Groundhog case

Okay, campers, rise and shine and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cold out there today!

I don’t know if this sentence will ring a bell to some readers, but it is my favorite quote from the classic comedy Groundhog Day, in which poor Bill Murray cannot get out of a day he keeps re-living.

The movie came to my mind when reading about the latest development in the Nergeco v. Maviflex case. I don’t know if this patent litigation has broken a record or not, but it sure looks like the judicial equivalent of a groundhog day that never ends.

Here is the extraordinary timeline of the case:

  • At the end of the nineties, Nergeco (patentee) and Nergeco France (licensee) sued two companies, Mavil (now Gewiss France) and Maviflex, for infringement of a European patent.
  • On December 21, 2000, the Lyon Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) held that the plaintiffs’ claims were admissible but ill-founded. The plaintiffs appealed.
  • On October 2, 2003, the Lyon Cour d’appel set aside the first instance judgment and concluded that the patent was infringed. The court ordered an expertise to assess damages.
  • On October 15, 2005, the Cour d’appel issued a second judgment further to the expertise. The amount of damages was set to 60,000 euros to the patentee (Nergeco) and 1,563,214 euros to the licensee (Nergeco France). The defendants then filed an appeal on points of law.
  • On July 10, 2007, the Cour de cassation partly set aside the 2005 judgment regarding the damages to be paid to the licensee. The reason for the reversal was that the Cour d’appel had not addressed the argument that the license agreement had been registered in the patent register only in 1998, so that it was not enforceable against third parties before that date. The case was thus remitted to a different Cour d’appel, in Paris this time.
  • On June 2, 2010, the Paris Cour d’appel held that all claims against Mavil (now Gewiss France) were in fact inadmissible as Mavil no longer existed when they were initially sued; and reduced the amount of damages to be paid by the second defendant Maviflex to the licensee Nergeco France by approximately half (taking into account the date at which the license agreement was registered and became enforceable against third parties). Both sides filed another appeal on points of law.
  • On September 20, 2011, the Cour de cassation set aside the 2010 judgment. First, because the Cour d’appel should have ruled on an argument of invalidity of the license agreement (there was no res judicata on this issue, as it was not addressed in the 2003 and 2005 judgments). Second, because the argument that the claims against Mavil were inadmissible should not have been given any consideration, as Mavil / Gewiss France acted in the proceedings as if their designation in the initial complaint was correct. In fact, this part of the decision became very famous since it is one of the few illustrations of an estoppel principle in this country.  The case was again remitted to the Paris Cour d’appel.
  • On June 21, 2013, in a new judgment by the Cour d’appel, the case was reexamined pursuant to the instructions of the Cour de cassation. But the actual outcome was pretty much the same as in the previous judgment. In particular, the damages award to Nergeco France was similar to the one ordered in 2010. The defendants filed a third appeal on points of law.
  • On December 16, 2014, the Cour de cassation set aside the 2013 judgment. Once again, the supreme court ruled that the appeal judges should have ruled on some arguments relating to the inadmissibility of Nergeco France’s claims.

And this finally leads us to the latest decision in the series, issued by the Paris Cour d’appel on October 28, 2016, and which addresses the inadmissibility arguments that the Cour de cassation held needed to be addressed.

What an incredible mess… This lawsuit has now been pending for almost two decades, and the Cour de cassation set aside appeal judgments three times. It may not even be over yet. For all I know, the losing parties may have referred a fourth appeal on points of law to the Cour de cassation.

Fortunately, this is a very exceptional situation due to the fact that (1) the Cour d’appel repeatedly failed to address arguments that the supreme court believes should have been addressed; and (2) the supreme court repeatedly remitted the case to the appeal stage instead of putting an end to the lawsuit.

Groundhog day and Goodbye Lenin: very different but both fun to watch.

While the context of the case is by itself fascinating, the content of the October 28, 2016 decision is also quite interesting, as it notably addresses the issue of the coexistence of French and European patents.

As a recap, the issue at stake was whether Nergeco France’s claims in the lawsuit were admissible. The court held that they were not, because the agreement containing the license provision was invalid.

Remarkably, the court found not one but two independent reasons why the agreement was invalid.

The first reason was one of contractual law. The agreement between Nergeco and Nergeco France was executed on December 6, 1990. At that time, Nergeco France was not yet registered in the commerce register. It is possible for a company to enter into an agreement before its incorporation, but special formalities need to be observed. This was not the case here. The agreement even mentioned that Nergeco France was registered in the commerce register of the good town of Le Puy, under a certain number – which was untrue, as the registration only took place on February 2, 1991.

