An eccentricity issue

Judgments in which a mechanical engineering patent is revoked for insufficiency of disclosure are few and far between. Typically, insufficiency problems tend to arise in the context of chemical or medicinal inventions – although they are not unheard of with mechanical inventions.

So, today’s decision may be viewed as somewhat eccentric in this respect. But the best part is that the feature which was found to be problematic revolves around… an eccentric (mechanism). End of pun.

In the case at hand, the patent (EP 1023111) was commonly owned by its three inventors, and licensed to a company called LPG Systems. LPG are the initials of one of the inventors, who, not unexpectedly, was a partner of the licensee.

At some point of time, things must have gone wrong, as LPG put an end to the license agreement. As a result, the two other owners of the patent filed suit for wrongful termination. And as a counter-strike, LPG filed a patent nullity action.

The patent was revoked for insufficiency of disclosure in first instance. This was confirmed in a judgment by the Cour d’appel de Paris dated September 9, 2014. The two disgruntled patent proprietors filed an appeal on points to law with the Cour de cassation (judicial supreme court). This final appeal was dismissed in a judgment dated October 4, 2016.

In order to properly understand what was wrong with this patent, it is easier to go back to the 2014 appeal ruling, as judgments from the Cour de cassation have this tendency to be somewhat cryptic and in particular to only partially recall the relevant facts.

The patent at stake relates to an apparatus for restoring the balance of the human body.

Due to various medical conditions, patients sometimes need to have their balance corrected or restored. This can be achieved owing to a training apparatus, such as the one claimed in the patent:

Apparatus for restoring the balance of the human body, consisting essentially of a mobile circular platform intended to support the subject to be treated and which can have an oscillatory movement imparted to it, and in which the said platform has its oscillatory movement imparted to it about a central support point, this movement being combined with a reciprocating rotational movement, by means of a single motor connected to transmission means and without the intervention of the patientthis being in the plane of the platform supporting the subject, about the geometric axis perpendicular to the said platform and passing through its centre, the amplitude and speed both of the oscillation and of the rotation being adjustable and capable of being varied during use, means being associated with the said apparatus so that the subject can be held on the platform either in a standing position or in a crouched or seated position.

The expressions highlighted above are probably the most significant ones for the decision.

LPG claimed that the patent at stake does not disclose appropriate means for adjusting the amplitude of the oscillation and rotation during use and that the skilled person would not be able to implement this feature of the claim.

The Cour d’appel agreed. The court reviewed the description of the patent. Said description does disclose a mechanism for providing the claimed oscillatory and rotary movement of the platform: the platform is mounted at the extremity of a shaft of a cylinder, which imparts the desired oscillations. And rotation can be generated owing to another shaft connected to an eccentric.

The court stated that both the rotation amplitude and the oscillation amplitude could be adjusted by acting on respective relevant parts (cylinder shaft and eccentric). However, it was only possible to do so when the apparatus was not working. But the claim required the possibility to adjust this amplitude in use. Such possibility was not taught in the patent.

The appellants submitted two expert opinions aiming at showing possible ways to implement the claimed feature. The description of the opinions is very brief in the judgment. It seems that the first one suggested to use an electric or hydraulic cylinder for the eccentric itself, so that the patient could actuate it during use; and that the second one offered to mount an electric or hydraulic cylinder on the eccentric so as to actuate it and rotate with it.

The court dismissed these expert opinions. They noted that the first opinion called for the intervention of the patient; and that both relied on the presence of an additional motor. And this was not consistent with the teaching of the patent. They also added that the technical solutions contemplated in the expert opinions required more than mere implementation steps.

Eccentricity can sometimes be brilliant.
Eccentricity can sometimes be brilliant.

In order to challenge an appeal judgment in front of the Cour de cassation, it must be shown that the law was not correctly applied. This is seldom an easy task. It is often said that appeal courts are skilled in drafting judgments relying almost entirely on facts (and not on any particular interpretation of the law) in order to reduce the risk of being overturned. Conversely, cassation appellants tend to artificially disguise arguments that the Cour d’appel erroneously assessed facts as arguments that the Cour d’appel violated the law. An interesting game indeed.

In the present case, first the appellants stated that the Cour d’appel had come up with an argument of its own (which they are not supposed to do) without hearing the parties on it (which they are not supposed to do either). The argument in question was that the adjustment at stake could not possibly be made by the patient him/herself. The Cour de cassation disagreed because this argument made by the appellate judges was actually derivable from the main claim itself.

Second, the appellants submitted that the patent does not require the claimed adjustment to be made without the intervention of the patient, and with a single motor – as asserted by the appellate judges. The main claim requires on the one hand that the oscillatory movement is “combined with a reciprocating rotational movement, by means of a single motor“; and on the other hand that “the amplitude and speed both of the oscillation and of the rotation [are] adjustable and capable of being varied during use“.

In other words, there is no explicit limitation in the claim to an adjustment by means of a single motor, without any intervention of the patient. Paragraph [0026] of the description mentions an “oscillatory movement around a central support point, which is combined with an alternate rotation movement, owing to a single motor connected to transmission means and without any intervention of the patient”. Here again, it is not explicitly stated that the requirements of a single motor and of the absence of intervention of a patient apply to the adjustment of the movement.

