Red card for Orange

In a previous post, I gave an example of a French patent which was revoked because it was considered as not relating to an invention but to a mere discovery.

Still on the subject of patent eligibility, the same section of the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance (TGI), chaired by the same presiding judge, Ms. Courboulay, confirmed their relatively harsh stance on this topic, this time in relation with a computer-implemented invention. The judgment was already reported on the Blog du droit européen des brevets but since it is really remarkable I thought it would be worth mentioning it here as well, just in case some readers missed it.

The telecommunications giant Orange brought an infringement action against its competitor Free, based on European patent No. EP 2044797. Unsurprisingly, Free filed a revocation counterclaim, and, as the title of this post suggests, Orange lost the case. Indeed, the court revoked all of the patent claims which were asserted by Orange.

Some of these claims were held invalid due to lack of novelty, but this is not the part of the decision which I would like to discuss. I would like to focus on claims 12, 13, 14 and 15.

Claim 12 read as follows:

Computer program product downloadable from a communication network and/or stored on a computer-readable medium and/or executable by a microprocessor of a mobile terminal (2) including means for detecting the radio field (160) of a base station (16) of a home local area network (150), said home local area network including one or more home equipments (11-14) connected to a home gateway (15), said mobile terminal (2) including means for exchanging data with said gateway via a radio link with the base station (16), characterized in that it includes program code instructions for sending to said home gateway (15), in response to detection of the radio field (160), information relating to the establishment of a multimedia session in progress between said mobile terminal (2) and an applicative system (20), and in that it further includes program code instructions for displaying a list of home equipments sent by the home gateway (15) and means for selecting at least one home equipment (11; 12; 13; 14) in said list.

The court was apparently not very happy with how this claim was drafted. They stated:

Article 52 EPC is perfectly clear and does not require any interpretation: programs for computers as such are excluded from patentability, and this is because they are protected by copyright.  

The emphasis on “as such” was put by the court, and the way I understand it, the expression was interpreted as meaning that programs for computers are “inherently” or “absolutely” excluded from patentability.

But, wait a minute, isn’t this understanding completely at odds with the position taken by the Boards of appeal of the EPO? After all, the Enlarged Board of Appeal, in its opinion G 3/08 on computer programs, stated that:

The present position of the case law is thus that […] a claim in the area of computer programs can avoid exclusion under Articles 52(2)(c) and (3) EPC merely by explicitly mentioning the use of a computer or a computer-readable storage medium (reasons, 10.13).

In other terms, according to the case law that the Enlarged Board endorsed, the wording “as such” in Article 52 means quite the opposite to what the TGI believes, i.e. it means that only pure computer programs can possibly be excluded from patentability, but any mention of a technical feature such as a computer or a storage medium is sufficient to escape exclusion from patentability. To make this easier to understand, the Enlarged Board made a comparison between computer programs and pictures (also excluded from patentability as such), which can be printed on a (patentable) physical support:

a claim to a computer implemented method or a computer program on a computer-readable storage medium will never fall within the exclusion of claimed subject-matter under Articles 52(2) and (3) EPC, just as a claim to a picture on a cup will also never fall under this exclusion.

The TGI was evidently well aware of the EPO case law on the issue but was unimpressed:

It cannot be validly argued, as the sole defense to deny nullity of these two claims, that the practice of the EPO is to admit claims to programs for computers by calling them ‘program-products’.

In fact, it cannot be accepted that a mere trick of language would make it possible to grant patents contra legem. Indeed, the grant of patents to computer programs, even if they are called program products, is not supported by any statute or by any difficulty of interpretation of the EPC, and on the contrary those are clearly excluded as such from patentability.

Claims 13 and 14 contained the same wording of “computer program product” as claim 12 and they were therefore smashed for the same reason.

As for claim 15, it was directed to a “storage medium storing the program according to any one of claims 12 to 14”, but the court found that this does not make any difference:

In this case, and in view of the way claim 15 of the EP’797 patent is drafted, it appears that the storage medium does not have any particular technical feature. It is again a dressing which does not make it possible to escape the exclusion from patentability which concerns computer programs. There is in fact no more information on this storage medium in the description of the patent, and Orange has obtained a protection and the consequent monopoly on an object the only function of which is to contain computer programs which are excluded from patentability.

Claim 15 was therefore canceled as well.

A storage medium suitable for storing non-inventions.

Scathing comments in a ruling often add some spice to it, and Ms. Courboulay did not skimp on those. In this respect, her statement on the EPO’s contra legem practice of granting patents to computer program products is nothing short of astonishing. I will leave it up to the readership to decide for themselves whether the red card mentioned in the title of this post should in fact be shown to her court rather than to the claimant.

But beyond this parfum de scandale, applicants should keep in mind that, at least according to latest case law, claims directed to computer programs seem to be simply outlawed in France. Therefore, they should definitely include method claims in their French or European applications if they want the novelty and inventive step of their inventions to be assessed at all.

In view of the very firm stance taken by the court in Orange, I would not bet on any argumentation advocating the technical character of computer program inventions in front of the TGI.

As to the significant discrepancy between French case law and EPO practice, there are other striking examples (not just in the software field), and I will probably come back to this issue in future posts.

CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, 3ème chambre, 1ère section, SA Orange v. SAS Free & SAS Freebox, June 18, 2015, RG No. 14/05735.