A solo invention

France is well known around the world for its baguette bread, strong cheese, good wines and frequent strikes. Turns out French IP also has clichés of its own, and one of them is probably the Soleau envelope. Although the general public does not necessarily know much about IP law, they have usually at least heard of this national institution.

The Soleau envelope is a way to self-preserve evidence by putting any document in a sealed envelope and having it date-stamped and kept in store by the INPI (the French patent and trademark office). It is popular probably mainly because it is a cheap and easy process. But this comes at a price of a number of misconceptions (just like some of the other French clichés), as many people tend to believe that it is a lesser alternative to a patent – which of course it is not.

The Soleau envelope had an inventor, Mr. Eugène Soleau, who quite interestingly filed and obtained… two patents for his invention. At least he knew better.

The Soleau envelope patent.
One of the Soleau envelope patents.

The case discussed today is relatively exceptional in that it is an example of a situation in which Soleau envelopes were actually useful in the end. There is yet another reason why the case is fairly exceptional: it relates to a claim for ownership of a patent, and the claim was successful – quite often the burden of proof on an ownership claimant is simply too heavy to be properly discharged.

Mr. Courau is a specialist of pine resin extraction, which is a traditional practice in the Southwestern part of France. Resin extraction is performed by making an injury on the trunk of the tree. Resin exudation can be stimulated by spraying sulfuric acid on the injury, but this has obvious drawbacks for the environment and workers.

According to the judgment, Mr. Courau has been experimenting the use of alternative resin exudation stimulating agents, comprising notably citric acid or sodium citrate, for a number of years.

He filed Soleau envelopes describing his work in 1994, 1995, 2003, 2009, then on July 7, 2010 and finally on August 18, 2011.

Between 2007 and 2012, he worked with the company Holiste Laboratoires et Développement, which specializes in aromatherapy. A confidentiality agreement was signed between them on July 7, 2010 (the same day as the fifth Soleau envelope was filed), and then apparently a collaboration agreement two weeks later.

On March 16, 2012, Holiste filed a French patent application. This application was eventually withdrawn but a divisional application was also filed which matured into a patent. Holiste also filed a PCT application claiming the priority of the French application. Mr. Courau found out about these filings and sued Holiste in June 2014, claiming ownership of the patents / applications because, he said, the invention was stolen from him and the filings violated the 2010 confidentiality agreement.

Holiste’s defense was that Mr. Courau was not the inventor of the patents / applications at stake. They said he had offered to replace the conventional acid stimulating agent by a neutral stimulating agent. The parties had therefore discussed a possible neutral composition based on sodium citrate, calcium carbonate and water. On the other hand, the invention at stake is rather about using citric acid as a stimulating agent. This concept was suggested by another technician (namely the person designated as the inventor in the French and PCT filings).

The court analyzed the claims and the description of the French patent. The main claims recite a solution containing citric acid or a derivative thereof for stimulating resin exudation. Various additives can be employed, including in particular a filler such as clay.

The court then turned to the contents of Mr. Courau’s successive Soleau envelopes. In those dated 1994 to 2009, stimulating compositions based on sodium citrate are mentioned. As a reminder, sodium citrate is a salt of citric acid; when put in a solution citrate sodium will decompose and yield citrate (a base) and/or citric acid (guess what: an acid) depending on the pH of the solution. Anyway, in the later Soleau envelopes of July 2010 and August 18, 2011, citric acid per se is mentioned.

Then the court reviewed the collaboration agreement of July 2010. The agreement defines confidential information exchanged in the framework of the agreement and provides that the recipient of confidential information from the other party has no right on (notably) related inventions. In a letter dated September 3, 2010 to Holiste’s designated inventor, the plaintiff had explicitly referred to “the neutral exudation paste which contains sodium citrate and the know-how necessary for its implementation” as confidential information under the agreement.

Finally, the court took into account of number of email exchanges. In August 2010, Holiste acknowledged that Mr. Courau was the sole inventor of a new resin exudation stimulation composition. The filing of a patent application by Mr. Courau was planned after some additional testing, with a license to be granted to the company. In December 2011, Holiste further confirmed in writing that Mr. Courau was the inventor of the exudation stimulation composition.

The court considered all the above evidence as convincingly showing that Holiste had indeed been disloyal and breached the agreement by filing a patent application on his invention. The invention was a solo invention made by the plaintiff.

