Red card for Orange

In a previous post, I gave an example of a French patent which was revoked because it was considered as not relating to an invention but to a mere discovery.

Still on the subject of patent eligibility, the same section of the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance (TGI), chaired by the same presiding judge, Ms. Courboulay, confirmed their relatively harsh stance on this topic, this time in relation with a computer-implemented invention. The judgment was already reported on the Blog du droit européen des brevets but since it is really remarkable I thought it would be worth mentioning it here as well, just in case some readers missed it.

The telecommunications giant Orange brought an infringement action against its competitor Free, based on European patent No. EP 2044797. Unsurprisingly, Free filed a revocation counterclaim, and, as the title of this post suggests, Orange lost the case. Indeed, the court revoked all of the patent claims which were asserted by Orange.

Some of these claims were held invalid due to lack of novelty, but this is not the part of the decision which I would like to discuss. I would like to focus on claims 12, 13, 14 and 15.

Claim 12 read as follows:

Computer program product downloadable from a communication network and/or stored on a computer-readable medium and/or executable by a microprocessor of a mobile terminal (2) including means for detecting the radio field (160) of a base station (16) of a home local area network (150), said home local area network including one or more home equipments (11-14) connected to a home gateway (15), said mobile terminal (2) including means for exchanging data with said gateway via a radio link with the base station (16), characterized in that it includes program code instructions for sending to said home gateway (15), in response to detection of the radio field (160), information relating to the establishment of a multimedia session in progress between said mobile terminal (2) and an applicative system (20), and in that it further includes program code instructions for displaying a list of home equipments sent by the home gateway (15) and means for selecting at least one home equipment (11; 12; 13; 14) in said list.

The court was apparently not very happy with how this claim was drafted. They stated:

Article 52 EPC is perfectly clear and does not require any interpretation: programs for computers as such are excluded from patentability, and this is because they are protected by copyright.  

The emphasis on “as such” was put by the court, and the way I understand it, the expression was interpreted as meaning that programs for computers are “inherently” or “absolutely” excluded from patentability.

But, wait a minute, isn’t this understanding completely at odds with the position taken by the Boards of appeal of the EPO? After all, the Enlarged Board of Appeal, in its opinion G 3/08 on computer programs, stated that:

The present position of the case law is thus that […] a claim in the area of computer programs can avoid exclusion under Articles 52(2)(c) and (3) EPC merely by explicitly mentioning the use of a computer or a computer-readable storage medium (reasons, 10.13).

In other terms, according to the case law that the Enlarged Board endorsed, the wording “as such” in Article 52 means quite the opposite to what the TGI believes, i.e. it means that only pure computer programs can possibly be excluded from patentability, but any mention of a technical feature such as a computer or a storage medium is sufficient to escape exclusion from patentability. To make this easier to understand, the Enlarged Board made a comparison between computer programs and pictures (also excluded from patentability as such), which can be printed on a (patentable) physical support:

a claim to a computer implemented method or a computer program on a computer-readable storage medium will never fall within the exclusion of claimed subject-matter under Articles 52(2) and (3) EPC, just as a claim to a picture on a cup will also never fall under this exclusion.

The TGI was evidently well aware of the EPO case law on the issue but was unimpressed:

It cannot be validly argued, as the sole defense to deny nullity of these two claims, that the practice of the EPO is to admit claims to programs for computers by calling them ‘program-products’.

In fact, it cannot be accepted that a mere trick of language would make it possible to grant patents contra legem. Indeed, the grant of patents to computer programs, even if they are called program products, is not supported by any statute or by any difficulty of interpretation of the EPC, and on the contrary those are clearly excluded as such from patentability.

Claims 13 and 14 contained the same wording of “computer program product” as claim 12 and they were therefore smashed for the same reason.

As for claim 15, it was directed to a “storage medium storing the program according to any one of claims 12 to 14”, but the court found that this does not make any difference:

In this case, and in view of the way claim 15 of the EP’797 patent is drafted, it appears that the storage medium does not have any particular technical feature. It is again a dressing which does not make it possible to escape the exclusion from patentability which concerns computer programs. There is in fact no more information on this storage medium in the description of the patent, and Orange has obtained a protection and the consequent monopoly on an object the only function of which is to contain computer programs which are excluded from patentability.