Here is how the cassation judges dealt with the argument:

This description is not clear and accurate. It does not mention that the single motor does not provide the adjustment of the speed and amplitude of oscillation or of the alternate rotation. Nor does it mention that another means should be used for that purpose. The Cour d’appel held that the addition of a supplementary motor was contrary to the teaching of the patent based on an interpretation which had to be made due to the ambiguity of the description – and therefore the decision was correctly reasoned. 

In other words, the appellate judges were at a liberty to interpret the claim in a restrictive manner because the description of the patent did not clearly and unambiguously lead to a different interpretation. Again, it is not the Cour de cassation’s job to redo the work done by the Cour d’appel. They only focus on possible errors of law. I figure that a blatant interpretation mistake could be considered as misapplying the law, but this was not the case here.

The appellants also blamed the Cour d’appel with not sufficiently taking into account the experts’ opinions in its reasoning. But the Cour de cassation considered that the reasoning was sufficient: based on the above claim interpretation, the movement adjustment was supposed to be performed owing to the single motor – according to the patent. Since the experts’ opinions relied on an additional motor, the Cour d’appel did not err in rejecting those.

I guess this is one of those cases where it is in fact a lack of clarity of the claims which made the patent fall down the abyss of insufficiency of disclosure.

Probably not that eccentric an outcome, if you ask a chemical engineering patent attorney.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour de cassation, ch. com., October 4, 2016, Bardon & Tudico v. Guitay & LPG Systems, appeal No. Y 15-12.294.

Defense ripped to shreds

Today’s case relates to a shredder for plant materials. And while I was browsing online desperately looking for some kind of introductory witticism for this post, I came across a fiction character called the Shredder, to whom a very detailed Wikipedia page is dedicated. It turns out the Shredder is a villain in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics – which I must confess I really do not know anything about.

It is actually fascinating to find out that the Shredder’s webpage is significantly longer than the Wikipedia page on, say, the European Patent Convention. Just to put things into perspective.

So back to what I might indeed attempt to comment on, i.e. a dispute between Société d’Equipements pour l’Environnement (or SEE), owner of a French patent No. FR 2795661 and a European patent No. EP 1066883 (EP’883 claiming the priority of FR’661), and Rabaud, against which the two patents were asserted.

There are at least four different points which are of interest in the judgment handed down by the Cour d’appel de Paris on this case:

  • The invalidation of several claims of FR’661 for insufficiency of disclosure.
  • The finding that Rabaud’s shredder called Xylomix infringes the French part of claim 1 of EP’883 by equivalence.
  • An additional finding of contributory infringement.
  • The rejection of a false marking claim.

Let’s have a look at the invalidity issue first. Claim 1 of the priority patent FR’661 is quite different from claim 1 of the subsequent patent EP’883, which is why this invalidity issue only applies to the former.

Claim 1 of FR’661 concerns a shredder having a shredding rotor, wherein, in particular, “the rotor is suitable for creating an air flow for ejecting matter towards the ejection zone“.

The court noted that the claim does not define how the air flow is created, and that the description of the patent is also silent on this. Specific features seem to be present in the drawings, but without any explanation:

[….] The drawings do not make it possible for the skilled person to understand what the means for creating the air flow in claim 1 is, since the inverted S-shaped line which can be seen on Figures 2 to 4 and the inverted S-shaped double line which can be seen on Figure 6 are not captioned, unlike the other elements making up the rotor, and do not make it possible to interpret claim 1 in such a way that the means is made of ventilation blades. 

[…] In fact, on the other hand, this ventilation means is precisely described in claim 1 of [EP’883], at [paragraphs] [0033] to [0035] of the description, and is captioned in Figures 2 to 4 and 6 (with reference 16) and reproduced in three-dimensional view on Figure 7, which implies that without this description of the means for creating the air flow, the skilled person was not able to implement the invention simply based on common general knowledge. 

A finding of insufficiency of disclosure is not a common thing. And when this finding is in the mechanical field, it is all the more uncommon. Even if the ventilation blades were not mentioned in FR’661, it may not be too difficult for the skilled person to think of such blades as a possible means for generating an air flow. So, was there something specific about the shape or positioning of the ventilation blades which was not obvious to achieve for the skilled person?

The judgment does not tell. But clearly the more detailed explanations in the European patent were held against the French patent. So, drafters had better be careful about leaving claimed functional features unexplained in the description.

See how easy it is to create an air flow?
See how easy it is to create an air flow?

After invalidating claim 1 of the French patent (as well as all other dependent claims asserted by SEE, for the same reason), the court turned to the European patent. Apparently no invalidity defense was raised by Rabaud, which was of course of a great help to the patent proprietor.

Rabaud focused on a non-infringement defense. 