The agreement was thus executed by a company with no legal capacity.

The second reason was more specific to patent law. Article 8 of the agreement recites that

if necessary, Nergeco will be in charge of obtaining and maintaining patents. Nergeco Fance will ipso facto be a licensee of the patents for France. 

An annex to the agreement, dated January 31, 1991, specifies that, by application of article 8, a license is granted by Nergeco to Nergeco France on a number of patents, among which the European patent in suit.

However, the agreement and its annex are silent as to the French patents to which the European patent in suit claims priority.

Because of this silence, the Nergeco companies fell into the trap of article L. 614-14 Code de la propriété intellectuelle:

A French patent application or a French patent and a European patent application or a European patent having the same filing date or the same priority date, protecting the same invention and belonging to the same inventor or successor in title cannot, for the parts in common, be independently subjected to a transfer, security, pledge or authorization of exploitation rights, subject to invalidity. 

This provision is one of the tools for preventing some forms of double patenting in this country.

In the present case, the European patent was licensed to Nergeco France, but not the French priority patents. As a result, the license was invalid.

The plaintiffs tried to escape the L. 614-14 trap by presenting several interesting arguments.

A first defense was that the general sentence “Nergeco Fance will ipso facto be a licensee of the patents for France” in article 8 of the agreement meant that the French patents were also concerned. The court replied that the licensed patents were necessarily expressly mentioned in the agreement – and the French patents were not.

A second defense was based on article L. 614-3 Code de la propriété intellectuelle, according to which a French patent covering the same invention as a European patent granted to the same inventor or successor in title ceases to be in force at the end of the European opposition period (or at the end of the opposition proceedings, if an opposition is filed).

The opposition period ended on July 13, 1994. Nergeco argued that the two French patents ceased to be in force on that date. Therefore, the ground for invalidity related to the absence of mention of the French patents in the agreement no longer existed from that date. The court rejected the argument, as this ground for invalidity must be appraised on the day the agreement was executed. It cannot be cured afterwards.

For the same reason, the court did not take into account subsequent actions (such as the renewal of the agreement, later amendments to the agreement, etc.).

And so, after all this time, the licensee was finally found not to be an actual licensee.

Nergeco France saw this coming, and therefore tried to convert its claims as a licensee into claims based on unfair competition. But these were new claims and were thus held inadmissible at this stage of the lawsuit.

As a final word (for now?) on this story, things seem to have gotten very nasty between the claimants and defendants. The judgment briefly mentions a number of parallel proceedings, including criminal ones.

It also seems that Gewiss France and Maviflex argued that the agreement between Nergeco and Nergeco France was forged. The court did not take sides on this. I wonder if the alleged forgery relates to the date of the agreement. From an outsider’s perspective, the fact that the agreement makes reference to a company having a registration number although the registration had not yet been performed at the time is indeed troubling. Could it be that the court was troubled as well, leading them to being quite strict on formal invalidity issues?

One can only speculate, not having access to the file wrapper.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 1, October 28, 2016, Nergeco SA & Nergeco France SAS v. Gewiss France SAS & Maviflex SAS, RG No. 2015/01298.

Fight club

The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club. In legalese, I guess you could call that a confidentiality clause. Among other clubs which have been relatively confidential, there is also, well… confidentiality clubs precisely.

A confidentiality club is an agreement between litigants, per which only specified persons (such as specified outside or in-house attorneys) are granted access to some documents. This can be a useful tool for protecting confidential information from being fully released to the other party, while at the same time making sure that the relevant evidence can be debated.

Although I understand that confidentiality clubs are common at least in the UK, the same cannot be said of France.

Courtesy of Denis Monégier du Sorbier, here is an interesting decision issued almost two years ago, which opens the door to such clubs in this country.

In this case, the Dutch company DSM IP Assets BV obtained ex parte orders for carrying out infringement seizures against three defendants (Univar, Novozymes Biologicals France and Novozymes France), in order to demonstrate infringement of one of their European patents. After the seizures were performed, the seized parties filed a motion in court in which they requested that the seized documents should be placed under seal, and that the orders authorizing the infringement seizures be modified.

Such a motion is handled in urgency proceedings by a single judge from the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI), and it results in an order being issued.

It is well established that seized documents which are confidential in particular as they relate to technological or business secrets, and which are not relevant for the demonstration of infringement, should not be transmitted to the claimant. On the other hand, documents which are relevant for the demonstration of infringement are usually to be released to the claimant, even if they relate to technological or business secrets.

