The new patent frontier

Out of sheer laziness, I am usually reluctant to report on bills that are still in the legislative process.

After all, you never know whether your report will still be consistent with what comes out of the process in the end. You may call that the UPC syndrome.

But the reform of the French patent granting procedure currently in gestation represents such an upheaval of the world as we French patent attorneys know it that it is getting more and more difficult to ignore it on this blog.

So, today, I will update readers on the “Projet de loi relatif à la croissance et la transformation des entreprises“, also known as the PACTE bill. Don’t ask me what the A in the acronym stands for. It is probably just easier to pronounce than “PLRCTE“, that’s all.

This is a very complex and long (some would say catch-all) bill that spans labor law, tax law, commercial law, etc. And there are a few provisions on patent law, which are rather far-reaching.

The bill, updated as of today, can be found here. All provisions have now been approved by the Assemblée nationale (the lower chamber of our parliament), which prompted today’s post. Please bear in mind that these provisions can still be modified during the rest of the legislative process though, but by now it is more likely than not that they will indeed become law.

The first relevant part of the bill is article 40, which deals with utility certificates. That’s the local name for utility models. These are seldom used in this country and probably not very well known. The three current main features of the utility certificate are the following:

  • no search report is established for a utility certificate;
  • the maximum duration of the utility certificate is 6 years from the filing date; and
  • a patent application can be converted into a utility certificate application but not the other way around.

In order to make the utility certificate a more attractive option for innovators, the maximum duration of the certificate will be brought to 10 years instead of 6. Its duration will thus be on a par with that of utility models in foreign countries, notably Germany.

A second change is that it will now be possible to convert a utility certificate application into a patent application. The conditions for this conversion will be further specified by way of an executive order.

If we assume that flexibility is always appreciated by applicants, these changes will indeed make the utility certificate more palatable to them. While we are at looking at what the Germans do, we might as well have imported the “Abzweigung“, i.e. the possibility to file a utility model application as a split-off from a patent (including European) application. This can be quite a powerful tool for applicants. Maybe next time – together with a (much awaited) re-opening of the French national phase PCT route?

The second topic addressed in the bill is a much bigger prize, though.

Article 42 authorizes the government to create national opposition proceedings, so as to allow third parties to request the revocation or modification of a French patent, by way of an “ordonnance”. 

An “ordonnance” is a special kind of executive order which has the same effect as a law passed by the parliament, provided that it is later ratified by the parliament.

There are absolutely no details as to this future opposition in the bill, as the parliament has precisely surrendered its prerogative to set rules on this matter to the government, by way of this article 42. So we will have to wait until we see the “ordonnance”. 

For what it is worth, a survey was conducted by the French patent and trademark office (INPI) on this topic a few months ago. Among the questions which were addressed in the survey, were the following:

  • Should any person be allowed to file an opposition, like at the EPO, or should an opposition be reserved to persons and entities having standing? (And, boy, we know that the appraisal of standing in nullity suits can be tricky.)
  • Should the opposition period be set to 6, 9, or 12 months?
  • What should the grounds for opposition be?
  • Should it be possible to file an opposition against a granted utility certificate?
  • Should the decision on the opposition be open to appeal in front of the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (first instance court) or in front of the Paris Cour d’appel (appeal court)?
  • What should the effect of an opposition be on parallel litigation, in particular concerning a possible stay of proceedings?
  • Should oral proceedings be summoned?
  • Should an accused infringer be able to intervene in opposition proceedings?
  • Should the examiner who granted the patent be part of the panel of three examiners who will decide on the opposition?
  • Etc.

As you can see, things were (still are?) very open. Rumor has it that the INPI is contemplating a rather extensive alignment of the future French opposition proceedings on the EPO model.

As a side note, article 42 of the bill specifies that the future “ordonnance” should make sure to prevent abusive oppositions. I have no idea what they mean by this, but I do hope that there will be no standing required to oppose a patent. This would certainly lead to useless complexity and legal uncertainty.

PACTE, the final frontier?

Now, the third topic of interest in the bill is as big as the second one – if not bigger.