Claim 1 of EP’883 reads as follows (adding the same feature analysis taken up by the court):

a. A shredder, more particularly intended for reducing plants or other materials,

b. comprising a feeding section

c. and an ejection section,

d. between which is arranged a chamber provided with shredding means

e. which consist of a rotor including specific tools depending on the type of plants or materials to be shredded, in alternating positions,

f. i.e.: cutting tools intended for shredding a type of plants,

g. and defibring and bursting tools intended for shredding other types of hard plants or materials,

characterized in that,

h. on the same rotor are also positioned ventilation means, positioned with respect to said cutting tools, so as to define the gauge of the chunks of plants or other materials cut by said cutting tools, allowing the discharge of the shredded plants and other materials out of said chamber,

and in that,

i. in said shredder, said cutting tools, said defibring and bursting tools and said ventilation means are positioned with respect to each other, depending on the direction of the rotor rotation, so as to successively allow the defibring or the bursting operation, the definition of the gauge of the chunks to be cut, the cutting and the discharge of the shredded plants or other materials, 

j. so as to serve as a multipurpose active drum. 

The defendant argued that features h. and i. were not reproduced by the Xylomix apparatus.

Regarding feature i., Rabaud argued that Xylomix’ flails (defibring and bursting tools) do not act on the plant materials before its knives (cutting tools), whereas such a particular order of operation is required by claim 1. But the court was not convinced, especially because they said the order of operation is defined more particularly in a dependent claim 6, so that claim 1 is broader.

The judgment does not specifically address the word “successively” in feature i., which may support Rabaud’s defense. My understanding is that the court interpreted this adverb as simply introducing the various operations, as opposed to requiring a certain order between them. Such interpretation may be debatable. Also, depending claim 6 further specifies driving sections for the flails and knives and does not just add an order of operation to what is recited in claim 1.

As for feature h., the infringement theory was based on equivalence. As a reminder, under French practice and as recalled in the judgment itself:

Two means are held equivalent when, although they are of a different structure, they have the same function for achieving a result of a similar nature or degree. 

In the Xylomix apparatus, the gauge is obtained by way of dedicated metal sheets and not by the ventilation means as required by feature h. Nevertheless, the court acknowledged that the gauge function is achieved in the Xylomix apparatus like in the patent and that the result is of a similar nature. Therefore, there was infringement by equivalence.

One effective defense against the doctrine of equivalence generally consists in arguing that the doctrine does not apply because the claimed function is known from the prior art. But in this case it seems that the defendant did not rely on any prior art at all, which is why the court did not have to examine this particular aspect.

The third interesting point in the judgment relates to contributory infringement. In addition to Xylomix devices having both flails and knives, which were found to be a direct infringement of the patent, Rabaud also marketed “simple” Xylomix devices, with only knives or only flails. Also these simple devices were held to infringe under article L. 613-4 Code de la propriété intellectuelle. Said the court:

[…] The Xylomix shredder brochure intended for Rabaud’s customers, which was seized during the infringement seizure, highlights that it is possible with one rotor to rapidly transition between knives, flails or dual mode, and that the rotor, pictured as “3 in 1” is the only one “capable of addressing all market needs”. 

As rightly noted by the first instance judges, the user who bought a shredder having a “simple” rotor can then buy knives or flails, which are sold separately from the shredder, so as to make it work in a dual mode and thus implement the patented invention without having a right to do so. 

What I think is the most interesting question though is whether all simple rotor sales will be taken into account in the assessment of damages, or only a fraction of those. But this question has been left unanswered so far as the court did not rule on damages, an expertise being ongoing in parallel.

Fourth, and last, false marking. SEE claimed that, in addition to patent infringement, Rabaud was also guilty of unfair competition, due to various mentions in their commercial brochures dating back to 2011. One mention in particular was that Xylomix was “patented“, which was in fact not the case. The first instance judgment sided with SEE on this question, but the Cour d’appel reversed this part of the judgment. The reversal was based on the fact that Rabaud had filed a French patent application in 2009 and then a European patent application in 2010. The French patent was granted in 2014.

The bottom line seems to be that it is OK to put the cart before the horse and refer to a “patented” device when in fact the patent is still pending. Not that I would recommend doing so, though.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, Pôle 5, chambre 1, May 17, 2016, Rabaud v. Société d’Equipements pour l’Environnement, RG No.14/10335.

Three strikes – you’re out

One, two, three strikes you’re out. Today, I will be discussing an invalidity decision again, and a rather remarkable one. It is not every day that three different grounds of nullity are held against a patent, including what some practitioners could consider as their white whale, namely… the lack of industrial application.

The origin of the case is a dispute between two inventors owning a French patent and a corresponding European patent relating to a cloth coated with mother-of-pearl, and their licensee, Van Robaeys Frères. As part of the dispute, the patent proprietors in particular requested from the Dunkerque Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) that the license agreement should be terminated. The disgruntled licensee retaliated by filing a nullity suit in front of the Paris TGI – which, as explained in a recent post, has exclusive jurisdiction in patent matters.

The first part of the judgment is dedicated to an inadmissibility defense based on an alleged lack of standing. This has actually been a serious defense since a famous Barilla case three years ago, in which a nullity claimant was found to lack standing because they had not demonstrated that they were preparing for carrying out acts prohibited by the patent.

