Patent still standing

The appraisal of standing in patent nullity suits in France is complex and harsh. The topic has been addressed in a number posts, for instance this one, that one or that other one.

The ruling commented upon today revisits the issue, in a quite unusual way.

Today’s case relates to the LEVOTHYROX® controversy.

LEVOTHYROX® is a drug containing a manufactured form of the thyroid hormone thyroxine (T4). It is used to treat thyroid hormone deficiency. The drug is marketed in France by Merck Biopharma.

According to a press release, the French health authorities (ANSM) requested a modification of the formulation so as to better stabilize the active upon storage. In March 2017, Merck Biopharma thus switched to a new formulation containing different excipients. A few months later, a number of patients complained about side effects seemingly caused by the new formulation. A couple hundred thousand people signed a petition demanding that the old formulation be put back on the market.

The existence and the origin of the side effects were hotly debated and I am not aware that any consensus has been reached yet as to what may have gone wrong.

Anyway, it turns out that there is also an IP aspect to this matter. Indeed, European patent EP 2885005 B1, owned by Merck Patent GmbH, protects the new LEVOTHYROX® formulation. Claim 1 is directed to a solid pharmaceutical preparation comprising levothyroxine sodium, gelatin, citric acid and a filler.

In December 2018, 139 individuals claiming to be patients affected by side effects related to the new LEVOTHYROX® formulation filed a lawsuit in front of the Paris TGI, requesting the revocation of the EP’005 patent. They were later joined by 34 additional individuals as well as a patient association, Alerte Thyroïde.

As a defense, Merck Patent GmbH claimed that the plaintiffs lacked standing. A hearing on this defense took place on December 4, 2019, and the judgment has just been handed down. The court has sided with Merck and dismissed the nullity suit for lack of standing.

To some extent, the outcome is unsurprising. As I said in the beginning, the appraisal of standing in patent nullity suits is harsh – excessively so, in my view. If even competitors of a patent owner are sometimes considered as lacking standing, a reasonable gut feeling would be that there is no way individual patients or even a patient association can have standing.

But in fact, looking at the reasons for the decision, the court seems to have actually walked a fine line when deciding the issue.

The starting point in the reasoning is article 31 Code de procédure civile, per which “any person having a legitimate interest in having a claim accepted or rejected may initiate legal proceedings, except if the law restricts the possibility to sue to specific persons […]“.

First, the court recalled the usual criteria that are applied when the litigants are competitors:

When the nullity action relates to two competing parties, the advantage expected from the action under article 31 Code de procédure civile is traditionally understood […] as being an improvement in the legal situation of the plaintiff. It is generally requested from said plaintiff that they should demonstrate the existence of a sufficient interest to free a future exploitation of the patented technology or a similar one. 

But then the court accepted that non-competitors, including members of the general public, could also have standing under article 31:

However, […] the competition / economic case is not the only situation in which a nullity suit could be initiated, and cannot define standing, which by nature is shape-shifting. Therefore, the standing of the plaintiffs, who are not competitors of the proprietor of the patent at stake but consumers and patients directly impacted, notably in terms of material and financial availability of the drug subject to a monopoly, must be appraised in concreto, based on the object and the purpose of the nullity suit […], without neglecting the fact that such an action, which aims at terminating any undue monopoly, is also useful for the general interest, since a revocation would benefit to all. 

There are different ways to achieve standing.

In other terms, the court did not completely close the door to the initiation of patent nullity proceedings by non-traditional plaintiffs. The notion of “general interest” in the last sentence is in fact pretty far-reaching.

The court went on in the following terms:

In fact, whether the grant of a patent is a compensation for investments and efforts made by the creator of the invention or for the disclosure of the invention, it confers a beneficial monopoly to its owner, and additionally an undeniable control over prices. In a context of free competition and free innovation, this is legitimate and admissible only if the validity conditions are met. It is of general interest, in particular in the pharmaceutical field and in case public prosecution, which is first and foremost in charge of defending general interest, fails to act, that an end should be put to the monopoly when the patent is invalid or merely aims at preserving a monopoly conferred by a previous patent about to expire, thus allowing competing generic pharmaceutical companies to offer accessible generic drugs at a lower cost to patients in need of the initially patented drugs. 

