For the sake of the argument

As I have already mentioned here, one reason why I do not often comment on decisions from the Boards of appeal of the EPO on this blog is that any interesting decision that comes out is instantly shot at by all good bloggers around the place before I even get a chance to draw my metaphorical gun.

So, sorry folks, no breaking news from me today, as Laurent Teyssèdre has already been here, as well as others.

But I could not let this one decision T 1914/12 go without a comment or two.

First, because it is highly interesting. Second, because it is in French (so, maybe some non-French speaking colleagues would benefit from further highlights). Third, because I was involved in the case at hand in the first instance proceedings, so this one brings back a number of memories.

The catchword of the decision can be translated as follows:

Boards of appeal do not have any appraisal power with respect to the admissibility of late arguments which are based on facts that are already part of the proceedings (decision diverging from T 1621/09).

A brief presentation of the facts of the case will probably suffice, before summarizing the very thorough legal discussion in the decision.

The patent at stake is entitled “Method of adhesively bonding a strip of flexible fabric to a substrate“. It was opposed after grant and revoked by the opposition division, for lack of inventive step (as well as extension of subject-matter as far as some of the auxiliary requests are concerned).

In the course of the appeal proceedings, the opposition was withdrawn, and the patent was transferred to the previous opponent. Not that this circumstance is really critical.

The key issue is that, for the first time on appeal, the new patent proprietor identified a further distinguishing feature relative to one of the main cited prior art references.

In a written communication, the Board expressed the preliminary opinion that this was a late argument and that its intention was not to admit it into the proceedings. But the Board, for once presided by the legal member, later changed its mind and came to the opposite conclusion. As a result, the first instance decision was set aside, and the case remitted to the first instance for further prosecution.

But before reaching this conclusion, the Board performed a very thorough analysis of the law pertaining to late facts and arguments.

A fancy EPO appeal clock.

The starting point for the discussion is article 13(1) of the Rules of procedure of the Boards of appeal (RPBA), per which:

Any amendment to a party’s case after it has filed its grounds of appeal or reply may be admitted and considered at the Board’s discretion. The discretion shall be exercised in view of inter alia the complexity of the new subject matter submitted, the current state of the proceedings and the need for procedural economy. 

So the question is: does the discretionary power of the Board apply to a situation such as the one at hand, where a new distinguishing feature is identified by the proprietor at a late stage?

As a first step (section 7.1 of the reasons), the Board reviewed in great detail the notions of “facts” and “arguments” and their respective definitions, based on the common understanding of the terms, of the legal understanding of the terms, and on the specific use of the terms in the EPC and case law.

Clearly distinguishing between facts and arguments is not just a matter of hair-splitting. Depending on whether a late submission is viewed as a fact or an argument, the fate of the submission may differ – even in first instance.

As a side note, in one opposition I have handled, a new inventive step attack based on a timely filed document only later identified as a possible closest prior art document was considered by the opposition division as pertaining to a “new fact” and not merely a “new argument” and it was thus not admitted into the proceedings. The Board set aside the first instance decision – but I don’t know yet if this point will be discussed in the reasons or not.

Anyway, the definition offered by the present Board (reasons, 7.1.4) is the following (in my own translation as always):

A “fact” can be understood as a factual (or allegedly factual) element or a circumstance on which a party bases its case, whereas an “argument” designates a proposition that a party bases on one or more facts and which supports the case that it puts forward. 

The Board then gave the example of a lack of novelty attack:

  • The party’s case (“moyen” in French) is that the claimed subject-matter is comprised in the state of the art.
  • One argument is e.g. that the subject-matter is disclosed in paragraph [0017] of D1.
  • Another argument is e.g. that the skilled person understands the paragraph in a certain manner, in view of common general knowledge, and thus views a certain feature as implicitly disclosed.
  • The textual content of the paragraph is a fact.
  • The copy of the document or of its translation is a piece of evidence.

As a next step, the Board addressed the central issue of whether late arguments can be disregarded or not.

Here, the first interesting remark is that the text of the EPC is not the same in the three official languages.

The English version of article 114(1) reads:

In proceedings before it, the European Patent Office shall examine the facts of its own motion; it shall not be restricted in this examination to the facts, evidence and arguments provided by the parties and the relief sought. 

Note the term “arguments” here. But the French version is in fact quite different, as it solely refers to “moyens invoqués” and “demandes présentées“. I would tend to translate the general term “moyens invoqués” by “the party’s case“. The German version does not specifically mention arguments either.

The Board noted that the English version seems to more accurately express the intentions of the drafters of the EPC (is that generally the case? the Frenchman asks), and therefore adhered to this English version in the rest of the reasoning.

