Adding pepper to a tomato and broccoli salad

At this time, all readers are probably already aware of the issuance of opinion G 3/19 of the Enlarged Board of Appeal on May 14, 2020.

I know, twelve days is a long time in the internet era.

But trust me, Lionel Vial’s below report on this topic is worth reading.  Lionel loves making predictions, and his forecast on plants and animals obtained by essentially biological processes is that this hot topic is not about to cool down and that we are in for ongoing legal controversy – and possibly one or more future referrals.  

Is the illustrated cactus a plant obtained by an essentially biological process?

Here is Lionel’s report.

As this blog has consistently strained to keep pace with the seemingly never ending developments regarding the patentability of plant and animals obtained by essentially biological processes, as reported here, here and here, we felt compelled to comment on opinion G 3/19 of the Enlarged Board of Appeal (EBA) of the EPO, which was rendered on May 14, 2020.

To make a long story short, G 3/19 (Pepper) follows from a referral pursuant to Article 112(1)(b) EPC of the President of the EPO, itself following from decision T 1063/18 of Board of Appeal 3.3.04 of December 5, 2018, which decided that in accordance with Article 164(2) EPC, the interpretation of Article 53(b) EPC by the EBA in decisions G 2/12 (Tomatoes II) and G 2/13 (Broccoli II) prevailed over Rule 28(2) EPC.

In other words the Board of Appeal decided plants and animals obtained by essentially biological processes were not to be considered exceptions to patentability pursuant to Article 53(b) EPC in spite of Rule 28(2) EPC, which was introduced by a Decision of the Administrative Council of June 29, 2017 and entered into force on July 1, 2017. Rule 28(2) EPC provides that under Article 53(b) EPC, European patents shall not be granted in respect of plants or animals exclusively obtained by means of an essentially biological process.

There are two parts in opinion G 3/19, a part which relates to institutional provisions and a part which relates to substantive provisions.

Turning first to the substantive part of the opinion, which directly impacts daily practice at the EPO, the EBA, adopting a “dynamic interpretation” of Article 53(b) EPC for the circumstance, has abandoned the interpretation of Article 53(b) EPC given in decision G 2/12 and G 2/13, in the light of Rule 28(2) EPC.

As a consequence, this new understanding of Article 53(b) EPC has a negative effect on the allowability of product claims or product-by-process claims directed to plants, plant material or animals, if the claimed product is exclusively obtained by means of an essentially biological process or if the claimed process features define an essentially biological process.

It is to be noted that the EBA goes beyond the wording of Rule 28(2) EPC and also excludes plant material exclusively obtained by means of an essentially biological process. This may call for future clarification (see below).

Besides, in order to ensure legal certainty and to protect the legitimate interests of patent proprietors and applicants, the Enlarged Board ruled that the new interpretation of Article 53(b) EPC given in G 3/19 has no retroactive effect on European patents containing such claims which were granted before July 1, 2017, when Rule 28(2) EPC entered into force, or on pending European patent applications seeking protection for such claims which were filed or have a priority date before that date.

This contradicts the Decision of the Administrative Council which provided in its Article 3 that Rule 28(2) EPC applied to European patent applications filed on or after July 1, 2017, as well as to European patent applications and European patents pending at that time.

At this stage of the post, we should self-congratulate for having foreseen in our previous post on the subject of July 3, 2017 that the consequence of the Decision of the Administrative Council would be that plants and animals exclusively obtained by means of an essentially biological process are exceptions to patentability, but that the new Rule 28(2) EPC could not apply to patents and applications filed before July 1, 2017. However, to be frank, at that time we had not anticipated that a Board of Appeal would refuse to apply Rule 28(2) EPC pursuant to Article 164(2) EPC because it was in contradiction with the interpretation of Article 53(b) given by the EBA.

This brings us to the institutional part of the opinion of the EBA.

The EBA does not consider that there would be a general prohibition on adopting secondary legislation [by the Administrative Council] which concerns the interpretation of a provision of primary legislation given by itself (see point XXV.3.1).