I have never heard of a public prosecutor filing a patent nullity suit to open up a market. But the court, based on the above statements, seems to accept the possibility that members of the public could take up this role.

In this respect, the plaintiffs precisely argued that the patent generally protects any levothyroxine formulation containing citric acid, gelatin and any filler, so that the existence of the patent prevents competitors from marketing alternative formulations with other fillers. This is relevant because the filler used in the new LEVOTHYROX® formulation, namely mannitol, was suspected to be responsible for the side effects.

The court responded to the argument as follows:

It is true that, by suppressing the monopoly on [the new formulation] in France, the revocation of the French part of the EP’005 patent […] would not only make it possible to market generics of this drug with perhaps a reduced price, but would also make it possible for other laboratories to make a formulation identical to the old formulation of LEVOTHYROX, which is, according to the plaintiffs, currently impossible because it may infringe the patent at stake which unduly covers the old formulation. 

However, as rightly noted by the defendant, the potential success of the nullity suit would not result in the automatic production and marketing of the old formulation […], which currently no longer benefits from a marketing authorization. 

[…]

The causal link between the nullity suit and the expected effect, namely that Merck or a third party should resume the manufacturing and marketing of [the old formulation] thus appears to be purely hypothetical and may not improve the legal and/or economical situation of the plaintiffs, so that they do not have standing in this case. 

In summary, the ultimate goal of the plaintiffs was to have a different levothyroxine drug available on the market. The court acknowledged that the revocation of the patent would be helpful for this goal. But it would not automatically result in the achievement of the goal, as a MA for a different drug would still be necessary – and is currently lacking.

To my mind, the reasoning is not really satisfactory. Has the court considered that a pharma company may not want to take the pain of requesting a new MA if a patent stands in the way? Therefore, can’t the revocation of the patent be considered as a necessary prerequisite for achieving the claimants’ stated goal?

At the risk of oversimplifying the discussion, shouldn’t any person or company willing to spend the (sometimes considerable) time and effort needed to revoke a patent be presumed to have a legitimate interest in the revocation? Shouldn’t the standing bar be lowered so as to only set aside abusive and frivolous lawsuits?


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 3ème section, January 24, 2020, Alerte Thyroïde et al. v. Merck Patent GmbH, RG No. 18/14575.

The dead line

There is something ominous about the word “deadline” in English.

It makes you suspect some dire background. And rightly so, according to some online resources, which mention a line that you would cross at the risk of losing your life.

The French word “délai” sounds much less sinister, but the consequences of missing a “délai” are pretty much the same as those of missing a “deadline“, as a recent decision of the Paris Cour d’appel reminds us.

In this case, a French patent application was filed on November 6, 2015, claiming the benefit of the filing date of an earlier French application, namely April 1, 2015. This is what is sometimes conveniently referred to as an “internal priority claim“.

One of the requirements of claiming an internal priority is that you must provide a copy of the initial patent application (plus you must identify the modifications made in the later filing). As the applicant failed to do so upon filing the later application, the INPI issued a communication dated August 9, 2016 and notified on August 16 to the representative, inviting the applicant to submit the missing copy within a two-month period.

The applicant still did not file the requested document, so that a decision to refuse the application was issued on November 4, 2016, and notified on November 10, 2016 to the representative.

On January 8, 2018, the applicant filed a request for restoration of its rights. On August 17, 2018, the INPI issued a negative decision, holding that the request for restoration was inadmissible as it was filed past the statutory deadline.

The applicant lodged an appeal in front of the Paris Cour d’appel, which resulted in a judgment dated November 5, 2019.

The key provision in this case is article L. 612-16 Code de la propriété intellectuelle:

The applicant who failed to comply with a deadline set by the [INPI] may file a request for restoration of its rights, if it has a legitimate excuse and if the non-compliance directly resulted in a refusal of the patent application or of a request, in the lapse of the patent application or patent, or in the loss of any other right. 

The appeal must be filed […] within a two-month deadline from the removal of the cause of non-compliance. The missing act must be performed within this deadline. The request is admissible only within a one-year deadline from the expiry of the missed deadline.

