Invalidity swept under the rug

Self-represented applicants, who draft and prosecute their patent applications on their own without an extensive knowledge of patent law have a good chance of getting a French national patent granted – this is in fact not an extremely difficult task. But they also run a very high risk of getting an invalid patent granted.

One of my previous posts was dedicated to the revocation of what looked like one such patent, and today’s post is dedicated to the revocation of another one of those.

French patent No. FR 2933591 contains four claims, the first one of which reads as follows:

1. A set for praying comprising a rug, characterized in that it comprises weights at its four ends. They are made of metal or lead and are in the form of beads, or round or angular parts. The set is folded and put in a pouch. 

The three dependent claims are drafted in a similarly non-conventional manner:

2. A rug according to claim 1 characterized in that it is made of a waterproof material covered on the lower side with a silver or gold coating [I am not sure about the meaning of the French term used here] on its back. 

3. A rug according to claim 1 characterized in that it is made [sic] of a drawing indicating the direction of the prayer. 

4. A pouch according to claim 1 characterized in that it comprises adjusting seams in order to keep the rug folded. 

Globacom SARL is a company which markets Islamic products online, including prayer rugs. Globacom was sued for infringement of the above patent by the patent owner, Salmane SAS, as well as the inventor – who was the original applicant.

Globacom counterclaimed for revocation of the patent.

Their first argument was lack of novelty over an alleged public prior use of the invention. The court dismissed this argument which was insufficiently substantiated. Reference was made to a number of websites, but the contents of these websites were not submitted to the court, and the only examples actually filed did not clearly predate the filing date. Globacom also relied on prayer rugs advertised in catalogues, but these catalogues did not contain any precise description of the rugs. Lastly, Globacom mentioned the inventor’s own press releases. But the court could not identify any evidence of a disclosure before the filing date. There was a relevant publication in the issue of September 2008 of a magazine, but this was precisely the month in which the patent was filed, and the exact day on which the magazine was published was not known.

Then the defendant raised an argument of lack of inventive step, which was successful.

Unfortunately, the court did not cite in its decision specific prior art for all the claimed features. I can only assume that such specific prior art was indeed identified in the defendant’s submissions – to which the court referred to in the judgment.

The court held that

The folding, the waterproof material, the silver or gold coating and the presence of weights in order to keep the rug on the floor are indeed known functional parts. 

Besides, the folding and the drawing indicating the direction of Mecca are features introduced before the patent, as evidenced by catalogues of the Chinese company Huitai Carpet showing that as from 2005 a foldable prayer rug kept in a pouch was marketed notably under reference BT317 or BT301. 

Finally, when reading the patent it does not appear that the inventor brought any solution to a technical problem, except for transporting the rug so as to use it in any circumstance or place, which was already solved in the prior art by folding the rug and keeping it in a sleeve. 

Therefore the patent is a mere addition of juxtaposed functional means without any distinct result, so that the patent must be revoked for lack of inventive step. 

This is quite a change from the usual hyper-technical pharma or telecom cases.

The reference by the court to “juxtaposed functional means” is reminiscent of old, traditional French case law, which made a distinction between mere juxtapositions of features and combinations of features bringing a new technical effect (synergistic features if you will).

A more modern approach rather uses a reasoning akin to the EPO problem and solution approach. But this case was probably so simple that a problem and solution approach was not really necessary.

Besides, the patent itself does not contain any indication of a problem to be solved. The description is less than one page long and basically contains a copy-and-paste of the claims plus a couple of additional sentences.

So, what would have happened if the applicant had hired a professional to draft the patent application? Was there no possible patentable invention at all in this product? Could a better drafting have changed the situation? Difficult to say. Expert patent drafting is a necessary and insufficient condition for a valid patent.

As a last word on the case, Salmane SAS further argued infringement of a community design, which was also revoked by the court for lack of novelty. A copyright claim also failed as the originality of the work was not clearly defined by the plaintiff. And so did a passing-off claim.

This praying robot may be more of an invention than the foldable rug in suit.
This demo praying robot may a more sophisticated invention than the foldable rug in suit.

Some readers may wonder how on earth the foldable rug patent got to be granted by the French patent office in the first place. The answer is that the patent office is not supposed to perform an extensive screening process. It issues a search report and a written opinion, and then it is up to the applicant to decide what to do.

This does not necessarily do self-represented applicants a favor.

But for those who are fully aware of the specificity of French patent prosecution, going the national route can be really advantageous.

In fact, while everyone’s attention right now is focused on European patents with or without unitary effect, it should not be forgotten that national patents remain a valuable option.

Here is why, in my view:

  1. French patents are much easier to obtain than European patents. Applicants often have to deal with minor objections of e.g. lack of clarity. But as far as prior art objections are concerned, an application cannot be refused for lack of inventive step. It can only be refused in case there is lack of novelty, and actually only if the lack of novelty is “blatant” (i.e. there is no room for discussion).
  2. Accordingly, prosecution is much cheaper than for a European patent (even when taking into account the need for foreign applicants to provide a French translation).
  3. The lighter examination process also makes it possible for applicants to avoid making statements which could possibly constitute a form of estoppel.
  4. A search report and a written opinion (for information purposes only) either similar or exactly identical to those issued by the EPO are provided at a much lower cost.
  5. There is no pre-grant or post-grant opposition.
  6. After grant, the patent proprietor can file a limitation of the patent at any time. It is thus a possible strategy for a proprietor to get a patent granted in a form which they know is probably too broad, and then limit the patent at a later stage if and when enforcement of the patent is contemplated (or even after the patent has been asserted and subjected to an invalidity challenge).

For the sake of completeness, after this subjective list of pros, here is an equally subjective list of cons (leaving aside the scope of geographical coverage, which is an obvious point):

  1. Applicants have to take their full responsibilities when drafting and prosecuting a French patent application. They should not count on the patent office to make them amend the claims and they should not consider a patent grant as an indication that they have obtained the right scope of protection – as the case discussed above clearly shows.
  2. In terms of valuation, French patents may be perceived as weaker and thus less valuable than European patents. However, this approach is debatable; as explained above, to some extent French patents are stronger because they cannot be opposed, and they can be limited at any time if their initial scope of protection is too broad.
  3. It is not possible to enter French national phase via a PCT. Therefore, a French patent application needs to be filed either as a first filing or as a direct filing within one year from another, original filing. This is a huge handicap which puts our national patent market at a disadvantage with respect to other European countries such as Germany, where national phase entries are allowed. But that is the way it is.

In summary, I do not believe that French national patents should be considered as useless remains of the pre-EPC, pre-UPC world. Together with Unitary patents, opted-out European patents and non opted-out European patents, national patents are yet another valuable option in an ever more complex IP landscape, which requires flexible strategies… Provided that great care is brought to the drafting.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 3ème section, March 25, 2016, Salmane SA v. Globacom SARL, RG No. 13/06836.

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