Now the key part of the reasoning is that the English version of the second paragraph of article 114, on which the discretionary power of the EPO to disregard late submissions is based, does not refer to arguments:

The European Patent Office may disregard facts or evidence which are not submitted in due time by the parties concerned. 

This is in contrast to the first paragraph mentioned above, which deals with examination of the EPO’s own motion.

Based on the difference between the two paragraphs, the Board concluded that the discretionary power of the EPO is strictly limited to facts and evidence and does not extend to arguments.

Now going back to article 13(1) RBPA, there is a reference here to an “amendment to a party’s case“, which is not very explicit. But the notion of a party’s case is further defined in article 12(2):

The statement of grounds of appeal and the reply shall contain a party’s complete case. They shall set out clearly and concisely the reasons why it is requested that the decision under appeal be reversed, amended or upheld, and should specify expressly all the facts, arguments and evidence relied on. […]

So, on the face of it, it can be surmised that article 13(1) RPBA, via its implicit reference to article 12(2), empowers the Board with the right not to admit a late modification of the arguments of a party on appeal.

But, reviewing the Travaux préparatoires for the current version of the RPBA, the Board found that a proposed article 13(1) containing an explicit reference to arguments was rejected in the drafting process.

Thus, the Board held, the intent seems to have been in fact not to encompass arguments within the purview of article 13(1). See section 7.2.1 of the reasons.

Then, the Board reviewed the relevant case law in detail (section 7.2.2 of the reasons), and found a number of decisions pursuant to which arguments are not subjected to the Boards’ discretionary power.

But then there are T 1069/08 and above all T 1621/09, which decided otherwise. Especially in T 1621/09, an analysis of the travaux préparatoires was performed but the deletion of the word “arguments” in the drafting process of new article 13(1) was not noted.

In the wake of these two decisions, the Board counted 17 later decisions which relied on the principles set out in T 1069/08 and T 1621/09 without questioning them. A couple of recent decisions have however decided the other way around.

As a conclusion, the Board expressed its disagreement with the approach of T 1069/08 and T 1621/09 (section 7.2.3 of the reasons).

The final reason put forward by the Board for such disagreement is that the RPBA should not “lead to a situation which would be incompatible with the spirit and purpose of the Convention” (article 23), which would precisely be the case if article 13(1) RPBA were to be interpreted as encompassing arguments, although article 114(2) EPC, which prevails, does explicitly not refer to arguments, among the late submissions which may be disregarded.

One first question immediately comes to mind: is this question ripe for a referral to the Enlarged board of appeal?

After all, there are a number of diverging decisions, it seems. I guess the answer may depend on whether the Boards which issued T 1069/08 and T 1621/09 will stand their ground or change course.

The second question that I have is: what about the upcoming revised version of the RPBA?

A few months ago, there was a public consultation at the EPO on a draft. I do not know where this project stands right now. But, for what it is worth, there was a new paragraph 2 in article 12 in this proposal, which reads:

In view of the primary object of the appeal proceedings to judicially review the decision under appeal, a party’s appeal case shall be directed to the requests, facts, objections, arguments and evidence on which the decision under appeal was based.

Beside the fact that there is a new concept here (namely “objections“), this provision seems to introduce a limitation to what kind of arguments a party is allowed to file on appeal – namely, those on which the decision under appeal was based.

If one follows the reasoning of T 1914/12, wouldn’t this proposed provision breach article 114 EPC?


CASE REFERENCE: T 1914/12, Board 3.2.05, June 13, 2018, Gaztransport et Technigaz.

Not sailing to victory

Thanks to Jérôme Tassi, I was made aware of a new French decision revoking a patent due to extension of subject-matter.

As I mentioned no earlier than in last week’s post, this is a ground for nullity that needs to be taken very seriously nowadays. There may previously have been a perception that added matter objections were deemed to fail in front of a court of law, and that painstaking dissections of the exact wording originally used in patent applications should be reserved for hearings taking place at Erhardtstrasse. But if so, this perception is no longer accurate.

The patent at stake is EP 2179917 to the Swiss company Createx SA.

This patent (EP’917) was filed as a divisional application stemming from EP 1531979, itself originally filed as a PCT application published under No. WO 2004/005009.

The technical field is the manufacture of fabric for sails. Yes, as in sailing boats. This is about as exotic as you can get when dealing with patent case law.

On December 31, 2015, Createx and its licensee, the U.S. company North Sails Group LLC, filed a patent infringement complaint against the French companies Incidences La Rochelle and Incidences Technologies.

On August 22, 2016, Createx filed a request for limitation of the French part of EP’917 with the INPI. It can be assumed that this was a reaction to some invalidity arguments brought forward by the defendants. The limitation was granted by the INPI on September 27, 2016.