Besides, the EBA considers that the exception to patentability brought by Rule 28(2) EPC is not incompatible with the wording of Article 53(b), which does not rule out this broader construction of the term “essentially biological processes for the production of plants or animals” and that Rule 28(2) EPC could be considered to reflect the Contracting States’ intention to give a special meaning to that term (see point XXVI.6).

As such, the new Rule 28(2) EPC has to be taken into account in the dynamic interpretation of Article 53(b) as seen above.

It follows that the content of Rule 28(2) EPC does not stand in contradiction with the new interpretation of Article 53(b) EPC given by the EBA and that there is no conflict between these provisions. Hence, Article 164(2) EPC is not relevant (see point XXVII of the opinion).

As far as we are concerned, we are not sure if it was ever the initial intent of those who drafted the EPC to have the substantive patent law provisions of the EPC, especially Chapter I Patentability, interpreted by the Implementing Regulation, but let’s not be more Catholic than the pope.

So, is this the end of tomatoes, broccoli or pepper decisions? Let us take another bet here: No, in our opinion, other questions will need to be answered by the Boards of appeal of the EPO and perhaps by the EBA.

Here is a short list, probably not exhaustive, of likely questions:

        • Can parts of plants, such as fruits, be considered to be exclusively obtained by means of an essentially biological process?
        • Are plants or animals which are obtained by means of an essentially biological process but which can also be obtained by a non-essentially biological process exceptions to patentability?
        • Are plants or animals which are obtained by a process comprising an essentially biological process and a further step of a technical nature which does not serve to enable or assist the performance of the steps of sexually crossing the whole genomes of plants or of subsequently selecting plants exceptions to patentability?

Eventually, this leads us to our concluding riddle: After tomatoes, broccoli and pepper, what will be the name of the plant attached to the next decision, or opinion, of the EBA?


CASE REFERENCE: Enlarged Board of Appeal of the European Patent Office, G 3/19, May 14, 2020, Pepper (follow-up to “Tomatoes II” and “Broccoli II”).

Insufficiently disclosed or reasoned?

After almost 2 months spent buried at home, is there a more appropriate patent to discuss today than one relating to underground civil engineering equipment?

The patent in suit is FR 2941716, granted on April 22, 2011 to the French company SEMAP, and later limited in front of the INPI in July 2016.

SEMAP has been marketing underground chambers for the connection of e.g. telecom cables since 2013, via its distributor Frans Bonhomme.

The adverse party in the case is the British company Northstone (NI) Ltd., active in the same business, via its distributor PUM Plastique.

Since 2007, Northstone had been supplying the French telecom provider Orange with connection chambers. But in 2014, Orange revised the procurement of these goods and granted the entirety of the market to Frans Bonhomme – SEMAP’s distributor. Northstone learned on this occasion that Orange had concerns about a possible infringement of SEMAP’s FR’716 patent.

This led Northstone to initiate legal proceedings in March 2016, with a claim for nullity of the FR’716 patent, an auxiliary claim for a declaration of non-infringement, and an additional claim for damages due to disparagement.

An underground chamber suitable for the next confinement stage?

The plaintiff raised two grounds for nullity: insufficiency of disclosure and lack of inventive step.

Claim 1 of the patent as limited reads as follows:

Connection chamber device consisting in a rectangular cuboid part buried underground, closed on the upper side by one or more lids, and containing means for connecting wires or cables belonging to a distribution network, characterized in that it is constituted by the superposition, by interlocking means, of at least two elements, each obtained by molding a composite material, and each comprising a peripheral wall comprising two skins delimiting a space, as well as openings for the injection of concrete into said space, in that the upper element has means for adaptation of a frame for receiving one or more lids on its upper side, and in that the lower element comprises a bottom provided with water evacuation means, the bottom of the lower element being fixed thereto by interlocking means, which have the same profile as the interlocking means of the two lower and upper elements. 

The important part here is the presence of the openings for the injection of concrete. The nullity claimant argued that the disclosure of the patent was insufficient with respect to this particular feature.

