New opposition extensions

Since July 1, 2016, the EPO has implemented a new procedure to accelerate opposition proceedings. The EPO’s target is to reduce the total time needed for a decision in “straightforward cases” to 15 months, calculated as from expiry of the opposition period.

In keeping with this ambitious goal, the time period allocated to patent proprietors to reply to an opposition has been reduced. Or, to be more precise, the nominal period remains four months from the issuance of a communication by the EPO. But, formerly, a two-month extension was automatically granted upon request, and my understanding is that use was very often made of this possibility.

Nowadays, this extension is only “granted in exceptional, duly substantiated cases“, as indicated in the Guidelines, E-VIII, 1.6.

A few weeks ago, I filed a substantiated request for such an extension of the time limit on behalf of a patent proprietor, which was denied. I must say that I felt a little bit upset (if not offended), especially because I had the impression that in some occasions, when the shoe was in the other foot (i.e. I was representing the opponent), similar requests had been granted to the adverse patent proprietor.

Thinking a little bit about this, I realized that we have little to no information as to what an “exceptional” case is supposed to be for the EPO.

The only further, indirect, indication in the Guidelines is the paragraph which follows the one quoted above, and which concerns “other proceedings, for any communication raising a matter of substance“, whenever an extension up to a total of more than six months is requested. It is specified that this type of extension “should be allowed only exceptionally, when the reasons given are sufficient to show convincingly that a reply in the period previously laid down will not be possible. Such exceptional circumstances might be e.g. the fact that a representative or client is so seriously ill that he cannot deal with the case in time; or the need to perform extensive biological experiments or tests. On the other hand, foreseeable or avoidable circumstances (e.g. leave, pressure of other work) should not be accepted as a sufficiently exceptional circumstance”. 

Whether the same standard applies to a two-month extension in opposition proceedings (only in an “exceptional case“) as to an extension of more than two months in examination proceedings (which should be “allowed only exceptionally“) is anyone’s guess. I assume that formality officers have more specific internal guidelines, but by definition we know nothing about those.

In order to find out more, and without having the time to perform a very thorough analysis, I decided to take a random sample of opposition cases.

More precisely, I had a quick look at a number of opposed patents granted in June 2016 (opposition time limit in March 2017). I discarded all unusual cases (opposition withdrawn early, request for revocation of the patent filed in response to the opposition). There were approximately 150 cases remaining in my sample.

The first teaching is that no request for extension of time is filed in the vast majority of cases.

In my sample, the rate of request for extension of time was less than 18%. I assume that it may be even lower nowadays, as professionals are probably even more aware of the new policy now than they were back in March or April 2017. This is probably a significant change in the behavior of patent proprietors.

The second teaching relates to the success rate of requests for extension. I found that an extension is refused approximately 60% of the time.

Conversely, it is directly granted in approximately 30% of cases. The remaining cases (approximately 10%) are those where a request for extension is initially denied and then granted further to a second attempt.

Extension granted.

It is then interesting to enumerate various reasons offered in requests for extension, whether they were deemed sufficient or not by the EPO.  Please note that some requests contained several of the reasons listed below.

Some of the losing reasons first:

  • No justification at all – a non-starter of course.
  • Complexity of the opposition proceedings.
  • Necessity to coordinate the opposition case with other cases (parallel divisional applications, national invalidation trials).
  • A large number of cited documents, requiring extensive discussions.
  • A large number of pages to translate.
  • Difficulties understanding the opponent’s case.
  • Summer break season making a number of people unavailable for comments.
  • Instructions from a foreign client awaited.
  • Difficulties getting in touch with the inventor.
  • Difficulties getting in touch with staff having left the company.
  • Waiting for input from R&D.
  • Intention to prepare affidavits.
  • Change of representation.

And now some of the winning reasons:

  • Technical expert had a car accident.
  • Several oppositions filed.
  • Public prior use argument raised by the opponent.
  • Experiments being carried out by the proprietor.
  • Need to study an experimental report filed by the opponent.
  • Difficulties getting in touch with the inventor.
  • Many lengthy prior art documents cited.
  • Change of representation.

As a takeaway, I would say that, in order for a request for extension of time to be considered as relating to an “exceptional case“, any reason related to the normal conduct of business should be avoided.

Holidays, the need to coordinate several cases or to receive instructions from a distant client are not sufficient by themselves.

