Getting a handle on limitation

Last week’s post was about a famous chemical case which found its way up to the Cour de cassation twice, due to a tricky limitation issue combined with a tricky SPC issue.

Today, I would like to reassure readers versed in the mechanical arts. Yes, they too are entitled to get some fun with fancy limitation questions.

The case at hand relates to French patent No. FR 2843372 (FR’372), which is concerned with a sales display pack for door or window handles. The patent proprietor Société de Fonderie du Centre (SOFOC) has apparently had a complicated relationship with DIY store chain Bricorama over the past twenty years. A recent episode of their hectic partnership is an infringement lawsuit brought by SOFOC against Bricorama based on FR’372.

Interestingly, the legal action was started only one month after a limitation of the patent was granted by the INPI (French patent office).

Bricorama counterclaimed for invalidity – why would they not – and my focus will be on their argument that some of the patent claims were invalid due to extension of the scope of protection after grant, further to the alleged “limitation” of the patent. Speaking EPO language, this would be an “Art.123(3) objection“.

The patent as granted comprised a main claim and seven dependent claims. Claim 1 read as follows:

Sales display pack for door or window handles comprising a finger-plate and a lever-handle, characterized in that it is composed firstly of cardboard folded on itself in two flaps, a presentation flap and a back flap, and secondly means of attachment of the said handle(s) to be presented on said cardboard fitting into cut-outs formed in said cardboard, the said cardboard comprising two fixing cut-outs formed facing each other on the two flaps, at least four cut-outs for attachment of the handle(s) to the said display pack, said cut-outs being formed facing each other in pairs in the two flaps and at least one cut-out formed on the presentation flap, in which a transparent compartment is placed for containing assembly accessories for the presented handle(s).

After the limitation, claim 1 was worded as follows (the highlighted expressions corresponding to added features):

Sales display pack for door or window handles comprising a finger-plate and a lever-handle, characterized in that it is composed firstly of cardboard folded on itself in two flaps, a presentation flap and a back flap, and secondly means of attachment of two handles to be presented on said cardboard fitting into cut-outs formed in said cardboard, so that the finger-plates rest against the presentation flap, said cardboard comprising two fixing cut-outs formed facing each other on the two flaps, at least four cut-outs for attachment of the two handles to the said display pack, said cut-outs being formed facing each other in pairs in the two flaps and at least one cut-out formed on the presentation flap, in which a transparent compartment is placed for containing assembly accessories for the presented handles.

It was not challenged that amended claim 1 was more restricted than claim 1 as granted.

The issue was that, together with the amendment of claim 1, the patent proprietor had also filed five brand new claims 9 to 13 which, they said, were merely dependent claims.

New claim 9 was worded as follows (the highlighted portions being in my view the most important ones):

A set of two door or window handles attached to a sales display pack, each handle comprising a finger-plate and a lever-handle, characterized in that the sales display pack is composed of cardboard folded on itself in two flaps, a presentation flap and a back flap, and secondly means of attachment of the two handles fitting into cut-outs formed in said cardboard, the finger-plates resting against the presentation flap, said cardboard comprising two fixing cut-outs formed facing each other on the two flaps, at least four cut-outs for attachment of the two handles to said display pack, said cut-outs being formed facing each other in pairs in the two flaps and at least one cut-out formed on the presentation flap, in which a transparent compartment is placed for containing assembly accessories for the presented handles, the sales display pack being according to one of claims 1 to 8.

The following new claims 10 to 13 were also directed to a set of handles attached to a sales display pack, making reference to claim 9. For the defendant, claim 9 was an independent claim, and not a mere dependent claim as advocated by the plaintiff. They also argued that claims 9 to 13 extended the scope of protection of the patent and were thus invalid.

Fancy handles are best displayed in their natural environment.
Fancy handles are best displayed in their natural environment.

The Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) ruled in the defendant’s favor:

It is true that claim 9 repeats the wording of claim 1 regarding the definition of the sales display pack, but it is directed to “a set of two door or window handles characterized in that the handles are attached to a sales display pack”. Now, claim 1 only relates to the sales display pack which supports the handles, and not to the set composed of these distinct elements. The scope of protection under Article L. 612-6 of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle, restricted to the sales display pack in claim 1, is extended in claim 9 to a different product made of the combination of the handles and previously characterized sales display pack. Claim 9 adds relative to the features of claim 1 and concerns a distinct subject-matter, whereas claims 10 to 13, which are mere embodiments of claim 9, depend on it. 

With this assessment of the nature of claim 9, it comes as no surprise that the TGI found that there had been an extension of the scope of protection:

[…] Article L. 613-24 of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle mentions limitation only as far as claims are modified. Per se, the addition of 5 dependent claims cannot be analyzed as a modification of preexisting claims. In fact, [SOFOC] does not contend that going from 8 to 13 claims would be the result of a mere redrafting of the initial claims 1 to 8, which remain unchanged – with the exception of the definition of the number of handles supported by the sales display pack. 