The court, which we still need to get used to calling the TJ (tribunal judiciaire) instead of the TGI (tribunal de grande instance), made an important initial remark on the burden and standard of proof:

The party raising insufficiency of disclosure has the burden of proof. But the patentee needs to prove common general knowledge relied upon, which includes reference textbooks and general technical literature, but in principle not patent literature nor scientific articles. 

It is noteworthy that what is available as documentary evidence of common general knowledge seems to be the same for French courts as for the EPO.

In this case, the court did find that the disclosure was insufficient. Here is what it had to say on this matter:

The patent does not precisely disclose where and how the openings must be made, in order to pour concrete, nor the quality and consistence of the concrete that should be used. It does not discuss either the compatibility of the presence of “braced elements through the internal walls of the double skins” (p.2 l.5) or the presence of “transverse openings for passing wire or cables” with the injection of this concrete. 

At this stage I have mixed feelings about this assessment.

From an EPO perspective, an insufficiency objection presupposes serious doubts substantiated by verifiable facts. Here, the court only notes that some aspects are not discussed in the patent. But whether this does indeed raise difficulties for the skilled person is hard to determine based on such brief explanations.

It is possible that the claimant’s submissions contained more detailed and more convincing arguments, but if so they unfortunately did not find their way into the judgment.

What I do not have mixed feelings about, and what I actually take issue with, is the next part of the reasoning:

Even if, as suggested by SEMAP, the skilled person could do despite these shortcomings using common general knowledge, it remains that there is a blatant contradiction between claim 1 on the one hand, which in its characterizing portion mentions the existence of openings for pouring concrete, which thus appear to be an essential element of the invention, and the description of the patent on the other hand, which mentions towards the very end the advantageous possibility (and therefore not mandatory for implementing the invention) of injecting this material. In view of this contradiction, which does not make it possible for the skilled person to determine whether the presence of openings is necessarily required, or if it is only optional, the patent is insufficiently disclosed and must thus be revoked. 

This, with all due respect, seems to be over the top.

Of course the presence of the openings is required, since it is explicitly recited in claim 1. The mere fact that the word “advantageously” is used in the description to introduce these openings does not make any difference.

Assuming that there is indeed a contradiction between the claims and the description, it appears to be a merely formal one, not a substantial one leading to actual implementation difficulties.

And it could even be argued that there is no contradiction at all, since “advantageously(“de manière avantageuse“) could plausibly be understood as meaning that this is an advantage of the invention (not an optional feature of the invention).

Truth be told, it is not the first time that a French court has picked up on some unfortunate but truly minor drafting inaccuracy and has blown it out of proportion.

The patent being revoked on the ground of insufficiency, inventive step was not addressed.

As for the disparagement claim, it was rejected. There was evidence that Orange had been warned about a potential infringement of SEMAP’s patent. But, unfortunately for the plaintiff, based on the available paper trail, it was not proven that SEMAP was directly responsible for this patent infringement rumor.

There is thus cause for unhappiness for both parties, and it is hard to tell which one is more disgruntled – especially since the court, in a not-so-common move, did not award any cost order under article 700 CPC against either party.


Tribunal judiciaire de Paris, 3ème chambre 3ème section, January 10, 2020, Northstone (NI) Ltd. v. SEMPA SAS & SEMAP Composite SAS, RG No. 16/04839.

Court hits the bull’s-eye

The case reported on today is a good opportunity to remind all readers that the new statutory provisions on heightened examination of patent applications in France will kick off on May 22 (with the entry into force of another part of the loi PACTE).

In other words, all national patent applications filed on or after May 22 will be subjected to full examination and may be rejected for basically the same grounds of refusal as at the EPO, including lack of inventive step.

Therefore, if you want your patent application to be prosecuted under the current regime (wherein the grounds for refusal are much more restricted), there is only one month left for you to file.

As a further reminder, if a refusal is issued in examination proceedings, the means for redress is an appeal in front of the Paris Cour d’appel – this will not change after May 22, so a surge in such appeals is to be expected in a few years’ time.