[…]

The main question is that of the starting point of the one-year deadline. The INPI currently considers (and this is reflected in its Guidelines for examination, section E.3.3.1.b, Oct. 2019 edition) that the “missed deadline” starting point is the “initially missed deadline”.

As a side note, this did not appear in the previous versions of the Guidelines – I suspect that they may have been modified based on the present case.

Here, the applicant was notified on August 16, 2016 of the invitation to file the copy of the earlier filing. The deadline for filing this copy expired on October 17, 2016. The INPI thus deemed that the one-year restoration deadline expired on October 17, 2017.

The talking calendar – the must-have gadget for handling your deadlines this year.

The applicant’s defense relied on the fact that there was another possible legal remedy, namely a request for further processing. See article R. 612-52 Code de la propriété intellectuelle:

If a patent application is refused or may be refused due to non-compliance with a time limit set by the [INPI], the refusal is not issued or is revoked if the applicant files a request for further processing. The request must be filed in writing within a two-month deadline from the communication of the refusal decision. The missing act must be performed within this deadline. The request is admissible only if the required fee is paid. 

Thus, the applicant argued that the missed deadline was the two-month further processing deadline, and not the initial two-month deadline starting from the INPI communication. The request for restoration was thus filed with respect to the further processing deadline.

This reasoning will probably sound familiar to many European readers, as this is exactly the approach used at the EPO.

Applying this reasoning to the facts at hand, the deadline for requesting further processing expired on January 10, 2017 (date of notification of the refusal decision + 2 months), and therefore the one-year restoration deadline expired on January 10, 2018 – so that the request for restoration was timely filed.

But the appeal judges did not follow this argumentation. They stuck to the INPI’s interpretation of L. 612-16 and considered that the missed deadline used as a starting point must be the initial missed deadline, and not the further processing missed deadline. The INPI’s decision was accordingly confirmed.

Don’t ask me for the reasons why they chose one interpretation over the other. They just did, and there is no actual justification in the judgment.

This is all the more unfortunate as the summary of the facts reveals that two interesting case law decisions were discussed by the petitioner: a cassation ruling dated April 15, 1986, and a later judgment of the Paris Cour d’appel dated January 14, 1987.

The petitioner argued that the INPI misinterpreted the 1986 cassation ruling – from which it can be inferred that this ruling was the basis for the INPI’s position.

The facts underlying the 1986 ruling are that a patent application was refused for failure to pay the grant fee; a request for restoration was filed but it was held inadmissible as it was filed more than one year after the expiry of the time limit for paying the grant fee. The petitioner tried to take advantage of an additional two-month period corresponding to the filing of a request for further processing – to no avail.

The cassation judges stated the following: 

The non-compliance of the deadline for the request for further processing is not excluded from the provisions of [what is now art. L.612-16]. But the provisions of [what is now art. R. 612-52] do not result in extending the one-year deadline set in the second paragraph of [what is now art. L.612-16]. The Cour d’appel held that, irrespective of the grounds for the request for restoration, it is only admissible within a one-year deadline from the final date on which the initially omitted act had to be performed, and therefore rightly justified its decision. 

This is quite clear, right? The one-year deadline must be computed from the expiry of the initial deadline. Well, not so fast.

Looking at the specifics of the case that led to the 1986 cassation ruling, it turns out that, in that case, the request for restoration had been filed with respect to the initial time limit (i.e. the time limit for paying the grant fee). It had not been filed with respect to the (missing) request for further processing. 

Let’s now turn to the second case discussed by the petitioner. It is an appeal judgment which was issued after the 1986 cassation ruling. In this case, it was also the grant fee which was not paid in time. But the difference is that the applicant filed a request for restoration with respect to the (missing) request for further processing.

And the appeal judges computed the one-year deadline from the expiry of the period for requesting further processing, not from the expiry of the initial deadline for paying the grant fee: 

[…] The petition is admissible as to time limits. Indeed, according to [what is now art. L.612-16] the time limit for filing a request for restoration is one year from the expiry of the deadline not complied with. The request for further processing was due by April 17, 1982, so that the time limit for filing the request for restoration expired on April 17, 1983. The request for restoration was filed on April 15, 1983.

