A fishy appeal?

It is not an easy task to report on case law from the EPO Boards of Appeal, as there are so many commentators in the blogosphere (and elsewhere) poised to jump on any fresh decision that being original is tricky, unless you do high frequency posting. Nevertheless, I am wondering whether decisions drafted in French might as a general rule fly a little bit more under the radar, since French is certainly the official language of the EPO which is the least spoken by the European patent profession.

With that in mind, here is a report on one of these low flying decisions, which I find noteworthy for two reasons. The first reason is that the main claim of the patent in suit was directed to a container containing precooked tuna fish, which opens up an ocean of possible aquatic puns for this blogger. And the second reason is that the decision deals with an interesting point of law regarding the burden of proof in appeal proceedings.

The patent owned by Brittany-based Etablissements Paul Paulet had been revoked by an opposition division due to insufficiency of disclosure.

Claim 1 as granted was the following:

A rigid container containing foodstuff, the container comprising a receptacle and a cover and being made of a material selected from aluminum, steel, glass, or a plastics material that is oxygen-proof, the foodstuff being constituted by pre-cooked fish that is in solid form, eventually comprising an additive, a preservative, or a small amount of water or oil, characterized in that

– the closed container presents substantially no liquid after sterilization, such that the liquid content is less than 10% of the total weight of the content, and

– the container contains only the foodstuff and a gas, wherein the volume content of dioxygen in the gas is less than 15%, the gas being nitrogen.

Both features of the characterizing part of the claim were viewed by the opposition division as raising implementation issues.

If we focus on the liquid content feature, the opposition division noted that the patent taught to place the precooked fish into the container, add liquid nitrogen which will be turned into gaseous nitrogen, then close the container and sterilize the product. Based on various statements made by the patent proprietor during the opposition proceedings and information contained in the patent itself, as well as in an experimental report referenced as T4 (filed – unfortunately – by the patent proprietor), it could be concluded that, during the sterilization step, the liquid content in the container can change, and in particular can increase or decrease. Many factors may influence this change in the liquid content, including the type of fish, the precooking procedure, the shape of the fish, the additives and the conditions of sterilization. The opposition division deemed that the patent did not teach how to control these various parameters.

A container for fish hopefully containing more than 10% of liquid
A container for fish hopefully containing more than 10% of liquid

With its statement of grounds of appeal, the patent proprietor filed a modified version of claim 1 as a main request (corresponding to one of the auxiliary requests discussed in first instance). In this modified version of claim 1, the material of the container was somewhat restricted, and the nature of the fish was further specified to be “pre-cooked tuna fish in solid form“.

With the summons to oral proceedings, the Board expressed the preliminary opinion that there was an issue of sufficiency of disclosure with the liquid content feature, although it did not share the view of the opposition division regarding the other feature of the nitrogen / oxygen content.

One month before the oral proceedings, the patent proprietor submitted a new document T18, which was an experimental report focusing on the processing of tuna fish. The admissibility of document T18 at this late stage of the proceedings was debated in front of the Board, in view of R. 13(3) of the Rules of Procedure of the Boards of Appeal.

The patent proprietor’s argument was that:

  • the first instance decision relied on experimental report T4, in which experiments were conducted on billfish product;
  • the main claim was now restricted to tuna fish, so that the first instance decision was no longer applicable;
  • the Board raised a new objection in the preliminary opinion by stating that even with precooked tuna fish the variations in liquid content were unpredictable;
  • therefore the patent proprietor had reacted in a timely manner by filing the new experimental report T18 focusing on tuna fish.

The Board rejected the argument by analyzing the first instance decision, which mentioned a number of ill-controlled parameters influencing the liquid content and not just the type of fish; and by noting that the main request in the appeal was the third auxiliary request in first instance and had thus also been rejected by the opposition division.

The most interesting part of the discussion relates to whether the admission of T18 into the proceedings would violate the opponents / respondents’ right to be heard – in view of the lateness of the filing. The appellant said no, because the respondents had failed to provided detailed justifications and evidence in their response to the statement of grounds of appeal; on the other hand, the appellant did not have to file additional evidence with its statement of grounds of appeal since:

the burden of proof of insufficiency of disclosure lies exclusively with the opponents, in all circumstances. This also applies on appeal further to a decision revoking the patent for insufficiency of disclosure, notably when the grounds of the decision at stake no longer adversely affect the appellant due to a modification of the claimed subject-matter (reasons, 1.4.1).

The Board rejected the argument in view of the very nature of the appeal proceedings.

