of the judgment on the merits issued by the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI). Suffice it to say that the defendant’s nullity objections were rejected.

The infringement part of the judgment, on the other hand, contains a couple of interesting points.

First, the defendant challenged the validity of the infringement seizure report.

For the most part, this challenge failed, except on one aspect. As a reminder, the report is drafted by a bailiff who investigates on behalf of the patent proprietors, according to the court order which precisely sets out his or her mission and the limits thereof.

During the seizure, it turned out that the bailiff was unable to find any pricing, invoicing or ordering information in relation with the products at stake. This was established in the report – and not found to be objectionable by the court. However, the court did take offense at one sentence in the report, per which the defendant’s representative present at the trade show did not know the amounts of the allegedly infringing dyesheet that were produced “despite his status of CEO of the company Digital Printing Solution”.

The court held that the bailiff “should limit himself to material observations without issuing an opinion or taking an active part which may orient the outcome of the operation”. In other terms, the above remark in the report was held subjective and inappropriate.

This is an interesting reminder that the seizure team should remain as neutral and impartial as possible – despite the fact that they act at the patentee’s request.

However, in this case the patent proprietors did not suffer any serious consequence as only the remark at stake was held void by the court, but the rest of the report was not affected.

The second interesting point relates to the definition of acts of infringement of a product claim in article L. 613-3 a) Code de la propriété intellectuelle:

Making, offering, putting on the market, using, importing, exporting, transshipping or detaining for the above purposes the product which is the subject-matter of the patent.

There was a discussion as to whether the presence of some allegedly infringing products on the trade show amounted to an act of importation or not. The court answered yes, because an importation according to the above provision “is realized due to the sole introduction of the goods at stake on the territory on which protection is claimed”. Thus, it is irrelevant whether the introduction aims at using, offering, putting the goods on the market or not – unlike an act of mere detention of goods.

Importation can take any form and be carried out with any possible vehicle.

In fact, the formulation of article L. 613-3 a) changed in March 2014. The prior version read:

Making, offering, putting on the market, using or importing or detaining for the above purposes the product which is the subject-matter of the patent.

According to the court, importation acts used to follow a similar rule as detention acts, namely they used to require a certain purpose in order to be acts of infringement – but this is no longer the case since the 2014 reform.

This explanation in the judgment is notable because, although the same interpretation of the pre-2014 statute was made by some authors, such as professor Jérôme Passa in his book Droit de la propriété industrielle, to the best of my knowledge it was not universally shared. In fact, the pre-2014 paragraph was drafted in a somewhat ambiguous manner. That said, whether the 2014 reform merely clarified the rule applicable to importation acts or whether it actually changed the rule will anyway become less and less relevant as there are fewer and fewer pre-2014 importation acts involved in litigation over time.

In passing, the court also held that the presence of commercial documentation in the defendant’s booth amounted to an offer on the French territory, even though this documentation was in English, as French professionals in this sector usually speak English.

So far so good for Evolis and Illinois Tool Works, but the French-American alliance stumbled on the finish line, i.e. they failed to prove that the products at stake implemented the technical features claimed in EP’233.

The infringement seizure report itself did not contain any meaningful analysis of the products at stake. This is not surprising: in many cases, it is simply impossible to analyze whether claimed features are present or not just based on an external inspection of the products or on available documentation.

So the bailiff seized some samples; and in July 2017, another bailiff’s report was drawn up, when the samples were analyzed in Evolis’ premises. But this report was not taken into account by the court:

[…] These operations were made in Evolis’ premises, under its full supervision, in the presence of its CTO and using measuring tools the settings of which were not checked. Besides, the method used and the measurements made were not systematically explained, and notably it is not mentioned why the light adjustment is not the same for examining Evolis’ product and the allegedly infringing one.

In the absence of any other analysis evidence on file, these observations made without any other technical and logistic assistance than that provided by the claimants themselves do not make it possible for the court to appraise whether the [seized products] implement the features of claims 1 and 4 to 7 of [EP’233].