Claim 15 was therefore canceled as well.

US5331499-1
A storage medium suitable for storing non-inventions.

Scathing comments in a ruling often add some spice to it, and Ms. Courboulay did not skimp on those. In this respect, her statement on the EPO’s contra legem practice of granting patents to computer program products is nothing short of astonishing. I will leave it up to the readership to decide for themselves whether the red card mentioned in the title of this post should in fact be shown to her court rather than to the claimant.

But beyond this parfum de scandale, applicants should keep in mind that, at least according to latest case law, claims directed to computer programs seem to be simply outlawed in France. Therefore, they should definitely include method claims in their French or European applications if they want the novelty and inventive step of their inventions to be assessed at all.

In view of the very firm stance taken by the court in Orange, I would not bet on any argumentation advocating the technical character of computer program inventions in front of the TGI.

As to the significant discrepancy between French case law and EPO practice, there are other striking examples (not just in the software field), and I will probably come back to this issue in future posts.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, 3ème chambre, 1ère section, SA Orange v. SAS Free & SAS Freebox, June 18, 2015, RG No. 14/05735.

Poison and antidote

Poisonous or toxic divisionals have been a somewhat exotic but much commented upon topic, that has led to the revocation of a handful of patents in the past few years.

The excitement and dread generated in the European patent profession will culminate when the Enlarged Board of Appeal of the EPO, to which the topic has recently been referred, issues its decision G 1/15, probably within the next couple of years.

It looks like most, if not all, of the profession hopes that the Enlarged Board will put an end to a theory which is often viewed as nonsensical. I am not sure that I concur with this unanimity. But what everyone will agree on is that there is no predicting with absolute certainty what the Board will have to say on this subject.

So, since the world will not stop turning and patent applications will not stop being filed while we are all waiting for the verdict of the wise people in Munich, it may be worth looking for an antidote to the poison.

To put it more simply, today’s question is whether there is a way to immunize newly filed patent applications against a possible “poisonous divisional” objection further down the road, in case the Enlarged Board does not dispel this objection as being rubbish.

In order to answer this question, we need to look more closely at what the problem really is about. This is where the notion of “partial priority” comes into play.

Let’s assume a first application A, and a subsequent European application B claiming the priority of A. Let’s also assume that the invention claimed in B is broader than what was originally disclosed in A. For example A discloses a process with a temperature in the range of 10-100°C, whereas a broader range of 5-500°C is claimed in B. Or A discloses an apparatus comprising one part soldered to another part, whereas B claims the same apparatus wherein the two parts are attached to each other by any possible means.

In such scenarios, quite clearly, the B claims do not fully benefit from the priority of A, since B does not relate to the same “subject-matter” as A (in accordance with opinion G 2/98).  The tricky issue is whether the priority claim is fully invalid or whether it is only partially invalid.

If the priority is held fully invalid, and if A is a European patent application which gets to be published (in principle after the filing date of B), then A becomes prior art under art.54(3) EPC, i.e. prior art for the purposes of the assessment of novelty only (not inventive step). Therefore, if A discloses one or more embodiments falling within the scope of the B claims, these claims are invalid. We could call this a “toxic priority” situation.

Moreover, even if A itself is not prior art, for instance because it never gets published, or because it is not a European patent application, the existence of a divisional application C stemming from B can also be prejudicial to the novelty of B. Indeed, the part of C which does benefit from the priority of A can be opposed to B for the purposes of novelty only. In such as case, the divisional application is said to be toxic to the parent. But the reverse is also true, and the parent B could be toxic to its child C.

One solution which has been proposed to get out of this mess is the notion of partial priority.