The respondents brought forward elements during the opposition proceedings which were apparently sufficiently credible as to the impossibility to carry out the invention in a systematic and reproducible manner by relying on the information contained in the patent; moreover, this information would be too limited and contradictory. This led the opposition division to hand down the decision at stake, which was duly reasoned. This decision not only brings an end to the opposition proceedings, but also as a consequence assigns different roles to the parties for the appeal stage. Once the patent has been revoked, it is up to the patent proprietor as the appellant to take a more active part and present, firstly, a detailed argumentation in its statement of grounds of appeal, even if by filing a new set of claims the grounds for the challenged decision seem to be overcome. The appellant cannot simply wait for the respondents to demonstrate the invalidity of the patent.

The patent proprietor, as the appellant, must therefore act against the challenged decision, that is, must, in the present case, demonstrate that common general knowledge does make it possible to carry out the invention based on the patent. This demonstration must be complete and not selective, without waiting for the Board or the parties to invite it to develop it more. In this respect, the appeal proceedings are not a continuation of the opposition proceedings but a new procedure instituted by the appellant. Therefore, the principles which initially governed the opposition proceedings are no longer necessarily applicable at the appeal stage, and those stated in the Rules of Procedure of the Boards of Appeal replace them, notably the duty to provide the complete means in view of which the decision cannot be maintained. A patent proprietor who thinks that they can discard the basis for the challenged decision owing to grounds of appeal limited to only one aspect of said decision runs the risk of later being in a situation where the filing of additional grounds or evidence during the appeal proceedings may be considered late under articles 13(1) and/or 13(3) RPBA (reasons 1.4.2).

I think it is fair to say that the burden of proof of insufficiency of disclosure on the opponents is a very heavy one in opposition proceedings.

However, according to the present decision, the onus shifts on appeal, if the patent is revoked by the opposition division. More generally, it can be derived from the Board’s comments that the first instance decision is presumed valid until the contrary is proven – although I am not sure that this has often been stated in this way in the case law.

On the merits, the Board reached a similar conclusion as the opposition division regarding the unpredictability of the liquid content in the container after sterilization, and therefore dismissed the appeal.

The parties will have the opportunity to continue the discussion and fish for further arguments on the liquid content feature, since there are opposition proceedings pending in connection with the divisional patent, and since the same feature is present in the independent claims. My guess is it will be an uphill battle for the patent proprietor but at least they can hope to be able to rely on the additional evidence that the Board has refused to take into account in this case.

CASE REFERENCE: Board of Appeal 3.2.07, T 30/15, Etablissements Paul Paulet v. Princes Limited & Bolton Alimentari S.P.A, January 20, 2016.

Infringement wiped out

It is an infrequent but real pleasure for a litigant to face an opponent who does not fight and does not bring any contradiction to the litigant’s case. But I guess the pleasure is considerably reduced when the opponent in question is a Chinese infringer which vanishes from the radar and might always reappear later in another form.

It seems that the wiper business of the Valeo group was confronted with this situation, as suggested by two judgments from the Cour d’appel de Paris dated April 14, 2015 against two Chinese companies which did not even appoint a lawyer to defend them.

At first instance, both companies were found guilty of infringement of the French part of European patent No. EP 1486134. In one of these cases, the defendant was in addition found guilty of infringing two trademarks as well as of passing off. This looks more like organized piracy than conventional patent infringement.

However, the first instance judges rejected two further infringement claims based on patents No. EP 1485280 (EP’280) and  EP 1565359 (EP’359). Valeo appealed, and the Cour d’appel partly reversed the first instance decisions, finding in favor of the claimants.

This gives us the opportunity to look at how French courts appraise contributory infringement. The relevant legal provision is article L. 613-4 of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle:

Unless the patent proprietor consents, the supply or offer to supply, on the French territory, to another person than those entitled to work the patented invention, of means for implementing this invention on this territory, in relation with an essential element thereof, is also prohibited, when the third party knows or circumstances make it obvious that these means are suitable and intended for this implementation. 

Claim 1 of the EP’280 patent reads as follows:

Wiper device (10), particularly for wiping vehicle windscreens, comprising a drivable wiper arm (14), with a flat wiper blade (16) positionable on the wiper arm (14), which (wiper blade) comprises a wiping rubber (18), the support elements (20) bearing the wiping rubber (18), which (support elements) may preferably be designed in the form of strip-like elongated spring rails and means of connection for connection to the free end (12) of the wiper arm (14), wherein the means of connection comprise a carrier element (22) firmly arranged on the support elements (20) and a connecting element (24) arranged to be partially pivotable in relation to the carrier element (22) and the connecting element (24) is detachably connectable to the free end (12) of the wiper arm (14), characterized in that the free end (12) of the wiper arm (14) presents several, preferably two, tongues (30, 32) extending in the longitudinal direction, which in the installed state engage in tongue receptacles (34, 36) provided on the connecting element (24) and that the tongues (30, 32) are designed in one piece with the free end (12) of the wiper arm (14) and project at least in sections in the direction facing the windscreen.

