Not sailing to victory

Thanks to Jérôme Tassi, I was made aware of a new French decision revoking a patent due to extension of subject-matter.

As I mentioned no earlier than in last week’s post, this is a ground for nullity that needs to be taken very seriously nowadays. There may previously have been a perception that added matter objections were deemed to fail in front of a court of law, and that painstaking dissections of the exact wording originally used in patent applications should be reserved for hearings taking place at Erhardtstrasse. But if so, this perception is no longer accurate.

The patent at stake is EP 2179917 to the Swiss company Createx SA.

This patent (EP’917) was filed as a divisional application stemming from EP 1531979, itself originally filed as a PCT application published under No. WO 2004/005009.

The technical field is the manufacture of fabric for sails. Yes, as in sailing boats. This is about as exotic as you can get when dealing with patent case law.

On December 31, 2015, Createx and its licensee, the U.S. company North Sails Group LLC, filed a patent infringement complaint against the French companies Incidences La Rochelle and Incidences Technologies.

On August 22, 2016, Createx filed a request for limitation of the French part of EP’917 with the INPI. It can be assumed that this was a reaction to some invalidity arguments brought forward by the defendants. The limitation was granted by the INPI on September 27, 2016.

The defendants counterclaimed for nullity of the EP’917 patent and as announced at the beginning of this post, the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI) did in fact hold the patent invalid for extension of subject-matter beyond the content of the parent application as filed.

The patent as limited contains two independent claims, namely claim 1 directed to a fabric and claim 13 directed to a sail. Let’s focus on claim 1 only:

A fabric comprising:

a plurality of strips, each of the strips being formed from a plurality of substantially parallel reinforcing elements formed of threads arranged in a unidirectional manner, the threads being made of thousands of filaments distributed over the width of each strip, each of the substantially parallel reinforcing elements comprising said substantially parallel filaments; and an activated resin encasing the filaments to form a fabric;

wherein part of each strip is disposed on the juxtaposed strips; 

wherein at least some of the plurality of strips partially overlap adjacent strips, at least some of the strips substantially overlap over a length of each strip, at least some of the strips are arranged in parallel, so that a first end of a strip substantially overlap with a first end of another strip. 

Some sails look more threatening than others.

The key issue here is that the parent application as filed did not contain any claim directed to such a fabric or to a sail as recited in claim 13. All original claims related to a method of manufacturing a fabric, using a particular system.

Here is original claim 1 by way of comparison with the limited claim in the divisional patent:

A method of manufacturing shaped and reinforced fabrics, characterized in that it consists in making a fabric made of a membrane which encases continuous alternated reinforcing elements in a press which comprises an upper vessel the lower part of which is made of a supple element and a lower vessel the upper part of which is made of a supple element, the upper vessel comprising a shaping lath the shape of which can be adjusted by setting rods and the adjusting shape of which causes the three-dimensional elastic deformation of the supple elements and thus of the membrane and reinforcing elements within the press, into an active position in which the lath has a shape and an inactive position in which the shaping lath is inactive and does not cause any deformation of the membrane and reinforcing elements which are pressed flat, in that the portions of the membrane and of reinforcing elements are prepared before pressing on a conveyor belt which is disposed on a preparation table which then places these portions under the press with pressure and heat, and in that the portions of membrane and reinforcing elements overlap during the preparation so that they make a homogeneous fabric at the outlet of the press, which comprises flat portions and three-dimensional-shaped portions according to multiple shapes determined by the setting of the shaping lath upon pressing each membrane portion and reinforcing elements, the length of which is determined by the width of the press and preparation table. 

Here is the court’s take on this:

Through this rule [of the prohibition of extension of added matter], it is to be ensured that the patent proprietor cannot improve its position by adding elements that are not disclosed in the application as filed, which would be such as to confer an undue advantage by obtaining a different monopoly from the one initially claimed, which may harm legal certainty for third parties who rely on the content of the initial application.

In this case, the [parent] application as filed […] is exclusively directed to an invention which relates to a manufacturing method […]. It thus clearly derives from this initial application that the subject-matter of the protection does not relate to the product “fabric”. The EP’917 patent […] is no longer directed to a manufacturing method but expressly to products, and more particularly a “fabric” […] and a sail […]. 

