Extension of subject-matter and/or of scope

Every profession has its own telltale expressions.

Let’s say you meet someone at an event who tells you that they will have some cheese “and/or” a glass of red wine; I would bet that you are talking to a patent attorney. Well, especially so if the event is hosted by the CNCPI.

But, as fond as we may be of the “and/or” language, in some occasions it can come back to haunt us. Just ask Nice. Not the city, but an Italian company specialized in automatic doors or gates.

Nice owns European patent No. EP 1509823 directed to an electrical system for controlling a gate or door.

In 2010, Nice filed a complaint for infringement of this patent against FAAC France and FAAC Nord in front of the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI). There are three independent claims 1 to 3 in the patent, the others being dependent claims. Nice initially asserted claims 3 to 23. The two other independent claims 1 and 2 were not at stake. The defendants counterclaimed for nullity.

The following year, as the first instance lawsuit was ongoing, a request for central limitation was filed at the EPO. As a result, a limited version of the patent (B3-1) was published in 2012.

Nevertheless, all asserted claims were held invalid by the Paris TGI in its 2014 judgment. Sadly, the decision does not seem to be readily available online, so I am not sure what ground for nullity was entertained by the first instance court.

Nice appealed and filed a second request for central limitation at the EPO in 2015.

As a result, a second limited version of the patent (B3-2) was published in 2016. This leads us to the recent judgment of the Paris Cour d’appel, which confirmed the invalidity of all asserted claims and in particular independent claim 3. The court held that the subject-matter of the claim extended beyond the contents of the application as filed and that the scope of protection had been extended after grant.

Who needs an automatic door control system when you can have a frog do the job.

Here is claim 3 of the patent as initially granted (B1 version of the patent):

Electrical system for controlling at least one gate or door or similar element of the type moved by means of at least one corresponding electric motor, comprising:
a) an electric network consisting of two electric wires adapted to allow distribution of power supply and digital information;
b) a central control unit having two terminals adapted to be connected respectively but indifferently to the two wires of the network in order to transmit direct-current power supply and to transmit and receive digital information;
c) one or more peripheral units, each having two terminals adapted to be connected respectively but indifferently to the two wires of the network in order to receive direct-current power supply and to receive and/or transmit digital information;
wherein the central unit is adapted to be electrically connected to an electric motor for controlling operation thereof and/or to a device for entering requests of movement of the gate or door or similar element and/or to a safety device for gates or doors or similar elements;
wherein a peripheral unit is adapted to be electrically connected to an electric motor for controlling operation thereof and/or to a device for entering requests of movement of the gate or door or similar element and/or to a safety device for gates or doors or similar elements.

The two last paragraphs of the claim are the important ones for the rest of the discussion. Note the four occurrences of “and/or“.

In the first limited version of the patent (B3-1), a number of features were added; and the two relevant paragraphs of claim 3 were modified as follows:

[…] wherein the central unit is adapted to be electrically connected to an electric motor for controlling operation thereof and to a device for entering requests of movement of the gate or door or to a safety device for gates or doors;
wherein a peripheral unit is adapted to be electrically connected to a safety device for gates or doors or to a device for entering requests of movement of the gate or door; […]

In the second limited version of the patent (B3-2), yet further features were added; and the two relevant paragraphs of claim 3 were modified as follows

[…] wherein the central unit is adapted to be electrically connected to the electric motor for controlling operation thereof and to a safety device for the gate or door;
wherein a peripheral unit is adapted to be electrically connected to a safety device for gates or doors or to a device for entering requests of movement of the gate or door; […]

Let’s turn to the appraisal of extension of subject-matter of the final version of the patent, namely B3-2.

In original claim 3 in the patent application as filed, the two relevant paragraphs were the same as in the B1 patent, namely:

[…] wherein the central unit is adapted to be electrically connected to an electric motor for controlling operation thereof and/or to a device for entering requests of movement of the gate or door or similar element and/or to a safety device for gates or doors or similar elements;
wherein a peripheral unit is adapted to be electrically connected to an electric motor for controlling operation thereof and/or to a device for entering requests of movement of the gate or door or similar element and/or to a safety device for gates or doors or similar elements.

“And/or” is usually taken to mean either “and”, or an exclusive “or”.  So, at first sight, one could think that claim 3 in B3-2 was obtained by simply deleting some options from original claim 3, without giving rise to any added matter concern. And one would be wrong, at least according to the Cour d’appel.

Indeed, the court did not simply rely on original claim 3 but turned to the description of the application in order to understand what the subject-matter of the invention, or more specifically of the “third embodiment” of the invention (corresponding to claim 3), actually is about.

The court held the following:

The invention relates to the use of an electric network made of only two electric wires for the entire system, which are designed so as to deliver DC current and numerical information, and so as not to impose constraints on the connection between system equipment and the network. 

This electrical system, intended to control at least a gate or door, must be connected to at least three main devices: 

– an electric motor which sets the gate in motion, 

– a device for entering requests of movement of the gate, 

– a safety device (for example based on a photoelectric cell).

According to the court, claim 3 as filed (or as granted) thus required the presence of all three devices – although they could be connected either to the central unit or a peripheral unit. This was not explicitly stated in claim 3, but the court held that this could be inferred from the description.

The court quoted in particular the following sentence, which is just before the presentation of the various embodiments in the application:

Such an electrical control system must be connected to at least three essential devices: an electric motor for moving the gate, a device for entering requests of movement of the gate (for example a key-operated selector, a command keypad, a remote control receiver, etc.), a safety device (for example a photocell system, a sensitive edges system, a mat presence detector, a radar presence detector, etc.).

The court also quoted the following characterization of the third embodiment:

In other words, according to this third embodiment, two of the essential devices are connected electrically directly to the central unit, while the third essential device is connected electrically to a peripheral unit.

In contrast, according to claim 3 of the B3-2 patent, the second device was mentioned only in connection with the peripheral unit, and not in connection with the central unit, and the mention in question was the following:

[…] wherein a peripheral unit is adapted to be electrically connected to a safety device for gates or doors or to a device for entering requests of movement of the gate or door; […]

Therefore, according to the amended claim, the device for entering requests of movement can be omitted altogether. This, the court said, is not supported by the application as filed.

Nice argued that, if the claimed peripheral unit is connected to a safety device, then the device for entering requests will be connected to yet another peripheral unit so that the system can work. But the court discarded the argument and said it was an inventive step-type of argument.

Thus, the court declared that the subject-matter of claim 3 extended beyond the content of the application as filed.

Furthermore, since the granted patent was similar to the application as filed and was thus interpreted by the court as not covering the option wherein the device for entering requests is absent from the system, the B3-2 limited patent was also found to suffer from extension of the scope of protection, since this limited patent no longer required the presence of the device for entering requests.

Once again, we are reminded that French courts have a tendency to extensively interpret claims (not just granted claims, but also original claims) in the light of the description.

How would the extension attack have flown with an opposition division at the EPO? I am quite sure that they would have focused more on the exact language used in original claim 3. That said, they could theoretically have reached the same conclusion as the French judges, for instance by noting that going from original claim 3 to amended claim 3 required multiple selections in the “and/or” options, and that there was no pointer to such a multiple selection (or combination of features).

In summary, “and/or” is nice and broad, but beware of what the teaching of the invention actually is.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 2, November 9, 2018, Nice v. FAAC France, RG No. 16/11888.

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