So, the claim is directed to a wiper device made of several elements, including a so-called “connecting element“. The mention and characterization of the connecting element are underlined above. The defendants marketed wiper connectors in France having the same features as the connecting element of the above claim.

The first instance judges had rejected the infringement claim by simply noting that the products marketed by the defendants did not reproduce all the features of claim 1 of EP’280, since said defendants did not market wiper arms compatible with the (infringing) connecting element.

I would have loved to illustrate this post with Eiffel tower wipers but strangely enough it seems like nobody had the idea of patenting them.

I would have loved to illustrate this post with Eiffel tower wipers but strangely enough it seems like nobody had the idea of patenting them.

This was certainly an incomplete reasoning, since the existence of contributory infringement does not require that the infringer markets all parts of the claimed product, even separately. It is only necessary that the infringer markets one part of the claimed product, provided that this part represents means for implementing the invention in relation with an essential element thereof.

The appeal judges thus held differently. Quoting from one of the two appeal judgments:

[…] The connecting element (24) contributes to the result of the main claim of the patented invention, which is to offer a wiper device comprising a wiper blade arranged on a wiper arm (14) the free end (12) of which comprises two tongues (30, 32) arranged in tongue receptacles (34, 36) provided to that end on this connecting element; this element therefore is a means for implementing the patented invention, relating to an essential element of the invention. 

This finding seems to make perfect sense because, looking at the claimed wiper device, if we leave aside features which are probably common to most wipers (such as the presence of a drivable wiper arm with a wiper blade comprising a wiper rubber, etc.), the features which seem to be really characteristic of the invention are, on the one hand, the presence of tongues on the free end of the wiper arm, and on the other hand the presence of corresponding tongue receptacles on the connecting element.

In other terms, the invention really is about a particular manner of connecting the connecting element to the wiper arm (at least, this is what is reflected in the characterizing portion of the claim).

Therefore, the connecting element having the right shape and connecting features does indeed relate to (or even, is) an essential, i.e. original, problem-solving, element of the invention.

Turning now to the other patent, EP’359, the main claim is the following:

Device (10) for detachably connecting a wiper blade (12) with a drivable wiper arm (14), with the wiper blade (12) having a wiping strip (16) facing the screen to be wiped, at least one strip-like elongated carrier element (18, 20), a slider element (22) connected to the carrier element (18, 20) and an oscillatably mounted connecting element (24) on the slider element for connection to a coupling section (26) of the wiper arm, characterized in that the coupling section (26) has a tongue-like insertion section (28), the connecting element (24) has a receptacle (30) for the insertion section (28) and the coupling section (26) and the connecting element (24) have securing sections (42, 56) for mutual permanent connection, wherein in order to achieve a preinstallation position in which the longitudinal axis of the wiper arm (14) and the longitudinal axis of the connecting element (24) form an angle a in the range of approx. 10° to 100°, the insertion section (28) can be broadly linearly (64) inserted into the receptacle (30) and wherein in order to achieve a final installation position the wiper arm (14) and the connecting section (24) are pivoted towards each other around the contact area between the insertion section/receptacle until the securing sections (40, 42, 56) allow a mutually permanent connection.

What is important to note in this claim, beside the word “oscillatably” which is probably a challenge to most automatic spelling correction softwares (the original claim was in the German language, which may be an explanation), is the features which characterize the connecting element, which I have underlined.

Again, the defendants marketed a connecting element similar to the one recited in the claim, under reference Q-P in one case (the connecting element infringing EP’280 being referenced as Q-B), and under reference FG9 in the other case (the connecting element infringing EP’280 being referenced as FG7)…

And again, the court found that the connecting element was “a means for implementing the patented invention relating to an essential element of the invention“.

This makes a lot of sense just like in the EP’280 case, as this is still a plug/socket type of invention, wherein the innovative features relate to the way two elements are connected together. Therefore, the invention is embodied both in the plug and in the socket – or, in this case, both in the wiper arm and in the connecting element.

In both of its orders, the Cour d’appel pronounced an injunction and awarded damages to the claimants, as expected.

But, most interestingly, the judges additionally ordered that the infringing products be seized and remitted to the claimants. This measure is not very often ordered and it is certainly attributable to the unusual context of the case. In particular, the judges may have thought that it would not be easy for the claimants to recover the ordered damages from the foreign defendants, so that a seizure was probably necessary as a form or relief.

CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, Pôle 5 chambre 1, April 14, 2015, SASU Valeo Systèmes d’Essuyage, Valeo Wischersysteme GmbH & SASU Valeo Service v. Ningbo Youngsun Auto Parts Co. Ltd., RG No. 13/15794; Cour d’appel de Paris, Pôle 5 chambre 1, April 14, 2015, SASU Valeo Systèmes d’Essuyage, Valeo Wischersysteme GmbH & SASU Valeo Service v. Qeep Auto Spare Parts Ltd., RG No. 13/15800.