In summary, reading between the lines, we have:

  • On the one hand, a 1986 cassation ruling which could at first sight be seen as supporting the INPI’s position, except that the facts were different and that the relevant statement in the ruling is ambiguous. There is a reference to “the initially omitted act” but it is unclear what we should make of it. The cassation judges did simply not have to decide on a request for restoration with respect to a request for further processing.
  • On the other hand, a 1987 appeal decision based on facts similar to the present facts, and that is manifestly contradictory with the decision commented on today.

It is thus a real pity that the Cour d’appel did not seriously address these issues. 

I would also add that, one a purely pragmatic standpoint, it seems to me that there may be some contradiction in the INPI’s approach (and in the court’s present approach) to this matter. Indeed, the INPI acknowledges that a request for restoration may be filed with respect to a missed deadline for a request for further processing. This is stated in the table that you can find on the last page of the Guidelines for examination.

But what is the point in requesting restoration of right with respect to the further processing deadline, if the one-year time limit is to be computed from the initial missed deadline? I cannot think of any situation in which requesting restoration with respect to the further processing deadline would then be of any use.

I would not like to conclude this post without wishing all readers a very happy new year.

I hope that I have not missed the deadline for doing so – but hey, I have always heard that it is all right to send your best wishes until January 31. This may not be true elsewhere, but as you can see there is some cultural specificity about French deadlines.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 1, November 5, 2019, … v. Directeur Général de l’INPI, RG No. 18/20057.

Divide and not conquer

Many decisions that I have commented on relate to complex cases, involving multiple patents, or various actions in front of different courts, or endless back and forth bouncing between the Cour de cassation and the Cour d’appel.

So I am grateful, that, just this once, the mailman has delivered a short decision on a relatively simple legal point.

On March 21, 2008, Kubota Corporation filed a French patent application on a lawn mower, published as FR2915847.

On April 22, 2015, they filed a first divisional patent application, published as FR3019966.

On March 1, 2018, they filed a second divisional patent application. However, on August 27, 2018, the INPI (French patent office) refused this second divisional application as inadmissible.

The reason for the refusal was that the second divisional application was filed after the fee for grant for the grandparent application (FR’847) had been paid, back in April 2015.

Indeed, the INPI Guidelines for examination recite the following (section B.III.2):

A division can only be requested until the date of payment of the fee for grant and printing for the initial application. When this fee has already been paid or when the grant procedure has ended because of a refusal, withdrawal or lapse of the initial application, the division is refused. […]

When the division relates to a divisional application (B) stemming from an initial application (A), this control concerns application (A), and not divisional application (B)

French practice therefore differs from EPO practice.

At the EPO, you may file a second generation divisional application as long as the first generation divisional application is still pending, even if the grandparent application has already proceeded to grant. This is not possible according to the INPI guidelines.

Kubota filed an appeal against the refusal with the Paris Cour d’appel. They challenged the INPI’s interpretation of the statute.

The provision at stake is article R. 612-34 of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle:

Until the payment of the fee for grant and printing of the patent, the applicant may, on its own initiative, file divisional applications of its initial patent application. 

The key issue is how to understand to which application the time limit refers. The INPI’s position is that it is the original application in the family; whereas the appellant’s position is that it is rather the application from which a division is filed.

In this case, the fee for grant and printing for the first divisional application (FR’966) was paid on March 7, 2018, i.e. after the filing of the second divisional application at stake here – so that the filing would be admissible under the appellant’s interpretation of R. 612-34.

The court sided with the INPI on this interpretation issue.

First, they made reference to article L. 612-4:

The patent application can only relate to one invention or a plurality of inventions which are related so as to form a single general inventive concept. 

Any application not meeting the requirements of the previous paragraph must be divided within the statutory deadline; divisional applications benefit from the filing date and optionally priority date of the initial application

Thus, the court concluded that the “initial application” is the first one in the family – the one that defines the filing and priority dates for the entire family.

Second, the court stated that, in article R. 612-34, the term “patent” (cf. “until the payment of the fee for grant and printing of the patent”) refers to the same IP right as the “initial patent application” (cf. “may […] file divisional applications of its initial patent application“).

