New opposition extensions

Since July 1, 2016, the EPO has implemented a new procedure to accelerate opposition proceedings. The EPO’s target is to reduce the total time needed for a decision in “straightforward cases” to 15 months, calculated as from expiry of the opposition period.

In keeping with this ambitious goal, the time period allocated to patent proprietors to reply to an opposition has been reduced. Or, to be more precise, the nominal period remains four months from the issuance of a communication by the EPO. But, formerly, a two-month extension was automatically granted upon request, and my understanding is that use was very often made of this possibility.

Nowadays, this extension is only “granted in exceptional, duly substantiated cases“, as indicated in the Guidelines, E-VIII, 1.6.

A few weeks ago, I filed a substantiated request for such an extension of the time limit on behalf of a patent proprietor, which was denied. I must say that I felt a little bit upset (if not offended), especially because I had the impression that in some occasions, when the shoe was in the other foot (i.e. I was representing the opponent), similar requests had been granted to the adverse patent proprietor.

Thinking a little bit about this, I realized that we have little to no information as to what an “exceptional” case is supposed to be for the EPO.

The only further, indirect, indication in the Guidelines is the paragraph which follows the one quoted above, and which concerns “other proceedings, for any communication raising a matter of substance“, whenever an extension up to a total of more than six months is requested. It is specified that this type of extension “should be allowed only exceptionally, when the reasons given are sufficient to show convincingly that a reply in the period previously laid down will not be possible. Such exceptional circumstances might be e.g. the fact that a representative or client is so seriously ill that he cannot deal with the case in time; or the need to perform extensive biological experiments or tests. On the other hand, foreseeable or avoidable circumstances (e.g. leave, pressure of other work) should not be accepted as a sufficiently exceptional circumstance”. 

Whether the same standard applies to a two-month extension in opposition proceedings (only in an “exceptional case“) as to an extension of more than two months in examination proceedings (which should be “allowed only exceptionally“) is anyone’s guess. I assume that formality officers have more specific internal guidelines, but by definition we know nothing about those.

In order to find out more, and without having the time to perform a very thorough analysis, I decided to take a random sample of opposition cases.

More precisely, I had a quick look at a number of opposed patents granted in June 2016 (opposition time limit in March 2017). I discarded all unusual cases (opposition withdrawn early, request for revocation of the patent filed in response to the opposition). There were approximately 150 cases remaining in my sample.

The first teaching is that no request for extension of time is filed in the vast majority of cases.

In my sample, the rate of request for extension of time was less than 18%. I assume that it may be even lower nowadays, as professionals are probably even more aware of the new policy now than they were back in March or April 2017. This is probably a significant change in the behavior of patent proprietors.

The second teaching relates to the success rate of requests for extension. I found that an extension is refused approximately 60% of the time.

Conversely, it is directly granted in approximately 30% of cases. The remaining cases (approximately 10%) are those where a request for extension is initially denied and then granted further to a second attempt.

Extension granted.

It is then interesting to enumerate various reasons offered in requests for extension, whether they were deemed sufficient or not by the EPO.  Please note that some requests contained several of the reasons listed below.

Some of the losing reasons first:

  • No justification at all – a non-starter of course.
  • Complexity of the opposition proceedings.
  • Necessity to coordinate the opposition case with other cases (parallel divisional applications, national invalidation trials).
  • A large number of cited documents, requiring extensive discussions.
  • A large number of pages to translate.
  • Difficulties understanding the opponent’s case.
  • Summer break season making a number of people unavailable for comments.
  • Instructions from a foreign client awaited.
  • Difficulties getting in touch with the inventor.
  • Difficulties getting in touch with staff having left the company.
  • Waiting for input from R&D.
  • Intention to prepare affidavits.
  • Change of representation.

And now some of the winning reasons:

  • Technical expert had a car accident.
  • Several oppositions filed.
  • Public prior use argument raised by the opponent.
  • Experiments being carried out by the proprietor.
  • Need to study an experimental report filed by the opponent.
  • Difficulties getting in touch with the inventor.
  • Many lengthy prior art documents cited.
  • Change of representation.

As a takeaway, I would say that, in order for a request for extension of time to be considered as relating to an “exceptional case“, any reason related to the normal conduct of business should be avoided.

Holidays, the need to coordinate several cases or to receive instructions from a distant client are not sufficient by themselves.

On the other hand, a truly unexpected event, such as a car accident, is not necessarily required.

Opposition proceedings that are more complex than usual often also qualify. But it is then necessary to be specific as to the unusual complexity of the case. Experimental testing, public prior use and multiple oppositions apparently meet the standard.

That said, there is still a grey area.

For instance, in a number of cases, it seems that a change of representation (which is very common after an opposition is received) is by itself sufficient to guarantee an extension of time – but not always. Similarly, difficulties to reach the inventors, or the number and length of cited documents, are sometimes viewed as giving the right to an extension of time, and sometimes not.

There was even a real surprise among the selection of cases that I looked at. Namely, a law firm explained that they had difficulties getting instructions from their client in Texas, as there had been disruptive floods in this area. Apparently, this was not deemed exceptional enough for the formalities officer…

In summary, you can never know for sure whether your request for extension of time will be granted or not, but looking at examples in other cases certainly helps making a prediction and tailoring your arguments.

On the other hand, as long as the patentee files at least a couple of requests in due time (typically, that the opposition be rejected, and that oral proceedings be summoned prior to any adverse decision), I think that in many cases it is still OK to submit a detailed argumentation shortly afterwards. There is no basis in the Guidelines to discard the patentee’s argumentation simply because it was filed after the initial deadline. In fact, arguments and amended claims filed before the oral proceedings, as long as within the R. 116 time limit, are usually always admitted into the proceedings. Only the filing of evidence within the R. 116 time limit is typically challenged and examined as to admissibility.

One thought on “New opposition extensions”

  1. There is one aspect which does not appear in the study: the number of oppositions filed in a given technical area. In an area with a lot of oppositions, the formalities officers might not be so lenient.

    What is not correct is that there is apparently a kind of lottery depending on the formalities/division dealing with the opposition.

    A change of representative should not be a reason for extending a time limit. When the new representative took over, he knew about the time limit. The same applies to the date for oral proceedings.

    Affidavits do not really help before the EPO, even if they are usual in the US.

    A reminder, two rules of thumb:

    1) For the proprietor any submission filed within the time limit under R 116(1) is in principle admissible.
    2) For the opponent any submission filed after the end of the opposition period is prima facie late. It may be admissible if the proprietor has limited his independent claim by introducing features from the description or the drawings.

    As far as arguments are concerned, they can be late if filed after the time limit under R 116(1). This behaviour can be interpreted as an attempt to take the opponent by surprise. Just have a look at T 1732/10. The effective date at which a set of claims is filed, is the date at which the corresponding substantiation has been filed.
    Filing claims without any form of justification is a dangerous game. It can backfire, not only before the Boards, but also before opposition divisions.

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