After a seizure, it is a common reaction by defendants to request that all documents be placed under seal. It is then usual for an expert to be appointed by the court to sort out the documents and issue an official recommendation as to which ones may be given to the claimant and may thus be part of the ensuing litigation.

This can be a long and cumbersome process, especially if the amount of documents to be handled is large (which can be the case if documents were seized in a digital form); and especially if the parties fight hard on every piece of information in front of the expert, or in front of the case management judge (whenever they claim that there are issues in the way the expertise is handled).

In the DSM v. Univar case, the judge started by rejecting Univar’s and Novozymes’ request to place all seized documents under seal. He noted the following:

[…] As rightly stated by DSM, it is clear that Univar simply made a list of seized documents and stated that they are all confidential, without explaining, document by document, what the nature or the reason of such confidentiality is. 

Besides, it can be seen on the seizure report written in Fontenay Sous Bois that Ms. Theron, CEO, stepped in so as to redact mentions relating to the enzymes on the list of ingredients / food additives, to the amounts on the sales log and the purchases log, to the names of customers and to the turnover on the statement of sales per client, as well as invoices and delivery slips. 

Similarly, it can be seen on the seizure report written in the secondary office in Lieusaint that Mr. Corby, head of the warehouse, stepped in so as to redact […] the names and addresses of recipients on delivery slips, and the products other than Lactozym Pure cited on the reception orders. 

Thus, it should be emphasized that important information such as customers’ names, amounts of sales and products at stake is actually not accessible. If Univar’s representatives relied on confidentiality so as to redact some information, it can be assumed that the information that they allowed to be seized is not of a confidential nature preventing any disclosure. 

Besides, a number of seized documents are public, as either they can be found on the internet, or they are enclosed with the marketed product, and nothing suggests that they may contain any secret information. 

In summary, it is not sufficient for the defendants to simply ask for a blanket seal on everything, without specifying exactly which information is confidential and why – which makes a lot of sense.

There may be another lesson here for seized parties. Sometimes, some sorting out of confidential information and some redacting already takes place during the seizure itself. On the one hand, this may be the best way to prevent really sensitive information from leaking to the plaintiff. But on the other hand, this needs to be carefully done, as it may then be slightly more difficult to prove that non-redacted information should later be redacted as well.

Then comes the second and most interesting part of the decision, dealing with the defendants’ request for a modification of the seizure orders.

Among the various actions and measures authorized by the orders, one paragraph was about setting up a confidentiality club to handle evidence post-seizure. This is the paragraph that Univar et al. wanted to remove from the orders.

 

Two lawyers actuated by the hands of their respective clients

The judge held as follows:

[The defendants] claim that DSM, by inserting this mention “in the middle of the other requests in a unilateral and totally incongruous manner”, attempted to order a club which has no legal existence and no legal basis, and to which they firmly object. 

They add that the notion of confidentiality club is unknown in our procedure, wherein an expert is appointed to select which documents should remain secret, that the practical terms of how it operates are inconsistent, and that such a club was recently refused in another similar case. 

However, they underestimate the judge’s vigilance by thinking that an entire paragraph could elude his wisdom […]. Actually, if setting up such a club is indeed not provided in the statute, on the other hand it does not contravene the basic principles of our law, since it makes it possible for both parties, in an adversarial manner, to agree on the evidence which can be used in the litigation. 

Moreover, it is of course not mandatory. It is clear that if the parties […] do not agree on setting up such a club, to which no attorney at law or patent attorney could possibly be forced, one of them can file a motion in front of the case management judge to request that an expert be appointed to sort out the exhibits and select those which should remain secret, and this is a solution which would then put the parties back on the usual track. 

So, confidentiality clubs are possible in French patent litigation – although mention is made of another decision in which this option may have been rejected.

This is good news as it is an opportunity for parties to cooperate to a limited extent in order to streamline the proceedings and eliminate the additional cost and pains of formal discussions in front of an expert.

On the other hand, according to the order it is always possible for an uncooperative party to balk at joining the club and to have its case heard in front of an expert and/or of the judge at every step of the way.

Case management may be one of the weak points of patent litigation in France. It works well when the parties do cooperate. But it can be relatively easy for a party wanting to delay the lawsuit (often the defendant, but sometimes also the plaintiff) to disrupt the schedule by filing a number of motions, not complying with the deadlines set by the judge, etc. Such a rogue strategy may work to some extent as (i) the right to be heard is regarded by judges as a paramount principle and (ii) the court’s docket is usually more than full anyway, so that there is little incentive for them to force the parties to move on quickly.