A toll on Bell

Acts of infringement are broadly defined under French law, and this definition was further expanded in 2014. If we consider direct infringement of a product, article L. 613-3 (a) of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle defines the acts that are prohibited without the consent of the patent proprietor as:

making, offering, putting on the market, using, importing, exporting, transshipping or possessing for these purposes the product which is the subject-matter of the patent.  

Exporting and transshipping are the two terms which were added in 2014. However, the most interesting terms for the purposes of a legal discussion are probably “offering” and “putting on the market“, as they leave quite a bit of room for interpretation, one recent example being an infringement case brought by Eurocopter, later renamed Airbus Helicopters, against the U.S. group Bell Helicopter, based on French patent No. FR 2749561 directed to a landing gear with skids.

In 2012, the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance (TGI) rejected all infringement claims, as well as all invalidity counterclaims.

In 2015, the Paris Cour d’appel partly reversed, upholding the validity part of the first instance judgment but reaching a different conclusion on infringement. In particular, the appeal judges had a broader view than the first instance judges on what can constitute an offer for sale.

In 2005, Bell Helicopter presented a first version of a helicopter called Bell 429 to the public:

  • by including it in their catalogue;
  • by showing a model in September 2005 in the good town of Toussus le Noble, which was reported on the website of a helicopter enthusiast (Bell argued that this was a confidential presentation);
  • by putting it up on the website of Rotor & Aircraft, their distributor in France.

The Bell 429, first version, incorporated the claimed landing gear, and this does not seem to have been contested by the defendant:

This literal reproduction was admitted when Mr. Robert G., structure manager of Bell Helicopter, was cross-examined during the Canadian proceedings and it is not challenged by Bell Helicopter Textron in the present proceedings. 

But, said Bell, this first version of Bell 429 was a prototype. The TGI agreed, and noted in particular that when this first version was presented in France, it was not yet approved for sale.

But the Cour d’appel took a different view:

Since this was a prototype, only Bell Helicopter Textron can be responsible for the presentation to the public, which they do not deny. They state that the presentation of September 15, 2005 was confidential. But the public was aware of it, since a third party mentioned it. The fact that this website was not updated has no influence on the validity of the offer made at this date, since the prototype was presented on an internet website accessible from France by a company representing Bell Helicopter Textron in France. 


Offering for sale extends to any material operation aiming at putting a product in contact with potential customers, at preparing a commercial launch, even if said product, which in the present case was not yet approved, could not be marketed. Indeed, this presentation of a competitor’s product in France may turn away part of the competitor’s customers. In fact, this presentation in France was preceded by presentations at the Heli-Expo congress in Houston, USA and at the annual forum of the American Helicopter Society in Montreal, Canada; and it was followed by short-term marketing of the second version apparatus, the approval of this second version having been obtained partly based on tests made on the first version. 

This offer, in these circumstances, is an act of infringement. 

So, even without any sale, and even if no sale is even possible because the product is not yet approved for sale, a presentation of the product to the public in France is an act of infringement if it can be analyzed as part of a preparation for future marketing. This seems to make sense, as it is certainly possible to start attracting customers even before the first product is actually sold.

Bell developed another line of defense based on article L. 613-5 of the Code, which provides a list of exemptions:

The rights conferred by the patent do not extend: 

a) To acts performed in a private context and for non-commercial purposes; 

b) To experimental acts concerning the subject-matter of the patented invention. 


However, this line of defense was dismissed by the court, since Bell could not prove that any scientific experimentation had been performed. Therefore, the presentation was deemed commercial in nature.

Having dealt with the first version of the Bell 429 helicopter, the court turned to the second version, which appears to have been designed as a workaround of the Airbus patent. The second version was approved for sale in 2009.

The efficacy of the workaround was put to the test in front of the court – and it failed.

The claimed landing gear was in particular characterized by the presence of skids comprising, in the front, a double curvature inclined transition zone, transversely oriented with respect to longitudinal support stretches, and forming an integrated front cross-piece, offset relative to a front delimitation of a plane of contact of the longitudinal support stretches.

Bell’s non-infringement argument was that there was no cross-piece structurally integrated to the landing gear. Instead, there was a cross-piece fixed owing to connecting sleeves. In addition, the gear was longer toward the front, so that there was no offset of the cross-piece relative to the front delimitation of a plane of contact. Finally, the technical advantages offered by the patent were not achieved, as in particular the weight of the landing gear was increased in this second version of Bell 429.

But the court held that there was still a double curvature inclined transition zone in the second version. Although a piece had been added in the front, the claim did not require the cross-piece to be at the front end of the gear, but only required the cross-piece to be offset relative to a front delimitation of the plane of contact, which was still the case. Regarding the structural integration of the cross-piece, the court noted that said cross-piece formed “a functional set” with the skids, so as to transmit mechanical constraints.

