Identifying technicity

What does a patent-eligible invention have in common with obscenity? Some may be tempted to answer that, in both cases, I know it when I see it, as the famous phrase goes. 

But the EPO would certainly not share this view, as the Boards of appeal have consistently worked on framing elaborate eligibility / inventive step tests so as to exclude any intuitive approach to the issue – the prize to pay being that this body of case law makes for a difficult read.

In today’s post, Aujain Eghbali examines if and how said extensive case law can be applied to the examination of French patent applications as well.

The examination of applications related to software inventions in France has been known to yield unpredictable outcomes. This is because, while substantive grounds provided to the French patent office (INPI) to refuse applications include the manifest exclusion from the scope of patentability (ineligibility) and the manifest lack of novelty in view of the search report, they do not include the lack of inventive step (which is only a ground for nullity).

Now, readers familiar with EPO practice know that software inventions are nowadays almost systematically examined under the scope of inventive step at the EPO. The mere mention of the use of a computer in a method claim allows passing the eligibility bar.

In this context, it has not been clear whether INPI examiners can rely on the ineligibility ground to refuse applications, or whether on the contrary they have to comply with EPO case law and conclude that there is no ground for a refusal.

Recent French court decisions, some of which were commented on this blog (here, here, here and there), seem to favor the first solution. The Sesame decision in particular confirmed the refusal by the INPI of a computer-implemented business method on the ground of ineligibility.

While this increase in legal certainty is surely appreciated, these recent developments raise other issues. One may notably ask the following question:

To what extent could INPI examiners apply principles established by the EPO in relation with the inventive step analysis in order to assess the patentability of software inventions, when they can only raise another ground?

EPO board of appeal decision T1992/10 of September 8, 2016 may be a good basis for the beginning of an answer.

SAP had filed a European patent application related to a solution to check the integrity of a shipment. The solution consists in calculating an initial identifier of a set of objects of the shipment based on individual identifiers, before sending the shipment. When the shipment arrives, the same algorithm is used to compute a set identifier for all arrived objects and the result is compared to the initial identifier. A match indicates integrity of the shipment.

Claim 1 according to the auxiliary request read as follows:

A computer-implemented method for checking the integrity of a shipment that includes multiple products, the method comprising:

calculating, prior to shipping, a set identifier for the shipment, the calculating comprising:

– receiving (210), at a tag reader, a first identifier from a first identification tag (130a; 570a; 730a) associated with a first physical object (120a; 560a; 720a);

– receiving (220), at the tag reader, a second identifier from a second identification tag (130b; 570b; 730b) associated with a second physical object (120b; 560b; 720b);

– determining (230) the set identifier at the tag reader, the set identifier corresponding to a set (110) of physical objects that includes the first physical object (120a; 560a; 720a) and the second physical object (120b; 560b; 720b), based on the first identifier and the second identifier, wherein the determining further includes:

— sorting (440) the first identifier and the second identifier to produce sorted identifiers, such that, for all pairs of identifiers, a first identifier of a pair appearing before a second identifier of the pair indicates that the first identifier is less than the second identifier;

— combining (450) the sorted identifiers to produce a combined set identifier by concatenating the first identifier and the second identifier in sorted order; and

— applying (460) the SHA1 algorithm to the combined identifier to produce the set identifier;

– associating (240-270) the set identifier with a web page (180a) that corresponds to the set (110);

calculating a set identifier for the shipment after shipping to verify the integrity of the shipment;

when the set identifier calculated prior to shipping matches the set identifier calculated after shipping, determining that no products have been removed from or added to the shipment in the time between the calculation of the two set identifiers, and

when the set identifier calculated prior to shipping differs from the set identifier calculated after shipping, determining that at least one product has been removed from or added to the shipment in the time between the calculation of the two set identifiers.

According to SAP, both with and without the invention, it was necessary to scan all arriving objects; but with the invention, only one comparison subsequently needed to be made: the identifier calculated on arrival had to be compared with the identifier calculated before shipping. Without the invention, many individual comparisons would be needed. Furthermore, SAP argued that the specific algorithm used to produce the set identifier performed speedily. Also, the final comparison could be made fast, thanks to the format of the set identifier.