Yet, in the present case, the nullity claim was quite logically found to be admissible:

With respect to patent nullity actions, those who can act are those who can establish that, at the time the complaint is filed, the claims which are sought to be revoked, are or may be an impediment for carrying out their economic activity, because they work or plan to work in the field of the patented invention. In this case, as a licensee in a license agreement on the exploitation of the French patent for which a termination is requested by the licensor, Van Robaeys Frères has an economic activity notably in the field of linen cloths, and thus has standing for seeking nullity of the patents of Mr. Thierry D’Arras & Albert Paoli, which it will no longer benefit from due to the termination. 

That being settled, let’s have a quick look at the two patents at stake, FR 2941712 (FR’712) and EP 2393979 (EP’979). Claim 1 of EP’979 reads very simply:

A cloth comprising a support and a light deconstructing layer characterized in that said layer comprises mother-of-pearl.

Claims 2 to 8 are dependent claims. Claim 9 relates to:

A method for preparing a cloth according to one of claims 1 to 8, comprising a step to impregnate a support in a mother-of-pearl solution.

Claim 10 depends on claim 9, and claim 11 is directed to

The use of a cloth according to one of claims 1 to 8 or of a cloth obtained with the method according to claims 9 to 10 to manufacture products which reflect away the infrared such as blind fabrics, tent fabrics and clothing.

The claims of FR’712 are identical to those of EP’979, except that claim 1 of FR’712 is somewhat broader as it also recites the alternative of using a substance equivalent to mother-of-pearl.

Mother and her pearls
Mother and her pearls

The first ground of nullity upheld by the court was a lack of novelty due to the inventors’ own activities before the priority date. More precisely, Van Robaeys argued that the invention was disclosed to the public in two ways: because of trials at the Centre européen du non-tissé (CENT) a couple of months before the priority date, and because of a meeting at the Ecole polytechnique a couple of weeks before the priority date.

The inventors’ defense was that both events were confidential. But the court held that this was not adequately proven. In particular, it seems that the court was of the opinion that explicit confidentiality agreements should have been in place, which was apparently not the case:

However, it can only be derived from the exchange of emails concerning the 2008 trials that a draft of confidentiality agreement was received by [the inventors]; and concerning the [meeting] of January 2009, it can be derived from the report dated January 19, 2009 on the meeting at Polytechnique that it was intended that all documents would be confidential, that “the university insists on the execution of a confidentiality agreement”, that “a draft of confidentiality agreement” was received by Mr. … from Polytechnique, but no confidentiality agreement was submitted by the parties. 

Yet, it is conventional to execute an agreement of this type […]. 

The court did not investigate whether it could be considered that there was an implicit obligation of confidentiality due to the circumstances of the two disclosures – and it is possible that the patent proprietors did not phrase the argument in this manner.

This is a defense that might have been successful in front of a Board of appeal of the EPO. There are not enough details in the judgment to really understand the full circumstances of the disclosures, but one could probably argue that there was a common understanding by the participants that the information made available during the trials and the meeting was provided in confidence.

So, are French courts more severe than the EPO on this issue? That’s very possible, as this is not the first decision that I have seen where an explicit confidentiality agreement is viewed as necessary in order to disqualify a disclosure as a public one. On the other hand, another decision issued by another section of the Paris TGI earlier in 2015 (and that I might comment on in a further post) accepted that the supply of prototypes to a lab for testing purposes implies a duty of confidentiality for the lab.

The bottom line is that, even if French courts may not draw the line at exactly the same position as the Boards of appeal of the EPO, in the end the question of whether a disclosure is considered as a confidential one or a public one is extremely fact-dependent, and there are never two exactly similar situations.

With that, claims 1 to 5 and 11 were found to lack novelty, which left claims 6 to 10 still standing.

Lack of inventive step was the next ground of invalidity tackled by the court, and it was quickly discarded. Indeed, it seems that none of the documents relied on by the claimant disclosed the use of mother-of-pearl on a cloth for filtering infrared and ultraviolet rays without interfering with visible light, which was the technical problem at stake.

Thus, the court turned to insufficiency of disclosure, which as readers may know is not a ground of invalidity that patent proprietors should take lightly in this country.

At this point, the judgment gets very surprising.

The court started by examining claim 6, which recites that “the light deconstructing layer is continuous“. According to the court, the description sets out that a continuous layer can be obtained by dipping or spraying, so that there is no insufficiency issue.

But then, the court turned to method claims 9 and 10 and explained that the notion of “mother-of-pearl solution” recited in these claims raises significant difficulties:

It is only mentioned in claim 10 that the mother-of-pearl solution comprises 10 to 20% mother-of-pearl, and it is mentioned in the description […] that “said mother-of-pearl is a powder of mother-of-pearl. Among the powders of mother-of-pearl which can be used in the invention, the one obtained by grinding the inside of mollusk shells can be cited.” 

Yet, the patent does not provide any indication on the formulation of the mother-of-pearl solution, although this element is essential since it defines the composition of the “layer” which needs to be homogeneous during preparation, its condition, its ability to penetrate or not the support or its ability to adhere to said support. 