For the time being, appeal rulings further to refusals are rare. We should thus certainly review them to get a sense of what may lie ahead.

A few months ago, I reported on a judgment overturning a refusal of an application by Thales on an aircraft GUI invention. Today, I will address a case involving Bull, another French tech company.

Bull is the applicant of national patent application No. FR 16/00894, published as FR 3052274. Unfortunately the file wrapper on the INPI website appears to be incomplete, but I can gather the following:

  • The application was filed on June 2, 2016.
  • On November 9, 2016, the INPI examiner in charge of the application issued a communication stating that the claimed invention appeared to relate to a method for performing mental acts as such. The applicant replied, but this reply is missing from the online file wrapper.
  • On March 27, 2017, another communication was issued, stating that no meaningful search could be carried out.
  • On August 21, 2018, the INPI issued the decision of refusal (also not accessible on the INPI website!) based on ineligibility.

As a comment regarding these proceedings, we are looking at a French application which does not claim a foreign priority. Therefore, the application was sent to the EPO for the search, so that it is the EPO examiner who concluded that the search was not possible. The documents from the EPO are regrettably not present on the INPI website, but they can be accessed via the EP file wrapper of the corresponding Euro-PCT application (which was deemed to be withdrawn, in case you are wondering).

It turns out that the EPO examiner justified the absence of search by stating that the claimed technical features at stake were notoriously known from the state of the art. In the written opinion, the examiner argued that the claimed invention lacked inventive step.

As a first remark, the EPO examiner’s position is quite different from that of the INPI. Lacking inventive step is not the same as not being an invention. And, most importantly, lack of inventive step is not a ground for refusal in France – until May 22.

As a second remark, I do not quite understand the EPO’s practice of not carrying out a search in the case of allegedly notorious technical features. After all, if an invention relies on notorious features, the search should be very easy to complete. The absence of search on the other hand has serious procedural consequences for the applicant and does not make it possible for them to properly challenge the examiner’s reasoning.

Let’s now turn to claim 1 of the application, which reads as follows:

A terminal for establishing communications, the communications being broadcasts inside a group of users, a user of the terminal belonging to at least one group of users, the communication terminal including means for:

          • associating a list of user identifiers with a group identifier,
          • associating a plurality of properties with a user,
          • associating a property activation value with each property,
          • recording an identifier of a current group,
          • recording a value of a current state,
          • updating the value of the current state as a function of a user input,
          • adapting a display as a function of:
          • the identifier of the current group,
          • the value of the current state.

According to the refusal decision, the subject-matter at stake does not comprise any specific technical feature but merely sets out a method for carrying out mental acts implemented by generic computing means.

No applicant should get bull-ied by the patent office.

In the judgment, the court emphasized that the claims have to be interpreted in the light of the description and drawings.

The court then noted that the mention of a terminal comprising a microprocessor, storage means such a hard drive or a memory card, a communication interface and a screen, implies that the application does not relate to a purely abstract method.

The court then went on to analyze the problem set out in the application, and concluded that it is indeed a technical problem:

It is set out (on pages 1 and 2) that the invention is in the field of communication devices and in particular of the maximization of a ratio of information/surface comprising a plurality of users, more specifically for portable terminals such as those used on battlefields; and it provides a mode of global visualization of an aspect of a situation on a screen, so as to circumvent the problem of the state of the art per which fighters are endowed with information systems making it possible to display each fighter’s identifier, mission and operational capacities, but not giving any vision for a unit comprising several fighters, so that in a situation of combat stress, it is not possible to remember the corresponding information for each fighter. As a result, the technical problem is that of global visualization of a situation for a unit comprising several fighters, and not of memorization in a stressful situation, which is indeed a problem of a cognitive nature but which is not the one that the invention purports to solve. It thus cannot be considered at this stage that the invention does not provide a technical solution to a technical problem.