The court disregarded Holiste’s defense based on the use of the term “neutral by Mr. Courau to characterize his invention (whereas the patent applications mention the use of citric acid):

Claude Courau invented the composition of an exudation paste that he termed as “neutral”, not in a chemical sense (i.e. at pH 7) but in a common sense, meaning that it is not harmful for man and the environment, unlike sulfuric acid which was previously used. It cannot be concluded from the awkward use of this term that the product did not contain any acid. On the contrary, all documents mentioned above, which are dated prior to the patent filing, recite the presence of either citric acid or its derivative sodium citrate (which is obtained by adding soda). 

As a result, the court ordered that Mr. Courau be retroactively considered as the sole applicant of the French patent, as well as of the PCT application, “including patent applications originating from national phase entries thereof“.

The plaintiff was also awarded 10,000 euros for moral prejudice as well as 8,000 euros for reimbursement of attorney’s fees.

It seems that the claimant in this case was a very careful person, who had extensively documented his work or ideas over the years. This is not so common and is certainly the reason for the positive outcome that he obtained.

I do wonder however whether the court sufficiently reviewed all the claims of the French patent. For examples, dependent claims 6, 7 and 10 recite the presence of clay as a filler, in particular bentonite or kaolin. Whether this embodiment was also communicated by the plaintiff to Holiste prior to the filing date is unclear as the judgment is silent on this aspect. Also, the PCT application contains a slightly different claim set, with some additional features.

It seems to me that, if Holiste’s designated inventor contributed to at least some of the claims, the court should have ordered co-ownership instead of a full retroactive transfer of ownership.

As a last remark on this case, the PCT application entered into European regional phase. This is not mentioned in the judgment, but of course the file wrapper is accessible online on the EPO website.

In December 2014, Mr. Courau’s representative requested that the examination proceedings be stayed due to the pending ownership litigation. This request was immediately accepted by the EPO.

Holiste’s representative countered by stating that the lawsuit was groundless and by directly attacking Mr. Courau. The legal division of course stayed miles away from taking position on the merits of the case but simply explained that the legal conditions for ordering a stay of proceedings were met.

In July 2016, Holiste’s representative nevertheless filed amended claims to (oddly) align the European claims onto the French granted claims. Of course, this amendment could not be processed by the EPO. As a result, Holiste’s representative sent another letter in August 2016 expressing bewilderment at the EPO’s refusal to deal with the amendment.

To be continued. The next steps in the examination proceedings will of course depend on whether an appeal was lodged by Holiste against this TGI ruling.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 3ème section, May 13, 2016, Courau c/ Holiste Laboratoires et Développement, RG No. 14/09297.

An uplifting patent

It seems that we will not be getting any UPC case law to comment on any time soon after all… In fact, some in the European IP profession have expressed quite a bit of distress at last week’s political upheaval. So I thought that today’s post had better be uplifting in order to curb current gloominess.

Unfortunately all that I have been able to find in terms of uplifting is… a patent case related to a lifting platform. Well, at least that’s something, isn’t it?

So, cheer up and back to good old national case law!

There are two different aspects which may be of some interest in today’s decision. One relates to patent substitution, and the other one relates to public prior use.

But first things first with the basic facts of the case.

FOG Automotive Distribution is the owner of a French patent No. FR 2896785 and of a corresponding European patent No. EP 1813568, claiming the priority of the French one. Or rather, was, as the company was liquidated during the litigation, its interests being then represented by the liquidator.

FOG sued three interrelated companies Launch France, Launch
Europe GMBH and Launch Tech, for, ahem, “launching” lifting platforms infringing the patent.

At first instance, the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) held that the French patent had ceased to be in force but that the French part of the European patent was indeed valid and infringed.

On May 27, 2016, the Cour d’appel confirmed most of this ruling and put an end to the case by directly awarding the liquidator a (relatively modest) amount of damages.

As I explained in a previous post, a European patent is said to substitute for a French patent, when both patents have three elements in common:

  • Same inventor(s).
  • Same filing or priority date.
  • Same invention.

By way of analogy with the assessment of a priority claim, the most frequent issue is whether both patents actually relate to “the same invention“. In order to properly answer the question, you need to look at the claims and more particularly the main claims of both patents.