Thus, it can be derived from the opinion drafted by Prof. D. […] that “the possibility to implement the invention depends on the possibility to implement the method of claims 9 and 10 […]. On the chemical standpoint, the term ‘solution’ is not sufficient to make it possible to carry out the invention and it raises many questions. Mother-of-pearl is mainly formed of calcium carbonate in the aragonite crystalline form, and it is very poorly soluble in water. One needs to know exactly what the solution is made of.”

The technical opinion of the engineer Mr. V. […] is consistent with this and adds that the composition the solution should probably vary depending on the fiber which is used […]. 

Therefore, the court held that method claims 9 and 10 are invalid due to insufficiency of disclosure and then added that “the product of claims 6 to 8 is also invalid because the methods for making the cloth are invalid“.

To say the least, this wording is clumsy. After stating that there was no defect of insufficiency of disclosure in claim 6, the court sort of changed its mind and held that the claim was invalid because the method of claims 9 and 10 is insufficiently disclosed.

It would certainly have been much clearer to start with claims 9 and 10, and then explain that since the skilled person does not know how to carry out the claimed manufacturing method, and in the absence of another readily available method, the product claims necessarily suffer from the same defect.

This clumsy wording notwithstanding, the court’s reasoning seems to make perfect sense. The analysis relies on experts’ opinions and it is true that the description of both patents is quite short and does not provide very detailed information, and in particular no example – in contrast to another recent case discussed here.

And finally, the white whale, i.e. the court’s position on the lack of industrial application of the patent:

It can be derived from the exchanges of emails in June 2011 between the parties as well as from the affidavit of Mr. J in charge of the project […] that the inventors faced unresolved difficulties of implementation of the non-woven linen cloth awnings coated with mother-of-pearl solution in a continuous layer, and it is not demonstrated that these difficulties only concerned roller awnings [as alleged by the defendants]. 

The inventors claimed that products according to the patent were manufactured and marketed, but only photographs and invoices were provided as evidence, which did not make it possible for the court to determine whether the invention was actually implemented in those products or not.

This lack of industrial application is in fact very similar to an insufficiency of disclosure. So, the whale may not be so white after all, upon closer inspection. But it is true that if an invention cannot be carried out by the skilled person, then it is not possible to make it or use it “in any kind of industry, including agriculture” as Article 57 EPC puts it.

And that was the last nail in the patents’ coffin.

As a final word, we should always bear in mind that French court are strictly bound by the parties’ submissions; therefore, surprising court’s findings may sometimes only reflect unusual parties’ submissions. But to some extent, it seems like this judgment is really a pearl.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 1ère section, September 10, 2015, SA Van Robaeys Frères v. D’Arras & Paoli, RG No. 13/12618.

A flayed patent

We have one saying which goes “Vérité en-deçà des Pyrénées, erreur au-delà, which could be translated by: “What holds true on one side of the Pyrenees may be false on the other“. Well, the same can probably be said of the Rhine.

In a previous post, I discussed a recent decision by the Paris Cour d’appel, in which medical device claims were found novel due to a purpose feature – in keeping with the well-established French novelty standard. This approach is at odds with the practice of the EPO, where purpose features are only taken into account if they can be translated into structural limitations.

Yet, the greater generosity of French courts with patentees with respect to novelty is counterbalanced, it seems, by greater severity in particular with respect to sufficiency of disclosure, as the same case shows.

As a reminder, claim 1 of the patent was directed to:

A device for selectively disrupting lipid rich cells in a non-infant human subject by cooling, comprising:

– cooling means for cooling a local region of the subject’s skin to selectively disrupt lipid rich cells of the region, while, concurrently therewith, maintaining the subject’s skin at a temperature whereby non-lipid rich cells are not disrupted, wherein the cooling means are adapted to cool the lipid rich cells to a temperature between about -10°C and about 25 °C, 

– a temperature control unit for controlling the temperature of the cooling means, and temperature measuring means which are adapted to measure the temperature of the subject’s skin and/or the temperature in the subject’s skin and/or the temperature on the surface of the subject’s skin; characterized in that 

– the temperature control unit is further adapted to control the temperature of the cooling means such that the temperature of the subjects skin and/or the temperature in the subject’s skin and/or the temperature on the surface of the subject’s skin does not fall below a predetermined minimum temperature on the basis of the temperature of the subjects skin and/or the temperature in the subject’s skin and/or the temperature on the surface of the subject’s skin.  

The court started the sufficiency assessment by defining the skilled person, in a plural form:

[…] In this case, the skilled in the art is a team composed of a specialist in skin biology and a specialist in the field of cryogenics (cryolipolysis as regards the destruction of fat by the cold).

Then, the court recalled the general purpose of the claimed invention (which, as a reminder, was duly taken into account in the novelty analysis):

[…] The cryolipolysis device disclosed by claim 1 of the patent at stake must be able to selectively break lipid-rich cells by cooling, owing to cooling means which make it possible to maintain, at the same time, the skin of the subject at a temperature such that the other cells of the dermis and the epidermis are not broken […]. 

