Smells like revocation

Believe it or not, it is somewhat difficult for this blogger to know what his readers are most interested in. Do they yearn for complex legal discussions? Are they rather keen on getting their hands dirty with an insight into actual patents and prior art documents?

The good thing is that today’s post will contain a little bit of both – hoping that the answer to my question is not “none of the above“.

Reckitt-Benckiser owns European patent No. EP 1891197 which is entitled “Process for manufacturing improved dispensing devices“. This patent owner is no small fish, but rather a giant in the hygiene industry. Think of the brands Air Wick, Calgon, Clearasil, Cillit Bang, Durex. But today, Harpic is the type of products we are talking about.

In June 2013, two companies of the Bolton group, namely the Italian Bolton Manitoba and the French Bolton Solitaire, filed a nullity suit against the French part of the European patent.

On March 13, 2015, the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) dismissed the nullity claim. Bolton appealed, and the Paris Cour d’appel issued its judgment a couple of weeks ago.

The first interesting aspect in the appeal judgment is… the application of the statute of limitations to the nullity claim.

One would think that we have heard enough about this topic on this blog lately, and one would be wrong.

As is usual now in a patent nullity lawsuit, the admissibility of the request for revocation was challenged by the patent proprietor. The proprietor deemed that the limitation period for the nullity claim started running from the publication date of the application.

In the present case, the application had been published before the amended statute of limitations entered into force on June 19, 2008 (as discussed here, this amended statute brought the default limitation period from 30 years down to 5 years, which initially created the legal mess that we are now in). Therefore, the patentee said, the starting point was postponed to June 19, 2008, when the amended statute entered into force; and the limitation period expired on June 19, 2013, i.e. five days before the nullity complaint was served.

On the other hand, the nullity plaintiff argued that the five-year limitation period only started from the publication of the grant of the patent, namely August 27, 2008, so that the nullity action was timely filed and admissible.

The court ruled that

[…] the limitation period can only start running from the date on which the person against whom [the patent] is asserted can validly act; pursuant to article 64 EPC, a European patent confers rights as from the publication of the mention of grant, so that a nullity action against a European patent application does not exist. The limitation period for the action can thus only start running, in the present case, from the publication of the patent grant at the earliest

There is a lot to digest in this single sentence:

  • It is a good thing that the publication of the application was not upheld as a valid starting point – this is the last thing we need right now.
  • The choice of the patent grant as the starting point is consistent with the recent ruling by the same panel of the Cour d’appel in Halgand v. RP Nicoll, discussed here.
  • The court did not perform an in concreto assessment, which currently continues to be applied by the judges in the TGI (see the discussion here).
  • However, the wording used by the court, i.e. can thus only start running in the present case, from the publication of the patent grant at the earliest“, does not fully contradict the in concreto approach. Here, the nullity plaintiff seems to have taken the position that the starting point did not need to be accurately determined, as it could anyway not be before the publication of the patent grant, which thus ensured the admissibility of the action in any case. And the appeal judges fully followed this approach.

Therefore, all in all, this new ruling does not change much relative to the previous situation. Or, as they say in every good mystery novel, the plot thickens.

Having found the nullity action admissible, the court turned to the merits of the case, and more particularly to the contention that claim 1 of the patent did not involve an inventive step.

This is the second interesting aspect in the judgment, since the Cour d’appel reversed the decision under appeal in this respect, and declared claim 1 invalid although it had survived the first instance proceedings.

The patent in suit is directed to a manufacturing process for a sanitizing toilet block. Claim 1 reads as follows:

A process for the manufacture of a lavatory dispensing device useful for the delivery of at least one treatment composition, preferably a cleaning composition and/or a sanitizing composition to a sanitary appliance, preferably a toilet bowl which method comprises the steps of: 

– providing a composition to an extruder,
– forming an extrudate from said composition;
– inserting part of a hanger into said extrudate;
– compressing the extrudate to encase or enrobe said part of a hanger thereby forming said lavatory dispensing device.

The next generation sanitary appliance for your toilets.

I understand that the relevant prior art was the following:

  • Some prior art references taught the manufacturing of toilet blocks by placing a hanger in a composition comprising paradichlorobenzene, and compressing the composition onto the lower end of the hanger. These blocks are “cageless”, that is they are provided on their own and not in a plastic cage.
  • Other prior art references disclosed the manufacturing of toilet blocks by an extrusion process, and their inclusion into cages.

In the first instance judgment, claim 1 was found to be inventive. The TGI commented on the teaching of the prior art as follows:

– the process of fixing a hanger to a cageless device only concerns compositions containing paradichlorobenzene, known for its low solubility, which has now been prohibited since it is considered as a dangerous material; 

– the insertion of the hanger occurs when the block is molded; 

– none of the […] patents suggests a compression after an extrusion, to attach the hanger; 

– compositions containing at least one surfactant (which leads to the block breaking off) are in the prior art always placed in a support. 

Therefore, the skilled person was not naturally prompted by this prior art to contemplate a toilet block containing surfactants, to be used without a cage, by inserting a hanger into a block obtained by extrusion, and then compressing the extrudate to encase the hanger. 