At present, the INPI has limited power to refuse a patent application. Basically, a French examiner can raise objections (such as lack of clarity or unity) before the issuance of the search report. Then the search report and a complete written opinion are drafted, either by the EPO or directly by the French examiner. Then the applicant files observations as a response – which can very well be very brief. And a refusal can only take place in exceptional circumstances, e.g. if it is “blatant” that the application relates to subject-matter which is not an invention (such as discoveries, aesthetic creations, etc.); or if there is a “blatant” lack of novelty.

There are further (more minor) grounds for refusal, such as lack of unity. But the major fact is that lack of inventive step is not a ground for refusal – although of course it is a ground for nullity of the issued patent in front of a court. And lack of novelty or lack of patentability are grounds for refusal only insofar as the objection is crystal clear and there is no possible defense.

Well, it seems like this fundamental peculiarity of French patent law is about to become a thing of the past.

Article 42bis of the bill will make it possible for the INPI to refuse an application for lack of novelty or non-patentability, period (i.e. the objection will no longer need to be blatant); and also for lack of inventive step.

A huge change indeed. Hailed by some, as it is believed to increase the value of French patents. Lambasted by others, as applicants (especially local ones) may be less incentivized to file national applications if the local granting procedure becomes similar to the European one.

To me, the success or failure of the above reforms will mostly depend on their implementation by the INPI.

Tremendous efforts will have to be undertaken to hire and properly train new examiners to perform these tasks. Let’s hope that this aspect has not been underestimated by the government and that sufficient funding will be available to support these efforts.

One good point is that the new, beefed up, granting procedure will only come into force two years from the entry into force of the PACTE law. This transition period will certainly be necessary in order for everyone to get ready for this new enterprise, in other words “to explore strange new worlds, […] to boldly go where no man has gone before“.

And by the way, who said the unitary patent and the UPC would be the kiss of death for national patent rights?

PS: for those eager to know everything about the debates that took place in the Assemblée in connection with the above provisions, here is the link to the full transcript. Don’t hold your breath though, it is fairly high level and there was no discussion on the nuts and bolts of the new system.

More numbers

Further to last week’s report on the latest statistics regarding the EPO Boards of appeal, today’s post is about another batch of numbers, this time from the French patent office.

But before getting there, I would like to briefly follow up on last week’s post, with two additional comments.

First, I wondered last week about the extraordinary situation in Board 3.3.02, which is now understaffed to the point of being practically unstaffed. A reader kindly brought to my attention that some cases originally distributed to this board seem to have been transferred to another board. For instance, case T488/16 was transferred to board 3.3.01 in October 2016. This makes sense in order to prevent some appeals from getting lost in limbo. But I still wonder what happened to board 3.3.02 in the first place.

Second, the EPO released another report a few days ago regarding the 2016 statistics. Very informative indeed. Three figures in particular caught my attention.

The first figure is the number of so-called “patent filings“, which reached more than 296,000 in 2016, up by 6.2% since 2015. This indicator is put in the spotlight by the EPO every year, even though it is a rather artificial one, as many others have noted. Indeed, these “patent filings” include both European direct filings and PCT filings (whatever the receiving office is). The latter represent a large portion of the 296,000 filings. Of course not all PCT filings give rise to actual proceedings before the EPO. So, the figure should not be interpreted as meaning that the EPO handled 6.2% more applications in 2016 than in 2015.

This leads us to the second figure, which is the meaningful one, namely the number of so-called “total applications, i.e. actual applications for a European patent. The number of total applications is the sum of the number of direct filings at the EPO and of PCT applications having entered European regional phase. Well, it turns out that this indicator is actually down by 0.6% relative to 2015, with a total of 159,353 applications.

It would be interesting to compare this number with the number of national filings in the various EPC contracting states in 2016, to see whether fewer patents were requested overall in Europe, or whether some applicants may have decided to favor the national route, for one reason or the other (such as the upcoming advent of the UPC scaring them off).

Last but not least, the third figure, namely the number of patent grants in 2016. This one is nothing short of astounding. There was a 40% increase in patent grants in 2016, up to 95,940. Obviously, this is good news for applicants. But everyone’s concern is that the quality bar may have been lowered to achieve this impressive figure. This would not be good news for third parties – and all applicants that I know of also happen to be third parties. Of course, it is hard to tell whether this concern has any merit or not. There is only so much that stats can tell us.

For those who love charts and numbers, you can check out the 84 pages of drawings of this U.S. granted (!) astrological patent.