A non-computer implemented identification tag – therefore a technical one?

The Board considered that the contemplation of a set identifier in particular to perform a shipment integrity check did not involve any technical consideration as such. Furthermore, the Board was not persuaded that the effects argued by the appellant were actually obtained (speedy identifier calculation and fast comparison).

Also, the Board did not buy the argument related to only one set identifier comparison to be eventually made instead of many individual comparisons. On this topic, the Board not only noted that a database programmer would tend to send one composite query rather than a series of individual queries, but the Board also considered again that the alleged effect was not credible since no details about the comparison were provided in claim 1.

As a conclusion, the algorithm did not seek to overcome a limitation of a computer, but was imposed from the outside for the non-technical purpose of providing a set identifier.

Whether we agree with this reasoning or not, the part of the decision most interesting to me lies elsewhere, where the Board considered:

10. This is not a case in which a clearly non-technical method, consisting of non-technical steps, is performed by a computer, essentially by telling it to carry out the steps involved. Such cases normally fail under the approach in T 0641/00, Two identities/COMVIK, OJ 2003, 352, which, by placing the steps in the statement of the objective technical problem, in essence ensures they do not contribute to inventive step. With such a method, the novelty and obviousness of the steps themselves need not be assessed and the salient question for inventive step is often only whether the implementation of the steps using a computer would have been obvious. In most cases, it would have been.

11. This contrasts with the present invention, in which, although the steps are per se non-technical, a technical contribution cannot be immediately ruled out. The need to investigate the obviousness of these steps depends on such a contribution. The aim of the invention is a non-technical one: identify objects and sets of objects, and keep track of them. The present invention, however, starts from an existing technical method of identifying objects. It seeks to overcome shortcomings in that technical method, and raises rather more problems than the cases referred to above. Are the shortcomings themselves technical? Are technical means used to overcome them? In short: what is the technical effect on the prior art system?

12. That is a matter that requires care. On one side, the technology of the starting point, or its shortcomings, should not be trivialised. On another, circumventing a problem, rather than solving it, is no basis for an allowable claim.

As we can see, the Board introduced a distinction here between SAP’s invention and others which consist in performing a clearly non-technical method, consisting of non-technical steps, by a computer.

The Board considered that, in the shipment integrity check case, care should be taken before ruling out the technical contribution of a step apparently non-technical. The Board suggested performing a thorough analysis of effects alleged to be provided by the invention in view of the prior art, and then only searching for those effects which are technical and credibly achieved.

This decision therefore stresses that, when a computer-implemented invention does not relate to performing a clearly non-technical method by a computer, it is of the utmost importance to assess its patentability within the scope of inventive step, such that the prior art can be discussed. The Board thus reminded us that the approach developed by EPO case law is not merely cosmetic.

Now, once again, the ground provided to INPI examiners to refuse computer-implemented inventions is the manifest exclusion from the scope of patentability.

We know that although the INPI can refuse an application on the ground of a manifest lack of novelty, the lack of novelty has to be really blatant for the INPI to refuse the application. We also know that the INPI cannot refuse an application on the ground of a lack of inventive step. As mentioned in the Sesame post, when there is room for discussion on patentability the legislator probably wanted said discussion to occur within a trial rather than during examination.

I believe that this principle should fully apply to computer-implemented inventions: when there is room for discussion on the presence or not of a technical contribution, said discussion should not occur at the examination stage. In other words, there should be situations where the INPI admits that exclusion from the scope of patentability is not manifest.

Decision T1992/10 not only provides a reason why but also a criterion that the INPI could apply: is the computer-implemented method merely a clearly non-technical method implemented by a computer?

Thank you Aujain. Who knows, maybe we will get some clarification in the next version of the French guidelines for examination? Those may still have a long way to go before they can match the completeness and reliability of the EPO guidelines.

CASE REFERENCE: T1992/10, Board 3.5.01, September 8, 2016, Set Identifiers / SAP.

Poisonous thoughts

It has already been more than a week since the latest Enlarged Board of Appeal’s decision G 1/15 has been published. It has therefore already been reported and commented on in all good blogs, so that there is probably no need for me to repeat what other have already explained very well.