The existing prejudice that cages were required to support and contain sanitary treatment blocks was overcome, since it is now possible to make cageless devices which comprise a suspending hanger and a composition as a compressed full block tied to the suspending hanger, said solid block compositions comprising one or more chemical compounds, preferably at least one surfactant composition. 

It is remarkable that the first instance court did not apply the problem and solution approach. Though this reasoning “made in EPO” is more and more often relied upon by litigants and judges in France, it is by no means mandatory.

It is also noteworthy that the TGI, when discussing why the skilled person would not have achieved the invention in an obvious manner, made reference to a number of features which are actually not present in claim 1.

For example, the court seemed to consider that the composition of the block comprises surfactants and does not comprise paradichlorobenzene. According to the court, this is very important, as only paradichlorobenzene-based blocks were disclosed as being compressively tied to a hanger – in view of the particularly low solubility of this chemical. But claim 1 does not explicitly exclude the presence of paradichlorobenzene, and does not specifically call for the presence of surfactants (which are recited in dependent claim 10). Claim 1 merely mentions a “treatment composition, preferably a cleaning and/or a sanitizing composition“.

Furthermore, the court considered that there was a prejudice against cageless devices comprising a sanitary composition (as opposed to a merely deodorizing, paradichlorobenzene-based composition). But claim 1 does not explicitly exclude the presence of a cage in addition to the hanger. This is in fact the subject-matter of dependent claim 8.

As for the appeal judges, they did not follow the problem and solution approach either. But they did reach a different conclusion: 

In the end, at the priority date of European patent No. 1891197, in view of the teaching of the above documents, the skilled person […] knew processes for making blocks for toilet bowls suspended by hangers; desirous of making a cageless suspended lavatory block, not based on molded paradichlorobenzene (deemed toxic) but on treatment compositions comprising surfactants, obtained by extrusion, he could use the same process starting from an extruded composition as taught in [a couple of patents]; he also knew from the teaching of [another patent] that it was possible to compress an extrudated block to give it a shape or to close the opening resulting from the insertion of the hanger.   

It is striking that the Cour d’appel shared the TGI’s appraisal of the crux of the invention, namely providing a cageless device for a block comprising surfactants.

The TGI was thus not blamed for its extremely extensive interpretation of claim 1 in view of the description of the patent. 

As far as I can tell, the different conclusion was in fact reached due to a new prior art citation, namely a reference disclosing the compression “of an extrudated block to give it a shape or to close the opening resulting from the insertion of the hanger” – whereas the first instance judges had noted that “none of the […] patents suggests a compression after an extrusion, to attach the hanger”. 

First instance judgments are very often confirmed on appeal in France. One exception to this general trend is when new facts arise, such as a new prior art document like in the present case.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, Pôle 5 chambre 2, October 20, 2017, Bolton Manitoba & SASU Bolton Solitaire v. Reckitt Benckiser LLC, RG No. 15/09777.

Beware, drafters!

This may well be the fourth post almost in a row on a pharma case. Although pharma patent litigation is typically not hyperactive in France, each single case usually generates many interesting questions.

Today is no exception, not only from the litigation perspective but also from the viewpoint of a patent drafter. There are in fact at least two aspects in the decision of the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) which can be taken as significant warnings for patent attorneys.

The patent in suit is EP 0984957, owned by Swedish company AstraZeneca AB, and it looks quite simple and straightforward.

Claim 1 of the patent simply reads: “the magnesium salt of S-omeprazole trihydrate“.

S-omeprazole, also known as esomeprazole, is a blockbuster drug used in the treatment of gastric ailments. The patent is directed to a specific form of the drug.

Claims 2-4 further specify the form of the drug. Claims 5-8 relate to a process for the preparation of the drug. Claim 9 relates to a pharmaceutical composition comprising the drug of claim 1 and another one. Finally, claim 10 is a Swiss-type claim mentioning the treatment of a gastric acid-related condition.

In July 2011, AstraZeneca initiated infringement proceedings against Ethypharm based on this patent in view of the exploitation by this French company of generic esomeprazole.

Ethypharm of course filed a counterclaim for nullity in due time. But things did not go smoothly, and the lawsuit seemed to drag on forever.

First, an expertise was ordered so as to sort out the documents seized during an infringement seizure. Second, the parties discussed and initially agreed to the designation of another expert, as far as I understand in order to weigh on whether there was an infringement or not. Third, this expert was finally not designated, as AstraZeneca admitted that the generic esomeprazole on the market no longer infringed the patent (while maintaining that there had been infringement in the past). Fourth, AstraZeneca was compelled to file the experimental evidence based on which the above admission was made.

In summary, the judge in charge of case management certainly had her work cut out for her. And this leads us to the judgment issued by the TGI on June 23, 2017.

The first aspect of the decision that deserves a discussion is claim interpretation.

The patent proprietor stated that claim 1 covered any magnesium salt of S-omeprazole trihydrate. But, according to the defendant, claim 1 only protects a specific form of magnesium salt of S-omeprazole trihydrate.

The court went for the latter interpretation.

The court referred to article 69 EPC and the protocol on the interpretation, and remarked that “the judge must not make any interpretation if the claim is self-sufficient and should not denature the claim on the pretext of claim interpretation“.