Moreover, it is now acknowledged that claim 9 does not simply repeat the features of claims 1 to 8 but includes a set made of the sales display pack and two handles in the scope of protection conferred by the patent. Even if it is clear that the description relates to a sales display pack intended for supporting door or window handles, it does absolutely not institute the combination of the two elements of the invention, and by the way the sole drawing of the patent does not show the handles. The latter are only mentioned in the description in order to understand the purpose of the sales display pack, which is the sole subject-matter of the invention. Also, the modification of claim 1 was sufficient to limit the protection to a sales display pack intended for supporting two door or window handles, without any need for the addition of 5 new claims. Thus, independent claim 9 and dependent claims 10 to 13 involve a broadening of the scope of protection conferred by the patent, which in fact would have had a significant impact on a possible damages computation, to a new object not comprised in the description and in the features of initial claims 1 to 8. They are therefore invalid.

In summary, the amendment was objectionable on two grounds.

First, limitation proceedings are not meant to add claims, but rather to modify and more precisely restrict existing claims. This seems to be in keeping with the Guidelines for examination in the EPO (section D-X, 4.3):

Likewise, adding dependent claims in limitation is not permissible if not directly caused by the limitation introduced in the claims.

In the present case, the addition of the supplemental claims seems to have been uncorrelated to the modification of claim 1 and thus unjustified.

The second ground retained by the judges is that new claim 9 and its dependent claims covered a different object from the one covered in the patent as granted. This is probably a more controversial point. For one thing, the TGI analyzed claim 9 as an independent claim, even though it explicitly refers to claims 1 to 8 and includes all the limitations of these preceding claims. This appraisal may not be fully consistent with the definition of independent and dependent claims provided in section F-IV, 3.4 of the Guidelines for examination in the EPO.

But, more importantly, the combination of a sales display pack and two handles, recited in claim 9, was considered as a different object (an aliud) in comparison with the sales display pack as such recited in claims 1 to 8. This approach is comparable to that adopted by the INPI in the Syngenta case discussed last week: the INPI considered that adding a second active substance to a claim directed to a fungicide composition comprising a first active substance resulted in a shift of the scope of protection towards a different object. As explained in the post, the Cour de cassation finally rejected the objection in Syngenta. But did they fully weigh all relevant factors? One cannot really tell based on the brief and cryptic reasons for the decision.

There are, to my mind, valuable reasons for making a distinction between (A) further restricting some features of a claimed object; and (B) adding a supplemental object in a claim. If case (A) undoubtedly corresponds to a real limitation, case (B) is not so simple, as it may in some instances pave the way for a new contributory infringement complaint, or for an increase in the amount of damages, as rightly noted by the court in the above citation – in addition to also making it theoretically possible to extend the duration of protection in the pharmaceutical or phytosanitary field, by way of an SPC application, as discussed last week.

A somewhat more indirect parallel can also be made with the Nespresso judgment discussed in a previous post. The TGI had objected to the presence of a claim directed to a device for the extraction of a capsule, plus the capsule itself, in combination, while the application as filed focused on the device without presenting the capsule as part of the invention. In this case, the nullity ground was extension of subject-matter beyond the contents of the application as filed, and not extension of the scope of protection after grant. But the underlying idea is similar.

A common feature of NespressoSyngenta and Bricorama is that the patent proprietor tried to change the focus of the invention after the filing date in order to gain a particular legal advantage. In all three cases, the judges thwarted the patentees’ strategy:

  • In Nespresso, the combination claim was introduced at a late stage during examination proceedings (after the issuance of the communication on the intent to grant by the EPO) presumably specifically in order to make it possible to sue capsule manufacturers. The combination claim was viewed by the French judges as improperly adding matter.
  • In Syngenta, a dependent claim was limited after grant in the hope of making it compliant with the Medeva standards, as a basis for a combo SPC application. The Cour de cassation validated the limitation but the SPC application was rejected all the same, and the rejection was confirmed by the Cour d’appel.
  • In Bricorama, new claims were added by way of limitation proceedings a few weeks before launching an infringement action, potentially modifying the quantum of damages. Those claims were revoked.

Could it be that courts are not that keen on too smart patentees?

As a final note, SOFOC did not have such a bad time in court after all. Having revoked claims 9 to 13, the court also revoked claims 1 to 4 (for lack of inventive step) but then held that dependent claims 5 to 8 were valid and infringed. This certainly made the judgment much easier for SOFOC to ahem… handle.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre, 1ère section, May 21, 2015, Société de Fonderie du Centre SA v. Bricorama France SAS & Bricorama SA, RG No. 2014/02007.