It will be sufficient to remind readers that the decision provides important guidance on the issue of partial priority (especially with respect to so-called “OR-claims“) and puts an end to the doctrine of “poisonous divisional applications“.

Basically, if a claim in an application or patent encompasses subject-matter which was disclosed in the application to which priority is claimed, but is broader than said disclosed subject-matter, the priority is not fully invalid. The part of the claim which was disclosed in the priority document benefits from the priority, and the other, new, part of the claim does not. G 1/15 makes it clear that no conditions or limitations apply in this respect.

With that in mind, I do have a couple of thoughts on this topic that I might as well share in this post. Actually, both thoughts are not so much about what the decision says as about what it does not say.

The first remark relates to the Enlarged Board’s reasoning. The theory of poisonous divisional applications was originally adopted in a number of decisions from the Boards of appeal. These decisions relied on the following sentence in the founding decision G 2/98 on the assessment of priority claims:

The use of a generic term or formula in a claim for which multiple priorities are claimed in accordance with Article 88(2) EPC, second sentence, is perfectly acceptable under Articles 87(1) and 88(3) EPC, provided that it gives rise to the claiming of a limited number of clearly defined alternative subject matters.

This sentence was interpreted by a number of boards as imposing a limitation to the possibility to divide a claimed subject-matter into different parts having different effective dates. This was also the respondent’s position in the referral. The argument was well summarized in the submission of the president of the EPO. And in item 3 of the reasons of G 1/15, it is acknowledged that “the divergence that has emerged in the case law has been caused by the proviso in point 6.7 of the Reasons of G 2/98“.

Therefore, I am somewhat disappointed that the Enlarged Board did not really address the question of what was meant by this sentence in G 2/98. In the core of G 1/15, the Enlarged Board analyzed the EPC, the Paris Convention, the Travaux préparatoires and some authors’ opinions, and came to the conclusion that there can be no condition or limitation restricting partial priority. This is all fine and well, but the sentence in G 2/98 was simply left out of the picture. So, does G 1/15 represent a change in case law relative to point 6.7 of the reasons of G 2/98? Or was the Enlarged Board unable to figure out what was originally meant in G 2/98? After all the sentence explicitly mentioned a proviso, which does strongly suggest a condition or limitation.

So, it seems to me that there is a little bit of a lack of transparency here.

The second remark is more practical than theoretical – and therefore probably more interesting than the first one.

In one of my previous posts, I reviewed decision T 1222/11 in detail. This was the first decision which extensively discussed the theory of poisonous divisional applications and came to the conclusion that the theory was incorrect. The reasoning was that partial priority can always be acknowledged if a claim is broader than the disclosure of the priority document. This is the so-called “conceptual approach” which has now been endorsed by the Enlarged Board in G 1/15.

In this previous post, I noted that the line of thought of T 1222/11 may also have side effects which go beyond the issue of partial priority. More particularly, the issue is related with the question of what is a first application, for the purpose of assessing priority. So, now seems like a good time to revisit this question again.

Quite remarkably, in T 1222/11 the refusal of the patent application at stake was confirmed due to an invalidity of the priority claim. This has always striken me as paradoxical, since this decision was widely acclaimed in the patent profession as being an antidote to the nefarious theory of poisonous divisional applications adopted in earlier decisions (as well as in several national court rulings).

G 1/15 basically states that the principles set out in T 1222/11 were the right ones. Although it does not address the particulars of this earlier case, there is every reason to assume that T 1222/11 was also correct in that it concluded that the priority claim at stake was invalid.

One last sip of poison for the road?

In T 1222/11, the claimed subject-matter was properly disclosed in the priority document. But part of it was also disclosed in an even earlier application by the same applicant, called D4b. In other terms, the teaching of the priority document (and of the claimed subject-matter) corresponded to a generalization relative to document D4b. In particular, some examples of D4b were found by the Board to fall within the claimed subject-matter. Although the claim at stake mentioned a property (namely a buffering capacity) which was not recited in D4b, the Board concluded that the same property was necessarily achieved in D4b. Also, the fact that D4b was limited to the use of a combination of two components (malic acid and lactic acid), whereas the priority document and the claimed invention were not, was found to be irrelevant.