Readers will note that the defendant did apparently not offer any counter-experiments.

However, raising some very broad and general criticisms was good enough for the court.

Clearly, when it comes to an experimental demonstration of infringement, the doubt – any doubt, even a slight one – systematically benefits the defendant.

Or, to put it otherwise, French judges are extremely reluctant to take into account any experimental report made on behalf of one party.

For another example commented on this blog, see here.

This approach is certainly in the interest of fairness for the defendant, but one can wonder whether it is not excessively strict, as it puts the parties in a very asymmetrical situation. Namely, the plaintiff files experimental data, and the defendant can simply raise doubts regarding this data, without providing data of its own to prove that these doubts have merit.

Anyway, what the judges would certainly have preferred in this case is a request by the plaintiffs for the appointment of an expert by the court in order to perform the tests in a neutral environment. Or to put it otherwise: there was not enough red tape on these dyesheets. But the red tape approach is much more complex and cumbersome on a procedural standpoint – and more costly of course.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 2ème section, December 14, 2018, Evolis SA & Illinois Tool Works Inc. V. Digital Printing Solution Co. Ltd., RG No. 15/18744.

The “pays” of the PIs?

A hardly understandable question, I know.

“Pays” is the French word for “country”. As for PIs, this term refers of course to preliminary injunctions. A PI is the most dreaded weapon of right holders.

But this legendary prize is also famous for being extremely hard to seize, notably in France. Although… could the trend have recently changed?

One ruling in particular which was issued last June in a prominent pharma case gave rise to a lot of comments. But another ruling issued just one month later also followed a somewhat similar path.

French chemical company Minakem sued two companies of the M2i group, namely Melchior Material and Life Sciences France (MMLS) and M2i Salin (M2i). MMLS owns a patent family on a method for making bromo methyl cyclopropane and bromo methyl cyclobutane. Minakem claimed ownership of this patent family and also complained that MMLS and M2i infringed its own patent No. FR 3010997, filed a few months before the priority date of the MMLS patent family. The two actions were joined as a consolidated case.

The ruling reported today does not contain much information on the context of Minakem’s ownership claim. It is an order issued by the judge in charge of case management, who was presented with a motion for PI by the plaintiff. MMLS and M2i raised invalidity and non-infringement as means of defense – but both grounds of defense were rejected.

Let’s start with validity first. The defendants argued that claim 1 of the Minakem patent lacks inventive step over a so-called Bayer document.

Now seems like a good time to have a look at the claim, which is quite straightforward:

A method of preparing bromo methyl cyclopropane comprising a step a) of reacting cyclopropylcarbinol with a complex of triphenylphosphite and bromine. 

Making reference to the problem and solution approach for the inventive step reasoning, the judge first noted that all parties agreed that the Bayer document was the closest prior art. According to this document, bromo methyl cyclopropane is prepared by reacting triphenylphosphine with cyclopropylcarbinol, and, after cooling, adding bromine.

The judge then held that there are two differences between the claimed invention and the teaching of the Bayer document, namely:

  • The use of triphenylphosphite instead of triphenylphosphine as a reactant: this is a one-letter difference in the name, and more importantly, three additional oxygen atoms in the molecule.
  • The use of a complex of triphenylphosphite and bromine, instead of adding bromine in a subsequent step.

Two documents were offered as secondary references, designated as D.G. Coe and Eli Lilly.

D.G. Coe teaches that triphenylphosphite can be used as a reactant to make alkyl halides (a class which encompasses the bromo methyl cyclopropane at stake here). But the judge noted that, according to the document, the reaction does not work similarly with all alcohols, and in particular that it provides very unsatisfactory results with cyclohexanol. Since cyclohexanol is a cyclic compound, just like cyclopropylcarbinol, the judge was convinced that the skilled person would have been dissuaded by D.G. Coe from reacting a triphenylphosphite complex with cyclopropylcarbinol, as claimed.