In this case, claim 1 of the French patent reads as follows:

Lifting platform, in particular for a motor vehicle, comprising at least one column (1), at least one carriage (2) which is movable along the at least one column (1), and designed to support the motor vehicle or part of the latter directly or by means of a support element, and means forming a locking/unlocking lock designed to lock in a given position the said at least one carriage or allow it to be movable along the column, the locking/unlocking means consisting of a rail comprising a plurality of slots (6) and means forming a locking/unlocking (20) catch, characterised in that along the at least one column there are at least two catches (20, 40) spaced apart from one another in respect of their height, the height dimension of the rail being approximately equal to the distance between the at least two catches (20, 40).

Claim 1 of the European patent is identical but for the last underlined part, which reads as follows: “the height dimension of the rail being lower than the height of the catch (40) furthest from the base of the at least two catches“. 

The court held:

[…] The European patent was more specific than the French patent claim. The latter only specified approximately equal heights, while the European patent was more specific by indicating a height dimension for the rail which is lower than the height of the catch. […] Therefore, the first instance judges rightly held that FOG’s claims relating to the French patent are inadmissible due to the grant of the European patent on the same invention which results in the French patent no longer being in force. 

I think the conclusion is correct but the reasoning is not very accurate. Indeed, unless I missed something, I think it is the European claim which is broader than the French claim and not the other way around.

The European claim merely recites a maximum value for the height dimension of the rail, whereas the French claim demands that the height dimension be approximately equal to a certain value. Therefore, it certainly makes sense for the European patent to fully substitute for the French patent. The most usual situation is for a European patent to be more restricted than the French priority patent. In this case, part of the broader French patent survives the substitution. But the present situation is different.

Another form of platform: a platform shoe with a storage compartment. The application suggests to use this compartment for "keys, driver’s license, money, and other small but necessary articles".
Another form of platform: a platform shoe with a storage compartment. The application conveniently suggests to use this compartment for “keys, driver’s license, money, and other small but necessary articles”.

The second point of interest in the decision is the novelty challenge raised by the appellant, which was based on an alleged public prior use. Launch Tech first argued that they had publicly presented several lifting platforms to the public before the priority date of January 27, 2006: some at a fair in Frankfurt in September 2004 and others at the Equip’auto fair of October 2005.

As evidence, Launch offered photographs of the equipment presented at the fairs. Those were however quickly dismissed by the court, since their date was not proven.

Then Launch made reference to a lifting platform referenced as TLTE 240SBA and delivered to a workshop in Dillenburg, Germany.

Launch filed a report written by a patent attorney. The patent attorney stated that he went to the workshop and took pictures of the platform. He noted the presence of a metal plate under the platform bearing the reference number TLTE 240SBA, the manufacturing date “2005/08” and the name and address of Launch Tech.

The court noted:

[…] He indicates that the information was engraved on the plate which was connected to the column and adds: “at first sight this is the original plate i.e. I do not think that it was replaced by another plate”. This indication is obviously an impression reported by Mr. T. which cannot prove the date of the lifting platform at stake and does not make it possible to retain it as prior art. 

Still concerning this lifting platform in the Dillenburg workshop, the alleged infringer also filed an affidavit by one of its technicians. The technician stated that he remembered delivering and putting the machine into service in December 2005. A copy of the corresponding intervention request was annexed to the affidavit.

Again, the court rejected the evidence.

First, the court noted a discrepancy between the platform reference number in the document in annex (TLTE 40SBA) and the actual platform reference number (TLTE 240SBA). An explanation for the discrepancy, though: the first number was an abbreviation for the second number, the missing figure 2 simply meaning a platform with two columns.

Second, the court more generally put the credibility of the witness into question:

[…] Nevertheless this affidavit was drafted by an employee of Launch Tech; and it is also questionable because, although Launch Tech markets different types of materials and lifting platforms, he stated that he remembered the serial number of a platform sold in 2005 when he wrote the affidavit on May 2, 2014. 

As a final remark on this issue, the court blamed the appellant with simply stating that the claims of the European patent were anticipated by its platforms TLTE 232SBA, TLTE 240SBA, TLT 235SBA and TLT 235SCA, without explaining the differences between the models and without describing their specific features (including the catches).