Fungicides Ltd.

National limitation is a much appreciated tool of patent owner litigants in France. In particular, when they are faced with a serious validity challenge, it is often a good option for them to file a request for limitation at the INPI (French patent office) in order to amend their claims – although there may be more unusual reasons for filing a request for limitation, as we will see below.

Limitation proceedings are cheap and generally straightforward, and to some extent there can be more flexibility in terms of allowable claim amendments than at the European patent office. However, when a limitation starts going south, well it can go way south.

This is precisely what happened in a famous Syngenta case. Syngenta prevailed in the end (at least on the limitation aspect of the case), but not without having to plead its case in front of the Cour de cassation (French judicial supreme court) – twice!

This Syngenta case relates to European patent No. EP 0382375 (EP’375), which is directed to fungicides. Claim 1 of the patent as granted relates to a large class of chemical compounds defined according to a Markush formula. Claim 8 of the patent as granted is worded as follows:

A fungicidal composition comprising a fungicidally effective amount of a compound according to claim 1 and a fungicidally acceptable carrier or diluent therefor.

On September 28, 2009, the patent proprietor filed a request for limitation of the French national part of the patent, at the INPI. They requested that claim 8 be amended so as to recite a composition comprising, in addition to a fungicidally effective amount of a compound according to claim 1 and a fungicidally acceptable carrier or diluent, a second active compound selected from the group consisting of (i) fungicide compounds selected from a first list, (ii), insecticide compounds selected from a second list and (iii) plant growth regulator compounds selected from a third list.

The INPI director refused the request for limitation on May 6, 2010, and Syngenta appealed. Appeals against decisions by the INPI director must be brought in front of the Cour d’appel de Paris. On September 7, 2011, the court sided with the INPI director and dismissed the appeal.

The court stated as follows:

[…] The INPI director exactly analyzed the scope of the requested modification and rightly noted that it did not result in specifying the composition of the product mentioned in the initial version of claim 8 by restricting it to a list of possible combinations, but on the contrary had the effect of adding to this product a new active selected from a large list, actually offering an immense scope of new possible combinations. 

[…] He rightly noted that the proposed modification adds to the compound with the carrier or diluent according to claim 1 recited in the initial text another compound although neither the claim sought to be modified nor any other claim mentions a compound comprising a second active compound.

I think it is fair to summarize this view as meaning that the modified version of claim 8 was directed to a different product (an aliud), namely a combination of two active compounds whereas the invention claimed in the original patent was just one active compound with some appropriate inactive additives.

Syngenta did not retreat and filed a petition with the Cour de cassation (such petitions being restricted to points of law). This paid off, as the supreme court set aside the ruling from the Cour d’appel on March 19, 2013, holding in extremely concise if not cryptic terms – as always – that the appeal judges had erred by

not investigating whether the subject-matter in the modified claim was not directly and unambiguously disclosed in the description of the patent as granted.

By this, I assume it was meant that the Cour d’appel should not have focused on the claims as granted only, but should have looked for a possible support for the modified version of claim 8 in the description.

So, the case was remitted back to the Cour d’appel for further consideration. This led to a second ruling by the court on October 25, 2013, in which, this time, the limitation got the green light:

This limitation is thus directly and unambiguously supported by the […] initial description, literally copied, and it was thus disclosed.

[…]

This limitation therefore does not entail any broadening of infringement acts nor impinges on the protection of third parties. 

To translate this into EPO jargon, the subject-matter of the modified claim was found not to extend beyond the content of the application as filed (compliance with Art.123(2) EPC), and the modification was also found not to result in any extension of the scope of protection (compliance with Art.123(3) EPC).

Alas! It was the turn of the INPI director to be dissatisfied with the appeal judges, and to thus file another petition with the Cour de cassation. The INPI director (or rather the legal department of the INPI doing the work) may have decided that further judicial clarification was required before adapting the INPI practice for future cases.

On March 17, 2015, this petition was dismissed.

How did all these mushrooms grow from this bag? This mess would never have happened with the proper fungicide combination.
How on earth did all these mushrooms grow from this bag? This mess would never have happened with the proper fungicide combination.

Two points had been raised in the INPI director’s petition:

  • The proposed amendment of claim 8 resulted in a modification of the subject-matter of the patent, and a shift of protection.
  • It cannot be considered that there is direct and unambiguous disclosure in the description for the proposed new claim since there is not enough information for the skilled person to actually implement the claimed subject-matter. No combination of compounds was actually tested and the lists of second active substances in the description were merely of a speculative nature.