The overall conclusion was that D4b was the actual first application for the claimed subject-matter, and not the priority document. As a result, the priority was invalid, and the claimed subject-matter lacked novelty over D4b. No disclaimer was allowable because D4b became full prior art due to the invalidity of the priority claim.

Therefore, G 1/15 has fully disarmed opponents or nullity claimants. Although poisonous divisional applications may no longer be a legal weapon, what we coud call “poisonous prior applications” (of the D4b sort in T 1222/11) have perhaps become more powerful weapons.

Let’s simplify the question one step further. Let’s assume a first application A1, a subsequent application A2 and an even later application A3 by the same applicant.

A3 claims subject-matter S, which is properly disclosed in A2. On the other hand, A1 does not disclose S but only part of S, which we can call s.

For instance, s can be a process involving a certain temperature range, and S can be a similar process involving a broader temperature range. Or s can be a composition comprising components A, B and C, while S can be a similar composition comprising components A and B.

If you had asked me the question a few years ago, I would probably have taken the view that, in such instances, the first application for subject-matter S is A2 and not A1. Just like, for consistency reasons, and under the EPO’s “gold standard“, the disclosure of s cannot be a proper support for claiming S (for the purpose of the assessment of Art. 123(2)).

This view is actually consistent with what is stated in the EPO case law bible (Case Law of the Boards of Appeal of the European Patent Office, 8th edition, II.D.4.1, 1st paragraph).

However, a side effect of the generous view of partial priority adopted in T 1222/11 and now endorsed in G 1/15, seems to be that this view is not correct, and that the first application is such a case is in fact… A1.

Applicants will therefore need to be careful about this, especially if they file successive applications containing the same examples but claiming different aspects of the same technology. Or else, some form of poisoning will come back to haunt them. 

Now, here is a challenging idea: could some form of partial priority be acknowledged in the context of a “not-the-first-application” argument? In other terms, if A1 discloses S1, A2 discloses S2, and A3 claims S1 or S2 (while claiming the priority of A2 only), is the priority claim fully invalid, because A2 is not the first application at all? Or does the priority claim remain valid as far as S2 is concerned?

Based on T 1222/11, I would tend to answer that the priority is fully invalid. Unless some supplementary condition needs to be examined, such as the fact that a limited number of clearly defined alternative subject-matters are claimed? Just kidding.

CASE REFERENCE: Enlarged Board of Appeal, November 29, 2016, G 1/15, Clariant Produkte (Deutschland) GmbH v. Infineum USA L.P.

Partial opposition

Generally, opposition proceedings are an all-out war, and only the death of the patent can fully satisfy the opponent. But in rare occasions, one may come across an opponent who turns out to be less bloodthirsty, as in the recent case T 1264/12.

On the one hand, this decision is quite underwhelming, as the “reasons” section is remarkably short. But on the other hand, it seems interesting to have a closer look at the case, as it provides a rare example of a partial opposition.

The patent at stake is EP 1625093, owned by Bluestar Silicones France. In its granted version, the patent contains 21 claims.

Claim 1 is directed to a method of draining a flexible container containing a viscous product. Claims 2 to 10 depend on claim 1. Claim 11 is directed to a kit for carrying out the method according to any one of Claims 1 to 10. And claims 12 to 21 depend on claim 11.

The patent was opposed by a Finnish company named Oy Fluid-Bag Ab.

Rather unusually, the opposition only concerned claims 1-3, 8-13 and 21. As a side note, the opposition was filed in 2008, for a final decision issued 8 years later. This means that a partial opposition does not mean a speedy one…

Looking more closely at the claim structure in the patent, the following can be noted:

  • Method claims 4-6, which were unopposed, depend on claims 1-3 and form a group in which use is made of a draining device which notably comprises a pressure member having a piston, and a drainage vessel.
  • Method claim 7, which was likewise unopposed, also depends on claims 1-3 and forms another group of its own, in which use is made of a draining device which notably comprises at least one pressurizable drainage vessel, which is pressurized by means of a pressure fluid.
  • Method claim 8, which was opposed, also depends on claims 1-3 and forms another group of its own, in which use is made of a draining device comprising a pressure member having at least one roller and one counter-roller element.
  • Method claims 9-10, which were opposed, depend on claims 2-8 and are therefore relevant for the various groups mentioned above.
  • A similar structure applies to the kit claims. In particular, claims 14-16 (unopposed) depend on claims 11-13 and calls for a piston and a drainage vessel; claim 17 (unopposed) recites a pressurizable drainage vessel; and claim 21 (opposed) depends on claims 11-13 and notably recites a roller and a counter-roller element.