According to the court,

This configuration differs from classical landing gears, the cross-pieces of which are fixed with connecting sleeves and do not form a functional set. 

Without having access to the evidence, it is of course difficult to know whether the assessment made by the court is technically correct or not. But what is remarkable anyway is that the fact that the configuration of the infringing device was similar to that of the claimed invention, while at the same time different from conventional devices, appears to have been a key factor.

But the actual test that French courts are supposed to apply relies on a functional analysis, which is why the Cour d’appel also looked at the function of patented features and investigated whether those were (i) reproduced by the Bell 429, second version, and (ii) could be protected per se (irrespective of the claim wording).

According to the patent, deformations are present on the inclined transition zones, that is, as a whole, and not only on the curves. This technical effect is also reproduced on the second version of the landing gear of the Bell 429 apparatus from Bell Helicopter Textron, as indicated by Mr. PPL who states that the deformations are present essentially regularly on the whole transition zone, the zone with the largest level of constraints being where the cross-piece is fixed on the apparatus. 


The Airbus Helicopters patent covers, contrary to what is stated by Bell Helicopter Textron (namely that the implemented functions were known from the prior art), novel technical functions (front cross-piece with double curvature inclined transition zones, offset, which works in flexion on several planes and in torsion, related to the structure of the apparatus which transmits part of the constraints towards the skids), consisting in addressing the problem of resonance on the ground, by a better adsorption of forces upon landing. 

The documents communicated by Bell Helicopter Textron to demonstrate that the functions performed by the inclined transition zones of the Airbus Helicopters’ patent would be known from prior art landing gears are not relevant as these documents relate to conventional landing gears which do not have an inclined transition zone and work, unlike the invention, in flexion in only one plane, and it was previously stated that this invention is novel and particularly innovative. 

Quite interestingly, the patent proprietor conducted numerical simulations to demonstrate that the second version behaved similarly to the claimed invention in terms of energy adsorption. These numerical simulations were very criticized by the defendant, but the court did find them convincing.

Also, Bell had apparently submitted that the landing gear, second version, behaved similarly to the landing gear, first version, in the approval procedure for the helicopter in Canada.

The overall conclusion was thus the following:

This second version, despite the presence of a connecting sleeve on the first transition zone, and the addition of an element at the front end of the skid, has the same functions for the same result as the invention, and it is irrelevant that this result is not of the same level of sophistication as the invention’s. It should be noted that this modification of the first version was quickly implemented, apparently so as to react to the infringement lawsuit against the Canadian Bell company, a degraded embodiment making it possible to try to conceal the copying. 

In other terms, the second version was found to infringe the patent as well.

For whom the bell tolls.
For whom the bell tolls.

Another noteworthy aspect of the judgment is that statements and evidence from the parallel proceedings in Canada were abundantly referred to, which is not really usual. Very often, judges do take interest in foreign proceedings but they do not directly cite them. However, in this case, they took note of some relevant statements:

Mr. Robert G., manager at Bell Helicopter Textron, who was heard during the Canadian proceedings, acknowledged in front of the court that this modification was determined further to some quick thinking in order to give the second version of the landing gear a behavior identical to the first version. 

So the takeaway message for defendants could well be that a workaround supposed to work in the same way as a claimed invention is at a risk of being found infringing under the doctrine of equivalence. Unless of course the application of this doctrine can be ruled out because the technical functions at stake are already known from the prior art. At the very least, extreme caution is thus required at the time of the design-around.

As for this litigation, this is probably not the end of the story. First, a petition to the Cour de cassation (supreme court) is very likely in a high stake case such as this one. Second, the quantum of damages still needs to be determined. So, unless the parties settle (which is always an option, especially in the context of multinational litigation), we should hear again about Airbus Helicopters and Bell.

CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, Pôle 5 chambre 2, March 20, 2015, Airbus Helicopters v. Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. et al., RG No. 13/00552.

Hardcore litigation

A few years back, it was a common thought that standard-essential patents (SEPs) are the jewel in the crown of a telecom IP portfolio. SEPs are patents that are mandatory to work for the implementation of an industry standard, such as for instance the GSM (2G), UMTS (3G) or LTE (4G) standards in the telecom industry. Because it is not possible to make and market devices which do not implement the relevant standards, SEPs may seem like the perfect tool for putting pressure on potential licensees because any non-infringement defense is supposed to be made more difficult.

But nowadays, SEPs probably look much less powerful than they used to.