The sufficiency question at stake was thus whether there was enough information in the patent to achieve this general purpose.

In this respect, three parameters came into play, according to the court: cooling temperature, cooling time, and the surface area of the patient’s skin subjected to the cooling.

The patent proprietor’s position was that:

  • the temperature to be applied was from -10 to 4°C, or from -2 to 15°C;
  • the optimal time of application was from 5 to 20 minutes;
  • the surface of treatment should be at least 1 cm2 and preferably from 3 to 20 cm2;
  • the determination of the optimal values for the various parameters was a matter of routine implementation for the skilled person;
  • the examples in the patent would direct the skilled person to specific cooling parameters of -6°C for 5 minutes or -7°C for 10 to 20 minutes.

In order to assess the merits of this defense, the court analyzed the contents of the description of the patent in great detail.

They noted a number of extremely generic and vague statements.

Regarding the temperature to be applied, the court noted that

[…] at paragraph [0024] of the description, a temperature range for the cooling means is mentioned which is excessively broad, since it goes from the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-196°C) to human body temperature (37°C); at paragraph [0025], preferential ranges are provided, but they are still very broad and imprecise, since they encompass from “approximately” -15°C to “approximately” 35, 30, 25, 20, 15, 10 or 5°C, or from “approximately” -10°C to “approximately” 35, 30, 25, 20, 15, 10 or 5°C, or also from “approximately” -15°c to “approximately” 20, 15, 10 or 5°C […]. 

The court continued to analyze the rest of the description of the patent and remarked that many other indications were provided for the temperature of cooling of lipid-rich cells as well as for the cooling time. In particular, the court noted the disclosure of preferred temperature ranges of -10 to 37°C, -4 to 20°C, -8 to 33°C, -2 to 15°C, -10 to 35°C, -5 to 10°C, -5 to 5°C, -10 to 20°C, -8 to 15°C, as well of many exemplary values.

Turning to the cooling time, the court stated that

[…] paragraph [0026] starts by teaching an application time for the cooling means of up to two hours, while retaining a preferred time of between one and thirty minutes, but without specifying for each temperature level of the cooling means what the corresponding preferred application time is, except for the sole example of liquid nitrogen application, although on the one hand liquid nitrogen temperature does not correspond to the preferred temperature ranges mentioned in the previous paragraph and on the other hand the duration of application (one tenth of a second) does not correspond to the time range indicated as preferential. 

The court also noted that various cooling patterns were disclosed, such as continuous cooling, multiple cooling cycles, and cooling with intermediate warming up periods (which, said the court, are not specified). Time intervals between cooling applications ranged from 1 minute to 1 hour or from 12 to 24 hours.

The court’s conclusion was that

[…] it cannot be derived from such broad and imprecise – or even contradictory – temperature and time indications that, for the skilled person, the cooling temperature range for achieving cryolysis of lipid cells would vary between -2 and 15°C and the optimal application time would vary between 5 and 20 minutes (all the more so that this time mentioned at paragraph [0045] does not relate to the application time but to the preferred interval between each application).

Regarding the surface area of the cooling means, the court referred to paragraph [0030] of the patent, which provided a general rule as well as preferred values. The relevant passage of the paragraph reads as follows:

[…] Generally, the dimension of the surface area (e.g., where the cooling agent is in contact with the skin) should be at least three times the depth of subcutaneous fatty tissue that is targeted for cooling. Preferably, the minimum diameter of the surface area is at least 1 cm2. Even more preferably, the diameter of the surface area is between 3 to 20 cm2. Determination of the optimal surface area will require routine variation of several parameters. For example, larger surface areas, such as those over 3500 cm2, can be cooled according to the methods of the present invention if hypothermia is prevented by additional means.

Again, the court was dissatisfied with this teaching. Actually, there seems to be a confusion in this passage between dimensions and surface areas. Moreover, “it is not taught how the skilled person could measure the depth of subcutaneous fatty tissue“, said the court; and the preferred ranges are very broad indeed.

If we stop at this point for a moment, the main problem of the patent’s description is not that there was too little information but rather that there was too much. Instead of providing a couple of relevant ranges of values for the various parameters at stake, the patent offered a huge number of variants within an extremely broad disclosure.

I take this as a serious warning against U.S.-style claim drafting. It is quite common to find extremely broad definitions in U.S.-originating patents, and the reader sometimes gets the impression that any term can mean anything and that each parameter can take any possible value under the sun. This drafting practice of course makes perfect sense in terms of affording the best scope of protection, especially in the U.S., but the present example shows that it may not always play well on this side of the Atlantic, where courts insist on finding an actual technical teaching which can be of practical use to the skilled person in the patent, in order for that patent to be deemed worthy of being upheld.

My feeling on this is that the Cour d’appel can probably not be blamed for looking for a real, practical teaching in the patent.

But then comes a more controversial part of the judgment. Indeed, the patent also contained a number of examples relating to experimental testing on pigs and showing a decrease in adipose tissue without damage to the dermis or epidermis.