Hopefully, confidentiality clubs may contribute to an overall increase in the efficiency of the system, by arousing a form of cooperation on side issues so as to focus on the real disagreement between the parties.

The real question though is whether they will catch on. Eric Halphen, the judge who issued the order in the case at hand, has left the IP chamber of the Paris TGI since then. We are thus looking forward to his colleagues’ position on such clubs for a streamlined fight.


CASE REFERENCE: TGI Paris, 3ème chambre 2ème section, ordonnance de référé, February 13, 2015, Univar et al. v. DSM IP Assets BV, RG No. 15/00822.

French courts getting their priorities straight

Everyone in France is familiar with the sportswear and sports equipment retail store chain Decathlon. Well it looks like Decathlon has been running a real litigation marathon for a number of years due to a patent dispute with Time Sport International.

A number of decisions in this judicial saga have been published over the years, and the latest installment was issued two months ago by none less than the supreme court for most patent matters in France, i.e. the Cour de cassation.

In terms of context, it may be sufficient to mention that Decathlon was found guilty of infringement of European patent No. EP 0682885 to Time Sport International. Decathlon’s counterclaim for invalidity of the patent failed.

The priority of the patent was an important aspect of the validity challenge. The point of law raised by Decathlon in front of the cassation judges was precisely related with this particular aspect. The judgment thus provides an opportunity to look at whether the assessment of priority is similar or not in France and at the EPO.

Here is a short answer for readers reluctant to go through the details of the case: yes, the Cour de cassation endorsed the same standard for assessing priority as the EPO.

Claim 1 of the European patent at stake was mainly based on claims 1 and 9 of the French priority document. But the defendants argued that there were still significant differences, so that the subject-matter of the European patent was not the same as that of the French priority (and that the priority was invalid).

Here is claim 1 of the European patent (as maintained in amended form after opposition):

Device for the adjustable occipital fixing of a helmet, notably a helmet for a cyclist and more particularly for a mountain bike enthusiast, comprising a shell designed to fit on the skull of the cyclist and straps fixed to the lateral walls of this shell and connected on each side at a single point equipped with a removable connecting means for rapid hooking and unhooking, comprising a platen, fixed to and articulated with respect to the rear edge of the shell of the helmet, an occipital bearing block and at least one occipital strap, fixed to this occipital bearing block and the platen, the occipital strap being connected to the lateral straps and to the removable connecting means for rapid hooking and unhooking such that, upon the hooking of removable connecting means, the occipital strap provides a traction on the occipital block which is thus pushed against the bottom occipital portion under the occiput without any removal possibility.

In claim 1 of the priority document, reference was made not just to a platen, but to a housing for accommodating the platen. It was also specified that the platen was made of two elements, one fixed to the helmet and another one articulated relative to the first one with means for connecting an occipital bearing block and at least one occipital strap fixed to the second element.

Several features were thus deleted in claim 1 of the European patent, relative to the priority document, and the debate focused on this deletion.

Here is the ideal helmet (and complete outfit) for all “mountain bike enthusiasts” as the patent puts it.

Decisions from the Cour de cassation are a notoriously difficult read. So, let’s hold our horses and digest it step by step.

There were six reasons set forth by Decathlon why the judgment by the Cour d’appel was erroneous on the priority issue.

First reason: the appeal judges distorted the content of the European patent when they noted that claim 1 of the European patent was substantially identical with claims 1 and 9 of the priority document, whereas claim 1 of the European patent does not mention the housing and the two platen elements.

This first reason was quickly dismissed because the appeal judges did not state that European claim 1 was identical with the combination of French claims 1 and 9, but rather stated that it was substantially identical.

Second reason: the appeal judges erroneously reasoned in terms of obviousness for the skilled person instead of assessing whether the claim at stake was directly and unambiguously derivable from the priority document. In particular, according to the appeal decision, the claimed device without any mention of a housing or of a two-part platen “could obviously be contemplated by the skilled person, without any technical effort” and does not presuppose any “inventive step” relative to the teaching of the priority document.

The Cour de cassation agreed that the proper test was:

whether the skilled person can, based on common general knowledge, directly and unambiguously deduce the subject-matter of the claim from the prior application considered as a whole. 

Great news, this is the same test as the one applied at the EPO! The court deemed that this test was properly stated and applied by the appeal judges. The above mentions of obviousness or of the absence of any inventive step in the appeal judgment were admittedly erroneous but they were superfluous and therefore did not justify setting aside the judgment.