One may wonder if the court did not do just that, i.e. interpret a claim based on the description, although the claim seemed quite self-sufficient.

At least from an EPO perspective, I have little doubt that a claim simply entitled “the magnesium salt of S-omeprazole trihydrate” would be seen as covering any magnesium salt of S-omeprazole trihydrate based on its plain wording.

But this is not the option that the court used. Instead, the court had a close look at the description of the patent and noted inter alia the following:

Since the wording of claim 1 does not comprise any determiner, one should refer to the description and drawings to interpret it, with respect to the skilled person […]. 

It is also specified that omeprazole and its salts as well as the R and S enantiomers of omeprazole and their salts are known from the art […] and that the magnesium salt of the S enantiomer of omeprazole exists in different forms. 

As mentioned in the description, the field of the invention does not relate to a “novel form of S-omeprazole” as suggested by the title of the patent, since this molecule was already identified, but a “novel form  of trihydrate of the magnesium salt of the S-omeprazole” […], which implies that it is a trihydrate form other than known from the art, with specific features such as “substantially pure” […], devoid of magnesium salts of R-omeprazole […] and devoid of other forms of magnesium salts of S-omeprazole (including the dihydrate form used for the preparation of the composition). 

This product is said to be “highly crystalline” […] since it has a larger crystallinity than any other form of magnesium salt of S-omeprazole, including trihydrate forms […]. 

This compound is characterized by an X-ray powder diffractogram [XRD] which shows main peak positions and intensities […], or by spectroscopy […]. 

Crystalline forms at their best

In support of its proposed interpretation, AstraZeneca filed an affidavit by a doctor Byrn, as well as a judgment by the New Jersey district court on a corresponding U.S. patent, per which the magnesium salt of esomeprazole trihydrate was novel at the time the invention was made and the patent was to be interpreted in a broad manner.

By the court was not convinced and noted that

the prior art previously disclosed a non-pure form a magnesium salt of S-omeprazole trihydrate, as can be derived from the laboratory tests performed on molecules recited in previous patents […]. [And] it can be deduced from the aforementioned elements in the description (notably the very title of the patent and the wording of the claims, the use of determiners in the text of the description such as “A” or “This” […] to mention the product […]) that the invention does not relate to any trihydrate of magnesium salt of S-omeprazole as suggested by AstraZeneca, but to a specific trihydrate having defined features (substantially pure, crystalline, with specific peaks) […]. 

The court repeatedly stated in the judgment that some magnesium salts of esomeprazole trihydrate were known from the art. But it does not seem to me to clearly stem from the patent itself. It is possible that the recreation of prior art esomeprazole could show that this particular salt form was already present, but isn’t this rather an issue of novelty of the claim?

Also, it is extremely striking that the court placed so much emphasis on how the description was drafted.

Here is the thing, I think. Paragraph [0009] of the patent for instance starts with: “the magnesium salt of S-omeprazole trihydrate obtained according to the present invention is substantially free from magnesium salts of R-omeprazole“. Then paragraph [0010] starts with: “the compound of the invention is characterized by the positions and intensities of the major peaks […]“.

If my understanding is correct, it could have made a world of a difference if these paragraphs had mentioned that the compound “according to some embodiments” is substantially free from other salts, or that the compound of the invention “may be” characterized by certain positions and intensities of peaks.

Therefore, beware drafters! Even if you get what you consider a broad claim granted, it may be interpreted by a court in a much narrower manner if the description gives the impression that the invention has a number of other essential features.

Surprising? Well, with Munich eyes, certainly. But not really if you are familiar with French case law.

Today’s decision is for instance very reminiscent of the approach recently taken in the rosuvastatin case. Even electronics cases are handled in a similar manner, as illustrated here.

The TGI’s comment on dependent claims 2-4 is enlightening in this respect. Claim 2 mentions that the compound is highly crystalline. Claim 3 mentions that it is stable. Claim 4 mentions that it has a certain XRD pattern. A common way of looking at this would be to state that claim 1 is broader than claims 2-4 and thus is precisely not limited to the specific XRD pattern, or to a highly crystalline form, etc. But the court reached the exact opposite conclusion and noted that

these claims define the specific features of the compound mentioned in claim 1.

Now, one may criticize the court’s rewriting of straightforward claim 1 and the challenge this presents to legal certainty. 

But there may nevertheless be a possible justification for this bold approach.

As the patent only discloses one very specific crystalline form of trihydrate, it could be argued that the protection should be limited to this specific form and should not extend to other forms of trihydrate which were not actually made available to the public by the patent. Maybe this is what the judges had in mind.

After this section on claim interpretation, the judgment contains a section on sufficiency of disclosure and novelty.

Both grounds of nullity were discarded by the court. In fact, the objection of lack of novelty was put forward only in case the patentee’s broad interpretation prevailed – and this was not the case.

And then comes the other important point in the judgment, namely inventive step.

At this point, the patent was revoked, based on a very brief justification.

The court generally made reference to the problem and solution approach. The dihydrate form of the compound was the closest prior art. According to the patent, the new form is more stable and easier to characterize and synthesize.

