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:

sofos-claim-2

This is sofosbuvir.

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

sofos-claim-3

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:

sofos-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.

Search for meaning

Today’s Board of appeal decision was already reported on elsewhere, but it may be worth another commentary, since it relates to a fundamental aspect of patent law, namely the rules of claim interpretation, and more specifically the question of how much one should rely on the description and drawings when interpreting the claims – in particular for the assessment of novelty and inventive step.

One could think that such a basic issue should have long been very clearly settled. Well, one could think again.

Art. 69(1) EPC provides that “the extent of the protection conferred by
a European patent or a European patent application shall be determined by the claims. Nevertheless, the description and drawings shall be used to interpret the claims“.

The official Case Law book (Case Law of the Boards of Appeal of the European Patent Office, 7th edition, section II.A.6) reminds us that a number of decisions referred to Art. 69 as a legal basis for interpreting the claims in the light of the description and drawings. Others pointed out that Art. 69 is concerned with the question of infringement, and is therefore only for courts of law to deal with, and not for departments of the EPO (except when assessing a potential extension of scope of protection after grant – Art.123(3) EPC).

For example, in T 1279/04, the Board explicitly stated that a different standard should be applied for interpreting the claims in examination or opposition proceedings and in infringement proceedings – which is somewhat reminiscent of the U.S. approach. As the Case Law book puts it, according to this decision:

in examination and opposition proceedings the value of future legal certainty was paramount. […] There was no case for anything other than a strict definitional approach, given that in this procedural stage the claim could and should be amended to ensure legally certain patentability, in particular novelty and inventive step over any known prior art. Amendment rather than protracted argument should be the answer to genuine difficulties of interpretation in all aspects of the examination and opposition procedure.

The strict approach advocated in T 1279/04 does not strike me as being commonly applied.

The position that first instance departments are officially supposed to follow (Guidelines for examination, F-IV, 4.2) seems somewhat more flexible. It refers to the description and drawings in the context of “particular cases“, where “the description gives the words a special meaning“. Otherwise, reference is more generally made to the meaning that words “normally have in the relevant art“, and to the necessity of attempting “to make technical sense out of” the claim.

And in practice, I feel that most of the time parties as well as the EPO tend to turn first and foremost to the description when interpreting the claims – and not just in particular cases when there is a special definition in the spec.

So, back to today’s decision T 1871/09, which sheds another interesting light on claim interpretation in view of the description.

The Board provided extensive general remarks on claim interpretation, and then applied their approach to the case at hand, where several terms raised interpretation issues.

A first important point is that the Board followed the approach adopted in T 556/02, per which reliance on the description and drawings to interpret the claims is justified by a general principle of law:

The Board was confronted with diverging argumentations from the parties regarding the meaning that the claims should have, and in particular some concepts that they refer to. The Board endeavored to look at the specification of the patent taken as a whole for the meaning that the skilled person would give to them. The Board applied a general principle of interpretation, of which Article 69 EPC is only an illustration, per which a part of a document cannot be interpreted independently from its context, and to the contrary the entirety of the document should be taken into consideration, when looking for the meaning of a certain statement which is made. […] Therefore, even if the provisions of Article 69 EPC on the scope of protection do not […] apply to departments ruling on opposition cases, the principle set out in this article is nevertheless applicable (reasons 3.1 – this passage and the following ones were freely translated from the French original version).

This makes sense and is a nice way to justify what most people would intuitively think is right – even if not explicitly enshrined in the Convention – i.e.: do not read the claims in isolation without considering the rest of the patent.

In the next paragraph, the Board recalled that the reader is the skilled person, and that he/she is the one supposed to interpret the claims. This is a very classical statement.

Then, the Board went on to warn that:

The interpretation principle recalled here applies to all, that is not only the opponents but also the patent proprietor, and third parties as well. The patent proprietor cannot possibly attribute a meaning to the terms that are used or to the features recited in a claim which the general context does not really make it possible to establish. It is thus not justified in this respect to rely on one passage of the description instead of another, so as to give a particular color to some terms that are used (reasons, 3.3).

So, patentees have to deal with their description as a whole. They cannot rely on just one paragraph which may support their preferred interpretation, without looking at other paragraphs which provide a different view.

And then comes the last bit of the general remarks, which is probably the most interesting one:

That said, the specificity of a patent specification should not be forgotten, that is the claims are supposed to generalize particular embodiments effectively disclosed in the patent specification. To which extent this specificity plays a role in the interpretation depends on the case. In this respect, some aspects such as the purpose of the invention and the number of examples are especially relevant. But it remains that the terms chosen in the claims are supposed to have been selected to serve this objective of generalization of particular embodiments. As a consequence, when the patentee omits, voluntarily or not, to define some concepts, or accepts that certain ambiguities remain in the patent description related to the request at stake, they cannot validly hide behind a limitative interpretation of the terms of the claim, at least insofar as the general interpretation which is retained makes sense on the technical standpoint and is consistent with the general teaching of the patent (reasons, 3.4)

Oftentimes in opposition proceedings, a patent proprietor would like a narrow interpretation of the claims to be used – in order to resist novelty and inventive step challenges.

