Art.123(2) EPC – what else?

As a second installment in the story of how French courts seem to have gotten tougher on extension of subject-matter, I would like to say a few words on our local share of the much commented upon Nespresso IP saga (see e.g. here).

Of the two European patents of the same family that the patentee Nestec and its licensee Nespresso France asserted against several defendants, one (let’s call it the divisional patent) was revoked by a Board of appeal of the EPO, for… well, extension of subject-matter. The other one, namely the parent patent (EP 1646305), went unopposed. But the patent proprietor filed a request for national limitation at the French patent office – in parallel to the ongoing infringement suit. It is therefore the patent as limited in France that was held invalid by the court.

Claims 1 to 9 of the patent as limited are directed to a device for the extraction of a capsule provided with a collar. Claim 10 is directed to the device of claim 6 and a capsule in combination, and it further specifies that the capsule is frustoconical and is asymmetric with respect to the plane of the collar.

The court found that the subject-matter of the EP’305 patent as limited unallowably extends beyond the contents of the application as filed for three different reasons.

How coffee was made before Mr. Clooney
How coffee was made before Mr. Clooney got involved

The first one is the feature of the capsule being provided with a collar. The application as filed does disclose a coffee capsule provided with a collar but, said the court, only specific capsules of this kind, namely those described in a prior art document EP 0512148, as opposed to any capsule with a collar. The capsules disclosed in EP’148 are asymmetric, frustoconical, and the collar is situated on the larger end of the cone.

If it is true that the capsules in question are not directly described in this application, it remains that the reference that it contains to the ‘148 patent must be taken into account so as to understand which capsules are meant.

As the defendants rightly point out, this ‘148 patent discloses capsules, made of a soft material, of a frustoconical […] shape, with the collar present on the larger end of the frustum.

Now, the patent as limited does not reproduce these specifications in its claim 1, since it simply describes a capsule with a collar, without mentioning its shape nor the position of this collar.

It is true that, as noted by Nespresso, claim 10 expressly recites that the capsule comprises a collar and an extraction face, and that it is frustoconical. However, this claim does absolutely not mention the position of the collar, and there is no indication that it is located on the larger end of the frustum, whereas it can also be located elsewhere, for instance on the smaller end or also in the middle of the capsule. This omission, which causes the patent as limited to protect a collar which is less specific than the one deriving from the reference made in the patent as filed to the ‘148 patent, is such that it has a scope of protection which is more extended than the initial protection.

This is an extension beyond the application, which as a consequence invalidates claims 1 and 10 of the patent in suit.

Although the expression is not used here, this is a finding of intermediate generalization: during examination proceedings and post-grant limitation, the patentee isolated some features relating to the capsule that is to be used with the device of the invention, without taking the full picture of said capsule. But what is more original here is that the omitted features were not expressly recited in the application as filed. In fact, this is an intermediate generalization relative to the contents of a prior art document cited in the application – in other words a prior art document which the court has considered as being incorporated by reference in the application.

I will skip the second reason for invalidating the patent, which is probably less interesting in the context of this post, and instead I will then turn to the third reason.

As mentioned above, claim 10 relates to a device for the extraction of a capsule plus the capsule itself, in combination. So, this looks like a kit claim. The original set of claims did not contain any such kit claim, but only device claims. The defendants argued that the addition of the kit claim conferred an undue advantage to the patentee and offended legal certainty for third parties, while the patentee’s case was that the application as filed contained a detailed description of how the device interacts with the capsule, so that third parties reading this application should have expected that a kit claim could be later added. Again, the court sided with the defendants:

However, when carefully reading the application as originally filed, it is obvious that this was then only a device patent, describing and protecting “a device for extracting a capsule, as well as the machine comprising this device”, wherein the capsule appeared only in a minimal way, so as to state how it was arranged and how it was extracted, but it was never, as mentioned above, really described for what it was, the only details that were provided being that the capsule was “asymmetric with respect to its collar” and that it could be “of any type”.

[…]

Thus, this is again obviously an extension beyond the application purporting to protect capsules which were not protected before, and the fact that the interaction between the device and the capsules was described did not have the effect at that time to protect these capsules as much as they have been since the grant and even more so since the limitation.

As rightly put by the defendants, this extension cannot be portrayed as insignificant, since it is precisely what makes it possible for the plaintiffs to sue them for infringement today, blaming them for marketing such capsules.

This is an interesting situation because, to some extent, it could be argued that the notion of “combination” between a device and a capsule did not add any new technical information relative to a thorough description of how the device interacts with the capsule. Nevertheless, the court found that the combination claim dramatically altered the subject-matter of the patent, and its potential use against third parties, by making the capsules themselves part of the invention.

In its “limiting feature” decision G1/93, the Enlarged Board of Appeal of the EPO held that:

With regard to Article 123(2) EPC, the underlying idea is clearly that an applicant shall not be allowed to improve his position by adding subject-matter not disclosed in the application as filed, which would give him an unwarranted advantage and could be damaging to the legal security of third parties relying on the content of the original application.