But the court refused to take this statement of a technical problem into account:

Yet, beside the disclosure of the molecule on a new form (trihydrate) and the presentation of preparation and identification methods of this product, whereas the pharmaceutical industry wants to find further forms of an active, even if the properties to be expected from the new molecular forms are not known, the patent does not define any problem. It just mentions that the product is more stable, easier to synthesize and handle and identify, without however supporting this statement in the patent itself, by studies and researches and results. Thus, the patent does not mention a problem to be solved let alone demonstrate the resolution of this technical problem. 

Moreover, it is acknowledged that in front of the EPO or in litigation the patentee may refer to posterior tests, but these must consolidate results already contained in the patent […]. 

Therefore, claim 1 is invalid for lack of inventive step as it does not solve a technical problem.

To summarize: the patent does mention a technical problem solved by the invention. But in the absence of any experimental evidence in the patent that this problem is indeed solved, the problem is not taken into account. Post-published evidence is considered to the extent that it can merely supplement data already contained in the patent, but not replace it entirely.

So far so good, and the approach taken by the court seems consistent with EPO case law. See in this respect the catchword of oft-quoted T 1329/04:

The definition of an invention as being a contribution to the art, i.e. as solving a technical problem and not merely putting forward one, requires that it is at least made plausible by the disclosure in the application that its teaching solves indeed the problem it purports to solve. Therefore, even if supplementary post-published evidence may in the proper circumstances also be taken into consideration, it may not serve as the sole basis to establish that the application solves indeed the problem it purports to solve.

However, directly jumping to the conclusion that the claims lack inventive step, as the court did, is something a Board of appeal would probably not do.

Instead, they would likely reformulate the technical problem in a less ambitious manner, e.g. in this case as providing an alternative form of esomeprazole, and would then investigate whether it was obvious for the skilled person to achieve the claimed invention with this unambitious technical problem in mind.

Let’s assume for instance that it was technically difficult to make the trihydrate form. In this case, a Board could arrive at a finding of inventive step. In France, the absence of an ambitious technical problem is in itself indicative of a lack of inventive step.

This confirms that French courts are more severe in the appraisal of inventive step.

At any rate, here comes the second advice for drafters is: beware of the plausibility of the technical effects of the invention!

My understanding is that it is kind of a hot topic at the EPO these days. Well, it is an even more serious matter in this country.

And this does not just apply to “therapeutic” effects.

In this case, the alleged technical effect was not related to the treatment of an illness but rather to physical characteristics of the drug (stability, ease of handling…).

So, we are all doubly warned, I guess.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 3ème section, June 23, 2017, AstraZeneca AB v. Ethypharm, RG No. 11/11460.

The problem with the problem

Over the years, the Boards of appeal of the EPO have developed a number of rules which are now set in stone. The so-called “gold standard“, used for appraising whether any extension of subject-matter has occurred and whether priority is valid, is a famous one. An even more famous one is the “problem and solution approach” for appraising inventive step.

The problem and solution approach is a very clear reasoning framework which has two fantastic advantages:

  • avoiding an ex post finding artificially ignoring the actual contribution of the invention to the art; and
  • enhancing the predictability of the inventive step assessment, and thus improving legal certainty for all stakeholders, patent applicants and third parties alike.

Make no mistake: I love the problem and solution approach. Especially when I compare it with the Russian roulette of the obviousness rejections that you tend to randomly get at the USPTO.

However, one downside of a clear reasoning framework is that everyone learns how to make the best of it.

Clever patent drafting and sophisticated argumentation can thus sometimes make up for the relatively low inventive merit of some inventions. Correlatively, a number of patent professionals have noted that, for better or worse, the inventive step threshold et the EPO is generally rather low.

In fact, more often than not, whether an application or patent passes the article 56 test mostly depends on the selection of the closest prior art, and on what kind of technical problem you can possibly come up with – and these considerations may sometimes be remote from technical reality.

In such a context, I think it is a good thing when the Boards of appeal remind us that the problem and solution approach should be followed with some flexibility, in order to avoid any artificial outcome which would be unfair to third parties.

The problem and solution game.

I will take two examples of how things can get somewhat skewed in the problem and solution approach; and how some Board decisions can nevertheless offer a way to achieve a right balance.

The first example is taken from T 2123/14, already discussed on Laurent’s blog.

The initial step of the approach is the selection of the closest prior art. As summarized in section G-VII, 5.1 of the Guidelines, “in selecting the closest prior art, the first consideration is that it should be directed to a similar purpose or effect as the invention or at least belong to the same or a closely related technical field as the claimed invention“.

It is therefore a classical strategy to insert a number of goals or purposes in the description of the application, and then argue that any prior art reference which does not address one of these goals or purposes is unsuitable for being selected as the closest prior art. This is especially helpful when it is indeed difficult to establish the existence of an inventive step starting from a reference sought to be discarded.

Now, such a strategy may be curtailed by following the reasoning used in T 2123/14. As a disclaimer, please note that I have formed no personal opinion as to whether the claims at stake were actually inventive or not, I will just focus on the principles established by the Board, which seem quite relevant.

In this case, the examining division had refused the application, relating to a cosmetic composition for the hair, for lack of inventive step based on D3 as the closest prior art. But the appellant argued that the closest prior art was not D3 but rather D8, so that inventive step should be assessed only based on D8 as a starting point.