[…] By altering the subject-matter of the patent […], the patent proprietor may now have a protection on any identical product independently of its manufacturing method. 

Thus, the patent proprietor necessarily increased the scope of protection initially requested, since this patent makes it possible to include within the scope of the patent products why may be obtained by different methods than the one claimed in the initial application. It is further noted that this modification also led the proprietor to encompass within the scope of protection of the patent […] a product which was not explicitly mentioned in the initial application, namely a “sail”, which cannot be entirely assimilated to [a fabric] and which was not within the subject-matter of the initial invention except through a mere reference to the prior art, which is not sufficient to include it within the perimeter of protection. 

The content of the (parent) application as filed has to be considered as a whole, including the claims, description and drawings. Due to some of the words used by the court in the above quote, there could be a suspicion that the court really focused on the claims only and confused extension of subject-matter with extension of scope of protection. But I doubt that this suspicion would be well-founded.

Indeed, not only did the original set of claims not contain any claim to a fabric or a sail, but also the original description did not recite a fabric or a sail as such as subject-matter of the invention.

Thus, it was considered that the shift in scope of protection could not be expected by third parties relying on the original application documents, which offended legal certainty. This is reminiscent of a Nestec decision already discussed on this blog.

In this earlier case, a claim to a device for the extraction of a capsule plus the capsule itself, in combination, was found to offend article 123(2) EPC because this category of product was not originally claimed, and could only be indirectly derived from the application based on how the capsule interacted with the device in operation.

I must say that, upon reading the claims of EP’917 (even before the French national limitation) and comparing them with the parent PCT as filed, I was curious about the examination process. Indeed, it seems that the divisional claims were completely drafted from scratch, combining pieces of wording from several passages of the original disclosure. This is not to say that such thorough redrafting necessarily adds matter. It may be allowable in some cases. But in my experience the EPO almost always at least requires detailed justifications that the skilled person would indeed directly and unambiguously derive the new claims from the original disclosure, which must not be treated as a reservoir from which you are allowed to pick and choose any combination of features.

To my surprise, it seems that the applicant did not submit any indication of a support for the claimed features when filing the divisional application, and that the examiner did not ask any questions and directly agreed to grant a patent.

So I wonder what happened here, and why the applicant was not even asked for any clarification by the EPO. This took place in 2009-2010, which is not that long ago.

CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 2ème section, February 9, 2018, Createx & North Sails Group LLC v. Incidences Technologies & Incidences SailsRG No. 16/00023.

2 thoughts on “Not sailing to victory”

  1. What happened is not really surprising.

    For the parent application only one A document was revealed in the search. The same document was cited in the search report of the divisional. In EPO jargon one talks about a “doublure”. At the time “doublures” did not count, and hence as little time as possible should be spent on them. Not that more time is spent now, but they count as a new file.

    The claims in the parent comprised two independent method claims 1 and 8, as well as a claim for a device for implementing a method according to any one of claims 1 to 11. There were dependent claims for a fabric (12/1-11, 13/12) and for a sail (14/12,13 and 15/14). One can already wonder why two independent claims of the same category were allowed. With only an A document, why bother?

    In the claims of the parent there was dependent claims to a fabric or a sail, so why bother either in the divisional? It should at least have been checked that the new claims are the result of the method disclosed in the parent. But here again, with just an A document, why bother.

    Close both eyes and grant. Not satisfactory but true.

    It is interesting to see that in the divisional the applicant filed some more dependent claims after the first communication under R 71(3). The examiner did not allow them as he considered them offending Art 123(2), but he never bothered to check whether between the parent and the divisional the requirements of Art 76(1) were respected.

    And all this happened before the efficiency of the examination process at the EPO was improved to the full satisfaction of all those concerned……

  2. When a European asks the EPO for a patent, there is pressure to help the Applicant, with a grant decision.

    But when a dominant US American owner of a patent in Europe asks a court to enforce the patent, and with that to put a little local manufacturer out of business, there is pressure on the court, to acquiesce in petitions to strike the patent down.

    Americans at home expect that a “duly issued” patent receives a degree of respect, a presumption of validity. Is it naive of them to expect that patents issued by the EPO can be presumed not to be invalid under Art 123(2) EPC?

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