If we accept that the claimed subject-matter in B can be divided up into two parts, a first part that benefits from the priority of A and a second part that does not benefit from the priority of A, then an argument can be made that:

  • said first part is immune to any toxicity because it benefits from the earliest filing date in the family; and
  • said second part is also immune, because it is not disclosed in A, so that there can be no anticipation by A (or any other application in the family validly claiming the priority of A).
Can a poison container safely be generalized to a beverage container without losing the priority for the poison embodiment?
Can a poison container safely be generalized to a beverage container without losing the priority for the poison embodiment?

Whether and to which extent partial priority can be conjured up is one of the main questions that the Enlarged Board of Appeal has to deal with in G 1/15 (see the referral decision T 557/13). In the founding opinion on priority G 2/98 it was mentioned that “the use of a generic term or formula in a claim for which multiple priorities are claimed […] is perfectly acceptable […] provided that it gives rise to the claiming of a limited number of clearly defined alternative subject-matters”. There has been a debate as to what this exactly means, and whether this implies restrictions on the conditions under which partial priority in a generic claim can be acknowledged.

With all this in mind, and without being able to guess at the further guidance which the Enlarged Board will offer, it is reasonable to state that there is a risk of invalidation when a European application is filed:

  • which claims a priority,
  • which comprises claims that have been generalized relative to the teaching of the priority document,
  • if the priority document is a European patent application which gets to be published, or if one or more divisional applications are filed at any point of time.

But, oddly enough, there are instances in which more poison could lead to a cure.

In fact, one solution when the above risk is identified at the time of drafting a priority-claiming application consists in adding a fallback position containing a feature which is not disclosed at all in the priority document. Indeed, if the priority claim becomes invalid because of an added feature (as opposed to just because of a generalization), then there can be no anticipation by the priority document or by any parent or divisional application – since the added feature restores novelty over those. Ideally, the added feature should be minimal and not significantly affect the scope of protection. Remember: it is only necessary to restore novelty over a potential art.54(3) EPC disclosure, so inventive step is not at stake.

If we go back to the above examples, if A discloses a process with a temperature in the range of 10-100°C, and if this range needs to be broadened to 5-500°C in B, why not also add in B another innocuous feature not at all disclosed in A, at least in a dependent claim? For instance, we could add that the process is performed within a time frame of 1 minute to 100 hours, if this is relevant.

Or, if A discloses an apparatus comprising one part soldered to another part, and if the claims in B need to be broadened to all possible modes of attachment between the parts, why not also add in a dependent claim in B reciting that the apparatus weighs from 100 g to 100 kg, assuming this is a relevant range.

Thus, even if partial priority is denied for the generalized claim, it is always possible to rely on the fallback and decide to completely forget about priority and at the same time make sure that there can be no anticipation by A or any application claiming the priority of A.

This suggestion comes with two caveats, though.

The first caveat is that, in case any other relevant disclosure took place during the priority year, the complete loss of the priority date may not be an option. In that case, the only solution seems to go back to what was originally disclosed in the priority document A and stick to that.

The second caveat is that features to be added in the second filing B should be as innocuous as possible (in order not to significant restrict the scope of protection); but not completely meaningless. Indeed, meaningless limitations would not be enough to distinguish over an art.54(3) disclosure, bearing in mind that the disclosure has to be read and assessed by the skilled person. For instance, if A discloses an invention on a car, and if we decide to add in B that the car has four wheels, it is very possible that the skilled person will be deemed to understand the car of A as necessarily comprising four wheels, in which case we would be back to square one.


CASE REFERENCE: Board of Appeal 3.3.06, T 557/13, Infineum USA LP v. Clariant Produkte (Deutschland) GmbH, July 17, 2015

Revocation out of thin air

Patent eligibility has been quite a hot topic in the U.S. since the Alice, Myriad and Mayo Supreme Court decisions. Whether a patent simply attempts to preempt an abstract idea or a law of nature or whether it is truly directed to an application of those – worthy of patent monopoly – is, as far as I can understand, the million-dollar question that everyone now has to struggle with on the other side of the Atlantic, and will have to struggle with in the foreseeable future.