The appellant’s argument, as summarized by the Board, was that:

D8 indeed mentioned as a technical purpose, beside the improvement of untangling, volume, lightness, softness, flexibility and tidiness, also the improvement of smoothing while avoiding a greasy feel […], unlike D3 which did not mention the problem of the hair’s greasy feel or heaviness, and which merely focused on a conditioning effect, on making hair soft and flexible, improving volume, brightness and smoothness of wet and dry hair […].  (Reasons, 1.2.1, translated from the French language).

The Board did not accept this and noted the following:

[…] The claimed subject-matter must involve an inventive step relative to each prior art document. Nothing prevents the relevance relative to D3 from being examined first. If, on the face of it, the skilled person can choose between several prior art documents as reasonable starting points, inventive step can thus be effectively acknowledged only after applying the problem and solution approach to each of the options (T967/97, T21/08). If one of the options reveals obviousness, then there is no inventive step. The problem and solution approach may therefore need to be repeated for each of these options (T710/97). (Reasons, 1.2.2.1).

This is a helpful reminder. A relevant document cannot be swept under the rug by pointing to an allegedly better document. All “reasonable” starting points may have to be investigated. Of course what is “reasonable” and what is not is a matter of case by case analysis.

The decision then goes on by recalling the criterion of the “similar purpose or effect” for the closest prior art. But the Board then adds:

This does however not mean that, when an invention purports to solve a list of specific problems, said closest prior art must necessarily specifically disclose or mention all of these specific problems or more particularly only one of these problems taken in isolation. This is in particular the case for the objective technical problem, which is only established in the second step of the problem and solution approach […]. This is also the case for a technical problem which is solved in an implicit and inherent manner by the closest prior art, although this is not expressly stated in said prior art. 

Thus, simply inserting a purpose or even more so a list/series of specific purposes in the description does not allow the applicant to oppose any objection of lack of inventive step raised in view of a document which does not mention one of the abovementioned specific purposes, if this document was concerned with a similar use(Reasons 1.2.2.3).

In other terms, in order to qualify as a closest prior art (possibly among others), a reference needs to relate to a similar use. But it is not necessary for the document to explicitly address all the purposes that the drafter included in the description of the application or patent.

To me, this is a significant clarification, as the strategy consisting in inflating the number of purposes set out in the description in order to discard possible closest prior arts has certainly been quite effective for a number of applicants / patent proprietors to date.

In the case at hand, the Board found that D3 was indeed a possible closest prior art to take into consideration:

[…] Even if D3 does not explicitly mention the purposes of the claimed subject-matter, it cannot be denied that both documents D3 and D8 show compositions designed for the same goal and belong to the exact same technical field as the present application, namely conditioning shampoos, and therefore have a similar use and the same actions and effects on the hair, in particular in terms of smoothing. 

It can thus be legitimately expected that the type of cosmetic composition disclosed in D3 and D8 generally involves the same technical problems, or technical problems necessarily deriving from the similar use. Besides, even if the properties relating to the absence of a greasy feel or heavy hair are not explicitly recited in D3, it remains that example 5 of D3 does contain said non-silicone fatty components responsible for a possible greasy feel and possible heavy hair. In the absence of any specific indication or remark in example 5 of D3 regarding these properties, it is immediately apparent and obvious for the skilled person that the properties and abilities of the compositions disclosed in D3 are prima facie satisfactory, including regarding a greasy feel or heavy hair. (Reasons 1.2.2.3).

To summarize this latter point: even if a very specific technical problem is not expressly addressed in a reference, the skilled person can sometimes derive from the context that this technical problem is indeed taken into account in the document.

Here is now a second example of a possible flaw in the problem and solution approach favoring the applicant / patentee, and a possible remedy taught in T 2456/13 (decision initially reported on Peter de Lange’s blog).

The issue here is the second step of the problem and solution approach, namely the formulation of the objective technical problem. Sometimes, several technical effects relative to the closest prior art can be possibly contemplated. Depending on which technical effect(s) is/are retained, the solution may or may not be obvious for the skilled person.

The usual strategy for the applicant / patentee is to focus on one or more very specific technical effects, seldom addressed in the art, so as to more easily arrive at a finding of non-obviousness. But in some instances, this may be considered as artificial (and, if I may add, ex post) if, already based on another, less sophisticated technical effect, it would be obvious for the skilled person to arrive at the claimed invention.

The way the EPO may deal with this situation is addressed in section I.D.10.8 of what is commonly referred to as the Case law book. It is called the “bonus effect“:

[…] If, having regard to the state of the art, it would already have been obvious for a skilled person to arrive at something falling within the terms of a claim, because an advantageous effect could be expected to result from the combination of the teachings of the prior art documents, such claim lacked inventive step, irrespective of the circumstance that an extra effect (possibly unforeseen) was obtained. […] An unexpected bonus effect does not confer inventiveness on an obvious solution.

However, my subjective impression is that the bonus effect objection is seldom effective in practice.

One difficulty is how to distinguish a technical effect which is merely a bonus effect from one which absolutely must be taken into account in the formulation of the objective technical problem.

