A dented infringement case

It seems that whatever patent-related news breaks in the UK often sets the tone for discussions throughout Europe – it remains to be seen if the Brexit will make any difference.

Take for example the doctrine of equivalents: this topic has become trendy again since the issuance of the Eli Lilly decision of the UK Supreme Court a few months ago. The excitement brought about by the decision is in fact quite understandable as the Supreme Court offered a new test for the appraisal of equivalents.

In France, on the other hand, much less is new under the sun in this respect.

The standard for assessing equivalents has been confirmed many times by the Cour de cassation, and all recent decisions dealing with this issue consistently rely on this standard (see notably here, here and there).

However, a recent ruling by the Paris Cour d’appel seems to have shed a new light on the nuts and bolts of the doctrine. 

French medical company Produits Dentaires Pierre Rolland (PDPR) owns French patent No. FR 2983398 on a “canula and adapter for a multifunction syringe“. In October 2013, PDPR initiated infringement proceedings against Itena Clinical, claiming that the marketing of the canula known as “Aireo Universel” infringed the patent (claims 1 and 6).

In April 2015, the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) confirmed that claims 1 and 6 of the patent are valid, and found Itena guilty of infringement. Itena appealed, which led to a second ruling issued in June 2017.

The validity part of the first instance judgment was upheld, but the appeal judges overturned the infringement part and found in favor of the defendant.

Here is claim 1 of the patent: 

A canula for a multifunction dental syringe, the canula comprising a fastener bushing that is defined by a circular opening, an end wall, and a side wall comprising a circular cylinder, the canula also including at least two channels enabling fluids to be conveyed separately or together from said end wall to fluid projection orifices, the two channels beginning in said end wall beside each other, the canula being characterized in that the circular cylinder presents a cutout in the thickness of its wall, which cutout comprises, going from the opening: at least one segment extending in a direction other than the axial direction of the cylinder; followed by a longitudinal segment extending towards the end wall.

Am I the only one to be horrified by this dental toy set?

The Cour d’appel first recalled the standard for appraising infringement, taking into account equivalents. As mentioned above, this standard was defined a long time ago:

The scope of the patent extends from the technique which is expressly claimed to any variant combining in the same manner different means performing the same function. The function of a means in an application is defined as the first technical effect achieved by the implementation of this means, making it possible to obtain the result. And two means are equivalent when, although they are of a different form, they perform a same function for a result of a same nature, if not of the same degree.

In this case, the court found that all the features of claim 1 were literally reproduced by the defendant’s “Aireo” product – except one:

The examination of the Aireo product shows that it has a cutout in the internal part of the canula, made of a single longitudinal segment oriented towards the end wall of the canula, which is identical to [what is claimed]. However, the cutout of the Aireo product does not comprise a segment having a direction other than the direction of the axis of the cylinder (transversal segment) [as claimed], so that the cutout is not made of the two segments defined in the characterizing portion of claim 1.

In such a situation, the function of the feature which is not literally reproduced must be established, and then it must be determined whether another feature in the alleged infringement provides the same function or not. 

The relevant discussion in the appeal judgment is the following:

PDPR argues that the collar on the canula, which forms a translation stop, makes it possible to rotate the canula on the adapter up to the longitudinal segment where, subsequently, the lug of the adapter slides in the groove of the Aireo product, which thus generates a longitudinal translation of the canula.

However, the alleged function of mechanical guiding by the collar present on the Aireo product is not of the same quality as that of the PDPR invention. Indeed, in the PDPR invention, when the canula and the adapter are assembled, the lug of the adapter is immediately inserted into the transversal segment of the cutout of the canula where it is mechanically directed into the longitudinal segment of this cutout, whereas such guiding is not ensured with the same efficacy by the collar of the Aireo product due to is planar and smooth surface.

In other terms, according to the claimant, the same function of mechanical guiding was present both in the claim and in the alleged infringement.

But the court did not accept this, since this function was not achieved with the same efficiency in both cases. This is related to the part of the equivalents’ test that reads: “a same function for a result of a same nature, if not of the same degree“. 

So, the court did stick to the classic test, but applied it in a fairly unusual manner. It is not everyday that equivalents are discarded because the common function is partly achieved but not with the same degree of efficacy as in the patent.

Now, for the sake of completeness, there were other reasons for the court not to accept the suggested equivalence: 

Besides, the alleged function of mechanical guiding is admittedly possible but absolutely not necessary, contrary to the device recited in claim 1 of the patent, nor even useful. Indeed, the user of the Aireo product wanting to fix the canula onto the adapter can easily match the lug of the adapter with the groove (longitudinal segment) of the canula, and therefore achieve a translation of the canula owing to its longitudinal segment by simply making a visual (not mechanical) alignment, without needing to resort to a rotative motion involving the planar and smooth surface of the collar, whereas the user of the canula according to the PDPR patent, in order to attach it to the adapter, must necessarily impart a rotation using the transversal segment of the canula, followed by a translation using the longitudinal segment of the canula (mechanical guiding).

So, the function was not necessary nor useful in the defendant’s product. This can probably be translated into: the common function argued by the plaintiff is in fact an artificial one.

Finally, the plaintiff’s case also failed on another prong of the equivalents’ test, which is whether the function could be protected or not in view of the prior art. The court found that the function (in the same context) was in fact known from the prior art, so that the scope of the claim could not validly be extended to the alleged equivalent:

Anyway, infringement by equivalence is not present if the means of the allegedly infringing product are of a different form relative to those which are claimed, and the function performed by these means, identical to that performed by the means of the claimed invention, is known from the prior art.

In this case, the function of mechanical guiding attributed by PDPR to the surface of the collar of the Aireo product combined with the cutout in the internal part of the canula of a longitudinal segment oriented towards the end wall of the canula is known from the prior art. It is notably disclosed in the abovementioned Saurou document (WO 92/04878). […]

Some interesting fine-tuning of the doctrine indeed!


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, Pôle 5 chambre 1, June 13, 2017, Itena Clinical v. Produits Dentaires Pierre Rolland, RG No. 15/10544.

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