In summary, the patent seems to relate to three mutually exclusive embodiments, which I would call the piston embodiment, the pressurizable vessel embodiment, and the roller embodiment. Some claims apply to all three embodiments, while others apply specifically to one of those. It seems that only those claims which are relevant for the roller embodiment were opposed.

A roller (coaster) embodiment.
A roller (coaster) embodiment.

This is in fact confirmed by a helpful indication in the statement of facts and arguments of the opposition: “the opponent reserves the right to raise an objection against the claims if amended, on the basis of the description, to any such form that the draining of the container using roller(s) (corresponding to Figure 3 of the opposed patent) is readable from the claims“.

It seems that the opponent was not prepared to spend time and resources to challenge other embodiments than the one which obviously was of interest to them – which makes perfect sense. As a side note, in some cases it may even be beneficial for an opponent if a patent partially survives and lies in the way of third party competitors who may be interested in further technical solutions.

In first instance, the patent was maintained in amended form. But the amendment was apparently not good enough for Oy Fluid-Bag, who filed an appeal.

According to the appeal decision, the sole request of the patentee on file contained four independent claims:

  • One method claim corresponding to the combination of claims 1, 2, 4 and 9 as granted.
  • Another method claim corresponding to the combination of claims 1, 2, 7 and 9 as granted.
  • One kit claim corresponding to the combination of claims 11 and 14 as granted.
  • Another kit claim corresponding to the combination of claims 11 and 17 as granted.

In other terms, the patent was restricted to the piston embodiment and the pressurizable vessel embodiment. The roller embodiment was no longer covered.

The appeal decision, which as I said is very short, does not explain why these amendments were introduced. In order to understand what happened, we need to review the minutes of the oral proceedings.

It turns out that the main request of the patentee was originally that the appeal should be rejected and thus that the patent be maintained in the same form as in first instance. However, the Board found that kit claim 9 of this main request lacked inventive step.

An auxiliary request No.2 was then discussed, but kit claim 9 of this request was also found to lack inventive step.

At this point, the patentee had to fall back on auxiliary request No.3, restricted to the piston and pressurizable vessel embodiments. The appellant objected that one of the product claims was not fully clearly restricted to these embodiments, and the patentee thus filed an amended request on the spot to overcome the issue. This new request was admitted into the proceedings.

Then, the patentee withdrew all the other requests, presumably so as to avoid any negative statement from the Board in the written decision on some of the granted claims. This is why the decision is so short and focuses on the roller embodiment-only request.

Now, here (finally) comes the Board’s assessment of this final request, in my own unofficial translation:

Since the extent of the opposition is limited to claims 1-3, 8-13 and 21 of the patent as granted, the claim combinations mentioned above result in claimed subject-matter which was not challenged by the opposition (rule 76(2)(c) EPC). 

The subject-matter of the above-mentioned claims are not the subject of the opposition (see in this respect G 9/91 (OJ 1993, 408), item 10 of the reasons) and there is no procedure under articles 114 and 115 EPC relating to these non-challenged elements. Therefore, the Board has absolutely no power to rule on them, which also necessarily applies to claims which include their subject-matter.

The appellant confirmed this position of the Board during the oral proceedings. The Board can only maintain the patent with these claims (volenti non fit injuria). 

For the benefit of continental Europeans like me, the latter phrase seems to be not only a fancy display of Latin but also an actual legal concept under common law (albeit within a quite different context).

I do not doubt that the Board reached the correct decision in not reviewing the new main request.

That said, the founding decision G 9/91 quoted above does leave some room for examining claims other than those which were opposed.