Third and fourth reasons: the appeal judges did not perform the required analysis, because they noted that the invention as presented in the priority document could be found in the description and in claims 2 or 9 of the European patent. This is irrelevant, and they should have examined only the subject-matter of claim 1 of the European patent instead.

Again, the Cour de cassation focused on the correct application of the right test by the Cour d’appel and disregarded the superfluous (and, I assume, erroneous) statements challenged in the third and fourth reasons of the cassation appeal.

Fifth reason: when features are deleted in a claim relative to the priority document, it should be examined whether the deleted features were or were not presented as essential in the priority document. This analysis was not properly made by the Cour d’appel, as in particular the Cour d’appel did not address the fact that the deleted features were in the characterizing portion of claim 1 of the priority document.

The Cour de cassation agreed that the omission of essential features from a priority document results in the invalidity of the priority claim. But the court deferred to the appeal judges regarding the factual determination of whether the same essential features are protected in the priority document and in the European patent. Under French law, an appeal judgment does not necessarily have to address all details of the parties’ argumentation. In this case, it is irrelevant that the appeal judges did not comment on the presence of the features at stake in the characterizing portion of claim 1 of the priority document.

Sixth (and last) reason: no distinction should be made between features related to the function and effect of the invention and features unrelated to those, in the priority analysis. The Cour d’appel did make such a distinction as they noted that the housing feature was “devoid of technical effect” and was therefore not an essential feature.

According to the cassation ruling, the statement made by the Cour d’appel was legitimate. It simply showed that “the omission or inclusion of [the housing feature] was irrelevant for the assessment of the priority claim“.

In summary:

  • The Cour d’appel, approved by the Cour de cassation, applied the “golden standard” of the EPO (see G 2/98) for the assessment of priority, i.e. examined whether the claimed invention was directly and unambiguously derivable from the contents of the priority document as a whole, by the skilled person relying on common general knowledge.
  • In particular, when an essential feature is deleted from the main claim, relative to the priority document, the relevant question is whether the deleted feature was presented as essential in the priority document.
  • The Cour d’appel made a number of erroneous statements in the judgment, but was forgiven for doing so, because such statements were superfluous and the proper standard was nevertheless applied.

It would of course have been interesting if a Board of appeal had had the opportunity to assess the validity of the priority claim as well for this case: we would then have had a chance to check whether the standard would have been applied in the same way.

In fact the European patent was opposed, which gave rise to appeal decision T 552/02, but the priority issue was not discussed in it.

One last interesting fact though: the patent was revoked in first instance by the opposition division. Then, the proprietor missed the deadline for filing the statement of grounds of appeal. However, the Board granted the restitutio in integrum requested by the proprietor – and set aside the decision of the opposition division. So, that was a very close shave indeed. If Time Sport International had lost its patent in the opposition, the French Cour de cassation would have missed a chance to get its priorities right.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour de cassation, chambre commerciale, November 22, 2016, Décathlon France v. Time Sport International et al., Appeal No. E 15-16.647.

Shooting gallery

We are all familiar with the quote “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win. Turns out the quote has an author, by the way, if Wikipedia can be trusted on this one.

Well, the same could be said of public prior use as a patent invalidity defense. It is a simple game. The alleged infringer (or the opponent) collects bits and pieces of evidence for months, and at the end the court (or the EPO) says the patentee wins.

This is because no matter how thorough and careful you are when documenting a public prior use story, it seems that you are almost never thorough and careful enough.

OK, this is oversimplified of course. But I have already reported on how severe judges can be with evidence of public prior use. And the Filmop decision that I talked about last week is another telling example of how a public prior use story can be wiped out, piece by piece, like in a shooting gallery.

This shooting gallery was patented in 1914 – a year sadly famous for many other shootings.

In my previous post, I explained that the FR’204 patent to Concept Microfibre was revoked for lack of inventive step on appeal. But before getting there, the court first discarded allegations of lack of novelty in view (among others) of two public prior uses.

The first public prior use was a so-called Puli-Srub washcloth, which was precisely the allegedly infringing product. According to the defendants, this product was already marketed by Korean companies B&H and Daego, starting from the end of 2006.

The second public prior use was a so-called MN Heavy washcloth, supposedly marketed by Swedish company MN Produkter Ab since 2006.

The FR’204 patent was filed in January 2008.