And now, back to Paris, with another report, issued this time by the Institut national de la propriété industrielle (INPI). The report, authored by Emmanuelle Fortune and Mickaël Chion, concerns applications published in 2015, i.e. which were mostly filed in 2013-2014.

It focuses in particular on the respective filing strategies of SMEs (fewer than 250 employees and yearly turnover of less than 50 million euros or annual accounts of less than 43 million euros), large entities (more than 4,999 employees and yearly turnover of more than 1.5 billion euros or annual accounts of more than 2 billion euros), and intermediate ones (anything in-between).

Here are a few subjective highlights from the report.

First, the total number of French national applications filed at the INPI has been remarkably stable for a number of years. The total is 15,105 (again, these are the applications actually published in 2015, not those filed in 2015).

Second, the breakdown of French national applications filed by French legal entities, depending on the applicant’s size:

  • 22.1% of these applications were filed by SMEs;
  • 56.8% were filed by large entities;
  • 6.9% were filed by intermediate entities.

The remainder (14.2%) were therefore filed by public research institutions.

Third, the number of (French) applicants having filed at least one national application, in each category. Here the ratio between SMEs and large entities is the opposite:

  • 66.9% of applicants were SMEs;
  • 14.5% of applicants were large entities;
  • 10.8% of applicants were intermediate entities.

If my math is correct, this means 7.8% of applicants were public research institutions.

Fourth, quite logically, the average number of applications per applicant is heavily dependent on the size of the applicant:

  • each SME filed 1.4 application on average;
  • each large entity filed 16.4 application on average;
  • each intermediate entity filed 2.7 application on average.

Again, the report does not address public research institutions. But some simple math makes it possible to conclude that there were 3.2 applications on average for those. I would have expected this number to be much higher.

Yet, on the one hand, the report uses fractions when there are co-applicants, which I think is often the case when public research institutions are involved. To take one example, if the CNRS files an application together with three other partners, this will count as only 0.25 application for the CNRS. This can partly account for the low number of applications per public institution.

And on the other hand, the above average figures probably hide very large discrepancies between individual entities. I assume that some well known actors such as the CNRS, or Peugeot Citroën Automobiles, Renault, L’Oréal and the like file a very large number of applications every year, which necessarily skews up numbers in their respective categories.

The fifth point that I would like to highlight here is the proportion of French applications giving rise to PCT or direct EP extensions:

  • 50.8% of applications filed by SMEs gave rise to such an extension;
  • 60.8% of applications filed by intermediate entities gave rise to such an extension; and
  • 60.8% of applications filed by large entities gave rise to such an extension.

Reconstructing the missing data regarding public research institutions leads me to a very large proportion of 86.7% of applications giving rise to an EP or PCT extension.

I guess possible factors for the lower extension rate among SMEs is the cost of the extensions, and the more local nature of their markets. At the opposite end of the spectrum, public research entities absolutely need to think globally and invest in the long run in their patent applications before they can hopefully get a profit from them. Also they probably tend to only file applications on significant inventions and not on small, incremental ones, as private companies often do for strategic reasons.

The last batch of figures for today, is probably the most interesting one. It relates to the estimated number of applications or patents in force in France, on December 31, 2015.

The total number is 520,068. In understand it includes French patents, French applications, and granted European patents for which at least one renewal fee was paid in France.

So, good luck folks for your freedom-to-operate analyses… The majority are European patents (72.5%), the rest being French national applications / patents.

The breakdown between French applicants and foreign applicants / patentees is also very uneven: 69.4% of applications / patents in force are held by foreign persons or entities (although the vast majority of applications / patents filed via the national route are held by French persons or entities).

Only 4.4% of all patents / applications in force are French patents / applications held by French SMEs. To this number, we should also add the proportion of European patents held by French SMEs. The figure is not provided in the report, but it is likely very low.

This should somewhat put into perspective the often heard assertion that the patent system is good for SMEs. This is certainly true for part of them. But on the other hand, local SME patents are outnumbered by large entities’ filings and foreign filings – at least in this country.

For those readers really interested in numbers, the INPI report contains further data on technological fields, the regional origin of French applicants etc. It is not too much PR-oriented, simply factual and therefore satisfactual (a tribute to a classic song).