The first sentence of the Enlarged Board’s headnote is the following:

The power of an Opposition Division or a Board of Appeal to examine and decide on the maintenance of a European patent under Articles 101 and 102 EPC depends upon the extent to which the patent is opposed in the notice of opposition pursuant to Rule 55(c) EPC.

But then the second sentence goes like:

However, subject-matters of claims depending on an independent claim, which falls in opposition or appeal proceedings, may be examined as to their patentability even if they have not been explicitly opposed, provided their validity is prima facie in doubt on the basis of already available information.

For instance, in T 525/96, only two process claims 13 and 14 were opposed. In an auxiliary request, these process claims were deleted, but a product-by-process claim, referring to the same process, remained. The Board examined whether this unopposed product-by-process claim was allowable, based on the above principles set forth in G 9/91, and came to a negative conclusion, leading to the rejection of the corresponding auxiliary request.

Therefore, the Board in T 1264/12 probably theoretically had the power to examine the unopposed piston embodiment and pressurizable vessel embodiment claims, if their validity was prima facie in doubt.

We can safely assume that this was not the case. In particular, the opponent had probably not submitted any prior art relevant with respect to other embodiments than the roller one which they were concerned with. Besides, the opponent apparently did not object to the third-auxiliary-turned-main request.

But strictly speaking, the absence of prima facie invalidity might be a missing step in the Board’s reasoning.

CASE REFERENCE: T 1264/12, Board of Appel 3.2.07, September 22, 2016, Oy Fluid-Bag Ab v. Bluestar Silicones France.

The sofosbuvir conundrum

Few patents get famous enough to make it to the headlines of the general press. Some Apple patents are among them, such as those nicknamed “slide-to-unlock” or “rubber-banding” – especially thanks to the world war waged against Samsung. Other patent celebs include those on blockbuster pharmaceutical drugs.

In this latter category, one patent family in particular has attracted some fuss over the past few years. It is the one which covers the drug sofosbuvir, marketed under the name Sovaldi.

Blockbuster drug patents can beat even patents on blockbusters.
Blockbuster drug patents can even beat patents on blockbusters.

Sofosbuvir has markedly improved the treatment of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. But in many countries, in the absence of any generic version of the drug, the price of HCV treatment has skyrocketed as a result. This has aroused vocal protests by a number of NGOs (see e.g. here).

In Europe, the sofosbuvir patent (or at least one sofosbuvir patent) is EP 2203462, owned by Gilead. It was opposed after grant by ten different parties, including the NGO Médecins du monde, a number of generic manufacturers, and a number of straw men. Oral proceedings took place on October 4-5 in Munich. The only public information available as of today on the online register is that the patent was maintained in amended form. The minutes of the oral proceedings and the written decision of the opposition division have not been issued yet.

Tufty the Cat has recently made assumptions on his blog regarding the claims which were uphed by the opposition division. I have now received a confirmation by someone who attended the oral proceedings that Tufty got the claim amendment right.

But there seems to be some confusion, to say the least, after these oral proceedings. Indeed, Gilead and its opponents seem to have different views as to whether the amended patent still covers sofosbuvir or not.

In order to understand how there can be such a controversy, it is necessary to go back to some basic notions of stereochemistry.

There are many examples of chemical compounds having different 3D atom configurations although they share the same 2D chemical formula. These different configurations are referred to as stereochemical forms, or diastereomers, of a given compound.

In the pharmaceutical field, identifying the different stereochemical forms of a compound is of prime importance, as diastereomers often have different pharmacological effects. By way of example, the so-called (S) stereochemical form of ibuprofen is a hundred times more active than the so-called (R) stereochemical form.

Besides, such chemical compounds are generally not synthesized as stereochemically pure compounds, but as a mixture of diastereomers. It is often necessary to further purify this mixture in order to isolate the most active diastereomer.

Gilead’s patent as granted contains six claims, including three independent claims 1 to 3. For once, let’s start with claim 2.

Claim 2 is directed to a compound of the following formula:


This is sofosbuvir.