The defendants counterclaimed for nullity of the EP’917 patent and as announced at the beginning of this post, the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) did in fact hold the patent invalid for extension of subject-matter beyond the content of the parent application as filed.

The patent as limited contains two independent claims, namely claim 1 directed to a fabric and claim 13 directed to a sail. Let’s focus on claim 1 only:

A fabric comprising:

a plurality of strips, each of the strips being formed from a plurality of substantially parallel reinforcing elements formed of threads arranged in a unidirectional manner, the threads being made of thousands of filaments distributed over the width of each strip, each of the substantially parallel reinforcing elements comprising said substantially parallel filaments; and an activated resin encasing the filaments to form a fabric;

wherein part of each strip is disposed on the juxtaposed strips; 

wherein at least some of the plurality of strips partially overlap adjacent strips, at least some of the strips substantially overlap over a length of each strip, at least some of the strips are arranged in parallel, so that a first end of a strip substantially overlap with a first end of another strip. 

Some sails look more threatening than others.

The key issue here is that the parent application as filed did not contain any claim directed to such a fabric or to a sail as recited in claim 13. All original claims related to a method of manufacturing a fabric, using a particular system.

Here is original claim 1 by way of comparison with the limited claim in the divisional patent:

A method of manufacturing shaped and reinforced fabrics, characterized in that it consists in making a fabric made of a membrane which encases continuous alternated reinforcing elements in a press which comprises an upper vessel the lower part of which is made of a supple element and a lower vessel the upper part of which is made of a supple element, the upper vessel comprising a shaping lath the shape of which can be adjusted by setting rods and the adjusting shape of which causes the three-dimensional elastic deformation of the supple elements and thus of the membrane and reinforcing elements within the press, into an active position in which the lath has a shape and an inactive position in which the shaping lath is inactive and does not cause any deformation of the membrane and reinforcing elements which are pressed flat, in that the portions of the membrane and of reinforcing elements are prepared before pressing on a conveyor belt which is disposed on a preparation table which then places these portions under the press with pressure and heat, and in that the portions of membrane and reinforcing elements overlap during the preparation so that they make a homogeneous fabric at the outlet of the press, which comprises flat portions and three-dimensional-shaped portions according to multiple shapes determined by the setting of the shaping lath upon pressing each membrane portion and reinforcing elements, the length of which is determined by the width of the press and preparation table. 

Here is the court’s take on this:

Through this rule [of the prohibition of extension of added matter], it is to be ensured that the patent proprietor cannot improve its position by adding elements that are not disclosed in the application as filed, which would be such as to confer an undue advantage by obtaining a different monopoly from the one initially claimed, which may harm legal certainty for third parties who rely on the content of the initial application.

In this case, the [parent] application as filed […] is exclusively directed to an invention which relates to a manufacturing method […]. It thus clearly derives from this initial application that the subject-matter of the protection does not relate to the product “fabric”. The EP’917 patent […] is no longer directed to a manufacturing method but expressly to products, and more particularly a “fabric” […] and a sail […]. 

[…] By altering the subject-matter of the patent […], the patent proprietor may now have a protection on any identical product independently of its manufacturing method. 

Thus, the patent proprietor necessarily increased the scope of protection initially requested, since this patent makes it possible to include within the scope of the patent products why may be obtained by different methods than the one claimed in the initial application. It is further noted that this modification also led the proprietor to encompass within the scope of protection of the patent […] a product which was not explicitly mentioned in the initial application, namely a “sail”, which cannot be entirely assimilated to [a fabric] and which was not within the subject-matter of the initial invention except through a mere reference to the prior art, which is not sufficient to include it within the perimeter of protection. 

The content of the (parent) application as filed has to be considered as a whole, including the claims, description and drawings. Due to some of the words used by the court in the above quote, there could be a suspicion that the court really focused on the claims only and confused extension of subject-matter with extension of scope of protection. But I doubt that this suspicion would be well-founded.

Indeed, not only did the original set of claims not contain any claim to a fabric or a sail, but also the original description did not recite a fabric or a sail as such as subject-matter of the invention.

Thus, it was considered that the shift in scope of protection could not be expected by third parties relying on the original application documents, which offended legal certainty. This is reminiscent of a Nestec decision already discussed on this blog.

In this earlier case, a claim to a device for the extraction of a capsule plus the capsule itself, in combination, was found to offend article 123(2) EPC because this category of product was not originally claimed, and could only be indirectly derived from the application based on how the capsule interacted with the device in operation.

I must say that, upon reading the claims of EP’917 (even before the French national limitation) and comparing them with the parent PCT as filed, I was curious about the examination process. Indeed, it seems that the divisional claims were completely drafted from scratch, combining pieces of wording from several passages of the original disclosure. This is not to say that such thorough redrafting necessarily adds matter. It may be allowable in some cases. But in my experience the EPO almost always at least requires detailed justifications that the skilled person would indeed directly and unambiguously derive the new claims from the original disclosure, which must not be treated as a reservoir from which you are allowed to pick and choose any combination of features.