Consequently, the novelty challenge failed. So did the inventive step challenge. And the appeal judges also confirmed the first instance finding of literal infringement based on a bailiff’s saisie report of October 2011.

Interestingly, the infringing platforms bore the reference numbers TLTE 32SBA and TLTE 40SBA, i.e. similar references to those used in the unsuccessful public prior use defense. So at least the fact that the alleged prior use apparatuses had all claimed features appears relatively credible – although it can always be theoretically contemplated that the design of a device with a certain reference number can change over time.

In summary, the demonstration of public prior use in this country requires a high burden of proof – as in “Everest high” – just like at the EPO, although we do not use the warlike expression “up to the hilt”. 

On the one hand it is certainly very reasonable to demand absolute certainty when the patent proprietor has no personal knowledge of the alleged prior use and no access to the relevant evidence.

But on the other hand, this situation can also be quite frustrating for a nullity plaintiff (or similarly for an opponent at the EPO). You sometimes get the feeling that actual public prior uses are impossible to rely on in practice because there will never be enough records from that time and because every document or affidavit can be criticized one way or another as being incomplete or doubtful.

How a more fair balance could be reached is a tricky question. Maybe through greater resort to depositions of witnesses under oath?


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5, chambre 2, May 27, 2016, Launch Tech Company Ltd. v. FOG Automotive Distribution, RG No. 14/02829.

Patent in dispute

Most patent legal disputes arise between patentees and third parties, or between patentees and the patent office. But from time to time there are also disputes within a patentee family – because this is what families are like.

By patentee family I mean a group of persons and/or entities who co-own a patent.

One such family is comprised of two French public institutions, namely Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC) and Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris (APHP), together with an individual, Mr. Julian Itzcovitz, who collectively own European patent application No. EP 2268361 as well as some corresponding foreign applications or patents, directed to a medical device comprising a percutaneous probe, notably for cancer treatment.

Why such an unusual co-ownership? It turns out the invention was jointly made by a neurosurgeon, Prof. Alexandre Carpentier, and by Mr. Itzcovitz who was a private consultant. They jointly filed a U.S. provisional application and then a PCT application claiming the priority of the U.S. provisional. Then, Prof. Carpentier’s share in the patent family was assigned to UPMC and APHP, his employers (in a typical case, the two public institutions would in fact have been the original applicants in the PCT application). On the other hand, Mr. Itzcovitz retained its share, established to be 20%, as he was not an employee.

Under French law, the rules of co-ownership are to be specified in a co-ownership agreement. In the absence of guidelines agreed upon by the parties, article L.613-29 Code de la propriété intellectuelle provides a few default rules. In particular, in terms of licensing, a distinction is made in the article between non-exclusive licenses and exclusive licenses. The default rule is that non-exclusive licenses can be freely granted by each co-owner subject to a compensation to the other co-owners and subject to a right of preemption by the other co-owners.

When it comes to exclusive licenses, the rule is more strict:

An exclusive license can only be granted if all co-owners agree or if a court provides an authorization.

This is a serious constraint indeed. In the present case, although a co-ownership agreement was executed between UPMC, APHP and Mr. Itzcovitz, it does not seem that this agreement contained any provision overruling the unanimity rule set in article L.613-29.

UPMC and APHP planned to grant an exclusive license of the group of patents and applications to a start-up company called Carthera, founded by the inventor Prof. Carpentier. Although the two public entities owned 80% of the shares, this was not quite enough to proceed with the plan, as they still needed the approval of the second inventor Mr. Itzcovitz. But he refused to give it.

Therefore, UPMC and APHP sued Mr. Itzcovitz in front of the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) in order to obtain the authorization from the court to grant the license without his consent. Carthera, the putative licensee, intervened.

Instead of having to resolve a dispute over a patent, why not file a patent on dispute resolution?
Instead of having to resolve a dispute over a patent, why not file a patent on dispute resolution?

The court defined the scope of its intervention in the dispute as follows:

[…] The court’s authorization is supposed to override an unjustified refusal by one of the co-owners of granting a license contemplated by the other co-owners. It should thus be determined if the reasons set forth by Mr. Julian Itzcovitz for justifying his refusal of the license agreement are serious and well-founded. 

Therefore, the court reviewed the draft of license agreement and examined the reasons mentioned by the inventor for rejecting the proposal.

