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]  to  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.
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.