To my surprise, it seems that the applicant did not submit any indication of a support for the claimed features when filing the divisional application, and that the examiner did not ask any questions and directly agreed to grant a patent.

So I wonder what happened here, and why the applicant was not even asked for any clarification by the EPO. This took place in 2009-2010, which is not that long ago.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 2ème section, February 9, 2018, Createx & North Sails Group LLC v. Incidences Technologies & Incidences SailsRG No. 16/00023.

Follow-up on priority and on SPCs

Dear readers, this is just a brief follow-up post on two topics previously addressed on this blog: partial priority at the EPO and vaccine SPCs.

First, partial priority at the EPO. This was already addressed in the past here and especially there, where I talked about the decision of the Enlarged Board of Appeal G 1/15.

Since then, another decision T 282/12 has been issued and has swiftly been presented on all good blogs (here, here and there).

In this decision, it was ruled that the priority of a claim was partially invalid because the alleged priority document was partially not the first application for the invention at stake.

As I have previously observed, although G 1/15 was almost unanimously welcome by the patent profession as a cure to the toxic divisional plague, the relatively flexible and generous approach of partial priority adopted in this ruling can also turn against patent proprietors when they file successive similar applications.

In this respect, T 282/12 is not really groundbreaking. The same already happened in T 1222/11, the decision which was the first one to theorize the “generous approach” later endorsed by G 1/15. In this earlier decision, the refusal of the patent application at stake was confirmed by the Board due to the invalidity of a priority claim in view of an earlier application (by the same applicant) which contained the same examples as the alleged priority document. I always thought that it was somewhat paradoxical that this decision considered as life-saving by many in fact killed the patent application at stake.

There is one remaining issue which may give rise to additional discussions, though.

T 282/12 states that the priority is only partially, and not fully, invalid if part of the claimed subject-matter was disclosed by the same applicant in an earlier application than the priority document. T 1222/11 was in my opinion not so clear in this respect. However, is it really certain that this is consistent with the Paris convention and the EPC? After all, these treaties do not expressly contain the notion of a “partial first application“.

So, it remains to be seen whether future decisions will be fully in line with this aspect of T 282/12 or not. It also remains to be seen what national courts will make of all this, as they are not bound by the Enlarged Board’s findings – least of all French courts if I may say so.

In the meantime, extreme caution should be exerted when filing successive applications on similar subject-matter, especially when the supporting examples are the same. 

Second topic, totally unrelated to the first one: vaccine SPCs.

Almost two years ago, Lionel Vial reported on this blog on the refusal of an SPC application filed by GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals (GSK) for the Cervarix vaccine by the INPI, and on the confirmation of this refusal by the Paris Cour d’appel.

Interestingly, another French SPC application was filed by a different applicant, namely the Loyola University of Chicago, still for the Cervarix vaccine, and based on the same marketing authorization as the GSK application.

The same causes often produce the same effects. Thus, this second SPC application was also refused by the INPI, and the appeal filed by Loyola was dismissed by the Paris Cour d’appel.

As explained by Lionel in the earlier post, the Cour d’appel considered that the active substance in the Cervarix vaccine was in fact the same product as the active substance in the earlier Gardasil vaccine, for which an SPC had already been granted to GSK.

The Cour d’appel did not change its mind in the Loyola case and reminded that only one SPC can be granted per product. The fact that the patent mentioned in the SPC application as well as the applicant were different did not change anything.

To Loyola’s credit, whether both active substances are actually the same is not straightforward here. This is because one critical protein in the Cervarix vaccine is obtained differently (via insect cells rather than yeast cells), and is truncated, relative to the same protein in the Gardasil vaccine. Therefore, it was probably worth giving it another try despite the previous negative decision.

An interesting variation of the insect pictured in the earlier Cervarix post.

Loyola made ample reference to its own patent and to a later scientific publication as evidence that the difference in protein structure had an impact on biological properties.

But the court said:

[…] The INPI rightly states that this change is minor […]. Even though the appellant claims a different structure and different properties, they do not show that these modifications are anything but minor, as the active substance remains the same and the preventive purpose remains the same. The INPI rightly states that an increase in the capacity to form VLPs, a higher yield, a higher purity level, a more regular shape, a reduction in the risk of cellular DNA encapsidation or even a better stability, are changes which do not alter the nature of the active substance or its preventive purpose; they do not make it possible to conclude that the products are different. 

So, once again, insects and yeast – same difference.