In some decisions, reference was made to “one-way street” situations, in which there is a lack of alternatives for the skilled person, as opposed to situations wherein “the use of means leading to some expected improvements might well be patentable in relying on an additional effect, provided this involved a choice from a multiplicity of possibilities” (see the above section of the Case law book). Clearly, this is a restrictive approach, as I do not think that there are generally many one-way streets in technology.

In T 2456/13, the patent proprietor argued that a secondary reference D3 would not be taken into account by the skilled person as it did not address a certain technical effect, namely the reduction in the tendency to caking.

But the Board considered this effect as a mere bonus effect. The Board did not hold that this was a one-way street situation but adopted another approach:

D3 discloses a generic process for the preparation of sodium percarbonate particles which are coated by spraying on a solution of sodium sulfate and sodium carbonate. […] According to D3, the coating improves storage stability […]. In view of the partial task of improving storage stability, the skilled person would, in the opinion of the board, refer to the relevant document D3, even if no improvement in the tendency to caking is explicitly shown. The person skilled in the art is in fact taught by D3 that, with a coating in the composition range between 82:18 and 69:31 parts by weight of sodium sulfate to sodium carbonate, particularly stable percarbonate particles can be obtained. […] He would try to adjust the advantageous ratio indicated in D3 and thus reach the claimed article.

A (slight) improvement in the tendency to caking is necessarily also obtained. In the opinion of the board, it constitutes an additional or bonus effect, which cannot justify an inventive step. The board takes into account that the improvement in the tendency to caking is only slight […] and possibly for this reason not mentioned in D3. (Reasons 4.9, translated from the German language).

This decision thus provides a possible criterion for establishing that a technical effect is merely a bonus effect, namely the relative low magnitude of the effect.

Of course, we should bear in mind that this is only one factor among others that may have to be taken into account.

All in all, these two decisions may helpfully contribute to containing some of the possible abuses of the problem and solution approach leading to artificial non-obviousness findings.


CASE REFERENCES:

T 2123/14, Board 3.3.07, October 27, 2016, L’Oréal.

T 2456/13, Board 3.3.05, March 7, 2017, Evonik Treibacher v. Kemira Oyj.

Summertime

It is this time of year when some readers of this blog may still be enjoying what is left of the summer, albeit the back-to-work frenzy is looming – and is in fact already upon a number of us.

What we need in such a moment of transition is probably a gentle reintroduction to the delights and torment of patent law.

Matthieu Dhenne, attorney at law at Cabinet Schertenleib offers us just that, as he kindly accepted to share some comments with us regarding two decisions recently discussed on the blog.

The typical year of a patent attorney.

The first decision is B/E Aerospace Inc. & B/E Aerospace Systems GmbH v. Zodiac Aerotechnics, reported here. At stake is the hotly debated question of the limitation period for patent nullity actions in France. I may have already mentioned that the recent case law on this issue has drawn a lot of criticisms. It turns out that Matthieu is one of the vocal critics of the new trend.

Having looked in detail at what the essence of a limitation period is, Matthieu writes:

The Paris Tribunal de grande instance states (once again) that the limitation period under ordinary law (i.e. 5 years) applies to an action for patent revocation.

It is an error of law. Two brief explanations hereafter.

First, it does not comply with article 2224 of the Code civil. Article 2224 provides a limitation period for both actions in personam and actions in rem. Yet the action for patent revocation is neither one nor the other. It is not based on a debt obligation (action in personam), nor on a thing (action in rem). It is based on the defense of free competition. In this regard, we should remind that a patent right, as an exclusivity to operate an invention during a certain period of time, constitutes an exception to free competition. Therefore, as an exception, this right is only justified for patentable inventions. Rather, it is not justified for non-patentable inventions. In other words: the purpose of an action for revocation is mainly to avoid unjustified patents that will negatively affect competition.

Then, the purpose of a limitation period does not apply to it. Such a deadline aims at strengthening legal certainty. Thus, a right holder must act within a strict deadline when his right is infringed. Similarly, a right may be created over time, when a defect originally affecting it disappears. For instance, a trademark can acquire distinctiveness through use. However, on the contrary, in patent law, time may only be harmful. An invention which is not novel or inventive at the date of filing will not become novel or inventive afterwards. Rather, one could discover prior art that was not discussed during the examination phase.

Eventually, a limitation period in patent nullity suits will only introduce uncertainty. On the one hand, there are still doubts concerning the starting point of the deadline. According to the case law: date of filing, date of grant or date of formal notice. There is no strict trend concerning this question. Besides, in any event, the plaintiff must prove he was unaware of the existence of the patent: the burden of proof is upon the plaintiff. On the other hand, the defect that originally affects the patent right will not disappear over time. To the contrary, one could discover after grant that a patent is void due to prior art which was not discussed during the examination phase. Therefore, legal protection is not needed and thus not justified because it strengthens situations of facts that will never comply with the legal system. Worse: potentially, a patentee will still be able to use a patent against someone else even after it is found to be invalid.

The above case law obviously deserves much more comments. But, for now, I think there is an urgent need to stress out the fundamental legal issues at stake, hoping that the Courts will quickly remedy them.

Another important decision previously discussed by my partner Aujain Eghbali on this blog is Xaga Network v. Ewalia, in which a patent was revoked because the main claim at stake was held to relate to software as such (the programming activity field not constituting a patentable technical activity), and to actually describe “an abstract scheme which does not offer any technical solution to the application management facilitation problem it pretends to solve since it is not made explicit how the proposed management system effectively helps the user”.