On the other hand, a truly unexpected event, such as a car accident, is not necessarily required.

Opposition proceedings that are more complex than usual often also qualify. But it is then necessary to be specific as to the unusual complexity of the case. Experimental testing, public prior use and multiple oppositions apparently meet the standard.

That said, there is still a grey area.

For instance, in a number of cases, it seems that a change of representation (which is very common after an opposition is received) is by itself sufficient to guarantee an extension of time – but not always. Similarly, difficulties to reach the inventors, or the number and length of cited documents, are sometimes viewed as giving the right to an extension of time, and sometimes not.

There was even a real surprise among the selection of cases that I looked at. Namely, a law firm explained that they had difficulties getting instructions from their client in Texas, as there had been disruptive floods in this area. Apparently, this was not deemed exceptional enough for the formalities officer…

In summary, you can never know for sure whether your request for extension of time will be granted or not, but looking at examples in other cases certainly helps making a prediction and tailoring your arguments.

On the other hand, as long as the patentee files at least a couple of requests in due time (typically, that the opposition be rejected, and that oral proceedings be summoned prior to any adverse decision), I think that in many cases it is still OK to submit a detailed argumentation shortly afterwards. There is no basis in the Guidelines to discard the patentee’s argumentation simply because it was filed after the initial deadline. In fact, arguments and amended claims filed before the oral proceedings, as long as within the R. 116 time limit, are usually always admitted into the proceedings. Only the filing of evidence within the R. 116 time limit is typically challenged and examined as to admissibility.

Partial opposition

Generally, opposition proceedings are an all-out war, and only the death of the patent can fully satisfy the opponent. But in rare occasions, one may come across an opponent who turns out to be less bloodthirsty, as in the recent case T 1264/12.

On the one hand, this decision is quite underwhelming, as the “reasons” section is remarkably short. But on the other hand, it seems interesting to have a closer look at the case, as it provides a rare example of a partial opposition.

The patent at stake is EP 1625093, owned by Bluestar Silicones France. In its granted version, the patent contains 21 claims.

Claim 1 is directed to a method of draining a flexible container containing a viscous product. Claims 2 to 10 depend on claim 1. Claim 11 is directed to a kit for carrying out the method according to any one of Claims 1 to 10. And claims 12 to 21 depend on claim 11.

The patent was opposed by a Finnish company named Oy Fluid-Bag Ab.

Rather unusually, the opposition only concerned claims 1-3, 8-13 and 21. As a side note, the opposition was filed in 2008, for a final decision issued 8 years later. This means that a partial opposition does not mean a speedy one…

Looking more closely at the claim structure in the patent, the following can be noted:

  • Method claims 4-6, which were unopposed, depend on claims 1-3 and form a group in which use is made of a draining device which notably comprises a pressure member having a piston, and a drainage vessel.
  • Method claim 7, which was likewise unopposed, also depends on claims 1-3 and forms another group of its own, in which use is made of a draining device which notably comprises at least one pressurizable drainage vessel, which is pressurized by means of a pressure fluid.
  • Method claim 8, which was opposed, also depends on claims 1-3 and forms another group of its own, in which use is made of a draining device comprising a pressure member having at least one roller and one counter-roller element.
  • Method claims 9-10, which were opposed, depend on claims 2-8 and are therefore relevant for the various groups mentioned above.
  • A similar structure applies to the kit claims. In particular, claims 14-16 (unopposed) depend on claims 11-13 and calls for a piston and a drainage vessel; claim 17 (unopposed) recites a pressurizable drainage vessel; and claim 21 (opposed) depends on claims 11-13 and notably recites a roller and a counter-roller element.

In summary, the patent seems to relate to three mutually exclusive embodiments, which I would call the piston embodiment, the pressurizable vessel embodiment, and the roller embodiment. Some claims apply to all three embodiments, while others apply specifically to one of those. It seems that only those claims which are relevant for the roller embodiment were opposed.

A roller (coaster) embodiment.
A roller (coaster) embodiment.

This is in fact confirmed by a helpful indication in the statement of facts and arguments of the opposition: “the opponent reserves the right to raise an objection against the claims if amended, on the basis of the description, to any such form that the draining of the container using roller(s) (corresponding to Figure 3 of the opposed patent) is readable from the claims“.