CASE REFERENCE: T 282/12, (Coated tablets / JOHNSON & JOHNSON), Board of Appeal 3.3.07, November 9, 2017, Pfizer Inc. v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc.

CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 1, December 19, 2017, Loyola University of Chicago v. Directeur Général de l’INPI, RG No. 2016/17848.

The problem with the problem

Over the years, the Boards of appeal of the EPO have developed a number of rules which are now set in stone. The so-called “gold standard“, used for appraising whether any extension of subject-matter has occurred and whether priority is valid, is a famous one. An even more famous one is the “problem and solution approach” for appraising inventive step.

The problem and solution approach is a very clear reasoning framework which has two fantastic advantages:

  • avoiding an ex post finding artificially ignoring the actual contribution of the invention to the art; and
  • enhancing the predictability of the inventive step assessment, and thus improving legal certainty for all stakeholders, patent applicants and third parties alike.

Make no mistake: I love the problem and solution approach. Especially when I compare it with the Russian roulette of the obviousness rejections that you tend to randomly get at the USPTO.

However, one downside of a clear reasoning framework is that everyone learns how to make the best of it.

Clever patent drafting and sophisticated argumentation can thus sometimes make up for the relatively low inventive merit of some inventions. Correlatively, a number of patent professionals have noted that, for better or worse, the inventive step threshold et the EPO is generally rather low.

In fact, more often than not, whether an application or patent passes the article 56 test mostly depends on the selection of the closest prior art, and on what kind of technical problem you can possibly come up with – and these considerations may sometimes be remote from technical reality.

In such a context, I think it is a good thing when the Boards of appeal remind us that the problem and solution approach should be followed with some flexibility, in order to avoid any artificial outcome which would be unfair to third parties.

The problem and solution game.

I will take two examples of how things can get somewhat skewed in the problem and solution approach; and how some Board decisions can nevertheless offer a way to achieve a right balance.

The first example is taken from T 2123/14, already discussed on Laurent’s blog.

The initial step of the approach is the selection of the closest prior art. As summarized in section G-VII, 5.1 of the Guidelines, “in selecting the closest prior art, the first consideration is that it should be directed to a similar purpose or effect as the invention or at least belong to the same or a closely related technical field as the claimed invention“.

It is therefore a classical strategy to insert a number of goals or purposes in the description of the application, and then argue that any prior art reference which does not address one of these goals or purposes is unsuitable for being selected as the closest prior art. This is especially helpful when it is indeed difficult to establish the existence of an inventive step starting from a reference sought to be discarded.

Now, such a strategy may be curtailed by following the reasoning used in T 2123/14. As a disclaimer, please note that I have formed no personal opinion as to whether the claims at stake were actually inventive or not, I will just focus on the principles established by the Board, which seem quite relevant.

In this case, the examining division had refused the application, relating to a cosmetic composition for the hair, for lack of inventive step based on D3 as the closest prior art. But the appellant argued that the closest prior art was not D3 but rather D8, so that inventive step should be assessed only based on D8 as a starting point.

The appellant’s argument, as summarized by the Board, was that:

D8 indeed mentioned as a technical purpose, beside the improvement of untangling, volume, lightness, softness, flexibility and tidiness, also the improvement of smoothing while avoiding a greasy feel […], unlike D3 which did not mention the problem of the hair’s greasy feel or heaviness, and which merely focused on a conditioning effect, on making hair soft and flexible, improving volume, brightness and smoothness of wet and dry hair […].  (Reasons, 1.2.1, translated from the French language).

The Board did not accept this and noted the following:

[…] The claimed subject-matter must involve an inventive step relative to each prior art document. Nothing prevents the relevance relative to D3 from being examined first. If, on the face of it, the skilled person can choose between several prior art documents as reasonable starting points, inventive step can thus be effectively acknowledged only after applying the problem and solution approach to each of the options (T967/97, T21/08). If one of the options reveals obviousness, then there is no inventive step. The problem and solution approach may therefore need to be repeated for each of these options (T710/97). (Reasons, 1.2.2.1).

This is a helpful reminder. A relevant document cannot be swept under the rug by pointing to an allegedly better document. All “reasonable” starting points may have to be investigated. Of course what is “reasonable” and what is not is a matter of case by case analysis.

The decision then goes on by recalling the criterion of the “similar purpose or effect” for the closest prior art. But the Board then adds:

This does however not mean that, when an invention purports to solve a list of specific problems, said closest prior art must necessarily specifically disclose or mention all of these specific problems or more particularly only one of these problems taken in isolation. This is in particular the case for the objective technical problem, which is only established in the second step of the problem and solution approach […]. This is also the case for a technical problem which is solved in an implicit and inherent manner by the closest prior art, although this is not expressly stated in said prior art. 