The proposed license was worldwide and covered products for anti-tumor therapy in all organs. Royalties were to be provided in the form of:

  • a first lump sum of 73,000 euros to be paid in three installments (I understand that this corresponds to a refund of the expenses related to the various patent applications);
  • another lump sum of 80,000 euros due within 6 months of a first marketing authorization in the U.S., and the same lump sum due within 6 months of a first marketing authorization in Europe; and
  • a royalty rate of 4 to 5% for products sold in countries where a patent is in force, as long as the patent remains in force, or of 1 to 2% for products sold in other countries, for 15 years.

The draft also included a sublicensing provision, as well as a termination provision in case the licensee cannot or does not exploit the technology or ceases to do so, or is late in doing so.

The disgruntled inventor listed four reasons why the contemplated license was in his opinion bad for business, and the court assessed each of those.

First, the scope of the license was too broad, both geographically and in terms of subject-matter, in view of Carthera’s actual plans, which were to target only the US and the EU, and to focus on brain tumors first, and then at a later stage liver and lung tumors.

Second, Carthera was unable to implement the invention in a timely manner, in view of its clinical trial schedule and its business plan. In fact the subcontractor responsible for miniaturizing the probe was already behind schedule. And Carthera was still a poorly staffed start-up company.

Third, other companies could be interested in implementing the invention but there had been no effort to get in touch with prospective customers.

Fourth, the royalties were too low. When Mr. Itzcovitz first received the draft license agreement during the negotiations phase, he suggested a different royalty structure with much higher non-refundable yearly lump sums covering a number of sales, and then a lower royalty rate for additional sales not covered by the lump sums. His analysis was based on the belief that market opportunities for the invention were huge. During litigation, Mr. Itzcovitz filed an expert valuation of the patents / applications. According to the expert, the actual value of the patents based on the potential market was 13,600,000 euros; but this value was reduced to 3,410,000 euros in the event of a limited exploitation by Carthera. Therefore, the loss suffered by his client was 20% of the difference between the two amounts, i.e.  approximately 2 million euros. The expert also noted that the royalty rates offered in the license agreement were lower than typical royalty rates in the field.

UPMC and APHP countered the defendant’s analysis by providing their own expert opinion.

The key point in their argumentation was that the invention was still at an early development phase. It was still quite uncertain whether the invention could be exploited and marketed at all. Safety and efficacy trials still needed to be conducted, marketing authorizations needed to be obtained. In fact there was not even a working prototype of the probe – as a side note, the latter argument would certainly be fodder for a third party wanting to challenge the validity of the patents…

In summary, the claimants’ position was that the level of uncertainty was high and that the invention was not ready yet to be on the market. When this was properly taken into account, the contemplated license agreement made perfect sense.

The court was fully convinced by this argument:

In the case of an early license agreement, the licensee needs to finance implementation and development studies, clinical trials and more generally research and development expenses; they cannot take on expensive patent fees before the marketing phase, or they would run out of funding. In the present case, in Mr. Julian Itzcovitz’ proposal, lump sums are requested for the patent co-owners which are to be paid before marketing starts, which would amount to a total of 933,000 euros. As stated by Prof. Galloux, this would result in excluding start-up entities such as Carthera which have to get funded by fundraising in the development process and cannot take on such significant initial patent fees. 

As for the typical royalty rates mentioned by Mr. Itzcovitz’ expert, the court deemed that they were not representative of similar economic situations. The overall valuation of the patent family provided by this expert was also deemed unrealistic – still in view of the uncertainty factor.

Turning to the argument that there were other potential licensees, the court held that there was no evidence of their existence. Only Carthera seemed to be a candidate. Having to find another licensee would also considerably delay the implementation of the invention.

Furthermore, the court held that the choice of Carthera as a licensee was relevant since the head of its scientific committee was the main inventor of the patent. There was no evidence that the delay in the development process could be attributed to insufficient skills or efforts.

Said the court:

[…] In this configuration of an invention at an early stage of its development and a license granted to a start-up company, it is normal to provide that the company taking the financial risk of developing the invention should get an exclusive license with a broad scope in terms of geography and application fields. Indeed, it is rational and balanced that, in case the invention is successful in originally limited fields and territories, it should benefit from profits from the exploitation in other fields and territories, either by directly exploiting the invention itself or by hiring sublicensees (as contemplated in the agreement) if it is not able to do so. It should be added that the patent owners will be compensated proportionally to the sales owing to the royalties in the draft agreement. 