As for the second reference, Eli Lilly, it also discloses complexes of the type triphenylphosphite / halogen (e.g. bromine), as well as their potential use for a reaction with aliphatic alcohols, for making alkyl halides. But the document also emphasizes a new use for making vinyl halides by reacting these complexes with enol compounds. The judge concluded that Eli Lilly rather teaches to react the claimed complex with other compounds than aliphatic alcohols such as cyclopropylcarbinol. I am not sure I quite understand why the fact that the document both refers to a traditional use and to a new use of a chemical complex makes the traditional use less obvious than the new use. But on the other hand, it is true that the focus of the document is not on the preparation of alkyl halides.

What I actually found to be perhaps the most instructive in the judge’s reasoning is a mention of two side arguments.

First, the judge noted the following, regarding the sequence of steps in the claimed invention (first, formation of the bromine / triphenylphosphite complex, and then reaction with cyclopropylcarbinol):

This sequence is all the more important as MMLS and M2i precisely insisted on it in order to justify the inventive step of their own patent application filed in the United States, so as to discard the Bayer document which was cited as a prior art, since it disclosed a different order of introduction of reactants. They notably argued that “the particular order of the steps is essential to avoid a side reaction resulting in the opening of the tight ring, thus leading to the formation of a brominated alkene (bromobutene)” and that “this method is advantageous relative to the state of the art”.

This has the flavor of a file wrapper estoppel, and one based on a foreign file wrapper, at that.

But as is usually the case, this only comes as an additional consideration at the end of the reasoning in the ruling.

Second, the judge emphasized that both of the proposed secondary references were fairly old. D.G. Coe was dated 1954, and Eli Lilly was dated 1980.

A strong flavor of secondary indicia of inventive step, if you will.

Some fairly old prior art.

The other defense raised by MMLS and M2i was non-infringement.

The judge in charge of case management thus had to decide whether the existence of infringement was likely or not.

The process implemented by the defendants was known owing to an infringement seizure report.

The main non-infringement argument was that, in the defendants’ process, bromine is used in excess in the reaction with triphenylphosphite (TPP). This leads, they said, to the formation of bromo triphenoxy phosphonium bromide as an intermediate. This is not a TPP / bromine complex as recited in claim 1 of the Minakem patent, they argued, because of the presence of the bromide ion in the intermediate. In contrast, the TPP / bromine complex does not comprise a bromide ion and, according to the description of the patent, it is obtained with an excess of TPP (rather than an excess of bromine). They also insisted that the difference is significant, as their own process leads to a lower proportion of bromo butene by-product than the claimed one.

The judge was not convinced. He noted that the starting materials of the MMLS / Mi2 process are the same as those of the Minakem patent. So is the order of the reaction steps. The judge was not convinced either by the alleged difference in molar proportions of reactants:

[…] The scope of claim 1 of the FR’997 patent is not limited by any proportion, so that it does not necessarily and only cover a process limited to equivalent amounts of bromine and [TPP], and anyway the bromine excess alleged by MMLS and M2i is only low in view of the figures which were communicated. 

It is noteworthy that Minakem filed an affidavit from a chemistry professor that challenged the influence of the relative amount of bromine on the purity of the product.

The judge also noted that the different bromo triphenoxy phosphonium bromide intermediate relied upon by the defendants was not mentioned by the employees who were interrogated during the infringement seizure. And that this intermediate is not mentioned in MMLS’s own patent applications either.

As a conclusion, the infringement of the Minakem patent was found to be likely. The judge thus granted Minakem the PI that they requested, without security in view of Minakem’s financial health. However, the judge rejected Minakem’s request for provisional damages. This is because the evidence for the proposed computation of damages offered by Minakem, based only on an affidavit of their CFO without any external auditing corroboration, was insufficient.

To be continued on the merits! MMLS and M2i have their work cut out for them: it seems like they need to find new arguments if they want to turn the tables and ultimately prevail. I am especially curious to see how the ownership claim in relation to the defendants’ patent family will unfold.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, ordonnance du juge de la mise en état, 3ème chambre 2ème section, July 6, 2018, Minakem v. Melchior Material and Life Science France & M2I Salin,RG No. 17/15019.