First of all, patent owners have to abide by the rules of standards-setting organizations, which require them to offer licenses on FRAND (Fair, Reasonable And Non Discriminatory) terms. Defendants have questioned whether it is allowable at all to enforce FRAND-encumbered IP rights against third parties, especially when it comes to the mother of all remedies, namely injunctive relief. This FRAND defense has given rise to complex legal discussions (revolving in particular around the issue of what is a willing or unwilling licensee) which have culminated in the CJEU.

But more fundamentally, the overall outcome of the many smartphone patent wars which have been waged in the past few years, both based on SEPs and on non-SEPs, is far from being positive for patent owners – despite a few resounding wins. Therefore, it seems that SEPs did not deliver on their promise of being easier to win on by practically excluding any non-infringement challenge.

Although SEP litigation has been much more abundant in Germany and the U.S. than in France, one case decided on last year confirms this global trend in a spectacular fashion.

Core Wireless Licensing is a monetizing entity holding a portfolio of more than 2,000 patents acquired from prolific patent applicant Nokia. The majority of these patents were declared as essential for the 2G, 3G and/or 4G standards at the ETSI (European Telecomunications Standards Institute). Core negotiated a license on this portfolio with the Korean giant LG Electronics between 2012 and 2014, without success.

In 2014, Core started legal action in France against LG. Core did not request an injunction but requested that the court should award damages for the past as well as force LG into a license and set the level of royalties for the future.

It is not possible in practice to ask a court to look at an entire portfolio of hundreds or thousands of patents. On the other hand, Core did need a finding of infringement in order to get the court to issue the requested order.

Thus, Core selected a group of five SEPs from the portfolio and claimed that these five patents were infringed by LG.

Why five patents and not just one? Well, the rationale may have been that every single patent is at a risk of being found invalid, or not infringed. But the more patents you pile up, the more unlikely it becomes, on a purely statistical standpoint, that they will all be found invalid or not infringed. The defendant needs to fend off all patents in order to win, while the plaintiff only needs one to get through. So, was this indeed a rock-solid strategy?

The answer is no.

The Tribunal de Grande Instance (TGI), defying the odds, held that there was no evidence of infringement of any of the five SEPs, and rejected all of Core’s requests.

I know that it is always much easier to explain why a strategy failed after the facts, but in my view there are two main circumstances which may account for this prima facie surprising outcome.

Contrary to what you could think, telecom litigation is not always kawaii.
Contrary to what you could think, telecom litigation is not always kawaii.

The first circumstance is that Core requested accelerated proceedings. Note that these were proceedings on the merits, and not proceedings for obtaining a provisional order. But the claimant did request and obtain an extremely tight schedule based on the alleged urgency of the case. Practically speaking, the judge immediately set a date for the trial at the onset of the action: the complaint was served on LG on September 30, 2014, and the pleadings hearing took place on January 16, 2015, the latest written submissions of the parties having been filed respectively four days and one day before that date…

This is as much of a rocket docket as you can possibly think of.

The second circumstance is that the case was extremely complex. Both on a legal standpoint, with five patents at stake and thus five separate validity and infringement discussions, plus a FRAND defense, plus an exhaustion defense based on alleged pass-through rights from the electronic chip manufacturer Qualcomm; and on a technical standpoint, because the five patents were rather abstract and difficult to grasp for a non-specialist.

We can easily imagine that the French judges, with no technical education and no technical assistance whatsoever, confronted with probably hundreds of pages of written submissions to digest containing highly sophisticated developments on signal processing, having heard oral explanations for a couple of hours at best, and having dozens of other cases on their desks to review in the same period of time, were faced with an insurmountable task.

This is reflected in the decision itself. If we take the first patent in the list, one issue with respect to infringement related to two steps in a process which appeared to be in a different order in the patent claims and in the technical specification for the UMTS standard which was relied upon by the plaintiff as evidence of infringement. The court held:

However, as rightly put by the defendants, contending that the operations of data propagation and power modification can be performed in any order in the 3GPP TS 25.213 V.11.4.0 specification is a statement that is not confirmed or justified by any evidence. 

More generally, any claimant has the burden of proving its case. It is indisputable that Core have limited themselves, in order to show that the 786 patent is essential, to filing an analysis drafted by an expert that they have hired and selected, without proceeding in a meticulous, precise and understandable way with demonstrating that the reduction in power described by the patent is necessarily reproduced by all cell phones implementing the 3GPP TS 25.213 V.11.4.0 and 3GPP TS 25.302 V10.0.0 specifications. It should be added that infringement by equivalence requires another demonstration, namely that other means can be used to implement the same patentable result, which is not present either.   

The court’s findings on the other four patents were similar: each time, the court stated that the defendants’ non-infringement defense had not been clearly proven wrong by the claimant.