Regarding the Puli-Srub product, we can gather from the decision that the following evidence was offered:

  • one or more affidavits from the CEO of B&H, with a sample of washcloth attached, concerning sales to a company called Lilleborg in 2006;
  • an affidavit from the CEO of B&H, with a sample of washcloth attached, concerning sales to another (Danish) company called Stadsing, together with an affidavit from Stadsing itself;
  • screenshots from the 2006/2007 Stadsing catalogue;
  • invoices from Daego to Stadsing dated 2006-early 2007;
  • emails dated 2007 between B&H and Lilleborg;
  • emails dated 2005 between Daego and Filmop (one of the alleged infringers in the lawsuit);
  • invoices from Daego to Filmop as well as travel documents dated 2006;
  • affidavits from two employees of DME (the other alleged infringer in the lawsuit, a subsidiary of Filmop).

Quite an impressive list, right? Uh, no, in fact the court was not impressed at all.

First, the court remarked that the B&H affidavits, “drafted more than six years after the facts, are not confirmed by contemporaneous objective evidence”. Further down, they noted that some of the other affidavits were drafted by “employees of DME, a party to the present proceedings”.

I think the bottom-line is that the court does not really trust affidavits. Those signed by employees of a litigant are inherently suspect, while those signed by third parties are also deemed untrustworthy if they relate to facts which took place in the distant past. Such mistrust is understandable but, on the face of it, somewhat unfortunate. Testimonies should be given serious consideration – even though they should of course be carefully examined. Also, they are necessarily prepared only when litigation arises, as there is no need for them beforehand. But as will appear below, in this case there were probably a number of objective reasons for not simply trusting the affidavits.

So, it seems that affidavits are only really taken into account if they confirm non-testimonial evidence on the record.

Here, the non-testimonial evidence was deemed inconclusive.

For instance there was no clear evidence that the washcloth samples were the same as those marketed from 2006. Besides, the packing list which was provided regarding B&H’s sales to Lilliborg was only dated 2008.

The Stadsing affidavit was altogether ignored as it was in English and untranslated. The screenshots of the Stadsing catalogue were said to be less conclusive than an original version or even a photocopy, and were also said to be illegible – which certainly does not help.

The Daego invoices contained product references which could not be directly linked to the Puli Srub product. And the various emails on file concerned various projects, labeling or technical issues, but not actual sales.

Regarding the alleged sales to DME / Filmop, the court primarily relied on the patentee’s evidence, namely the infringement seizure dated July 2012. Based on the bailiff’s report and on the Filmop catalogues, the court held that the Puli Scrub was placed on the market only in 2010. DME and Filmop’s argument was that the same product was previously marketed under the name Micro Activa. But the court concluded that it was a different product, as it was still advertised in the catalogue in 2010 and 2011 beside Puli Scrub. Furthermore, based on the 2007 catalogue, it appeared that the Micro Activa washcloth was made of microfibers only – and therefore was not according to claim 1 of the patent (as reproduced in the previous post).

Next, regarding the MN Heavy prior use, we can gather from the decision that the following evidence was offered:

  • printouts of the MN Produkter website made by a bailiff in 2015;
  • a letter from the CEO of Decitex dated 2015, further to a judicial request made by the appellants, regarding the provision of a sample of MN Heavy from MN Produkter to Decitex;
  • emails dated 2008 and 2016 between the CEO of Decitex and MN Produkter’s commercial manager.

Starting with the website printouts made by the bailiff, the nullity claimants apparently relied on the mention “copyright 2006” on the website to argue that the content of the 2015 website was the same as that of the 2006 website. The court replied that this mention was no evidence at all. In addition, an interesting argument was made based on the photograph dates of the MN Heavy product on the website, which were apparently earlier than the patent filing date.

In this respect, the court relied on a counter-report filed by the patent proprietor, which showed that an online photograph date can easily be modified by editing the properties of the file. Therefore, the photograph dates found by the bailiff in 2015 were not necessarily the exact dates at which the photographs were taken. And, most importantly, what mattered was the date at which the photographs were posted online – which remained unknown anyhow.

Turning now to the CEO of Decitex, he stated that he received a sample of MN Heavy when he visited MN Produkter in the summer 2008. This was after the filing date of the patent, but he added that the product was on the market since at least January 2007. The court noted that the circumstances of the supply of the sample were unclear, and doubted how the CEO could possibly be certain that the 2008 sample corresponded to a product on the market since 2007. On a more formal (if not formalistic) note, this person did not testify as an individual but rather as the CEO of Decitex (since the judicial request to which he replied was addressed to the company itself). And he joined Decitex only in 2010, namely two years after the reported supply of sample by MN Produkter.

The 2008 emails between Decitex and MN Produkter were not persuasive as it can be derived from them that MN Produkter ordered washcloths from Decitex, and not the other way around.