Thus, simply inserting a purpose or even more so a list/series of specific purposes in the description does not allow the applicant to oppose any objection of lack of inventive step raised in view of a document which does not mention one of the abovementioned specific purposes, if this document was concerned with a similar use(Reasons 1.2.2.3).

In other terms, in order to qualify as a closest prior art (possibly among others), a reference needs to relate to a similar use. But it is not necessary for the document to explicitly address all the purposes that the drafter included in the description of the application or patent.

To me, this is a significant clarification, as the strategy consisting in inflating the number of purposes set out in the description in order to discard possible closest prior arts has certainly been quite effective for a number of applicants / patent proprietors to date.

In the case at hand, the Board found that D3 was indeed a possible closest prior art to take into consideration:

[…] Even if D3 does not explicitly mention the purposes of the claimed subject-matter, it cannot be denied that both documents D3 and D8 show compositions designed for the same goal and belong to the exact same technical field as the present application, namely conditioning shampoos, and therefore have a similar use and the same actions and effects on the hair, in particular in terms of smoothing. 

It can thus be legitimately expected that the type of cosmetic composition disclosed in D3 and D8 generally involves the same technical problems, or technical problems necessarily deriving from the similar use. Besides, even if the properties relating to the absence of a greasy feel or heavy hair are not explicitly recited in D3, it remains that example 5 of D3 does contain said non-silicone fatty components responsible for a possible greasy feel and possible heavy hair. In the absence of any specific indication or remark in example 5 of D3 regarding these properties, it is immediately apparent and obvious for the skilled person that the properties and abilities of the compositions disclosed in D3 are prima facie satisfactory, including regarding a greasy feel or heavy hair. (Reasons 1.2.2.3).

To summarize this latter point: even if a very specific technical problem is not expressly addressed in a reference, the skilled person can sometimes derive from the context that this technical problem is indeed taken into account in the document.

Here is now a second example of a possible flaw in the problem and solution approach favoring the applicant / patentee, and a possible remedy taught in T 2456/13 (decision initially reported on Peter de Lange’s blog).

The issue here is the second step of the problem and solution approach, namely the formulation of the objective technical problem. Sometimes, several technical effects relative to the closest prior art can be possibly contemplated. Depending on which technical effect(s) is/are retained, the solution may or may not be obvious for the skilled person.

The usual strategy for the applicant / patentee is to focus on one or more very specific technical effects, seldom addressed in the art, so as to more easily arrive at a finding of non-obviousness. But in some instances, this may be considered as artificial (and, if I may add, ex post) if, already based on another, less sophisticated technical effect, it would be obvious for the skilled person to arrive at the claimed invention.

The way the EPO may deal with this situation is addressed in section I.D.10.8 of what is commonly referred to as the Case law book. It is called the “bonus effect“:

[…] If, having regard to the state of the art, it would already have been obvious for a skilled person to arrive at something falling within the terms of a claim, because an advantageous effect could be expected to result from the combination of the teachings of the prior art documents, such claim lacked inventive step, irrespective of the circumstance that an extra effect (possibly unforeseen) was obtained. […] An unexpected bonus effect does not confer inventiveness on an obvious solution.

However, my subjective impression is that the bonus effect objection is seldom effective in practice.

One difficulty is how to distinguish a technical effect which is merely a bonus effect from one which absolutely must be taken into account in the formulation of the objective technical problem.

In some decisions, reference was made to “one-way street” situations, in which there is a lack of alternatives for the skilled person, as opposed to situations wherein “the use of means leading to some expected improvements might well be patentable in relying on an additional effect, provided this involved a choice from a multiplicity of possibilities” (see the above section of the Case law book). Clearly, this is a restrictive approach, as I do not think that there are generally many one-way streets in technology.

In T 2456/13, the patent proprietor argued that a secondary reference D3 would not be taken into account by the skilled person as it did not address a certain technical effect, namely the reduction in the tendency to caking.

But the Board considered this effect as a mere bonus effect. The Board did not hold that this was a one-way street situation but adopted another approach:

D3 discloses a generic process for the preparation of sodium percarbonate particles which are coated by spraying on a solution of sodium sulfate and sodium carbonate. […] According to D3, the coating improves storage stability […]. In view of the partial task of improving storage stability, the skilled person would, in the opinion of the board, refer to the relevant document D3, even if no improvement in the tendency to caking is explicitly shown. The person skilled in the art is in fact taught by D3 that, with a coating in the composition range between 82:18 and 69:31 parts by weight of sodium sulfate to sodium carbonate, particularly stable percarbonate particles can be obtained. […] He would try to adjust the advantageous ratio indicated in D3 and thus reach the claimed article.