The bottom line is that demonstrating that an SEP is infringed is not a piece of cake – since a declaration at the relevant standards-setting organization that the patent is or may be essential cannot be taken for granted, as the organization does not check whether this is indeed the case. So, any declaration of essentiality notwithstanding, the burden of proof remains on the patent proprietor to demonstrate infringement, and the TGI’s decision reminds us that it is a heavy one.

Indeed, the wording and technical explanations used in a patent are usually very different from the wording and technical explanations used in a standard specification. Again, unless you are a specialist in signal processing, it can prove difficult to get your bearings.

So, is there any solution at all for telecom patent owners – except waiting for the advent of the UPC, which will likely have more resources and be better equipped for handling complex litigation of this kind, notably owing to the presence of technical judges?

Well, there may be one. Article L. 615-20 of the Code de la propriété intellectuelle provides that the court may

either ex officio or upon request of a party, appoint any consultant for following the proceedings from the case management, and be present at the hearing. The consultant can be authorized to ask questions to their parties or their representatives. 

Judges without any technical background can thus get assistance from a technically skilled consultant in order to make a better-informed decision on a case.

This option has seldom been used by courts and litigants. Does it add a layer of procedural complexity to a case? Yes. Is the outcome of the case highly dependent on the consultant’s skills, not only on the technical standpoint, but also in terms of understanding the patent law issues which are really at stake for the court? Certainly. So, isn’t this a solution which is far from ideal? I would agree, but it could also be the only acceptable one in this particular context.

To finish on the Core case, the court rejected all claims and counterclaims. The invalidity counterclaims were not examined as they were submitted in an auxiliary manner. The court also held that there was no need for setting a FRAND royalty rate in the absence of demonstration of the essential character of the patents; and that there was no need to force Core to file the Nokia / Qualcomm license agreement, again in view of the essentiality finding. Furthermore, the court rejected LG’s counterclaim for damages based on Core’s alleged bad faith in the negotiations, as well as LG’s counterclaims for abuse of dominant position and for abuse of procedure.

The court’s position on the negotiations between the parties is actually noteworthy:

[…] the negotiations between the parties lasted for more than two years, which tends to show that neither of them behaved with enough bad faith to prompt the other one to stop this phase. 

Besides, the parties blame each other so that the court, which does not know everything about these negotiations, is not in a position to state that bad faith is more on one side than the other. 

Again, the message is clear: each party should prove its case, and allegations will not suffice.

CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris, 3ème chambre, 2ème section, April 17, 2015, Core Wireless Licensing Sàrl v. LG Electronics France & LG Electronics Inc., RG No. 14/14124.

Sufficiently suitable

My good friend Lionel Vial’s brand new website is up and running! And in order to celebrate, Lionel kindly sent me another contribution on the appraisal of sufficiency of disclosure of functional claims. He writes:

In our previous post regarding the sufficiency of disclosure requirement applied to therapeutic purpose-limited product claims when there is a doubt that the therapeutic effect is attained, Renaud wondered if the bar had been raised.

Well, the decision discussed today might be just another hint that there is indeed a trend towards a wider application of the requirement of achievement of the claimed technical effect by the Boards of appeal of the EPO in regard of sufficiency of disclosure.

Decision T 528/11 was rendered on November 19, 2015 on an appeal formed by the opponent (appellant) against the decision of the opposition division to uphold European patent No. EP 1427808.

Claim 1 of the main request filed during the appeal proceedings read:

An isolated bacterial strain of the genus Lactobacillus characterized by that it is selected from the group consisting of the strain of Lactobacillus casei subsp rhamnosus, LN 113, deposited under number LMG P-20562, and the strain of Lactobacillus fermentum, LN 99, deposited under number LMG P-20561, and having the ability to colonise and become established in a human vagina, displaying a disturbed vaginal flora of microorganisms, upon vaginal administration, even during menstrual discharge, wherein said bacterial strain or strains is/are considered established if the bacterial strain or strains is/are still present in the vagina after at least two menstrual cycles from the time of administration, said strains were deposited at Belgian Coordinated Collections of Microorganisms on 14 June 2001 (emphasis added).

Among other arguments, the appellant submitted that although the deposit of strains LN 99 and LN 113 ensured their availability, this did not guarantee that they fulfilled the functional feature required by claim 1 (underlined above). None of the examples of the patent showed that the deposited strains indeed had this feature, which was necessary in order to meet the requirements of Article 83 EPC. The in vivo assay, required to reliably determine whether the strains had the alleged feature, was not described in the prior art. Post-published document D13 could not be used to prove sufficiency of disclosure. The functional feature that strains LN 99 and LN 113 were required to exhibit was not reproducible. Thus, according to decision G 1/03 (OJ EPO 2004, page 413), there was a lack of sufficiency of disclosure (see point XI of the Summary of Facts and Submissions).

