Hidden in plain sight

Sometimes, an object is best hidden in plain sight. Like the diamond in the crystal chandelier of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic motion picture Family Plot.

The same can be true of Easter eggs, which many readers may have hunted over the weekend – successfully, I hope.

And the same can be true of a teaching in a prior art document, based on a recent decision which left a number of us wondering whether Board of Appeal 3.3.10 may have discarded or at least amended a long-standing novelty test endorsed by the Enlarged Board of Appeal.

A well hidden technical disclosure in an Easter egg
A well hidden technical disclosure in an Easter egg

Lionel Vial reports on that case.

The decision we will discuss today relates to the difficult question of knowing under which conditions the chemical composition of a product is made available to the public.

Decision T 719/12 was rendered on October 29, 2015 on an appeal formed by the proprietor (appellant) of European patent No. 1539673 against the decision of the opposition division to revoke the patent. The decision of the opposition division was based on the lack of novelty of the subject-matter of claims 9 and 10 in view of the disclosure of document (1) (Blicke et al. (1942) J. Am. Chem. Soc. 64:451 to 454).

Claims 9 and 10 respectively claimed the compounds of formulae II and VI:


wherein R1 can be a thienyl (i.e. the cycle shown in formula VI), R2 can be a C1-8 alkyl (i.e. a -CnH2n+1 group where 1 ≤ n ≤ 8) and R4 is methyl (-CH3), ethyl (-CH2CH3), isobutyl (-CH2CH(CH3)2) or tert-butyl (-C(CH3)3).

Document (1) identified the compound methyl-2-(α-thenoyl)-ethylamine by its chemical name. For those not versed in the chemical arts, here is what it looks like:


It can readily be seen that this compound falls within formulae II and VI of the opposed patent.

Indeed, this fact was contested by neither of the parties as is noted by the Board in point 2 of the reasons for the decision and the question was rather whether methyl-2-(α-thenoyl)-ethylamine had been made available to the public.

There the Board recalled that:

It is the established jurisprudence of the Boards of Appeal that the subject-matter described in a document can only be regarded as having been made available to the public, and therefore as comprised in the state of the art pursuant to Article 54(1) EPC, if the information given therein is sufficient to enable the skilled person, at the relevant date of the the [sic] document, to practise the technical teaching which is the subject of the document, taking into account also the general knowledge at the time in the field to be expected of him (see T 206/83, OJ EPO 1987, 5) (point 2.2. of the Reasons).

However, even though document (1) aimed at synthesizing methyl-2-(α-thenoyl)-ethylamine through a Mannich reaction or the steam distillation of the corresponding tertiary amine, the authors of the document could neither isolate it nor obtain it when the reactions were actually carried out, in spite of the use of conditions which were considered favorable for its formation. The Board thus went on to consider that document (1) alone did not make the compound methyl-2-(α-thenoyl)-ethylamine available to the public, since the specific attempts to prepare it, which are described in said document, failed (see point 2.2 of the Reasons).

The opponent (Respondent) replied by arguing that document (1) did nonetheless make the compound methyl-2-(α-thenoyl)-ethylamine available to the public, since on repeating the preparation of the tertiary amine methyl[di-2-(α-thenoyl)-ethyl]amine 5 of document (1) in experimental report V1 it submitted, the compound methyl-2-(α-thenoyl)-ethylamine was indeed produced (but went unnoticed by the authors of document (1)).

This did not convince the Board:

[…] the Board holds that in view of the categorical statement in document (1) that despite attempts to synthesise it, the secondary amine could be neither isolated nor obtained, the skilled person, at the date of publication of document (1), would not have seriously contemplated repeating its teaching in order to undertake further investigations as to whether the secondary amine was formed after all. Thus, regardless of whether the report V1 repeats the method of document (1) exactly, the Appellant contesting this fact (see point IV above), the skilled person had no motivation to perform the steps in the experimental report V1 which are not disclosed in document (1), namely of analysing the product mixture obtained or of recrystallising from the mother liquor (point 2.3 of the Reasons, emphasis added).

Hence, even if methyl-2-(α-thenoyl)-ethylamine were inevitably produced by a method described in document (1), since its presence remained undetected by the skilled person, it had not been made available to the public (point 2.3 of the Reasons, emphasis added).

Well so long for the astute novelty attack, but doesn’t that ring a bell? G 1/92 of course:

The chemical composition of a product is state of the art when the product as such is available to the public and can be analysed and reproduced by the skilled person, irrespective of whether or not particular reasons can be identified for analysing the composition (emphasis added).

Except that the Board appeared to favor an opposite view to that of the Enlarged board of appeal. Unfortunately, the Board did not discuss the particulars of this case with respect to G 1/92, leaving us in uncertainty as to the interpretation of this decision: is it to be understood as going against G 1/92 or can it be reconciled with it?

Let’s try to see by ourselves.

A reminder of the case behind G 1/92 might be useful at this stage.

G 1/92 followed from a question referred to the Enlarged board of appeal by the President of the EPO pursuant to Article 112(1)(b) EPC which arose as consequence of decision T 93/89. It was held in this latter decision that if the composition of a commercially available product (e.g. aqueous polyvinyl ester dispersion) can be established only by a chemical analysis, the ingredients of the product (e.g. polyvinyl acetate, native starch, polyvinyl alcohol) have not been made available to the public unless there was a reason for experts to investigate it (see Headnote and point 8.2 of the Reasons).

The case at hand thus differs from the case at the origin of G 1/92 in that the product is not “directly” available to the public since it has to be manufactured before it can submitted to a chemical analysis (as opposed to a commercially available product). As such, decision T 719/12 could be interpreted as meaning that when a product is not commonly available to the public and needs to be manufactured to become so, then it would become relevant that one of skill in the art should have a special motivation to perform the manufacture and the analysis of the product.

However, this point of view is not totally satisfying as this would amount to making a distinction between the different means by which any information is made available to the public under Article 54(1) EPC, i.e. public use vs. written description, which is something G 1/92 specifically warned against (see point 1.2 of the Reasons).

Accordingly, even though the Board in decision T 719/12 does not explicitly take position against G 1/92, one might wonder whether after more than 23 years of good service the latter has not been silently euthanized.

Thank you Lionel. It is indeed somewhat strange to read about the absence of motivation for the skilled person in the context of a novelty analysis.

Of course, the facts of the case were very specific, with on the one hand a prior art document explicitly stating that a compound is not obtained, and on the other hand a recreation of the prior art by the opponent showing that the compound is indeed obtained.

Such recreations are always heavily criticized by the patent proprietor, as there are inevitably some details missing in the prior art disclosure, which need to be completed by the experimenter – and this case is no exception (see section IV of the Summary of Facts and Submissions).

With that in mind it does not really come as a surprise that the Board preferred to rely on the explicit statement in the prior art document rather than on a posterior, disputed, demonstration. But the reasons put forward by the Board do come as a surprise.

CASE REFERENCE: Board of Appeal 3.3.10, T 719/12, Lonza AG v. Merck Patent GmbH, October 29, 2015.

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