Cutting the limitation period

The statute of limitations for nullity suits is probably one of the worst aspects of French patent law.

But as a blogger, I have to confess that I am grateful for it. If it weren’t for this odd aspect of our statute, the supply of notable French judgments to comment on would be much sparser. Sometimes it is even all there is to talk about. Like in this recent decision E. Leclerc v. Bilz Werkzeugfabrik, where it is in fact the sole topic addressed by the court.

In this case, two German companies, which I will call Innovat and Bilz (but which in truth have much longer names) filed a European patent application in 2000, on a device for clamping tools. The patent was granted in January 2003. It was opposed, and the opposition was rejected by the EPO in February 2007.

In June 2017, the French company E. Leclerc initiated nullity proceedings in connection with this patent. In case French readers are wondering, this company is said to be specialized in making, purchasing and selling cutting tools: it thus appears that it has nothing to do with the famous eponymous supermarkets.

Cutting-edge cutting tools.

The patent proprietors raised a limitation defense, and this objection was addressed in a preliminary judgment after a first hearing.

E. Leclerc’s first line of argumentation against this defense was that the statute of limitations does not apply to patent nullity claims.

A long shot for sure, as many other litigants have made such contentions before, to no avail. But, interestingly, E. Leclerc came up with a number of reasons in support for this position, some of which I have not come across before.

For instance, the nullity plaintiff contended that applying a limitation period to a nullity action would run contrary to Regulation (EU) No. 316/2014 relating to technology transfer agreements.

This regulation defines a limited exemption for technology transfer agreements from the general prohibition of anti-competitive practice under article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Article 5 of the regulation specifies that the exemption does however not apply to “any direct or indirect obligation on a party not to challenge the validity of intellectual property rights which the other party holds in the Union, without prejudice to the possibility, in the case of an exclusive licence, of providing for termination of the technology transfer agreement in the event that the licensee challenges the validity of any of the licensed technology rights“.

Quite creative, but beside the point for the court, which noted that the regulation only applies to agreements in which a licensor allows a licensee to exploit a technology, which is not the case here.

E. Leclerc also relied on the UPC agreement, which, they said, excludes any statute of limitations for patent nullity actions. The argument was easily dismissed by the court since, as we all know, the agreement is not yet in force.

They also relied on the executive order of May 9, 2018 (presented here) which is bound to eliminate the limitation period for patent nullity suits. But unfortunately, this order is not currently in force either. It is scheduled to enter into force together with the UPC agreement, precisely.

E. Leclerc also stated that, since the claims of a patent are never stabilized as they can always be limited, the limitation period never starts running.

This notion of “stabilization” of the claims derives from a couple of judgments in which it was held that, when the claims are modified in opposition or limitation proceedings, this postpones the start of the limitation period, because the claims are not stabilized before the date of modification. See previous discussions here and there.

Some have thus taken this logic as far as suggesting that claims are in fact never stabilized because there is always the possibility that the patentee may amend them any time by way of limitation proceedings. Ergo, the limitation period may well exist but it can never start running, problem solved.

The court did not buy this theory:

Finally, even if the claims of a patent may change, this mere likelihood cannot prevent the implementation of a rule of limitations.  

At the end of the day, the court thus once again confirmed that the statute of limitations does apply to nullity actions.

Caramba, encore raté” as Hergé famously wrote in his classic Tintin comic books.

Then the next step, as always, is to determine the starting point for the limitation period. Here, the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) once again stuck to its in concreto appraisal – although appeal judges seem to be on a different page, as already discussed several times on this blog.

In particular, the court noted that the grant of a patent cannot trigger the time bar. Otherwise, an undue monitoring of published patents would be required from all stakeholders.

Interestingly, the court also added that the rejection of the opposition against the patent by the EPO in February 2007 could not be taken as a starting point either, for the same reason“. In one of the other cases already recalled above, it was decided that the starting point was the decision of a Board of appeal to maintain the patent in amended form, in opposition proceedings. So, as most of us suspected, this earlier decision cannot be extrapolated to some sort of automatic rule.