The court also noted that the patentees did not run any financial risk since all patent expenses would be paid by the licensee under the license agreement.

Finally, there was an undertaking for the licensee to make all reasonable efforts to exploit the invention in the agreement. Should there be a breach of this undertaking, the patent owners would be entitled to legal action against the licensee.

The conclusion was the following:

Therefore Mr. Julian Itzcovitz does not demonstrate that he would suffer a loss due to the license agreement which would justify his objection to the agreement. It is thus ordered that the exclusive license agreement with Carthera is authorized according to the draft submitted to Mr. Julian Itzcovitz on March 20, 2013 […]. 

As an additional claim, UPMC and APHP requested 10,000 euros of damages due to the delay in the patent valorization caused by Mr. Itzcotvitz’ refusal. The request was however denied because Mr. Itzcovitz had offered a mediation process but the main co-owners preferred to file suit instead.

Finally, Mr. Itzcovitz as the losing party was condemned to pay 10,000 euros in total as a reimbursement of attorney’s and expert’s expenses. This is relatively lenient, as is usually the case  with a natural person.

A lot was probably not said in the ruling. There may have been personal grievances which could explain why the relationships got that bad in the co-ownership. That said, on the face of it, the ruling makes a lot of sense. It’s probably in everyone’s interest (including patients) to make a deal giving an actual chance to a new medical technology to be exploited, rather than to be too greedy upfront.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre, 2ème section, March 20, 2015, Université Pierre et Marie Curie & Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris v. Carthera & Julian Itzcovitz, RG No. 2013/17374.

The undetected fall

Today’s patent is directed to a method for detecting a person’s fall. Such a method has utility in for instance taking care of elderly people. However, in this case, I am afraid that at least one fall went undetected, namely the court’s own fall into the trap of so-called “patent substitution”.

Taking one step back, the case was brought by a certain Laurent M. against his employer Telecom Design. As a side note, it is the INPI’s (French patent office’s) practice to redact people’s names in the court rulings that they publish. Although the need to protect privacy is understandable, this sometimes makes decisions more difficult to read. Besides, oftentimes, these people’s names are available on the public record anyway. For instance, Laurent M. is a designated inventor in a patent identified in the decision, and it is somewhat difficult to miss his full name on the patent’s front page.

Anyway, Laurent M. was hired in February 2008 by Telecom Design. Info Network Systems (INS), Telecom Design’s mother company, filed a French patent application directed to a method for detecting a person’s fall on January 12, 2009. One year later, the same company filed a European patent application claiming the priority of the French patent application. Laurent M. was designated as an inventor on both applications, together with two managers of the company.

Laurent M filed suit against Telecom Design and INS in front of the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI), claiming that he was the sole inventor of this invention, and that he had made the invention before joining Telecom Design. Thus, he claimed, the French IP belonged to him.

Laurent M. won in first instance, since the court acknowledged that he was the sole inventor, and ordered the transfer of the French IP to him. Telecom Design and INS appealed. During the appeal proceedings, Laurent M. requested that the European patent (which had been granted in the meantime) should also be transferred to him.

It is in order to address this additional request by the plaintiff that the Cour d’appel had to deal with the notion of “patent substitution”, which is a principle laid down in Article L. 614-13 of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle:

Insofar as a French patent covers an invention for which a European patent was granted to a same inventor or his successor in title with the same filing date or priority date, the French patent ceases to be in force either at the date at which the time limit for filing an opposition to the European patent expires without any opposition being filed, or at the date at which the opposition proceedings are closed, the European patent being maintained.

However, if the French patent is granted at a later date than either one or the other mentioned in the previous paragraph, as the case may be, this patent does not come into force. [….]

In other terms, in order to avoid a form of double protection on the French territory, a European patent is said to substitute for a French patent, when both patents have three elements in common:

  • Same inventor(s).
  • Same filing or priority date.
  • Same invention.

The court applied this test to the Telecom Design invention and concluded that the European patent had substituted for the French patent, so that the French patent had ceased to be in force on July 19, 2012 (i.e. at the end of the EPO opposition period).