At the EPO, “an invention is in principle sufficiently disclosed if at least one way is clearly indicated enabling the person skilled in the art to carry out the invention“, as the Case Law bible (Case Law of the Board of Appeal of the European Patent Office, 7th edition, 2013) puts it in section II.C.4.2.

So, shouldn’t we apply this standard, and conclude that the examples in General Hospital’s patent save it from falling for insufficiency of disclosure? Nope, and here’s why:

[…] Zeltiq and General Hsopital, based on the expert report of William E. […] state that these experimental results would direct the skilled person towards the application of a temperature from -6°C for 5 minutes to -7°C for 10 to 20 minutes.

[…] Domestic pig skin […] has morphological and functional characteristics similar to those of human skin, but William E. acknowledges that “of course in medical research, human testing is the reference standard”;

[…] Although this expert believes that the skilled person […] would have concluded in 2002 that the results observed in the three pigs of examples 1 and 2 would also apply to humans, it should be noted that this expert, who is an MD specialized in dermatology cannot be considered as the skilled person […] and that he relies on findings from more contemporaneous studies, whereas the priority date of the application […] is the reference for assessing the sufficiency of disclosure of the patent.

[…] It can be derived in particular from the article by Mr. M. entitled “the skin of domestic mammals as a model for human skin, with special reference to domestic pig” dated 1978 […] that “data from animal experiments cannot be transcribed without restriction to man”.

[…] Thus it does not appear that the skilled person in 2002 could have extrapolated the results of experiments 1 and 2 described in the patent and relating to pigs so as to select a cooling temperature application from -6°C for 5 minutes to -7°C for 10 to 20 minutes. 

With that, claim 1 as well as the dependent claims relied upon by the plaintiffs were held invalid.

 

The unfortunate result of excessive fat disruption due to an erroneous setting of the patented device.
The unfortunate result of excessive fat disruption due to an erroneous setting of the patented device.

Again, I think this part of the judgment is quite debatable.

Indeed, in the medical or medical-like field, there are usually in vitro studies first, then animal studies, and only then human studies. Actual experiments on human patients usually come late in the development process, so late that it does not make sense to wait for that stage before filing a patent application, in a first-to-file system.

This is certainly why the Boards of Appel of the EPO only require that the description of the application should make it plausible that a claimed technical effect can indeed be achieved (see e.g. here). My understanding is that animal studies are generally considered as making it plausible that a certain treatment can also be applied to humans, unless there are special reasons to come to the opposite conclusion. There is no denying that animal studies are less complete than human studies but stating that animal experiments are generally not sufficient for a skilled person to carry out an invention would mean tossing out most patents in the drug and medical device industries.

I have not had access to the exhibits filed by both parties in this lawsuit, so I do not have a complete opinion on the patent at stake. But let’s put it like this: absent any showing (1) that the selective disruption of lipid-rich cells in humans does not work, or (2) that the settings to make it work are very removed from those disclosed in the examples of the patent, I would say that the judgment was harsh with the patent proprietor.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, Pole 5, chambre 1, January 12, 2016, Patrick M. & Clinipro v. The General Hospital Corporation & Zeltiq Aesthetics Inc., RG No. 13/13050.

A fishy appeal?

It is not an easy task to report on case law from the EPO Boards of Appeal, as there are so many commentators in the blogosphere (and elsewhere) poised to jump on any fresh decision that being original is tricky, unless you do high frequency posting. Nevertheless, I am wondering whether decisions drafted in French might as a general rule fly a little bit more under the radar, since French is certainly the official language of the EPO which is the least spoken by the European patent profession.

With that in mind, here is a report on one of these low flying decisions, which I find noteworthy for two reasons. The first reason is that the main claim of the patent in suit was directed to a container containing precooked tuna fish, which opens up an ocean of possible aquatic puns for this blogger. And the second reason is that the decision deals with an interesting point of law regarding the burden of proof in appeal proceedings.

The patent owned by Brittany-based Etablissements Paul Paulet had been revoked by an opposition division due to insufficiency of disclosure.

Claim 1 as granted was the following:

A rigid container containing foodstuff, the container comprising a receptacle and a cover and being made of a material selected from aluminum, steel, glass, or a plastics material that is oxygen-proof, the foodstuff being constituted by pre-cooked fish that is in solid form, eventually comprising an additive, a preservative, or a small amount of water or oil, characterized in that

– the closed container presents substantially no liquid after sterilization, such that the liquid content is less than 10% of the total weight of the content, and

– the container contains only the foodstuff and a gas, wherein the volume content of dioxygen in the gas is less than 15%, the gas being nitrogen.

Both features of the characterizing part of the claim were viewed by the opposition division as raising implementation issues.

If we focus on the liquid content feature, the opposition division noted that the patent taught to place the precooked fish into the container, add liquid nitrogen which will be turned into gaseous nitrogen, then close the container and sterilize the product. Based on various statements made by the patent proprietor during the opposition proceedings and information contained in the patent itself, as well as in an experimental report referenced as T4 (filed – unfortunately – by the patent proprietor), it could be concluded that, during the sterilization step, the liquid content in the container can change, and in particular can increase or decrease. Many factors may influence this change in the liquid content, including the type of fish, the precooking procedure, the shape of the fish, the additives and the conditions of sterilization. The opposition division deemed that the patent did not teach how to control these various parameters.