For the court, the fact that E. Leclerc already marketed many types of spindles in 2010, or that they filed a patent application in 2011 for a cutter for composite materials, was not taken into account by the court either, as “it does not imply that they were aware at that time of all patents granted to competitors concerning devices for clamping and releasing tools“.

The decisive fact in the case was rather a cease and desist letter sent by Innovat and Bilz’s attorney to E. Leclerc in May 2014. E. Leclerc was also targeted by an infringement suit in the Landgericht of Mannheim, but based on a different, national German patent, which led to a judgment in March 2016.

The judges thus held that the starting point for the 5-year limitation period was this cease and desist letter of May 2014. E. Leclerc’s action was thus not time-barred. As a result, the lawsuit will now proceed on the merits.

I have mixed feelings about this ruling.

On the one hand, the outcome makes a lot of sense to me. If we have to live with this statute of limitations for patent nullity suits – which we do – then some formal correspondence between the parties regarding possible infringement of the patent at stake seems to be a very reasonable place to start from in order to apply the rule.

On the other hand, I wonder how this ruling can be reconciled with other similar recent judgments.

Take MEP v. Raccords & Plastiques Nicoll for instance, where the Cour d’appel reached the exact opposite conclusion, by taking the grant of the patent and not a cease and desist letter as the starting point. Is there a blatant contradiction here? Or was MEP v. Raccords & Plastiques Nicoll special because in this case the nullity plaintiff worked in a highly specialized area and had business relationships with the other party?

Then take LuK v. Valeo Embrayages, a judgment by the same section of the Paris TGI as today’s decision. In this case, like in others, the court performed a thorough analysis of the business projets of the nullity plaintiff and determined when so-called “points of contact” between their technology and the patent at stake occurred. There is no such detailed analysis in today’s decision.

As always, I don’t think we should read too much into a seemingly different approach from one judgment to the next. The way the parties do or do not argue in their submissions is certainly a major factor in the court’s reasoning.

Now, my two cents, for what it is worth – and it is quite a subjective one.

I have the impression that the courts (at least the first instance courts, from which we have a larger sample of judgments to digest) make a moderate and measured application of the statute of limitations; and that a relatively heavy burden is placed on the nullity defendant to convincingly show that, for some specific reasons, the plaintiff was or should have been aware of the patent more than 5 years before the complaint was filed.

In other terms, it could be worse!


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 1ère section, SA E. Leclerc v. Bilz Werkzeugfabrik GmbH & Co. KG & Innovat Gesellschaft für Sondermaschinenbau, Mess-und Steuerungstechnik mbHRG No. 17/09311.

Suspect suspicions

What are the top three traits of the French system that foreign companies like best? 

Good transportation infrastructure? Maybe. L’art de vivre? Very probably. But first and foremost: the saisie-contrefaçon. OK, there may be some patent attorney bias here.

As readers of this blog are surely aware, the saisie-contrefaçon (infringement seizure) is a special tool in the hands of patent right holders, in the form of an ex parte order for an unannounced inspection at a third party’s premises in order to gather evidence of possible infringement.

Traditionally, the order for seizure has been viewed as straightforward to obtain.

Basically, you show up in front of a judge; you show your patent, the status of the renewal fees, an excerpt from the patent register; then you explain what kind of evidence you want to get and where. And you’re pretty much good to go.

But from time to time, a court decision takes a different approach and makes this traditional view entirely derail.

Such is the judgment recently issued by the Paris Cour d’appel in Arconic v. Constellium Issoire.

Arconic owns European patent No. EP 1392878 on a process to produce sheets of aluminum.