Aujain said he was rather impressed by how French judges seem to have taken over the typical EPO reasoning in connection with computer-implemented inventions – even if the legal basis is not the same – as he explained in his post.

Matthieu, as far as he is concerned, has three remarks:

The Court refers to the “activity of programming” to assess technicity under article 52 EPC. However, only the invention should be technical. The question whether an activity is able (or not) to give birth to an invention exclusively falls under the inventive step assessment under article 56 EPC.

The Court states that claim 1 aims at an abstract scheme which is not explained. I think it is interesting to point out that abstraction is opposed to explanation. Two lessons. On the one hand, technicity does not require a transformation of nature (i.e. material production). On the other hand, further explanations in the description could, in fine, justify technicity. In other words: French judges are bringing the requirements of technicity and sufficiency closer together.

Eventually, the Court evokes the technical effect requirement. Nonetheless, in doing so, the Court unavoidably evokes a further technical effect, to the extent that any software already produces a first technical effect in the machine (i.e. electric current).

Speaking of computer-implemented inventions, those interested in this topic may want to mark their calendars. Indeed, Matthieu is happy to announce that an exciting full-day seminar dedicated to this very topic and put together by the AACEIPI (Association des Anciens du Centre d’Etudes Internationales de la Propriété Intellectuelle) will take place on November 24, 2017, in the prestigious premises of the Cour de cassation.

You can inquire about the seminar and register (by November 10) with Aristide Tenan, at at@schertenleib-avocats.com. Several top speakers are announced, including professors, IP judges and last but not least my partner Patrick Trabé.

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy” – this will just be a memory by the time the seminar kicks off. A belated happy August to all readers!

A new hope

Biotech and IT are complex areas, not only on the technical standpoint, but also in terms of patent law.

Reading about U-turns on plant patents or about the tricky transposition of the EPO’s software concepts into French national practice, one could be tempted to once and for all switch DNA sequences and algorithms for braking mechanisms and meat mincers. But one might be wrong. It turns out that even the most difficult of topics are not hopeless.

Today, Aujain Eghbali tells us about a new hope for patent software applicants. All sci-fi geeks will agree that a new hope can be a great beginning. But in order to find out what today’s hope is really about, you may have to read through the entire post.

Aujain reports.

Decision T 1227/05 (Circuit simulation I/Infineon Technologies) of December 13, 2006 has become a major reference for EPO examiners who need to assess the inventive step of computer-implemented mathematical methods.

The invention in Infineon related to the simulation of a circuit subject to 1/f noise. After establishing the principle that, beyond its implementation, a procedural step may contribute to the technical character of a method only to the extent that it serves a technical purpose of the method, the Board chaired by Mr. Steinbrener considered that:

  • The simulation of a circuit subject to 1/f noise constitutes an adequately defined technical purpose for a computer-implemented method, provided that the method is functionally limited to that technical purpose.
  • The metaspecification of an (undefined) technical purpose (simulation of a “technical system” as in original claim 4), on the other hand, could not be considered adequate, as the purpose of a claim in this context is not to quote the technical character requirement, but to identify clear features supported by the description which meet that requirement (Article 84 EPC).
  • A circuit with input channels, noise input channels and output channels the performance of which is described by differential equations does indeed constitute an adequately defined class of technical items, the simulation of which may be a functional technical feature.
  • Specific technical applications of computer-implemented simulation methods are themselves to be regarded as modern technical methods which form an essential part of the fabrication process and precede actual production, mostly as an intermediate step. In that light, such simulation methods cannot be denied a technical effect merely on the ground that they do not yet incorporate the physical end product.

Based upon these considerations, most EPO examiners seem to nowadays apply the following standard:

If claimed mathematical steps form a method functionally limited to an adequately defined technical purpose and related to an adequately defined class of technical items, then these mathematical steps can be taken into account in the assessment of inventive step, otherwise they cannot.

Obviously, this standard is not self-explanatory. Not only because it relies on the notion of “technical” items and purposes, and we know that the Boards of appeal are careful not to provide a generic definition of the term “technical”. But also because the standard refers to the unspecified notions of “functional limitations” of methods and of “adequate definitions” of purposes and classes of items.

A secret method for properly drafting software patent applications.

Probably without any such aim in mind, Board 3.4.01 has now expressed what could be construed as a liberal view on these notions, in decision T 0625/11 of January 19, 2017.

The decision was issued further to an appeal during examination by French nuclear power company AREVA NP. Areva

had filed European patent application No. 03775483.5 broadly relating to the use of a “transitional operation simulation” to calculate a “limit value of at least a first operating parameter of a nuclear reactor” in view of the subsequent safe operation of the nuclear reactor. Areva argued that limit values of operating parameters in the prior art were empirically determined without using a transitional operation simulation and the invention was therefore in total breach of normal practice and involved an inventive step. The application was however refused by the Examining division on the ground that the claims related to method steps without any technical character going beyond their normal interactions with a computer.