A container for fish hopefully containing more than 10% of liquid
A container for fish hopefully containing more than 10% of liquid

With its statement of grounds of appeal, the patent proprietor filed a modified version of claim 1 as a main request (corresponding to one of the auxiliary requests discussed in first instance). In this modified version of claim 1, the material of the container was somewhat restricted, and the nature of the fish was further specified to be “pre-cooked tuna fish in solid form“.

With the summons to oral proceedings, the Board expressed the preliminary opinion that there was an issue of sufficiency of disclosure with the liquid content feature, although it did not share the view of the opposition division regarding the other feature of the nitrogen / oxygen content.

One month before the oral proceedings, the patent proprietor submitted a new document T18, which was an experimental report focusing on the processing of tuna fish. The admissibility of document T18 at this late stage of the proceedings was debated in front of the Board, in view of R. 13(3) of the Rules of Procedure of the Boards of Appeal.

The patent proprietor’s argument was that:

  • the first instance decision relied on experimental report T4, in which experiments were conducted on billfish product;
  • the main claim was now restricted to tuna fish, so that the first instance decision was no longer applicable;
  • the Board raised a new objection in the preliminary opinion by stating that even with precooked tuna fish the variations in liquid content were unpredictable;
  • therefore the patent proprietor had reacted in a timely manner by filing the new experimental report T18 focusing on tuna fish.

The Board rejected the argument by analyzing the first instance decision, which mentioned a number of ill-controlled parameters influencing the liquid content and not just the type of fish; and by noting that the main request in the appeal was the third auxiliary request in first instance and had thus also been rejected by the opposition division.

The most interesting part of the discussion relates to whether the admission of T18 into the proceedings would violate the opponents / respondents’ right to be heard – in view of the lateness of the filing. The appellant said no, because the respondents had failed to provided detailed justifications and evidence in their response to the statement of grounds of appeal; on the other hand, the appellant did not have to file additional evidence with its statement of grounds of appeal since:

the burden of proof of insufficiency of disclosure lies exclusively with the opponents, in all circumstances. This also applies on appeal further to a decision revoking the patent for insufficiency of disclosure, notably when the grounds of the decision at stake no longer adversely affect the appellant due to a modification of the claimed subject-matter (reasons, 1.4.1).

The Board rejected the argument in view of the very nature of the appeal proceedings.

The respondents brought forward elements during the opposition proceedings which were apparently sufficiently credible as to the impossibility to carry out the invention in a systematic and reproducible manner by relying on the information contained in the patent; moreover, this information would be too limited and contradictory. This led the opposition division to hand down the decision at stake, which was duly reasoned. This decision not only brings an end to the opposition proceedings, but also as a consequence assigns different roles to the parties for the appeal stage. Once the patent has been revoked, it is up to the patent proprietor as the appellant to take a more active part and present, firstly, a detailed argumentation in its statement of grounds of appeal, even if by filing a new set of claims the grounds for the challenged decision seem to be overcome. The appellant cannot simply wait for the respondents to demonstrate the invalidity of the patent.

The patent proprietor, as the appellant, must therefore act against the challenged decision, that is, must, in the present case, demonstrate that common general knowledge does make it possible to carry out the invention based on the patent. This demonstration must be complete and not selective, without waiting for the Board or the parties to invite it to develop it more. In this respect, the appeal proceedings are not a continuation of the opposition proceedings but a new procedure instituted by the appellant. Therefore, the principles which initially governed the opposition proceedings are no longer necessarily applicable at the appeal stage, and those stated in the Rules of Procedure of the Boards of Appeal replace them, notably the duty to provide the complete means in view of which the decision cannot be maintained. A patent proprietor who thinks that they can discard the basis for the challenged decision owing to grounds of appeal limited to only one aspect of said decision runs the risk of later being in a situation where the filing of additional grounds or evidence during the appeal proceedings may be considered late under articles 13(1) and/or 13(3) RPBA (reasons 1.4.2).

I think it is fair to say that the burden of proof of insufficiency of disclosure on the opponents is a very heavy one in opposition proceedings.

However, according to the present decision, the onus shifts on appeal, if the patent is revoked by the opposition division. More generally, it can be derived from the Board’s comments that the first instance decision is presumed valid until the contrary is proven – although I am not sure that this has often been stated in this way in the case law.

On the merits, the Board reached a similar conclusion as the opposition division regarding the unpredictability of the liquid content in the container after sterilization, and therefore dismissed the appeal.

The parties will have the opportunity to continue the discussion and fish for further arguments on the liquid content feature, since there are opposition proceedings pending in connection with the divisional patent, and since the same feature is present in the independent claims. My guess is it will be an uphill battle for the patent proprietor but at least they can hope to be able to rely on the additional evidence that the Board has refused to take into account in this case.


CASE REFERENCE: Board of Appeal 3.2.07, T 30/15, Etablissements Paul Paulet v. Princes Limited & Bolton Alimentari S.P.A, January 20, 2016.