As to the latter point, the cassation judges simply noted that

the skilled person, who is a technician skilled in preparing fungicide compositions, does not need to carry out a research work as far as usual dosages for use are concerned

so that

the claimed combination was disclosed by the initial description. 

The theory put forward by the petitioner was that there can be no proper disclosure if the skilled person is not presented with sufficient information to carry out the invention. Readers familiar with EPO practice will immediately see that this theory, on the face of it, mixes up extension of subject-matter with insufficiency of disclosure, which are two distinct requirements under the EPC. Although this approach was certainly unorthodox, it may not have been flat-out absurd. After all, whether any new matter was added relative to the contents of the application as filed has to be appraised by the skilled person. Thus, it is at least arguable that a formal mention of a certain feature in a text could be disregarded by the skilled person as an actual disclosure, in case it does not represent a true technical teaching but rather a mere speculative statement.

The unorthodox theory was not endorsed by the Cour de cassation, but maybe because in this case there was no real insufficiency issue anyway. The way I understand the court’s position, finding out an appropriate dosage for the claimed composition was relatively straightforward and did not require any research program. Thus, the argument could be tried again in another case where there would be greater difficulties for the skilled person presented with a modified claim.

As to the first point in the INPI director’s petition, this was the objection which had prevailed in the first 2011 judgment before being overturned in 2013. The supreme court rejected it by noting that the judgment under appeal had simply applied the supreme court instructions provided in the first cassation judgment.

So, no real surprise there, but frankly I am not sure the Cour de cassation really addressed the central issue of whether the modification in claim 8 shifted the scope of protection towards an aliud or not.

The initial reaction of any practitioner is probably that, since claim 8 as granted had an open language (i.e. a composition “comprising” certain compounds), this claim covered all possible combinations including the compounds recited in the claim. Therefore, adding specific lists of partners into claim 8 necessarily restricts the claim and cannot broaden it.

But things might actually not be that simple. Schematically, claim 8 as granted protected a composition comprising an active A. By seeking to amend this claim to cover a composition comprising an active A in combination with an active B, the patent proprietor may have opened the door for a potential claim of contributory infringement against someone supplying active B to another person making the combination A + B.

The case law of the Boards of appeal seems to exclude this type of reasoning, as nicely summarized in section II.E.2.1.1 of the 2013 edition of the case law book:

In G 2/88 (OJ 1990, 93) it was clearly ruled that it is not necessary to consider the national laws of the contracting states in relation to infringement and that this issue is not relevant when deciding upon admissibility of an amendment under Art. 123(3) EPC. With respect to the question of an extension of the scope of protection under Art. 123(3) EPC, it is, rather, appropriate to take into account the fact that the protection conferred by a patent is determined by the terms of the claims, and in particular by the categories of the claims and their technical features, in accordance with Art. 69(1) EPC and its protocol (G 2/88, OJ 1990, 93).

But whether a national court should also exclude any infringement consideration when dealing with the admissibility of a request for limitation is questionable.

Also, the reason why Syngenta desperately wanted to modify claim 8 in the first place was because they had filed a phytosanitary SPC (Supplementary Protection Certificate) application for the commercial fungicide product based on the combination of the active substances azoxystrobin and folpel.

A first SPC had been granted for azoxystrobin itself based on the EP’375 patent. Azoxystrobin was one of the compounds encompassed by the Markush formula in claim 1. Syngenta then wanted to obtain a second SPC for the combination product.

The INPI director refused the second SPC application on September 2, 2009 since the combination product was not “covered” by the patent, since no claim recited a combination of actives. The refusal seems to be in keeping with the later Medeva CJEU ruling per which it is not possible to grant an SPC “relating to active ingredients which are not specified in the wording of the claims of the basic patent relied on“. Syngenta appealed and, a few weeks later, filed the request for limitation of claim 8, in order to introduce the second active compound, folpel, into claim 8, and thus try to circumvent the INPI’s objection.

However, the strategy failed, as the Cour d’appel de Paris confirmed the decision to refuse the second SPC application, on May 30, 2014. Said the court, the INPI director’s decision was correct in view of claim 8 as it stood at the time the decision was made. As a side note, another reason for refusing the SPC application, as of today, would be that it is not permissible to derive a single product SPC and a combination SPC from the same basic patent, as per the Actavis v. Boehringer Ingelheim CJEU ruling – but this is another story.

What I do find remarkable is that, by adding a supplemental active compound in a claim, it becomes theoretically possible to get additional patent protection via an SPC – in keeping with Medeva. Doesn’t this show that alleged limitations should be more scrupulously examined for potential side effects of extension of scope than under the Cour de cassation’s basic approach?


CASE REFERENCE: Cour de cassation, ch. com., March 17, 2015, Directeur Général de l’INPI v. Syngenta Ltd., appeal No. C/2013/28436