The INPI further reasoned that the various claimed means were defined in a purely functional manner and were generic, not clear, and merely related to basic and usual computer tools.

The court was not convinced, as these remarks are not relevant to the issue of whether the claimed subject-matter relates to an invention or not:

The use of technical means to implement a method within the framework of mental activities, thus totally or partly excluding human intervention, can confer to said method a technical character and therefore make it possible to consider it as an invention, just as the patentability of a combination of technical and non-technical features is admitted.

[…] The Director of the INPI can refuse a patent application on the ground of a manifest lack of novelty, and argues that the EPO examiner working on the search report stated that the computer technology relied upon is universally known and widespread, so that the notoriety of such prior art cannot be reasonably challenged. [But he] did not base the refusal decision on a manifest lack of novelty but on article L. 612-12, 5° which only excludes patentability when the subject-matter of the patent application can “manifestly not be considered as an invention under article L. 611-10 Code de la propriété intellectuelle”. The requirements of sufficiency of disclosure, novelty and inventive step cannot be taken into account in the application of this provision. 

Based on these findings, the court considers that the subject-matter of claim 1 relating to a terminal for establishing communications comprising various mutually interacting technical means does not concern a method of performing mental acts as such. It is thus not excluded from patentability for this reason.

All in all, applicants and patent attorneys alike will likely rejoice, as the court has drawn a clear and sound distinction between patent eligibility and the other patentability requirements, in keeping with the case law of the Boards of appeal of the EPO. Also, this approach is consistent with the earlier Thales ruling mentioned at the beginning of this post. This means more international uniformity and more legal certainty.

The issue remains that the main claim does have a broad and somewhat vague flavor to it (which is what the EPO examiner had to say in the first place). If the examination proceedings continue, will the INPI try to refuse the application a second time, this time for a manifest lack of novelty? Or will they conclude that, for a pre-PACTE application, they simply do not have the right legal tools to challenge such a claim?

At any rate, the fate of the first computer-implemented invention applications filed as from May 22 will have to be closely monitored, to see which way the new winds will be blowing.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 2, November 22, 2019, SAS Bull v. Directeur Général de l’INPI, RG No. 18/21161.

Haunted

In the patent profession, cases have this way of always coming back at us.

You may work hard on a case and complete a difficult action, possibly with some sense of achievement (or relief). But then, a few months or years later, the case is back with a vengeance.

Happy about the way you have drafted your patent application, having navigated through all of the prior art and the inventor’s wishes? Wait until you get the search report. Enjoying your ride or flight back home after having been steam-rollered in opposition oral proceedings? Let’s meet again in 2 years’ time for the appeal. Satisfied that you have managed to digest the other party’s 300-page submissions just in time to file your reply in court? As well you should, although next time you will get 350 pages from them.

And so it is with this blog.

Almost exactly 2 years ago, I published a post on Ethypharm SAS v. Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. 

Now that the appeal judgment has been handed down, it seems like a good time to revisit this litigation.

Most appeal judgments in France confirm the first instance decisions (it is said that the confirmation rate is around 80%). But this one did not confirm, which makes it all the more interesting.

As a reminder, the case pitches Ethypharm as a nullity plaintiff against Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. (MSD), defendant and owner of the patent in suit, EP 1455756.

The first topic addressed in my previous post was the assessment of whether the action was time-barred. On this aspect, the appeal judges came to the same conclusion as their colleagues below, with a slightly different reasoning.

The TGI had decided that the starting point for the 5-year limitation period was the date of the EPO Board of appeal’s decision (July 7, 2014), announced during the oral proceedings, per which the patent under opposition was to be maintained in amended form.

As noted in my post, this finding was already a deviation from earlier case law.

The Paris Cour d’appel took an even later date as a starting point, namely the day on which the amended patent was published by the EPO (September 23, 2015). Said the court: “this is when the modified patent became opposable to third parties“.

An entirely reasonable finding, but which makes it more difficult than ever to know and predict how this limitation period should be computed in general. Case law keeps going all over the place. Fortunately, the statute has now been amended so as to take away this disastrous limitation period. We will still have to live with this legal mess, but less and less so.