Then claim 3 is directed to another compound of the following formula:


This other compound looks very much like sofosbuvir, since it is its diastereomer. The difference between the two compounds is highlighted in yellow. In the sofosbuvir formula, the P-O bond is shaded in black and the P-N bond is hatched, which means that, in 3D, the oxygen atom is in front of the phosphorus atom, while the nitrogen atom is behind. It is exactly the opposite in the diastereomer of claim 3.

Now, here is the formula of the compound of claim 1:


In this formula, the relevant P-N and P-O bonds are depicted as simple lines, which means that the 3D configuration is not specified.

Claims 4-6 simply recite a composition comprising the compound of one of respective claims 1-3 and a pharmaceutically acceptable medium.

According to my source, claims 2, 3, 5 and 6 were found by the opposition division to extend beyond the contents of the application as filed. As a result, the patent proprietor filed an auxiliary request in which these claims were deleted, and only granted claims 1 and 4 remained. The opposition division came to the conclusion that this auxiliary request meets all the requirements of the EPC, and made the interlocutory decision of maintaining the patent in this amended form.

The decision should soon be issued in writing, and will be open to appeal by all parties.

And now, here comes the conundrum.

The patent as amended during first instance opposition proceedings no longer contains claims 2 and 5 which were specifically directed to the sofosbuvir compound and the sofosbuvir-containing medicament. The question is whether the remaining claims 1 and 4 still protect sofosbuvir and sofosbuvir-based drugs.

One possible interpretation is that claim 1 is a generic claim which protects both diastereomers. It is broader than claim 2, and therefore the scope of the patent remains completely intact. Quite frankly, I think this is the interpretation that most patent attorneys would consider as the most logical one.

However, another possible interpretation is that claim 1 is directed to a diastereomeric mixture, i.e. a mixture of the compounds of claims 2 and 3 as granted. Arguments in favor of this interpretation could be that: claim 1 does show a 3D configuration in other parts of the molecule; thus, the absence of 3D information around the phosphorous atom means that such information cannot be provided, because both forms are present in the compound; furthermore, granted claims 2 and 3 are independent claims and do not depend on claim 1 which confirms that they are not particular embodiments of claim 1.

According to this second interpretation, a generic sofosbuvir drug would arguably no longer infringe the patent – as the drug would not contain a diastereomeric mixture.

It seems that the description of the patent does not fully clearly support one interpretation over the other.

I could very well see a French court coming to the conclusion that since the claim specifically directed to sofosbuvir was deleted, the patent may not possibly protect this molecule any longer. Maybe the written decision of the opposition division will contain a position as to what claim 1 means. But then, maybe not. And anyway, any position that they may have taken is not binding on national courts.

With that in mind, I would certainly not bet my life on either interpretation. Would readers be keen on taking a vote?

I would like to thank my source for this hot information. I have also been told that a number of interesting topics were discussed during the opposition proceedings, in connection with extension of subject-matter, priority and inventive step. So we should watch for the written decision of the opposition division when it is issued.

CASE REFERENCE: ongoing opposition proceedings against EP 2203462 to Gilead Pharmasset LLC.

Request not found

It is always much more difficult to get what you want from the patent office when you do not know exactly what you want. Or even worse, when the patent office does not know exactly what you want.

Looking at a recent batch of EPO case law decisions issued in French, I came across one example which illustrates this harsh principle. I realized a little bit late that the decision had already been discussed on the Blog européen des brevets, but here it goes anyway.

European patent No. EP 1265983 assigned to the Swiss company Danstar Ferment AG was opposed by Lesaffre International. Back in 2011, the patent was revoked by the opposition division. The patent proprietor appealed, and sadly for all users of the patent system, it is only five years later that the Board of appeal issued its decision, which is… that the appeal was inadmissible! Unfortunate that a case such as this one could not be disposed of earlier.

The reason for the inadmissibility of the appeal was that “the request which defines the object of the appeal is unclear (article 108 EPC in combination with Rules 99(1) and 99(2) EPC) (reasons, 6).