However, this finding is problematic for at least two reasons.

The first reason is that, believe it or not, there was no French patent at all. Looking at the INPI file wrapper, the application never proceeded to grant. The application was declared lapsed on September 30, 2013 for failure to pay the fifth renewal fee. It seems that a request for restoration of rights was submitted and rejected by the INPI – but it is not possible to get more detailed information online.

Article L. 614-13 is quite clear in that substitution can only apply to a granted national patent and not to a national patent application. This makes sense since the claims are not necessarily in a final form until the patent is effectively granted (although in France the opportunities for an applicant to amend claims are more restricted than at the EPO).

I am not sure that the court is to blame for what seems like a serious mistake. Indeed, French courts are strictly bound by the submissions of the parties, and we do not know in this case whether either party submitted that the French patent application had not proceeded to grant, and drew the proper legal consequences from this fact.

The second reason why the court’s finding is in my opinion problematic is that they applied the above “substitution test” differently from traditional case law.

According to said traditional case law, substitution takes place only to the extent that the scope of protection afforded by both patents is identical. So, if the French patent has a broader scope of protection than the European patent, which is actually very frequent, then the French patent partly survives, with respect to the subject-matter not covered by the European patent. This view is supported by the wording “insofar as a French patent covers an invention for which a European patent was granted […]” in Article L.614-13.

In Telecom Design, the Cour d’appel seems to have changed its tune.

The priority French patent application contains thirteen claims in total: twelve to a method for detecting a fall, and one to a device for detecting a fall. The European patent contains ten claims: nine method claims, and one device claim.

The court first noted that both descriptions are identical. Then, the court compared the two set of claims and found that

[…] claim 1 of the European patent is the contraction of claims 1 to 4 of the French patent [sic].

In fact, the features recited in claim 1 of the European patent are those of claims 1, 2 and 4 of the French patent application, but not claim 3. The features of French claim 3 were left out in European claim 1 as granted. But the court ignored this and considered that the limitations of French claim 3 are nevertheless implicitly present in European claim 1:

[…] it is true that claim 3 of the French patent [sic] […] is not expressly contained in claim 1 of the European patent, but nevertheless it is implicitly included in its scope due to the interpretation of this claim which must be made by reference to paragraph [0062] of the description, which expressly mentions it. It is reminded that according to Article 84 [EPC], claims define the protected subject-matter and must be supported by the description.

This is a bold statement. INS clearly voluntarily drafted a main European claim without the features of French claim 3. Stating that these features are implicitly contained in the main European claim in spite is a daring and non-obvious conclusion which would require at least some detailed explanations as to why the description makes it so clear that the missing features are implicitly present.

A fall can never be fully prevented, but at least it can be made more enjoyable.
A fall can never be fully prevented, but at least it can be made more enjoyable.

More importantly, it is plain to see that the scope of protection afforded by the European patent is (much) more restricted than the scope of protection of the French patent application. It is thus strange that the court finally held that

[…] the French patent [sic] and the European patent relate to exactly the same invention […].

For the sake of completeness, the device claims were also different, one limitation present in the French claim having been removed in the European claim. Again, the appeal judges took a shortcut and stated that

[…] although [claim 10 in the European patent] does not expressly contain the reference to the notion of battery life of the detection device in claim 13 of the French patent [sic], said reference is also implicitly included in its scope by the interpretation that needs to be made in view of paragraphs [0096] to [0099] of the description which expressly mention it.

Is this an isolated decision, or does it mean that the identity of invention (for the purpose of patent substitution) should now be appraised globally – basically checking only if the respective descriptions are the same? Maybe the Cour de cassation will shed some light on this, if a cassation appeal has been filed – which I do not know.

By the way, for those readers who are interested in the final outcome for Mr. M. and his employer, Mr. M. was indeed confirmed by the Cour d’appel as the sole inventor of the invention at stake. But the court decided that the invention was made in the course of Mr. M.’s inventive mission with his employer. So, the first instance decision was reversed and the court did not order the transfer of either of the French application or the European patent from INS to him. He was however awarded an amount of 50,000 euros as a retribution for his invention, and 20,000 euros of damages in relation to moral prejudice.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5, 1ère chambre, June 30, 2015, Telecom Design SA & Info Network Systems SA v. Laurent M., RG No. 2013/10097.