Ergo, the time limit condition applies to the payment of the fee for grant and printing in connection with the original application in the family.

In its submissions, Kubota made reference to articles L. 612-12-3 and L. 613-25 which prohibit extension of subject-matter in a divisional application, beyond the content of the “initial application as filed“. But the court was not convinced, noting that, precisely, this prohibition applies to a comparison with the original application in the family.

The court also remained insensitive to a comparison with other patent offices having a different practice: “the harmonization objective relates to the principle of the ability to divide a patent application, not the modalities of this division”.

All in all, the court’s position does not appear unreasonable. But is it compelling?

This lawn mower looks skeptical about the appeal decision.

Let’s take a step back. Article R. 612-34 does not strike me as being crystal clear. I suspect that this may be because its drafters did not have in mind the case of cascading divisional applications, i.e. divisional applications of divisional applications.

Furthermore, both main points of the court’s reasoning could potentially be challenged.

Starting with the second point in the court’s reasoning, how can we be certain that the term “patent” and the term “initial patent application” in R. 612-34 relate to one and the same thing? After all, they are not the same terms.

And then, going back to the first point, the court referred to L. 612-4 and concluded that the term “initial patent application” refers to the original application in the family.

But: 1, even if this is the case, the term “initial patent application” may or may not have been used perfectly consistently in the Code de la propriété intellectuelle; where is the evidence that it has exactly the same meaning in R. 612-34? And 2, “initial patent application” in L. 612-4 could also be interpreted as relating to the (immediate) parent application based on which the division is performed. It is true, that ultimately, the same filing date / priority date applies to the entire family, but in the case of cascading applications, it could simply be because the filing date of the “initial” application (meaning the parent application) is itself defined by reference to the filing date of its own “initial” application (meaning the grandparent application). A transitive definition, if you will.

Again, article R. 612-34 recites that “the applicant may, on its own initiative, file divisional applications of its initial patent application“. On the face of it, isn’t the “initial patent application” in this provision the one based on which the division is made, i.e. the immediate parent?

If so, we would come to the conclusion that:

  • Either it is only possible to file a divisional application based on the original application, i.e. cascading or second generation divisional applications are not allowed.
  • Or else, cascading applications are allowed, and the time limit in R. 612-34 applies to the previous application in the cascade, not to the source of the cascade.

In turn, if the above reasoning is correct, then this means that the INPI’s position that has just been validated by the court (cascading divisional applications are OK but the time limit applies to the original application) is contradictory.

In fact, on a practical standpoint, what is the point in allowing cascading divisional applications if you can only file a divisional application when the original application in the family is still pending? This is rather useless, and you may as well decide that only divisional applications stemming from the original application are possible.

As a final and important remark, the court acknowledged in passing that the INPI’s practice prior to 2011 was different, but added that this does not matter.

Well, does it not? I am quite curious about this. Do readers have any information to share about this change of practice and what caused it? Article R. 612-34 has been here and has not been modified since 1995.

Now that it is time to finish this post, I am left with the impression that even simple legal points are not necessarily straightforward.

Let’s see if there is a cassation appeal, and if so, what the court will make of this.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 2, November 22, 2019, Kubota Corporation v. Directeur Genéral de l’INPI, RG No. 18/27433.

A technical silver lining

They say that every cloud has a silver lining.

Thinking about a recent Philips case in which not one, not two, but three patents were revoked by the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI), this saying seems quite fitting.

From the perspective of IP right holders, the dark cloud is of course that we have just been presented with yet another confirmation that patent validity is severely appraised in France. But the silver lining is that, although software patents were at stake, the court did not strike them down for just being that, but on the contrary fully acknowledged the technical nature of the inventions.

The case at hand was certainly a big one for Philips.

Not only were three patents involved, but there were also parallel proceedings against several unrelated defendants.

So much so that there were in fact four judgments issued on the same day: one pitching Philips against HTC, another against Asus, another against Archos and the last one against Wiko.

Philips reproached all defendants for not joining their “Touch enabled device” license program, and retaliated by filing an infringement action based on European patents No. EP 1384134, EP 0888687 and EP 1571988.

The four judgments look substantially identical, so it should be sufficient to look at only one of them.

