Being a representative myself, my feelings tend to get hurt when I am told that representatives do not matter. Except, that is, when this is in the best common interest of attorneys and their clients, as in the present case.
In December 2013, Spanish company Agromet Ejea SL filed a French utility certificate application through its local French representative.
This is already an unusual start, since utility certificates are a rare species. But wait until you hear about the rest of the facts, which are rather unusual as well.
The second renewal fee for the utility certificate was due on December 31, 2014, and was not paid in due time. It was not paid either by the end of the 6-month grace period. This led the Institut National de la Propriété Industrielle (INPI) to issue a decision of noting of lapse dated August 31, 2015. This decision was notified to the French representative on September 3, 2015.
A request for restoration of right was filed on November 16, 2015. The INPI rejected this request as inadmissible as it was filed too late.
The French provision on restoration of right is article L. 612-16 of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle. It is very similar to article 122 and rule 136 EPC. In particular, it is specified in the French provision that the request for restoration must be filed within two months of the removal of the cause of non-compliance.
The INPI considered that the cause of non-compliance had been removed upon notification of the decision of noting of lapse to the French representative on September 3, 2015. Therefore, according to the position of the office, the request for restoration should have been filed by November 3, 2015 at the latest.
The owner of the utility certificate appealed the decision in front of the Paris Cour d’appel.
They did well, as the court set aside the decision of the INPI and offered a different computation of the time limit for filing the request for restoration:
Contrary to the position of the [INPI], the legitimate excuse and the removal of the cause of non-compliance […] are appraised with respect to the owner of the IP right and not their representative.
In the present case, Agromet Ejea SL stated that they entrusted a Spanish patent law firm with the filing and handling of the utility certificate […], which appointed firm [X] for France. They proved the deficiencies of their representatives in their submissions and with their exhibits, which led to the non-payment of the renewal fee […]. In December 2014, the email reminders of the French representative to the Spanish representative did not reach their destination due to an error of electronic address. In 2015, the IP portfolio management software of the French representative broke, preventing a reminder of the time limit for late payment. The employee of the French firm in charge of the file made several mistakes, leading to the termination of her employment agreement on September 9, 2015, with an effective departure on October 20, 2015. Finally, the decision of noting of lapse of August 31, 2015, notified on September 3, 2015 to the French representative was only communicated to the Spanish representative on October 12 and 16, 2015. The latter only informed the right owner on October 19, 2015.
Besides, Agromet Ejea SL established that they inquired about the status of their right. Their Spanish representative asked the [French] representative about this by email on July 6, 2015. In view of the above, it can be derived, on the one hand, that Agromet Ejea SL could rely on a legitimate excuse for not paying the renewal fees of its IP right within the prescribed time limits, due to its representatives’ faults; and on the other hand that the cause of non-compliance was only removed on October 19, 2015, when they were made aware of the decision of lapse, or at the earliest when it was published in the BOPI on September 25, 2015.
Thus, on November 16, 2015, since the two-month time limit had not yet expired and the payment of the surcharge was made on the same day, the request for restoration of Agromet Ejea SL was admissible.
In summary, the court held that the request for restoration was admissible and well-founded.
It is well known that the notion of legitimate excuse is assessed in a much more lenient manner in France than at the EPO.
In fact, a mistake made by a representative is a legitimate excuse per se, as illustrated by the present case. There is no need to demonstrate that the omission was the result of an isolated mistake within a satisfactory system for monitoring time limits, as demanded by the EPO. Fortunately so for the applicant in the present case, in view of the large number of deficiencies noted by the court…
But today’s decision illustrates that this different perspective also extends to the computation of deadlines.
According to established case law of the Boards of appeal, “the removal of the cause of non-compliance is a matter of fact which has to be determined in the individual circumstances of each case“. More particularly, “the removal of the cause of non-compliance occurs […] on the date on which the person responsible for the application (the patent applicant or his professional representative) is made aware of the fact that a time limit has not been observed“.
Usually, the receipt of a noting of loss of rights or negative decision is considered by the EPO as making the person in charge aware of the non-observance. In most cases, the relevant person is the European representative; but in other cases, it can be the applicant, or even a foreign patent attorney (see here), depending on the specifics of the case.
In contrast, the position of the Cour d’appel seems to be that only the receipt by the applicant can be relevant. Interestingly, the Cour d’appel also offered another possible starting point for the time limit, namely the publication of lapse in the BOPI (Bulletin officiel de la propriété industrielle), which is the local equivalent of the European patent bulletin.
In this case, the time limit was found to have been complied with irrespective of the exact starting point. But if the request for restoration had been filed e.g. on December 1, 2015, it would then have made a world of a difference whether the starting point was October 19 or September 25. So, it is somewhat strange that the court did not more clearly state its position.
The one unfortunate thing about this case though is that one of the very few advantages of utility certificates as opposed to patents is their reduced cost. But in this instance, I would not bet that any money at all was ultimately saved, in view of all the efforts necessary to keep the certificate alive.
CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 1, April 25, 2017, Agromet Ejea SL v. Directeur général de l’INPI, RG No. 16/11489.