The other notable point in my earlier post was that I felt there may be some contradiction in the TGI’s position regarding sufficiency on the one hand and inventive step on the other hand.

As a reminder which is probably quite necessary (at least for me), claim 1 reads as follows:

A nanoparticulate composition comprising the compound 2-(R)-(1-(R)-(3,5-bis(trifluoromethyl)phenyl)ethoxy)-3-(S)-(4-fluoro)phenyl-4-(3-(5-oxo-1H,4H-1,2,4-triazolo)methylmorpholine [a.k.a. aprepitant], or a pharmaceutically acceptable salt thereof, the compound having adsorbed on the surface thereof at least one surface stabilizer in an amount sufficient to maintain an effective average particle size of less than about 1000 nm; where “effective average particle size of less than about 1000 nm” means that at least 95% of the particles, by weight, have a particle size of less than about 1000 nm.

Ethypharm’s insufficiency challenge failed at first instance, as the court noted that there was a prior U.S. patent disclosing the so-called “Nanocrystal” method, for making nanoparticles with a surface modifier adsorbed thereon, having an average size of less than 400 nm. This Nanocrystal patent also taught that such nanoparticles improve the bioavailability of poorly water-soluble actives.

Ethypharm also argued lack of inventive step of claim 1 over this Nanocrystal patent, but the attack failed. The lower court held that the teaching of the Nanocrystal patent could not be applied in an obvious manner to aprepitant, and that there were many technical uncertainties.

I was not completely comfortable with the articulation between both positions.

Maybe the appeal judges also had trouble with this approach: while they agreed that the invention was sufficiently disclosed in the patent, they held that it lacked inventive step.

Starting with sufficiency, the court tackled plausibility, an essential phase of most pharma cases. The court repeated the now well-established French criterion per which the patent must “directly and unambiguously reflect the therapeutic effect” at stake. But then they added that “it is not systematically required that the description of the patent should contain tests, this condition is not required in case of a product claim”. A helpful comment, quite in line with the Boards of appeal’s stance on the matter.

The court further remarked that the patent in suit made reference to the U.S. Nanocrystal patent, which made it plausible for the skilled person that nanoparticulate aprepitant had improved bioavailability. Ethypharm did not demonstrate that this was not the case and thus did not discharge its burden of proof. In fact, it appears that some test reports were filed by the plaintiff to support the sufficiency challenge, but they were deemed inconclusive.

Turning then to inventive step, MSD’s case was that increasing bioavailability was a complex problem, and that there were many parameters to be taken into account.

To them, reducing the size of aprepitant particles to less than 1000 nm was not an approach that the skilled person would have used.

But the court relied on expert’s evidence showing that the dissolution rate is often a limiting factor in bioavailability; and that reducing the particle size of a drug makes it possible to increase the contact surface area between the undissolved active and the solvent, which generally increases the dissolution rate. Reference was made in particular to a 1982 textbook.

MSD countered that reducing the particle size to less than 1000 nm was not commonly practiced at the priority date, and had been little explored. The court was not persuaded. Some nanoparticulate drugs were tested already in the 1990s, and it had been proposed in a general manner that a poorly soluble drug could be reduced to a nano size. The Nanocrystal technology of course was also taken into consideration. Not just the patent, but also a press release by Elan Technologies, according to which their process was broadly applicable to many poorly soluble actives.

MSD further relied on a document showing that micronization of aprepitant did not give satisfactory results, so as to show that the skilled person would not have continued with this approach. But the document was an internal one and the skilled person would of course not have been aware of it.

In the end, the court did not deny that there were several possible approaches for the skilled person, but found that the nanoparticulate approach was nevertheless obvious to try:

Even if the skilled person knew of other methods and if the EP’299 patent only showed tests on three different active ingredients, he […] knew that nanonization improved the bioavailability of poorly soluble active substances and was thus incited, based on converging information […], to start research on this pathway in order to improve the bioavailability of aprepitant when used as a drug.