A (slight) improvement in the tendency to caking is necessarily also obtained. In the opinion of the board, it constitutes an additional or bonus effect, which cannot justify an inventive step. The board takes into account that the improvement in the tendency to caking is only slight […] and possibly for this reason not mentioned in D3. (Reasons 4.9, translated from the German language).

This decision thus provides a possible criterion for establishing that a technical effect is merely a bonus effect, namely the relative low magnitude of the effect.

Of course, we should bear in mind that this is only one factor among others that may have to be taken into account.

All in all, these two decisions may helpfully contribute to containing some of the possible abuses of the problem and solution approach leading to artificial non-obviousness findings.


CASE REFERENCES:

T 2123/14, Board 3.3.07, October 27, 2016, L’Oréal.

T 2456/13, Board 3.3.05, March 7, 2017, Evonik Treibacher v. Kemira Oyj.

A new hope

Biotech and IT are complex areas, not only on the technical standpoint, but also in terms of patent law.

Reading about U-turns on plant patents or about the tricky transposition of the EPO’s software concepts into French national practice, one could be tempted to once and for all switch DNA sequences and algorithms for braking mechanisms and meat mincers. But one might be wrong. It turns out that even the most difficult of topics are not hopeless.

Today, Aujain Eghbali tells us about a new hope for patent software applicants. All sci-fi geeks will agree that a new hope can be a great beginning. But in order to find out what today’s hope is really about, you may have to read through the entire post.

Aujain reports.

Decision T 1227/05 (Circuit simulation I/Infineon Technologies) of December 13, 2006 has become a major reference for EPO examiners who need to assess the inventive step of computer-implemented mathematical methods.

The invention in Infineon related to the simulation of a circuit subject to 1/f noise. After establishing the principle that, beyond its implementation, a procedural step may contribute to the technical character of a method only to the extent that it serves a technical purpose of the method, the Board chaired by Mr. Steinbrener considered that:

  • The simulation of a circuit subject to 1/f noise constitutes an adequately defined technical purpose for a computer-implemented method, provided that the method is functionally limited to that technical purpose.
  • The metaspecification of an (undefined) technical purpose (simulation of a “technical system” as in original claim 4), on the other hand, could not be considered adequate, as the purpose of a claim in this context is not to quote the technical character requirement, but to identify clear features supported by the description which meet that requirement (Article 84 EPC).
  • A circuit with input channels, noise input channels and output channels the performance of which is described by differential equations does indeed constitute an adequately defined class of technical items, the simulation of which may be a functional technical feature.
  • Specific technical applications of computer-implemented simulation methods are themselves to be regarded as modern technical methods which form an essential part of the fabrication process and precede actual production, mostly as an intermediate step. In that light, such simulation methods cannot be denied a technical effect merely on the ground that they do not yet incorporate the physical end product.

Based upon these considerations, most EPO examiners seem to nowadays apply the following standard:

If claimed mathematical steps form a method functionally limited to an adequately defined technical purpose and related to an adequately defined class of technical items, then these mathematical steps can be taken into account in the assessment of inventive step, otherwise they cannot.

Obviously, this standard is not self-explanatory. Not only because it relies on the notion of “technical” items and purposes, and we know that the Boards of appeal are careful not to provide a generic definition of the term “technical”. But also because the standard refers to the unspecified notions of “functional limitations” of methods and of “adequate definitions” of purposes and classes of items.

A secret method for properly drafting software patent applications.

Probably without any such aim in mind, Board 3.4.01 has now expressed what could be construed as a liberal view on these notions, in decision T 0625/11 of January 19, 2017.

The decision was issued further to an appeal during examination by French nuclear power company AREVA NP. Areva

had filed European patent application No. 03775483.5 broadly relating to the use of a “transitional operation simulation” to calculate a “limit value of at least a first operating parameter of a nuclear reactor” in view of the subsequent safe operation of the nuclear reactor. Areva argued that limit values of operating parameters in the prior art were empirically determined without using a transitional operation simulation and the invention was therefore in total breach of normal practice and involved an inventive step. The application was however refused by the Examining division on the ground that the claims related to method steps without any technical character going beyond their normal interactions with a computer.

Claim 1 of the main request read:

A method for determining by a computer system at least one limit value of at least a first operating parameter of a nuclear reactor comprising a core in which fuel assemblies are charged, the fuel assemblies comprising fuel rods each having nuclear fuel pellets and a sheath surrounding the pellets,

characterized in that it comprises the steps of:

b) simulating at least one transitional operation of the nuclear reactor,

c) calculating the value reached by a physical quantity during the transitional operation in at least one sheath of a fuel rod,

d) determining, as a limit value, the value of the first operating parameter at the time when the value calculated in step c) corresponds to a value of the physical quantity characterizing a rupture of the sheath.