Finally, the 2016 emails were also discarded. Although we do not know their detailed contents based on the decision, it seems that they made reference to an old page of the MN Produkter website, available on the web.archive.org website. The court stated that this is:

an archive service operated by a private entity without any legal authority and the operation conditions of which are unknown, which does not make it possible to consider that the date or content of the archived webpage are undeniably proven.

It is interesting to make a parallel with the EPO’s policy in this respect. Although the archive.org website was originally considered in some board of appeal decisions as an insufficiently reliable archive source (see e.g. T1134/06), more recent decisions seem to consider the website as trustworthy (see e.g. T286/10) – although this is also a matter of which standard of evidence the Board decides to apply in each case.

In section G-IV, 7.5.4 of the Guidelines for examination, it is now stated that the archives on this website “are admittedly incomplete, but this does not prejudice the reliability of the data that they contain”.

It is likely that the court, in the present case, was not fully briefed on how archive.org works and why it can be considered as a reliable source of information. If they had been, maybe their approach would have been more similar to the EPO’s.

Apart from that, the court’s way of dealing with public prior use allegations does not strike me as markedly different to the EPO’s. According to the latter, the date, subject-matter and circumstances of the public prior use are to be established in a precise manner (Guidelines for examination, G-IV, 7.1). Again, if there is any loophole, inconsistency, or lack of reliability in the evidential record, the conclusion is generally that the public prior use is not adequately proven.

This is harsh on opponents or litigants who happen to know (or believe) for a fact that the public prior use allegation is true and relevant but have a hard time collecting evidence. But this high standard is the price to pay to prevent patents from being revoked due to unreal or made up prior art.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5, chambre 1, September 27, 2016, Filmop Srl & SASU Distribution de Matériel Européen v. SAS Concept Microfibre, RG No. 14/18000.

Clean sweep

There are at least three interesting aspects in today’s decision, as well as a sort of infuriating one. The interesting points are limitation, public prior use and inventive step. The infuriating one is a mistake made by the court, which stumbled over dependent claims – despite vocal criticisms of this type of mistakes made by various commentators over the years.

But before I address these points in turn, a few words on the background. The claimant in this case is Concept Microfibre, a French company specialized in microfiber textiles, as its name suggests. They own two French patents filed on the same day, FR 2926204 (FR’204) and FR 2926205 (FR’205).

In 2012, Concept Microfibre sued another French company Distribution de Matériel Européen (DME) as well as its Italian mother company, Filmop, for infringement of the two French patents. Further to the classical nullity counter strikes, the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) revoked claims 1, 2 and 3 of FR’205 (which were relied upon by the patent proprietor) in its judgment dated July 3, 2014; but the other patent FR’204 was upheld, and the defendants were found liable for infringement.

They appealed, which leads us to the judgment of September 27, 2016 by the Paris Cour d’appel.

On appeal, the patentee did not fight the revocation of claims 1, 2 and 3 of FR’205 by the TGI. So, this was quite easy to deal with for the appeal judges, and this part of the TGI decision was confirmed. What was more challenging for the court was to handle the other patent FR’204.

The first challenge was that the FR’204 patent was limited during the appeal proceedings, or more precisely at the onset of the appeal proceedings. The appeal was lodged on August 27, 2014, and a request for limitation of FR’204 was filed less than 2 months later, on October 16, 2014, at the INPI (French patent and trademark office). The limitation was accepted by the INPI on January 9, 2015.

The limitation consisted in combining claim 1 with claims 2 and 4.

The alleged infringers claimed that this limitation was invalid, because the limitation was requested “in order to adapt the right so as to escape a looming revocation” (uh, yes, that’s kind of the whole point of limitation proceedings) “and so as to harmonize it with the features of the products that they market” (right, too bad the patentee did not add a feature clearly not present in the alleged infringing products).

The alleged legal basis for the invalidity of the limitation was the legal principle “fraus omnia corrumpit“.

As much as I like Latin phrases, especially when I happen to know what they mean, the argument was clearly a long shot. The court easily concluded that the limitation was neither fraudulent nor improper, and that the defendants had had enough time to challenge the validity of the limited claims.

What I do find puzzling in this limitation case, though, is why the claims were limited in the first place. Usually, claims are limited on appeal when the patent is revoked in first instance (see a recent example in the Orange v. Free litigation). But in this case the patent was upheld in first instance.

Did the appellants immediately file submissions together with their appeal of August 27, 2014, and did these submissions contain new arguments which appeared more serious and threatening to the patentee? It is possible, but we cannot know for sure as the file wrapper is not part of the public record.