Claim 1 of EP’134 reads as follows:

A data processing apparatus having a user interface assisting in searching for information from an ordered list a data array, the apparatus comprising:
an array scroller responsive to user actuation; and
a helper character-generator, actuated by continued user actuation of the array, the helper character generator being operative to display a helper character representative of a portion in the list being scrolled.

In brief, this is a user interface invention. The context is that of a long list of elements. In order to facilitate the retrieval of one element in the list by the user, a so-called “helper character” appears. This helper character may represent e.g. a first letter of a name or a first digit of a telephone number. It is thus representative of a cluster of entries in the list. By scrolling from helper character to helper character, the user may select a desired cluster, and then browse within this cluster instead of browsing through the entire list.

Choosing the right song in a menu, a critical decision to make.

The defendants argued that this was a mere presentation of information, and thus not an invention under art. 52 EPC.

Here is the court’s position on this objection:

Displaying the helper character involves continuous actuation by the user in a scrolling array. 

The patent thus relies on the user taking an active part, via an improved interface interacting with him, thus creating a particular technical effect due to the actuation by the user, allowing a faster choice in an array of elements. 

By combining several modes of scrolling down a list of elements, the patent teaches an adaptive user interface for searching and displaying, and thus does not just present information “as such”. It should also be emphasized that the purpose of the invention is to facilitate the selection of an element in a large set of data, on small size devices, taking into account their specific ergonomic design. 

Therefore, the EP’134 patent undeniably implements technical means to obtain a technical solution to a technical problem. Its subject-matter is thus patentable. 

I asked my partner Aujain Eghbali, who is an ace at computer-implemented inventions, what we can make of this.

His main comment was that this is the same type of reasoning that the EPO could have made. He added that the court’s reasoning is in fact quite patent-friendly even by EPO standards.

In particular, the court relied on the ergonomic character of the human/machine interface when assessing the technical nature of the invention. The Boards of appeal of the EPO have sometimes adopted a similar approach (see T 1779/14) but the Guidelines for examination do not take any clear position on the technical nature of such innovations. Section G-II, 3.7.1 suggests that a “physical ergonomic advantage” could be considered as a technical contribution, but specifically in relation with user input.

The court also took note of a statement in the description of the patent, per which human-machine interaction is particularly challenging when the device is small, due to the physiology of the user. Although effects relying on human physiology are acknowledged in the EPO Guidelines (section G-II, 3.7), they are not commonly accepted by examiners as having a technical character, Aujain said.

Going back to the judgment, the EP’134 patent was thus found to meet the requirements of article 52 EPC.

Further objections of insufficiency of disclosure and lack of novelty were also rejected. But the patent finally died of lack of inventive step.

However, it is important to note that all features of claim 1 were fully taken into account in the inventive step reasoning, in keeping with the court’s finding that the claim related to a technical solution to a technical problem.

The court’s negative opinion on the patent was thus fully based on relevant disclosures identified in the prior art. So, this is your good old, traditional, prior art-based lack of inventive step, if you will; not a this-is-not-technical-enough lack of inventive step.

In more detail:

The EP’036 document teaches that, upon continuous actuation of the scrolling key, the first names are sequentially displayed, in the alphabetic order, for each letter, thus providing a search tool. 

Starting from this search tool disclosed in EP’036, the skilled person, namely an electrical engineer experienced in designing user interfaces for portable electronic devices, confronted with the problem of selecting an element in a scrolling list on a small size screen, would achieve claim 1 of the EP’134 patent, since the search tool of the EP’036 prior art (underlining the first letter of a name) is only a visual alternative to the generation of a help character, which is anyway taught by the US’949 document. 

The EP’036 document also taught scrolling cluster by cluster, allowing the user, by maintaining the scrolling key pressed, to go from letter to letter in the directory, without having to go through all names starting with the same letter. 

Therefore, the features of claim 1 of the EP’134 patent derive from the state of the art. 

Next up was EP’687, another user-interface patent.

See in particular claim 1:

An electronic device comprising:
– at least one display;
– a controller arranged to cause the display to show a rotating menu comprising a plurality of menu options,
which menu is disposed off centre in the display so that at least one option is rotatable off the display at any one time, whereby an arbitrary number of options may be added to the menu without changing its format.