The Board of appeal decision per which the patent was maintained in amended form, namely T 210/11 (Board 3.3.07) reached an opposite conclusion of course:

It results that the skilled person, looking for a solution to the problem as defined above, faces multiple possible solutions to said problem of low bioavailability of aprepitant, and would not be conducted by the teaching of documents (5), (6) or (7) to the use of a nano-particulate composition of aprepitant.

Ethypharm was not a party to the opposition proceedings at the EPO, and the Paris court may have been presented with additional evidence that the Board did not see.

But my overall impression is that this is basically a matter of the court and the board placing the inventive step bar at different heights. This may be one of those grey-area cases, with complex facts to consider, which may very well go one way or the other depending on who looks at them.

This is the end of the story – for now, unless there is a cassation appeal and the case comes back to haunt this blog again.

Here it comes again.

CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 1, October 29, 2019, SAS Ethypharm v. Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp., RG No.18/03876.

A technical silver lining

They say that every cloud has a silver lining.

Thinking about a recent Philips case in which not one, not two, but three patents were revoked by the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI), this saying seems quite fitting.

From the perspective of IP right holders, the dark cloud is of course that we have just been presented with yet another confirmation that patent validity is severely appraised in France. But the silver lining is that, although software patents were at stake, the court did not strike them down for just being that, but on the contrary fully acknowledged the technical nature of the inventions.

The case at hand was certainly a big one for Philips.

Not only were three patents involved, but there were also parallel proceedings against several unrelated defendants.

So much so that there were in fact four judgments issued on the same day: one pitching Philips against HTC, another against Asus, another against Archos and the last one against Wiko.

Philips reproached all defendants for not joining their “Touch enabled device” license program, and retaliated by filing an infringement action based on European patents No. EP 1384134, EP 0888687 and EP 1571988.

The four judgments look substantially identical, so it should be sufficient to look at only one of them.

Claim 1 of EP’134 reads as follows:

A data processing apparatus having a user interface assisting in searching for information from an ordered list a data array, the apparatus comprising:
an array scroller responsive to user actuation; and
a helper character-generator, actuated by continued user actuation of the array, the helper character generator being operative to display a helper character representative of a portion in the list being scrolled.

In brief, this is a user interface invention. The context is that of a long list of elements. In order to facilitate the retrieval of one element in the list by the user, a so-called “helper character” appears. This helper character may represent e.g. a first letter of a name or a first digit of a telephone number. It is thus representative of a cluster of entries in the list. By scrolling from helper character to helper character, the user may select a desired cluster, and then browse within this cluster instead of browsing through the entire list.

Choosing the right song in a menu, a critical decision to make.

The defendants argued that this was a mere presentation of information, and thus not an invention under art. 52 EPC.

Here is the court’s position on this objection:

Displaying the helper character involves continuous actuation by the user in a scrolling array. 

The patent thus relies on the user taking an active part, via an improved interface interacting with him, thus creating a particular technical effect due to the actuation by the user, allowing a faster choice in an array of elements. 

By combining several modes of scrolling down a list of elements, the patent teaches an adaptive user interface for searching and displaying, and thus does not just present information “as such”. It should also be emphasized that the purpose of the invention is to facilitate the selection of an element in a large set of data, on small size devices, taking into account their specific ergonomic design. 

Therefore, the EP’134 patent undeniably implements technical means to obtain a technical solution to a technical problem. Its subject-matter is thus patentable. 

I asked my partner Aujain Eghbali, who is an ace at computer-implemented inventions, what we can make of this.

His main comment was that this is the same type of reasoning that the EPO could have made. He added that the court’s reasoning is in fact quite patent-friendly even by EPO standards.

In particular, the court relied on the ergonomic character of the human/machine interface when assessing the technical nature of the invention. The Boards of appeal of the EPO have sometimes adopted a similar approach (see T 1779/14) but the Guidelines for examination do not take any clear position on the technical nature of such innovations. Section G-II, 3.7.1 suggests that a “physical ergonomic advantage” could be considered as a technical contribution, but specifically in relation with user input.