In its refusal decision, the Examining division held that the Infineon decision did not apply since Areva’s claim 1 was not limited to the simulation of a nuclear reactor.

The first instance examiners considered in particular that:

  • In Infineon, the invention related to a numerical simulation procedure to test an already designed circuit subject to noise.
  • Claim 1 did not have a concrete technical application of a computer-aided numerical simulation method.
  • Claim 1 did not relate to the use of a simulation step in a very specific and eminently practical and technical application.
  • Claim 1 did not define simulation steps, but a very general step of simulating a transitional operation in order to subsequently calculate values.
  • Transitional operation simulations were well known at the priority date of the application. And anyway claim 1 did not define specific characteristics of the transitional operation simulation, but a very general step of simulating a transitional operation in order to subsequently calculate values. Thus, there were no steps going beyond what was common practice for the person skilled in the art at the priority date.

During the appeal procedure, the Board first followed this reasoning but later changed its mind and admitted the main request. From a procedural point of view, it is worth noting that Areva asked in an auxiliary request introduced during the oral proceedings that two questions be referred to the Enlarged Board of Appeal. The Board actually did not consider this request lightly. They even suggested a rewording of the questions and did not reach a decision during the oral proceedings, such that the procedure was resumed in writing. But after all, the case was resolved without any referral.

The Board compared at length the Infineon liberal approach and the opposite approach which consists in ruling out method claims which do not incorporate the alleged technical goal (such as via a final step of operating a nuclear reactor). And the Board decided to follow Infineon. Furthermore, the Board considered that the fact the claimed method merely recited the calculation of a limit value did not prevent one from applying the Infineon approach to the present case.

The Board notably noted that the calculation of the value and the later use of this value were performed by different economic actors in different geographic locations, such that requiring the integration of said later use in the claim would reduce the efficiency of the patent, given the specificity of contributory infringement rules.

T 0625/11 thus constitutes a confirmation of Infineon’s principles and of its taking industrial evolution into account. But considering how Infineon is widely followed by EPO examiners, it is questionable whether such thoroughly reasoned confirmation was even needed in the first place.

But T 0625/11 is of particular interest for yet another reason.

As readers may have noted, claim 1 of the main request eventually granted by the Board is very broad. I bet drafters used to prosecuting software applications are counting the number of clarity-related objections they could raise.

The Board itself conceded:

The terminology used in claim 1 leads to the recognition of a very broad scope for the claimed process. This observation stems from the fact that a transitional operation of the nuclear reactor is reported without specifying its parameters. Similarly, the reference to the notion of “physical quantity” and “first operational parameter”, without specifying its nature, permits an in-depth interpretation of the claimed process.

But then:

The Board notes that the skilled person would have immediately recognized that the problem posed is in no way limited by the nature of the parameters chosen. Similarly, whatever the degree of sophistication of the transitional mode of operation selected, its modeling will only involve well-known operating principles, which finite element calculation algorithms can account for.

The fact that the principles we are discussing incorporate a complex set of laws relating to nuclear physics, to the resistance of materials, to thermal physics, to thermodynamics does not affect this observation. In this respect, the teaching of the initial application, combined with the general knowledge of a person skilled in the art, justifies the degree of generalization resulting from the formulation adopted for the application.

Regarding sufficiency of disclosure, the Board held:

With regard to the disclosure of the invention, the Board deems that the broad scope of the claims does not in any way impede the achievement of the invention over the entire area claimed. The laws of physics mentioned above are in fact able to account for the evolution of the relevant parameters, in spite of the complexity of the phenomena at hand, since the transitional operation and the operating conditions and parameters are sufficiently defined.

And regarding clarity issues when assessing inventive step:

In this case, the definition of the technical problem adopted by the applicant appears realistic. The invention aims at determining at least one limit value of an operating parameter of a nuclear reactor in order to allow better exploitation of the capacities of the latter.

Similarly, the nature of the parameters involved in the simulation (constraints, temperatures, heat capacity, pressures, dimensions, etc.) also confers a technical character to the claimed invention.

The bar on clarity at the EPO has always been high for software inventions in general and computer-implemented mathematical methods in particular, leading to a number of issues. It can of course be very costly for applicants in this field to ensure that all implementation details are included in the application in case there is a clarity objection. But there is also a specific issue related to the way Infineon is applied by examiners in practice: if a method claim is broad or unclear, it is easy for them to hold that the method is not “functionally limited” to a technical purpose or that said purpose is not “adequately defined”.

The generosity of Board 3.4.01 in decision T 0625/11 might constitute a source of hope for applicants who had become desperate because of this difficulty.


CASE REFERENCE: T 0625/11, Board 3.4.01, January 19, 2017, AREVA NP.