Clean sweep

There are at least three interesting aspects in today’s decision, as well as a sort of infuriating one. The interesting points are limitation, public prior use and inventive step. The infuriating one is a mistake made by the court, which stumbled over dependent claims – despite vocal criticisms of this type of mistakes made by various commentators over the years.

But before I address these points in turn, a few words on the background. The claimant in this case is Concept Microfibre, a French company specialized in microfiber textiles, as its name suggests. They own two French patents filed on the same day, FR 2926204 (FR’204) and FR 2926205 (FR’205).

In 2012, Concept Microfibre sued another French company Distribution de Matériel Européen (DME) as well as its Italian mother company, Filmop, for infringement of the two French patents. Further to the classical nullity counter strikes, the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) revoked claims 1, 2 and 3 of FR’205 (which were relied upon by the patent proprietor) in its judgment dated July 3, 2014; but the other patent FR’204 was upheld, and the defendants were found liable for infringement.

They appealed, which leads us to the judgment of September 27, 2016 by the Paris Cour d’appel.

On appeal, the patentee did not fight the revocation of claims 1, 2 and 3 of FR’205 by the TGI. So, this was quite easy to deal with for the appeal judges, and this part of the TGI decision was confirmed. What was more challenging for the court was to handle the other patent FR’204.

The first challenge was that the FR’204 patent was limited during the appeal proceedings, or more precisely at the onset of the appeal proceedings. The appeal was lodged on August 27, 2014, and a request for limitation of FR’204 was filed less than 2 months later, on October 16, 2014, at the INPI (French patent and trademark office). The limitation was accepted by the INPI on January 9, 2015.

The limitation consisted in combining claim 1 with claims 2 and 4.

The alleged infringers claimed that this limitation was invalid, because the limitation was requested “in order to adapt the right so as to escape a looming revocation” (uh, yes, that’s kind of the whole point of limitation proceedings) “and so as to harmonize it with the features of the products that they market” (right, too bad the patentee did not add a feature clearly not present in the alleged infringing products).

The alleged legal basis for the invalidity of the limitation was the legal principle “fraus omnia corrumpit“.

As much as I like Latin phrases, especially when I happen to know what they mean, the argument was clearly a long shot. The court easily concluded that the limitation was neither fraudulent nor improper, and that the defendants had had enough time to challenge the validity of the limited claims.

What I do find puzzling in this limitation case, though, is why the claims were limited in the first place. Usually, claims are limited on appeal when the patent is revoked in first instance (see a recent example in the Orange v. Free litigation). But in this case the patent was upheld in first instance.

Did the appellants immediately file submissions together with their appeal of August 27, 2014, and did these submissions contain new arguments which appeared more serious and threatening to the patentee? It is possible, but we cannot know for sure as the file wrapper is not part of the public record.

As far as I can tell, no new prior art was cited on appeal.

On the other hand, it seems that the appellants developed a proper argumentation of lack of inventive step, which was not the case in first instance.

In first instance, it looks like the defendants were so confident with their lack of novelty attack that they did not really focus on inventive step. Thus, the TGI simply discarded the inventive step attack by noting that:

regarding the first part of the characterizing portion [of the claim], the defendants did not make any observation on its inventive character and on the approach that the skilled person would have to make this composition and its particular structure. 

So I can only speculate that a convincing argument of lack of inventive step was newly introduced very early on appeal, which led to the limitation – unless readers have other ideas?

Anyway, the proprietor may actually have underestimated the new argument in spite, as the main claim as limited was ultimately found not to be inventive by the court!

The claim at stake was the following:

Cleaning cloth, in particular for cleaning the floor, intended to be carried by a broom, said cloth having a cleaning surface intended to come into contact with the floor, said cleaning surface comprising a textile composition made of polyolefine, and a textile composition made of hydrophilic microfibers, characterized in that:

– each of said textile composition made of polyolefine and said textile composition made of hydrophilic microfibers comprises a thread extending towards the cleaning surface, 

– the titer of the thread of said textile composition made of polyolefine is greater than the titer of the thread of said textile composition made of hydrophilic microfibers, 

– the first textile composition defines scrubbing areas and the second textile composition defines absorption areas, and

– on the cleaning surface, the textile composition made of polyolefine is slightly below the textile composition made of hydrophilic microfibers.

Brooms are not just useful for scrubbing and absorbing fluids.
Brooms are not just useful for scrubbing and absorbing fluids.

The court relied on an EPO-like approach to assess inventive step, in particular with respect to the definition of the closest prior art:

the closest prior art which is selected must be relevant, that is it must correspond to a similar use and must require the fewest structural and functional modifications to arrive at the claimed invention; said closest prior art must therefore have the same purpose or effect as the invention or at least belong to the same technical field as the claimed invention or a closely related field. 

The court identified the technical problem addressed in the patent as improving the efficacy of cleaning cloths both for scrubbing dirt and for absorbing fluids, owing to the two textile compositions. Then, the court identified three relevant documents which could represent the closest prior art, without really singling out one among the three. They all belonged to the same technical field although their purpose was slightly different (namely, the prior art cloths were intended for sweeping, not scrubbing).

The court then held that all claimed features could be found in various prior art documents. As far as I understand:

  • Two Korean documents both taught two textile compositions, one made of hard polyolefine fibers (suitable for scrubbing) and one made of hydrophilic fibers (suitable for absorbing fluids), the titer of the former being greater than the titer of the latter.
  • A PCT application disclosed distinct areas, with fibers made of a single thread extending towards the cleaning surface.
  • Finally, a U.S. patent disclosed a cloth made of fabric comprising thread loops of different lengths depending on their purpose (absorption of dirt for the longer loops and absorption of liquid for the shorter ones).

The court did not explicitly state that all these documents could be combined due to a “partial problem” approach, but this is probably what they more or less had in mind. At any rate, they noted that the claimed invention:

does not contravene any prejudice, does not represent any breakthrough relative to the methods already taught, does not overcome any technical difficulty and does not provide any unexpected or surprising result. 

On the face of it, and with the important caveat that I have not examined the prior art nor the submissions of the parties (which are not public), this conclusion seems to make sense.

On the other hand, what makes absolutely no sense is that one of the dependent claims was then revoked for lack of novelty:

Claim 5 recites that the polyolefine is polypropylene, but this claim lacks novelty, since claim 1 of Korean patent 10-0718962 already discloses fibers areas made of polypropylene. 

It is unfortunately relatively common for our judges to get dependent claims wrong. Here, the court apparently focused only on the features contained in claim 5, without realizing that these features should be read in combination with those of claim 1. If claim 1 is novel, then claim 5 is also novel. It can at best lack inventive step, like claim 1.

By the way, the frequency of this type of error regarding dependent claims is probably a factor to be taken into account by patent proprietors when determining their litigation strategy. If you know that your main claim is weak, it is probably better to amend it by way of a limitation rather than assume that a stronger dependent claim will survive if the main claim is revoked. Of course, that can happen, but you’d better not count on it.

As mentioned at the beginning of the post, the way the court handled the public prior use defense was also interesting, I will try to address it in another post.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5, chambre 1, September 27, 2016, Filmop Srl & SASU Distribution de Matériel Européen v. SAS Concept Microfibre, RG No. 14/18000.

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