As far as I can tell, no new prior art was cited on appeal.

On the other hand, it seems that the appellants developed a proper argumentation of lack of inventive step, which was not the case in first instance.

In first instance, it looks like the defendants were so confident with their lack of novelty attack that they did not really focus on inventive step. Thus, the TGI simply discarded the inventive step attack by noting that:

regarding the first part of the characterizing portion [of the claim], the defendants did not make any observation on its inventive character and on the approach that the skilled person would have to make this composition and its particular structure. 

So I can only speculate that a convincing argument of lack of inventive step was newly introduced very early on appeal, which led to the limitation – unless readers have other ideas?

Anyway, the proprietor may actually have underestimated the new argument in spite, as the main claim as limited was ultimately found not to be inventive by the court!

The claim at stake was the following:

Cleaning cloth, in particular for cleaning the floor, intended to be carried by a broom, said cloth having a cleaning surface intended to come into contact with the floor, said cleaning surface comprising a textile composition made of polyolefine, and a textile composition made of hydrophilic microfibers, characterized in that:

– each of said textile composition made of polyolefine and said textile composition made of hydrophilic microfibers comprises a thread extending towards the cleaning surface, 

– the titer of the thread of said textile composition made of polyolefine is greater than the titer of the thread of said textile composition made of hydrophilic microfibers, 

– the first textile composition defines scrubbing areas and the second textile composition defines absorption areas, and

– on the cleaning surface, the textile composition made of polyolefine is slightly below the textile composition made of hydrophilic microfibers.

Brooms are not just useful for scrubbing and absorbing fluids.
Brooms are not just useful for scrubbing and absorbing fluids.

The court relied on an EPO-like approach to assess inventive step, in particular with respect to the definition of the closest prior art:

the closest prior art which is selected must be relevant, that is it must correspond to a similar use and must require the fewest structural and functional modifications to arrive at the claimed invention; said closest prior art must therefore have the same purpose or effect as the invention or at least belong to the same technical field as the claimed invention or a closely related field. 

The court identified the technical problem addressed in the patent as improving the efficacy of cleaning cloths both for scrubbing dirt and for absorbing fluids, owing to the two textile compositions. Then, the court identified three relevant documents which could represent the closest prior art, without really singling out one among the three. They all belonged to the same technical field although their purpose was slightly different (namely, the prior art cloths were intended for sweeping, not scrubbing).

The court then held that all claimed features could be found in various prior art documents. As far as I understand:

  • Two Korean documents both taught two textile compositions, one made of hard polyolefine fibers (suitable for scrubbing) and one made of hydrophilic fibers (suitable for absorbing fluids), the titer of the former being greater than the titer of the latter.
  • A PCT application disclosed distinct areas, with fibers made of a single thread extending towards the cleaning surface.
  • Finally, a U.S. patent disclosed a cloth made of fabric comprising thread loops of different lengths depending on their purpose (absorption of dirt for the longer loops and absorption of liquid for the shorter ones).

The court did not explicitly state that all these documents could be combined due to a “partial problem” approach, but this is probably what they more or less had in mind. At any rate, they noted that the claimed invention:

does not contravene any prejudice, does not represent any breakthrough relative to the methods already taught, does not overcome any technical difficulty and does not provide any unexpected or surprising result. 

On the face of it, and with the important caveat that I have not examined the prior art nor the submissions of the parties (which are not public), this conclusion seems to make sense.

On the other hand, what makes absolutely no sense is that one of the dependent claims was then revoked for lack of novelty:

Claim 5 recites that the polyolefine is polypropylene, but this claim lacks novelty, since claim 1 of Korean patent 10-0718962 already discloses fibers areas made of polypropylene. 

It is unfortunately relatively common for our judges to get dependent claims wrong. Here, the court apparently focused only on the features contained in claim 5, without realizing that these features should be read in combination with those of claim 1. If claim 1 is novel, then claim 5 is also novel. It can at best lack inventive step, like claim 1.

By the way, the frequency of this type of error regarding dependent claims is probably a factor to be taken into account by patent proprietors when determining their litigation strategy. If you know that your main claim is weak, it is probably better to amend it by way of a limitation rather than assume that a stronger dependent claim will survive if the main claim is revoked. Of course, that can happen, but you’d better not count on it.

As mentioned at the beginning of the post, the way the court handled the public prior use defense was also interesting, I will try to address it in another post.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5, chambre 1, September 27, 2016, Filmop Srl & SASU Distribution de Matériel Européen v. SAS Concept Microfibre, RG No. 14/18000.