The court also took note of a statement in the description of the patent, per which human-machine interaction is particularly challenging when the device is small, due to the physiology of the user. Although effects relying on human physiology are acknowledged in the EPO Guidelines (section G-II, 3.7), they are not commonly accepted by examiners as having a technical character, Aujain said.

Going back to the judgment, the EP’134 patent was thus found to meet the requirements of article 52 EPC.

Further objections of insufficiency of disclosure and lack of novelty were also rejected. But the patent finally died of lack of inventive step.

However, it is important to note that all features of claim 1 were fully taken into account in the inventive step reasoning, in keeping with the court’s finding that the claim related to a technical solution to a technical problem.

The court’s negative opinion on the patent was thus fully based on relevant disclosures identified in the prior art. So, this is your good old, traditional, prior art-based lack of inventive step, if you will; not a this-is-not-technical-enough lack of inventive step.

In more detail:

The EP’036 document teaches that, upon continuous actuation of the scrolling key, the first names are sequentially displayed, in the alphabetic order, for each letter, thus providing a search tool. 

Starting from this search tool disclosed in EP’036, the skilled person, namely an electrical engineer experienced in designing user interfaces for portable electronic devices, confronted with the problem of selecting an element in a scrolling list on a small size screen, would achieve claim 1 of the EP’134 patent, since the search tool of the EP’036 prior art (underlining the first letter of a name) is only a visual alternative to the generation of a help character, which is anyway taught by the US’949 document. 

The EP’036 document also taught scrolling cluster by cluster, allowing the user, by maintaining the scrolling key pressed, to go from letter to letter in the directory, without having to go through all names starting with the same letter. 

Therefore, the features of claim 1 of the EP’134 patent derive from the state of the art. 

Next up was EP’687, another user-interface patent.

See in particular claim 1:

An electronic device comprising:
– at least one display;
– a controller arranged to cause the display to show a rotating menu comprising a plurality of menu options,
which menu is disposed off centre in the display so that at least one option is rotatable off the display at any one time, whereby an arbitrary number of options may be added to the menu without changing its format.

Again, the court fully acknowledged the technical character of the invention:

[…] The EP’687 patent aims at improving a user interface for a screen. To this end, it allows displaying a menu comprising a plurality of options as well as adding an arbitrary number of options to the menu without changing its format. It thus provides a better identification of options. 

The objective of the EP’687 patent is to facilitate adding more articles to the menu without making the display more complex, as long as at least one option in the menu is out of the screen due to the rotating menu being off-centered. 

Therefore, the patent makes it possible for the user to interact with the device, while adding any number of options to the menu, without modifying the format and while keeping their own character making their identification easier.

Consequently, the EP’687 patent, which ensures a better identification of menu options for the user, by means of a controller which combines a particular option display format and a double function of rotation and addition of options, obviously implements technical means to provide a technical solution to a technical problem. Its subject-matter is thus patentable. 

Like for the previous patent, Philips was also able to fend off insufficiency and lack of novelty challenges, but then stumbled on inventive step, as the prior art was deemed to be very similar to the invention.

The third patent was directed to an activity monitor. Its technical character was not challenged. It was revoked for lack of inventive step all the same.

In summary, the present case seems to confirm a trend recently seen in a Thales decision and on the contrary to drift further away from past case law in which the stance on patent eligibility was considerably stricter.

How apropos then that the INPI (French patent office) has just published an updated version of its examination guidelines containing two new sections C.VII.1.3.1 and C.VII.1.3.2 on computer-implemented inventions.

One section is dedicated to CAD and computer simulations. The other one relates to AI. Both provide additional guidance as to what should be considered technical or non-technical, again quite in line with the EPO approach. Maybe the next revision will contain some additional thoughts on graphical user interfaces?


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 1ère section, July 11, 2019, Koninklijke Philips NV v. SAS HTC France Corporation & HTC Corporation, RG No. 16/02073.