Over here, on the Old Continent, things look pretty different, on the face of it. The EPO has set a low threshold for the so-called “technical character” requirement, actually such a low threshold that it is barely a threshold at all. Of course, this is not the end of the story, because “non-technical features as such, do not provide a technical contribution to the prior art and are thus ignored in assessing inventive step” as the November 2014, soon-to-be-revised Guidelines for examination nicely put it. So, inventive step can be a real challenge, but patent eligibility is at least one concern that applicants can forget about, right?

Well, we may have to think again, in view of a judgment from the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance (TGI) of July 3, 2014.

This case is an action for revocation brought by a company named Evinerude against French patent No. FR 2822237 assigned to Aair Lichens. According to the first and only claim of the patent, the invention relates to the use of lichens exposed to sources of emission of chlorinated compounds, and used in the form of transplants or cultivars, for making quantitative measurements of polychlorodibenzodioxine (PCDD) or polychlorodibenzofurane (PCDF) compounds and evaluating their impact on the environment.

Indeed, it turns out that lichens are good indicators of the presence of PCDD and PCDF air pollutants. Thus, by measuring the amount of these chemicals in lichen samples, it is possible to evaluate the level of atmospheric pollution that they have been exposed to.

An elegant breathing device which could become handy in case of a polychlorodibenzodioxine or polychlorodibenzofurane leak.
An elegant breathing device which could become handy in case of a polychlorodibenzodioxine or polychlorodibenzofurane leak.

It looks like the PCDD and PCDF-loaded Parisian air was not favorable to Atlantic coast-based Aair Lichens, since the TGI revoked the patent based on Article L.611-10 of the Code de la Propriété Intellectuelle, which mirrors Article 52 of the European Patent Convention and provides a list of things which are not inventions, discoveries being the first item in the list.

The court started by recalling the long-standing principle that

A mere discovery cannot be patentable. Actually, the discovery preexists man’s intervention, whereas the invention is the result thereof. A discovery thus does not bring any novelty to the state of the art since it is at the stage of sheer knowledge. However, although the subject-matter of a discovery is not patentable, a practical application can give rise to the grant of a patent.

In this case, the invention relied on the discovery of a natural phenomenon, namely the absorption of PCDD and PCDF compounds present in the ambient air by lichens. The patent proprietor’s position was however that the patent was not directed to this discovery per se but rather to process steps of measuring the amounts of these chlorinated compounds in lichens and then evaluating their impact on the environment. But the court was not convinced, and replied as follows:

As it is drafted, the only claim of the patent does not protect the process steps but merely the statement that measurements can be made to evaluate the impact on the environment, which is not a process invention. The technical means for carrying out this statement could be protectable if they were described and claimed as such.

The patent was thus revoked.

To me, this looks more like a US-type approach than an EPO-type approach. After all, it seems that the court’s reasoning could be applied in a similar manner to many use claims which are routinely granted by the EPO.

An important caveat is that the patent at stake was somewhat light, with four pages of description and a single claim. It appears from the file wrapper that the application was drafted and prosecuted by the inventor himself, which is always risky. In fact, it is not every day that one comes across a claim starting with the words “the invention relates to”. The text does contain an example of measures performed in samples taken from various geographical areas, but there are no detailed explanations in the text on a possible process to be implemented. Also, the court noted that the skilled person, at the filing date, already knew that the pollution of a site by PCDDs and PCDFs results in atmospheric contamination, and that these compounds are easily absorbed by plants such as lichens [sic, I am not sure lichens can be considered as plants] so that these are good pollution indicators.

In other terms, one could infer from the court’s findings that the patent could also have been revoked for insufficiency of disclosure or lack of novelty or inventive step.

It is difficult to assess to what extent these flaws played a part in the TGI’s decision. Would the situation have been different if the patent had contained more technical information or if the prior art had been less relevant? It is certainly possible. But on the other hand, the way the claim was drafted did seem to play a critical part in the decision.

Therefore, when an invention relates to an application of a natural phenomenon, applicants would be well advised to draft at least some claims reciting the invention in terms of practical process steps and not just use claims broadly covering the basic concept of the invention.


CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, 3ème chambre, 1ère section, Evinerude SARL v. Philippe Giraudeau & SARL Aair Lichens, July 3, 2014, RG No. 10/14406.