It seems that the opponent was not prepared to spend time and resources to challenge other embodiments than the one which obviously was of interest to them – which makes perfect sense. As a side note, in some cases it may even be beneficial for an opponent if a patent partially survives and lies in the way of third party competitors who may be interested in further technical solutions.

In first instance, the patent was maintained in amended form. But the amendment was apparently not good enough for Oy Fluid-Bag, who filed an appeal.

According to the appeal decision, the sole request of the patentee on file contained four independent claims:

  • One method claim corresponding to the combination of claims 1, 2, 4 and 9 as granted.
  • Another method claim corresponding to the combination of claims 1, 2, 7 and 9 as granted.
  • One kit claim corresponding to the combination of claims 11 and 14 as granted.
  • Another kit claim corresponding to the combination of claims 11 and 17 as granted.

In other terms, the patent was restricted to the piston embodiment and the pressurizable vessel embodiment. The roller embodiment was no longer covered.

The appeal decision, which as I said is very short, does not explain why these amendments were introduced. In order to understand what happened, we need to review the minutes of the oral proceedings.

It turns out that the main request of the patentee was originally that the appeal should be rejected and thus that the patent be maintained in the same form as in first instance. However, the Board found that kit claim 9 of this main request lacked inventive step.

An auxiliary request No.2 was then discussed, but kit claim 9 of this request was also found to lack inventive step.

At this point, the patentee had to fall back on auxiliary request No.3, restricted to the piston and pressurizable vessel embodiments. The appellant objected that one of the product claims was not fully clearly restricted to these embodiments, and the patentee thus filed an amended request on the spot to overcome the issue. This new request was admitted into the proceedings.

Then, the patentee withdrew all the other requests, presumably so as to avoid any negative statement from the Board in the written decision on some of the granted claims. This is why the decision is so short and focuses on the roller embodiment-only request.

Now, here (finally) comes the Board’s assessment of this final request, in my own unofficial translation:

Since the extent of the opposition is limited to claims 1-3, 8-13 and 21 of the patent as granted, the claim combinations mentioned above result in claimed subject-matter which was not challenged by the opposition (rule 76(2)(c) EPC). 

The subject-matter of the above-mentioned claims are not the subject of the opposition (see in this respect G 9/91 (OJ 1993, 408), item 10 of the reasons) and there is no procedure under articles 114 and 115 EPC relating to these non-challenged elements. Therefore, the Board has absolutely no power to rule on them, which also necessarily applies to claims which include their subject-matter.

The appellant confirmed this position of the Board during the oral proceedings. The Board can only maintain the patent with these claims (volenti non fit injuria). 

For the benefit of continental Europeans like me, the latter phrase seems to be not only a fancy display of Latin but also an actual legal concept under common law (albeit within a quite different context).

I do not doubt that the Board reached the correct decision in not reviewing the new main request.

That said, the founding decision G 9/91 quoted above does leave some room for examining claims other than those which were opposed.

The first sentence of the Enlarged Board’s headnote is the following:

The power of an Opposition Division or a Board of Appeal to examine and decide on the maintenance of a European patent under Articles 101 and 102 EPC depends upon the extent to which the patent is opposed in the notice of opposition pursuant to Rule 55(c) EPC.

But then the second sentence goes like:

However, subject-matters of claims depending on an independent claim, which falls in opposition or appeal proceedings, may be examined as to their patentability even if they have not been explicitly opposed, provided their validity is prima facie in doubt on the basis of already available information.

For instance, in T 525/96, only two process claims 13 and 14 were opposed. In an auxiliary request, these process claims were deleted, but a product-by-process claim, referring to the same process, remained. The Board examined whether this unopposed product-by-process claim was allowable, based on the above principles set forth in G 9/91, and came to a negative conclusion, leading to the rejection of the corresponding auxiliary request.

Therefore, the Board in T 1264/12 probably theoretically had the power to examine the unopposed piston embodiment and pressurizable vessel embodiment claims, if their validity was prima facie in doubt.

We can safely assume that this was not the case. In particular, the opponent had probably not submitted any prior art relevant with respect to other embodiments than the roller one which they were concerned with. Besides, the opponent apparently did not object to the third-auxiliary-turned-main request.

But strictly speaking, the absence of prima facie invalidity might be a missing step in the Board’s reasoning.


CASE REFERENCE: T 1264/12, Board of Appel 3.2.07, September 22, 2016, Oy Fluid-Bag Ab v. Bluestar Silicones France.