One important consideration may however play against this defense: by nature and by function, claims are supposed to be more general than the embodiments disclosed in the description. Therefore, the fact that the description offers a narrow illustration of the claims may not by itself validly support the narrow interpretation of the claims. Or, to put it otherwise, the scope of the claims cannot be assumed to be limited by the “scope” of the description.

These principles were applied by the Board to the case at hand a number of times.

Claim 1 of the main request (patent as granted) read as follows:

Spectral content enrichment process of a signal having an incomplete spectrum including a first spectral band, the process consisting of the following stages:
– at least one transposition of the spectral content of the said first band into a second spectral band not included in the said spectrum in order to generate a transposed spectrum signal of restricted spectrum, to the said second spectral band;
– transformation of the spectrum of the signal with the transposed spectrum to obtain an enrichment signal;
– combination of the incomplete spectral signal and of the enrichment signal to produce an enriched spectral signal;
characterized in that the generation of the transposed spectral signal includes a whitening stage of the said spectral content such that the spectrum of the signal to the transposed spectrum is a whitened version of the said spectral content.

A device with spectral bands.
A device with spectral bands.

Novelty of this claim over a prior art document D1 was discussed. The two patent proprietors argued that the document did not disclose a process wherein the second spectral band is “not included” in the spectrum.

Remarkably, the Board rejected both the interpretation of the term “included” offered by the patent proprietors and the one offered by one of the opponents. The opponent had put forward a mathematical definition of the term. But the Board held that this “turns out to be too theoretical and does not take into account the content of the specification of the patent, where nothing suggests that these usual terms should be given a particular mathematical meaning” (reasons, 5.3.1).

As for the patent proprietors, their position was that the first and second spectral bands should necessarily be adjacent or separated. The argument was based on two embodiments in the description corresponding to these two possibilities. But the Board decided that the claim could not be interpreted in such a restrictive manner:

The passages of the patent relating to these embodiments are very general and do absolutely not suggest that the disclosed solutions are the only ones which can be contemplated. Therefore, in the absence of indications in the patent as to the meaning which the concept of inclusion should have, and taking into account the fact that claims are meant to generalize the teaching of the disclosed embodiments, the Board considers that the expression “not included” should be given a general meaning. The formulation used can thus not be interpreted as excluding the partial superposition of spectra of the initial and transposed signals (reasons 5.3.1). 

A second point of interpretation concerned the concept of “whitening“, which had to be compared with the notion of sub-band energy equalization in the prior art. The patent proprietors submitted that “whitening” the signal meant making the peaks of the spectral envelope more uniform, which was different from sub-band energy equalization.

Even though the other parties did not directly criticize this definition of whitening, the Board was not fully satisfied, because the definition “is not devoid of ambiguity” (reasons, 5.3.2). Then followed a detailed technical discussion showing that since the notion of spectral envelope is not clearly defined, there are many different ways to whiten the signal according to this broad definition. One of the opponents had filed an example showing that a sub-band energy equalization was tantamount to one possible form of whitening, and the Board was convinced by the demonstration.

One important last argument was discussed in this respect. Claim 1 called for one step of transposition and one step of transformation, the whitening being part of the transposition step, and being therefore before the transformation step. But in the prior art document, the whitening discussed above took place at the same time as the transformation. So, on the face of it, there was a difference between the process of claim 1 and that of the prior art.

But the Board decided that claim 1 should be interpreted more broadly than its literal wording, in view of the description:

When the granted patent is taken into account, this however leads to a generalization of the claimed process beyond its literal interpretation. Indeed, paragraph [0033] of the patent mentions the possibility of whitening and filtering in one operation by a transfer function filter equal to the product of the respective transfer functions of the whitening filter and of the transformation filter. It is unfortunate that the version of the description was not adapted to the version of the claims considered patentable by the Examining division and results in what is above all a problem of clarity of the claimed process. The version of the patent is however the entire responsibility of the appellant. Although no clarity objection […] can be raised against the granted version of the patent […], the patent proprietors must nevertheless accept that any contradiction, ambiguity or imprecision may be used by the opponents who can in particular rely on the extended scope of the claims made possible by such circumstances. In the present case, the argument that D1 reproduces the process of claim 1, as interpreted in the light of the description, is thus justified. 

All in all, this decision is actually a serious warning to applicants, who must carefully check whether the description is consistent with the claims, bearing in mind that:

  • On the one hand, the fact that the description discloses specific embodiments cannot by itself justify a narrow interpretation of the claims, since the function of the claims is such that they are supposed to be broader than these embodiments.
  • On the other hand, if the invention appears to be somewhat broader than the claims literally imply, based on the description (for instance because the description was not properly adapted to amended claims), then the claims may need to be reinterpreted in a broader manner.

Readers interested in the outcome of the case will have to wait a few more years, since the Board remitted the case to the first instance for further prosecution on the basis of an auxiliary request, after admitting new relevant documents into the proceedings.

As a final remark, there has been a long-standing tradition for French courts to rely a lot of the description and drawings to come up with their own understanding of what the invention really is about – irrespective of the exact wording used in the claims.

Does the French nationality of the patent proprietors explain why such a large part of the legal discussion in this case revolved around claim interpretation in view of the description? Possibly, but it seems that the description did little to help them in Munich after all.


CASE REFERENCE: Board of Appeal 3.4.01, T 1871/09, Orange et al. v. Stefanie Kremer et al., November 24, 2015.