The board summarized the legal framework leading them to this conclusion in section 2 of the reasons for the decision:

According to established case law of the Boards of appeal, the appellant’s case must be presented in a consistent, clear and substantiated manner in the statement of the grounds of appeal, not only in relation with the appellant’s arguments, but also in relation with its requests (see, inter alia, decisions T 760/08 of January 19, 2010, reasons 5, and T 446/00 of July 3, 2003, reasons 2.1.1). Indeed, the purpose of the statement of the grounds of appeal as well as of the notice of appeal is to define the extent of the appeal. This definition is solely and exclusively made by the appellant (see, inter alia decision T 2532/11 of October 14, 2013, reasons 2.5.1). It is important to emphasize that, according to established case law, it is also the parties’ duty to state their requests and decide on the order of these requests (see, inter alia, decision T 148/06 of January 8, 2008, reasons 2). 

Point well taken. So, what happened in this case? First, the notice of appeal itself did not expressly state any request except that the decision under appeal should be set aside. Second, the statement of the grounds of appeal contained a discussion on claim 1 as granted and then on four auxiliary requests (referred to as “propositions of auxiliary requests” at some point in the brief).

The problem is that Danstar’s main request in first instance was not the maintenance of the patent as granted (rejection of the opposition), but rather the maintenance of the patent in an amended form.

The Board stated that it was thus unclear whether the appellant’s intention was to replace the main request filed in first instance with a new main request according to which the opposition should be rejected.

Also, the Board claimed that the so-called “propositions of auxiliary requests” could be meant to replace the previously filed auxiliary requests but could also be additional auxiliary requests.

Therefore, said the Board,

The appellant did not refer one or more clear, precise and converging requests to the Board, which would make it possible to unambiguously define the object of the appeal. 

As a side note, I wonder why the Board mentioned “converging” requests in this sentence. Surely, the converging nature of the requests is only of relevance for the admissibility of the requests themselves, and not for the admissibility of the appeal as a whole. Or is it not?

The Board made reference to some decisions, in particular T 1554/12 and T 1538/09, in which the appeal was held admissible although the appellant’s requests were contradictory or imprecise. The difference between the present case and these earlier ones was, according to the Board, that in the earlier cases the intent of the appellant was clear (despite the imprecise wording), whereas it the present case it was not.

I wanted to see for myself and thus had a look at Danstar’s statement of grounds of appeal. One can only concur with the Board that no main request was set forth in the brief. Since claim 1 of the patent as granted was discussed, it could be argued that the appellant’s intent was to go back to this original version (as opposed to the main request cited in the first instance decision, which is not cited in the brief).

On the other hand, no corresponding set of claims was attached, and the brief was silent on the dependent claims. Therefore, the Board could also have noted that the appellant’s intent with respect to the dependent claims was not clear – although, again, it may be logical to surmise that the dependent claims were also maintained unamended, just like in the auxiliary requests.

Speaking of auxiliary requests, the Board’s view on those may be considered somewhat strict. The four sets of claims were indeed attached to the statement of grounds of appeal, and the unfortunate expression “propositions of auxiliary requests” used at some point in the brief probably did not introduce a fatal ambiguity. Indeed, it was stated at the beginning of the letter: “we attach four auxiliary requests” (not four “propositions“).

In short, it seems relatively clear that the four sets of claims attached to and commented on in the statement of grounds of appeal were those that the appellant intended to rely on in the course of the appeal proceedings.

An interesting question is whether this makes any difference though. Possible answer 1 is: no, if the Board believes that the main request cannot be properly understood, the appeal cannot be decided upon at all, and it has to be held inadmissible. Possible answer 2 is: yes, the Board could disregard an unclear main request and then directly examine the auxiliary requests.

Practically speaking, the appellant did not really fight, which may partly explain the decision. They did not reply to a communication from the Board containing a preliminary opinion which was negative for them both on the admissibility of the appeal as well as on the merits of the case, and both parties renounced their right to oral proceedings.

Anyway, the take home message for us European patent professionals is that we should be crystal clear when we state our requests, and preferably use the keywords that the EPO departments expect from us (“main request“, “auxiliary request No.X“, etc.), as they are not huge fans of guesswork.

There is always a way to know what an appellant's requests are.
There is always a way to know what an appellant’s requests are.

CASE REFERENCE: T 1435/11, Board of Appeal 3.3.08, May 20, 2016, Danstar Ferment AG v. Lesaffre International.