It may be useful to copy here claim 1 of the patent, as a reference:

A process for producing a sheet or plate product comprising:
(a) providing an aluminium alloy consisting of 0.5 to 1.8% Si, 0.5 to 1.5% Mg, up to 1.2% Cu; up to 1% Mn, up to 1% Zn, up to 0.4% Cr, up to 0.5% Ag, up to 0.3% Sc, up to 0.2% V, up to 0.2% Hf, up to 0.2% Zr, the balance being aluminium and incidental impurities;
(b) heating the alloy;
(c) hot rolling the alloy to reduce its thickness by at least 30%;
(d) thermally treating the alloy hot rolled in (c) at 543°C (1010°F) or more;
(e) further hot rolling the alloy to further reduce its thickness;
(f) solution heat treating the alloy at 543°C (1010°F) or higher;
(g) quenching the alloy.

On October 4, 2017, Arconic requested and obtained an order for performing a seizure in the premises of Constellium Issoire, which belongs to the Constellium group. Arconic and Constellium are direct competitors as they both manufacture aluminum plate products, notably for Airbus’ A380 aircraft.

The seizure took place on October 10, 2017. On October 26, Constellium filed a motion to obtain the cancellation of the order for seizure. The judge in charge of urgency proceedings granted Constellium’s motion and issued an order on December 22, 2017 canceling the order for seizure.

Arconic appealed, but its appeal has now been dismissed by the Paris Cour d’appel.

So what was the problem with the initial order for seizure, and why did it deserve to be canceled, according to the appeal judges?

The focus of the discussion was Arconic’s statement in its initial request that they had reasons to suspect that Constellium infringed the patent at stake.

Arconic provided evidence for this suspicion, and the court performed a thorough review of said evidence.

The evidence comprised in particular a scientific article from three Constellium employees, a specification from Airbus, a standard and a publication on aluminum alloys, and an excerpt from Constellium’s website.

Based on this evidence, the court concluded that:

  • Arconic’s aluminum alloy is designated as 6013 while Constellium’s is designated as 6156.
  • Both alloys, based on Airbus’ specification, are made by lamination and a so-called T4 thermal treatment.

But the court then stated that this was insufficient to infer that most features of claim 1 of the patent at stake were implemented by Constellium.

In particular, the fact that the 6156 alloy is made by lamination and thermal treatment is perfectly conventional. Claim 1 of EP’878, on the other hand, requires a precise sequence of process steps, including the application of a certain temperature, a defined reduction of thickness of the alloy, etc. Thus, the court said, Arconic in fact did not know which process is used by Constellium.

Admittedly, the composition of the alloy itself, which is also recited in the form of elemental weight ranges in claim 1 of the patent, does cover the 6156 alloy. But the claimed ranges are sufficiently general to also cover further competitors’ products of the same category (the 6061 and 6082 alloys). Besides, it is clear when reading the patent that the invention is about a manufacturing process, not about a new alloy, added the court.

The tin man – which alloy is he made of?

Another reason for Arconic’s infringement suspicion was that, according to them, the mechanical properties of the plates made by Constellium could only be obtained with the patented manufacturing process.

The court accepted that Constellium’s 6156 plates seem to have very similar properties to Arconic’s 6013 plates, since both products are used by Airbus for the A380 aircraft.

But, the court continued, this does not imply that Constellium’s plates are necessarily made with the patented process, since different processes can of course lead to the same product.

As a further remark, the court noted that Constellium itself owns a later patent (EP 1809779) for a process of making 6056 or 6156 aluminum alloy products, and asserts that their industrial process is based on this patent.

As a conclusion, the court held:

Thus, the reasons set out in support of the request [for seizure] turn out to be wrong. More particularly, it cannot be derived therefrom any “suspicion” of infringement, nor “good reasons to assume” that the alloy plates supplied by Constellium would infringe Arconic’s patent. 

The final part of the judgment contains a more legal discussion. Arconic argued that its right to a seizure

only depends on the demonstration that the right at stake exists, without any further requirement of evidence concerning infringement itself.

As I said in the beginning, at the risk of oversimplifying, this is indeed probably the general opinion among the French patent profession.