If the Board did not share the same appreciation of the facts and arrived at the conclusion that the claimed invention was sufficiently disclosed (see points 10-14 of the Reasons), it nevertheless followed the appellant’s view as to the application of the requirement of sufficiency of disclosure to the feature at stake:

According to decision G 1/03 (supra), “(i)f an effect is expressed in a claim [and is not achieved by the claimed subject-matter; added by the board], there is lack of sufficient disclosure. Otherwise, i.e. if the effect is not expressed in a claim but is part of the problem to be solved, there is a problem of inventive step” (cf. G 1/03, supra, point 2.5.2 of the Reasons).

In line therewith, the claimed strains LN 99 and LN 113 must have the functional feature cited in claim 1. Otherwise, there is lack of sufficient disclosure (point 9 of the Reasons).

This famous obiter dictum of the Enlarged Board of Appeal is an enlightening reminder of the principles underlying the interplay between insufficiency of disclosure (as in decision T 609/02) and lack of inventive step (as in decision T 939/92) when there is a doubt that an effect is achieved.

Attaining the technical effect - always vital!
Attaining the technical effect – always vital!

However, in our opinion the present decision marks an evolution in the application of this sufficiency of disclosure principle to product claims.

Indeed, following decision T 609/02, this principle was mainly applied to a particular subset of product claims, the therapeutic purpose-limited product claims (“Product X for use in the treatment of Y”), i.e. so-called medical use claims, which are in fact hybrid between product and use claims. For these claims, attaining the claimed therapeutic effect is a functional technical feature of the claim.

In the present case, what the board refers to as a functional feature (underlined above) is generally considered to merely define a suitable use of the claimed bacterial strain, as can be construed from the tell-tale expression “having the ability to”. In fact, it is clear, e.g. from the Guidelines for Examination in the EPO (F-IV, 4.13) that such features are usually not considered as true functional features like those of medical use claims:

Similarly, a claim to a substance or composition for a particular use should be construed as meaning a substance or composition which is in fact suitable for the stated use; a known product which prima facie is the same as the substance or composition defined in the claim, but which is in a form which would render it unsuitable for the stated use, would not deprive the claim of novelty. However, if the known product is in a form in which it is in fact suitable for the stated use, though it has never been described for that use, it would deprive the claim of novelty. An exception to this general principle of interpretation is where the claim is to a known substance or composition for use in a surgical, therapeutic or diagnostic method (see G‑II, 4.2).

In contrast to an apparatus or product claim, in case of a method claim commencing with such words as: “Method for remelting galvanic layers” the part “for remelting …” should not be understood as meaning that the process is merely suitable for remelting galvanic layers, but rather as a functional feature concerning the remelting of galvanic layers and, hence, defining one of the method steps of the claimed method (see T 848/93).

Accordingly, the Board’s finding extends the scope of application of this sufficiency of disclosure requirement for product claims outside the field of medical use claims to which it was confined. Should this decision be followed, the requirement of achievement of the recited technical effect could thus expand to just about any technical field provided the product claim considered recites that a feature is suitable for attaining an effect.

Given the feeble gain in terms of patentability offered by “suitable for” features, in contrast to non-functional features, their usefulness could in the future very well be outweighed by the risk they impart to the claims containing them. Accordingly, drafters should be cautious when incorporating them in a claim. As for opponents, well, it is a promising new field to explore.

Lionel, I do hope you are right. It would probably be a good idea for the EPO to look more closely at the sufficiency of disclosure of functionally-drafted claims – in all fields of technology.

I personally tend to think that “suitable for“-type functional features can be powerful weapons in the hands of patent owners. In practice, it can be quite difficult for an opponent to demonstrate with absolute certainty that a prior art product is “suitable for” a certain purpose not explicitly stated in the prior art disclosure. The patent proprietor simply needs to cast enough doubts on the nature of the prior art product (based on the necessary incompleteness of the disclosure), which is easier than having to positively demonstrate something. And once novelty is acknowledged, inventive step generally follows since the problem-and-solution approach requires some explicit motivation in the prior art, which will often be missing assuming that the claimed purpose is not explicitly recited.

As all Spider-Man fans know very well,

With great power comes great responsibility.

Therefore, it is certainly appropriate for the Boards of Appeal to very carefully check whether there is sufficient information in the patent (and not merely in post-published evidence) for carrying out the claimed functional feature – or any unclaimed technical effect relied upon for arguing inventive step, for that matter. Otherwise, it is simply too easy for deep-pocketed firms to preempt future technological developments by skillfully drafting and then prematurely filing many patent applications directed to potential future inventions that have not yet been actually carried out. I have come across a significant number of such “paper” patents in the past few years, and they may be a symptom that it is indeed time to raise the bar for real.

CASE REFERENCE: Board of Appeal 3.3.08, T 528/11SCA Hygiene Products AB v. Ellen Aktienbolag, November 19, 2015.