Claim 1 of the main request read:

A method for determining by a computer system at least one limit value of at least a first operating parameter of a nuclear reactor comprising a core in which fuel assemblies are charged, the fuel assemblies comprising fuel rods each having nuclear fuel pellets and a sheath surrounding the pellets,

characterized in that it comprises the steps of:

b) simulating at least one transitional operation of the nuclear reactor,

c) calculating the value reached by a physical quantity during the transitional operation in at least one sheath of a fuel rod,

d) determining, as a limit value, the value of the first operating parameter at the time when the value calculated in step c) corresponds to a value of the physical quantity characterizing a rupture of the sheath.

In its refusal decision, the Examining division held that the Infineon decision did not apply since Areva’s claim 1 was not limited to the simulation of a nuclear reactor.

The first instance examiners considered in particular that:

  • In Infineon, the invention related to a numerical simulation procedure to test an already designed circuit subject to noise.
  • Claim 1 did not have a concrete technical application of a computer-aided numerical simulation method.
  • Claim 1 did not relate to the use of a simulation step in a very specific and eminently practical and technical application.
  • Claim 1 did not define simulation steps, but a very general step of simulating a transitional operation in order to subsequently calculate values.
  • Transitional operation simulations were well known at the priority date of the application. And anyway claim 1 did not define specific characteristics of the transitional operation simulation, but a very general step of simulating a transitional operation in order to subsequently calculate values. Thus, there were no steps going beyond what was common practice for the person skilled in the art at the priority date.

During the appeal procedure, the Board first followed this reasoning but later changed its mind and admitted the main request. From a procedural point of view, it is worth noting that Areva asked in an auxiliary request introduced during the oral proceedings that two questions be referred to the Enlarged Board of Appeal. The Board actually did not consider this request lightly. They even suggested a rewording of the questions and did not reach a decision during the oral proceedings, such that the procedure was resumed in writing. But after all, the case was resolved without any referral.

The Board compared at length the Infineon liberal approach and the opposite approach which consists in ruling out method claims which do not incorporate the alleged technical goal (such as via a final step of operating a nuclear reactor). And the Board decided to follow Infineon. Furthermore, the Board considered that the fact the claimed method merely recited the calculation of a limit value did not prevent one from applying the Infineon approach to the present case.

The Board notably noted that the calculation of the value and the later use of this value were performed by different economic actors in different geographic locations, such that requiring the integration of said later use in the claim would reduce the efficiency of the patent, given the specificity of contributory infringement rules.

T 0625/11 thus constitutes a confirmation of Infineon’s principles and of its taking industrial evolution into account. But considering how Infineon is widely followed by EPO examiners, it is questionable whether such thoroughly reasoned confirmation was even needed in the first place.

But T 0625/11 is of particular interest for yet another reason.

As readers may have noted, claim 1 of the main request eventually granted by the Board is very broad. I bet drafters used to prosecuting software applications are counting the number of clarity-related objections they could raise.

The Board itself conceded:

The terminology used in claim 1 leads to the recognition of a very broad scope for the claimed process. This observation stems from the fact that a transitional operation of the nuclear reactor is reported without specifying its parameters. Similarly, the reference to the notion of “physical quantity” and “first operational parameter”, without specifying its nature, permits an in-depth interpretation of the claimed process.

But then:

The Board notes that the skilled person would have immediately recognized that the problem posed is in no way limited by the nature of the parameters chosen. Similarly, whatever the degree of sophistication of the transitional mode of operation selected, its modeling will only involve well-known operating principles, which finite element calculation algorithms can account for.

The fact that the principles we are discussing incorporate a complex set of laws relating to nuclear physics, to the resistance of materials, to thermal physics, to thermodynamics does not affect this observation. In this respect, the teaching of the initial application, combined with the general knowledge of a person skilled in the art, justifies the degree of generalization resulting from the formulation adopted for the application.

Regarding sufficiency of disclosure, the Board held:

With regard to the disclosure of the invention, the Board deems that the broad scope of the claims does not in any way impede the achievement of the invention over the entire area claimed. The laws of physics mentioned above are in fact able to account for the evolution of the relevant parameters, in spite of the complexity of the phenomena at hand, since the transitional operation and the operating conditions and parameters are sufficiently defined.

And regarding clarity issues when assessing inventive step:

In this case, the definition of the technical problem adopted by the applicant appears realistic. The invention aims at determining at least one limit value of an operating parameter of a nuclear reactor in order to allow better exploitation of the capacities of the latter.

Similarly, the nature of the parameters involved in the simulation (constraints, temperatures, heat capacity, pressures, dimensions, etc.) also confers a technical character to the claimed invention.

The bar on clarity at the EPO has always been high for software inventions in general and computer-implemented mathematical methods in particular, leading to a number of issues. It can of course be very costly for applicants in this field to ensure that all implementation details are included in the application in case there is a clarity objection. But there is also a specific issue related to the way Infineon is applied by examiners in practice: if a method claim is broad or unclear, it is easy for them to hold that the method is not “functionally limited” to a technical purpose or that said purpose is not “adequately defined”.

The generosity of Board 3.4.01 in decision T 0625/11 might constitute a source of hope for applicants who had become desperate because of this difficulty.


CASE REFERENCE: T 0625/11, Board 3.4.01, January 19, 2017, AREVA NP.