Again, the court fully acknowledged the technical character of the invention:

[…] The EP’687 patent aims at improving a user interface for a screen. To this end, it allows displaying a menu comprising a plurality of options as well as adding an arbitrary number of options to the menu without changing its format. It thus provides a better identification of options. 

The objective of the EP’687 patent is to facilitate adding more articles to the menu without making the display more complex, as long as at least one option in the menu is out of the screen due to the rotating menu being off-centered. 

Therefore, the patent makes it possible for the user to interact with the device, while adding any number of options to the menu, without modifying the format and while keeping their own character making their identification easier.

Consequently, the EP’687 patent, which ensures a better identification of menu options for the user, by means of a controller which combines a particular option display format and a double function of rotation and addition of options, obviously implements technical means to provide a technical solution to a technical problem. Its subject-matter is thus patentable. 

Like for the previous patent, Philips was also able to fend off insufficiency and lack of novelty challenges, but then stumbled on inventive step, as the prior art was deemed to be very similar to the invention.

The third patent was directed to an activity monitor. Its technical character was not challenged. It was revoked for lack of inventive step all the same.

In summary, the present case seems to confirm a trend recently seen in a Thales decision and on the contrary to drift further away from past case law in which the stance on patent eligibility was considerably stricter.

How apropos then that the INPI (French patent office) has just published an updated version of its examination guidelines containing two new sections C.VII.1.3.1 and C.VII.1.3.2 on computer-implemented inventions.

One section is dedicated to CAD and computer simulations. The other one relates to AI. Both provide additional guidance as to what should be considered technical or non-technical, again quite in line with the EPO approach. Maybe the next revision will contain some additional thoughts on graphical user interfaces?


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 1ère section, July 11, 2019, Koninklijke Philips NV v. SAS HTC France Corporation & HTC Corporation, RG No. 16/02073.

Would a “could” suffice?

Comparing EPO and French case law on validity is one of this blog’s favorite topics.

Today’s post will be dedicated to a cornerstone of the EPO doctrine: the could/would approach in the inventive step reasoning.

The could/would approach was actually nicely summarized by the Paris Cour d’appel in a Sandoz v. Eli Lilly decision (January 13, 2012), making explicit reference to the European case law book that all European patent attorneys have on one of their shelves:

As can be derived from established case law of the Boards of appeal of the EPO, the question is not whether the skilled person could have made the invention by modifying the state of the art, but whether he would have done so in the hope of achieving the advantages that were really obtained in the light of the technical problem at stake, because the state of the art contained suggestions in this respect. 

So far so good, and all supporters of pan-European harmonization must be satisfied.

Not so fast, though, as some recent decisions seem to show that the could/would approach is not as inscribed in the DNA of French IP courts as it is in the EPO’s DNA. Here is an example. 

Modelabs Mobiles is a French company which distributes mobile phones and other IT devices. Modelabs Mobiles filed a French patent application No. FR 3063299 on February 24, 2017, directed to a casing for locking and immobilizing a phone.

Just after the publication of the application, Modelabs Mobiles proceeded with an infringement seizure against its competitor Wiko, on October 23, 2018, and soon thereafter filed an infringement suit, based on the FR’299 application (yes, this is possible before the grant of the patent under French law).

The patent was granted on April 12, 2019. On June 7, 2019, Modelabs filed a claim for preliminary injunction with the judge in charge of case management, and further requested a provisional damages award of more than 2 million euros. Modelabs argued that the existence of infringement acts was likely, and that since the defendant was in a restructuring process, there was a risk that damages could not be recovered.

The judge in charge of case management ruled on September 13, looking first at whether the patent was apparently valid.