It seems that the TGI took the same view that legal security of third parties is a paramount concern when examining compliance of a patent with Article 123(2) EPC. As bitter as that coffee may be for some, going back to the raison d’être of this rule (which is undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of the European patent system) before applying it to the facts of the case does make a lot of sense.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, 3ème chambre, 2ème section, Nestec et al. v. Cafés Folliet et al., October 3, 2014, RG No. 10/10179.

Gumming up a patent

Based on a number of judgments issued in France over the last couple of years, it seems that there has been a new trend towards the invalidation of patents due to extension of subject-matter. I have a feeling that, not so long ago, this used to be a ground of revocation that no one really took seriously outside of the EPO. And especially so in France, where there has been a long standing tradition of judges looking more closely at the description of a patent than at its claims, and coming up with their own definition of what the invention really is about, notwithstanding the exact wording used in the claims.

But as a famous singer once said, the times they are a-changin’, which brings us to the invalidation proceedings initiated by Normandy-based company Nexira against the British and Japanese owners of European patent EP 1611159. The patent relates to a modified gum arabic from Acacia senegal (that’s the scientific name of the tree from which the gum is collected). This gum can notably be used as an emulsifier in food products.

The main claim of the patent reads as follows:

A water-soluble modified gum arabic from Acacia senegal, having a weight average molecular weight of not less than 0.9 million Da or an arabinogalactan protein content of not less than 17 weight %, and an RMS-radius of gyration of 42.3 to 138 nm, obtainable by heating unmodified gum arabic at 110°C for not less than 15 hours, wherein the weight average molecular weight, arabinogalactan protein content, and RMS-radius of gyration are obtained by processing the data obtained by subjecting the modified gum arabic to a GPC-MALLS using software ASTRA version 4.5 and wherein said data for the whole peaks in the chromatogram obtained using an RI detector are processed as two peaks, the two peaks being divided into the eluted fraction of high molecular weight components containing the arabinogalactan protein of the gum arabic which eluted first and the eluted fraction of low molecular weight components which eluted at a later time, wherein the arabinogalactan protein content corresponds to the obtained recovery ratio of the peak of the eluted fraction of high molecular weight components which eluted first.

The crux of the discussion was the feature of the radius of gyration. The range of 42.3 to 138 nm was not disclosed per se in the application as filed; but the end values of the range were disclosed in the context of two respective examples.

The judgment does not explicitly refer to the case law of the Boards of appeal of the EPO. But there can be little doubt that the court relied on it, since they called this situation a case of “intermediate generalization”, which is typical EPO parlance. What is more, the standard put forward by the court for determining whether the intermediate generalization is admissible or not closely matches the test routinely applied in Munich. Said the court:

It is possible to generalize a range of values from an example, but such intermediate generalization is only admissible under Art. 123(2) EPC if the skilled person can deduce without any doubt from the application as filed that these features are not closely linked to other features of the embodiment, but that they directly and unambiguously apply to the more general context.

In order for this intermediate generalization to be admissible, it must result from the non-ambiguous information that the skilled person would derive by reading the example and the content of the application as filed.

Taking into account the whole content of the application, determining whether features isolated from the examples are closely tied to other features or not, and using direct and unambiguous derivability as a threshold: all European patent attorneys are familiar with these principles, as they are cornerstones of the assessment of extension of subject-matter by the Boards of appeal.

In the Nexira case, the outcome of the Court’s appraisal was negative:

In the present case, the skilled person could not deduce, without any doubt, when reading the international application, that these features, taken from two embodiment examples based on gum arabic having particular dimensions and composition, are not closely linked to other features of these embodiment examples, and directly and unambiguously apply to the more general context.

As a result, the addition of this range of radius of gyration RMS in claim 1 of the EP’159 patent whereas it was not in claim 1 of the international application, shows an extension of its subject-matter beyond the initial application.

How do you write "gum" in Arabic?
How do you write “gum” in Arabic?

Strictly speaking, it would have been interesting to get more detailed explanations in the decision as to why the radius of gyration in the examples should be viewed as being specific to the samples in question. One can also wonder about the relationship between the range of the radius of gyration and the other parameters recited in the main claim, such as the molecular weight, the protein content and the product-by-process features.

The question of who primarily has the burden of proof in this respect (the plaintiff or the defendant-patent proprietor) is also an interesting one which is not clearly addressed in the judgment –  as there was probably no reason for addressing it.

Anyway, the outcome of the case should not come as a real surprise: it is a risky gamble indeed to take values from an example section of a patent application and insert them into a claim. If the patent at stake had been subjected to opposition proceedings, chances are it would probably have faced a hard Art. 100(c) EPC challenge. The patent proprietors were lucky enough not to be faced with an opposition; but not lucky enough to get their patent tried by a court insensitive to EPO traditional case law.

This situation stands in sharp contrast with other French cases previously discussed here and here, where major deviations from EPO case law were observed, in connection with the issue of patent eligibility.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, 3ème chambre, 4ème section, Nexira v. San-Ei Gen FFI Inc. et al., May 28, 2015, RG No. 12/11963.