Arconic in particular pointed to the so-called “enforcement directive” No. 2004/48/EC. Article 7 of the directive begins like this:

Member States shall ensure that, even before the commencement of proceedings on the merits of the case, the competent judicial authorities may, on application by a party who has presented reasonably available evidence to support his claims that his intellectual property right has been infringed or is about to be infringed, order prompt and effective provisional measures to preserve relevant evidence in respect of the alleged infringement, subject to the protection of confidential information.

The directive thus refers to the presentation of “reasonably available evidence” as a prerequisite for obtaining e.g. an order for seizure. But, Arconic remarked, this notion was not transposed in the relevant provision of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle, namely article L. 615-5. Since article 2 of the directive makes it possible for Member States to provide means which are more favorable to right holders, this must be interpreted to the effect that French law does specifically not require “reasonably available evidence” as a precondition for an order for seizure.

The court did not frontally disagree, but replied as follows.

[…] The property right conferred by a patent is neither absolute nor discretionary, and is still subject, in the case of a request for seizure, to the appraisal of its merits by the judge […], notably when, as is the case here, the reasons set forth in its support turn out to be wrong. 

Besides, article 3 of the [enforcement directive] requires that proceedings which are necessary to ensure that IP rights are respected must be fair and proportionate. In the present case, as there is no tangible suspicion of infringement, the court can only remark that the requested seizure measure would, as a main consequence, allow Arconic to know about Constellium’s aluminum alloy product manufacturing process. As these two companies are direct competitors regarding this products in front of companies in the aeronautic business, such as Airbus, Constellium can rightly fear that manufacturing secrets could detrimentally be disclosed, or even that its credibility with common customers could be harmed. Lastly, the court is surprised that it is only on October 4, 2017 that Arconic decided to initiate infringement seizure proceedings, although this direct competition with respect to Airbus dates back to 2004. 

Matthieu Dhenne, whose firm represented the patent proprietor in this case, wrote to me that there are a number of reasons why he believes the decision was wrongly decided.

First, he says the proportionality principle does not apply to an infringement seizure which remains an exceptional measure and is disproportionate by nature. He states that the travaux préparatoires concerning the transposition of the directive show that the proportionality principle was voluntarily not introduced into our statute. As a result, the court’s line of reasoning compromises legal certainty and jeopardizes the entire balance of the system. He also insists that a seizure is intended for gathering evidence, not appraising infringement. Matthieu adds that the court’s suspicion of the patentee was unwarranted and that it cannot be possibly demanded from the patentee that they should search for patents owned by the defendant. Whether any other, especially later, patent is indeed implemented or not by the defendant is irrelevant to the possible infringement of the main patent at stake, he argues.

I agree that there are a number of statements in the two above paragraphs quoted from the judgment which are controversial.

It is true that a seizure can result in business secrets being disclosed to a competitor. But the usual way to prevent this is for the seized party to request that the seized information and documents be sealed, and that an expert be appointed by the court to sort out the evidence, so that only information directly relevant to the demonstration of infringement be communicated to the right holder.

As for the fear that the defendant’s reputation be harmed, it seems irrelevant here, as the seizure was performed in Constellium’s premises, not at a third party’s.

The fact that Arconic waited a lot before initiating legal proceedings should probably not come into play either. Indeed, a patentee’s right to sue for infringement is never time-barred.

That said, I am not sure I am fully comfortable with the notion that a patentee’s right to a seizure should be automatic.

It does make sense for the court to carefully look at the specifics of each case before deciding whether this right can be exerted in the circumstances at hand or not.

In this particular case, it seems to me that what the court really did not like was that the “suspicions” of infringement mentioned in the original request for seizure, were not actual or legitimate suspicions, based on the evidence offered.

Would the outcome have been favorable if the plaintiff had played it differently, for example by (1) not mentioning suspicions of infringement but explaining that a seizure is the only possible way for them to determine whether there is any infringement; and (2) immediately offering that the seized evidence be sealed by default so as to be later remitted to a court-appointed expert?

I guess we will never know and can only have suspicions in this respect.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 1, September 11, 2018, Arconic Inc. v. SAS Constellium Issoire, RG 18/01099.