Here is claim 1 of the patent:

Casing, in particular intended to contain a telephone, comprising:

– a first shell and a second shell that close onto one another so as to close the casing by rendering its contents inaccessible,

– a slide that is movable in translation on the first shell, comprising at least one coupling member, and which can be actuated from outside the closed casing so as to be positioned by translation in a first, a second or a third positions, wherein the first shell, the second shell and the coupling member(s) are arranged so that, when the casing is closed:

– at least one coupling member is coupled to the second shell when the slide is in the first position, thus opposing the opening of the casing,

– at least one coupling member is coupled to the second shell when the slide is in the second position, thus opposing the opening of the casing,

– the coupling member(s) is/are free when the slide is in the third position, thus allowing the opening of the casing, the casing further comprising:

– a device for locking the slide on one of the shells in the first position, actuable only by means of a dedicated tool from the outside of the casing when this casing is closed,

– first means for reversible immobilization of the slider in the second position,

– second means for reversible immobilization of the slider in the third position.

In summary, this casing can be used for protecting a phone in a store. The casing has three configurations: one which is fully locked, and which requires a tool (e.g. a magnetic one) to be unlocked; one which is unlocked and closed; and one which is unlocked and open. The transitioning between the unlocked / closed and unlocked / open positions can be performed without using an external tool.

Locked – unlocked

Wiko relied on three prior art documents against the novelty and inventive step of the main claim. The judge found that the claim was novel.

Regarding in particular the so-called EP’090 prior art reference, the judge held:

[…] The “movable member” which can correspond to the “slide” of the invention of the patent can be positioned in two different positions, and not three. In order to ensure an anti-theft function, a safety device must be added, comprising an “inserted” external element whereas, in the casing claimed by Modelabs, the safety device is fully part of said casing even if it requires the use of an external tool to be deactivated. 

A similar conclusion was reached regarding the two other prior art references.

However, regarding inventive step, the judge made the following comments:

In view of the state of the art […], the skilled person already knew casings for products on sale, having an integrated locking system, which can be actuated by a dedicated external tool such as a magnetic tool, preventing access to the content of the casing in the absence of said tool without breaking the packaging itself. 

Admittedly, the casing at stake, relative to [this prior art], provides an intermediate position in addition to the mere locked/unlocked alternative. but this mode of using the casing (simply closed in a reversible manner) does not address the technical problem that the invention purported to solve, which was to make the content of the casing safer. 

Besides, it can be legitimately questioned whether the skilled person requires a particular inventive step in adding an intermediate position between the locked/unlocked positions for the coupling member supported by the slide […], in order to keep the casing closed in a reversible manner (thus that can be manually actuated, without a dedicated tool), in view of the state of the art. Indeed, the addition of such an intermediate position prima facie seems to rather logically derive from [the prior art]. 

Therefore, the prior art submitted as a defense provides a serious possible ground for nullity [of the patent]. 

As you can see, the judge does not seem to reason in terms of what the skilled person would have done, but rather in terms of what he or she could have done.

Indeed, although there does not seem to be any suggestion or motivation in the prior art to have this intermediate closed/unlocked position for the slide, as far as I can tell from the judgment, the judge nevertheless concluded that it would have been “logical” for the skilled person to include such an additional position.

By way of comparison, here is the position taken by the EPO examiner in charge of the search report for the French application (based on different, but presumably similar prior art):

Such a casing with three positions for the slide and “reversible immobilization means” […] is completely unknown in the state of the art. Hints pointing to this direction are also absent. 

So, what can we make of this? One interpretation of course is that the inventive step threshold is higher in France than at the EPO. This is of course very possible. Another interpretation is that the judge had questions or doubts and simply did not want to grant a preliminary injunction and preferred to let the case continue on the merits.

That said, my attention was also drawn by the following statement:

Modelabs did not provide any argumentation regarding the inventive step of its patent which differs from the novelty argumentation. 

As always, we should keep in mind that, in view of our rules of civil procedure, and based on a longstanding tradition, French judges limit the scope of their decisions to the arguments put forward by the parties. Therefore, in the absence of any reference in the patentee’s submissions to the could/would approach, it is unsurprising that the judge did not use this reasoning.

Thus, I could say (or make that rather: I would say), that argumentation in French patent litigation has to be complete, including explanations on the legal standards to be applied – or else… 

As a next step, if the case continues on the merits, we will see whether the three-judge panel of the court uses the same or a different approach.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 3ème section, ordonnance du juge de la mise en état, September 13, 2019, SAS Modelabs Mobiles v. SAS Wiko, RG No. 18/13517.