Poisonous thoughts

It has already been more than a week since the latest Enlarged Board of Appeal’s decision G 1/15 has been published. It has therefore already been reported and commented on in all good blogs, so that there is probably no need for me to repeat what other have already explained very well.

It will be sufficient to remind readers that the decision provides important guidance on the issue of partial priority (especially with respect to so-called “OR-claims“) and puts an end to the doctrine of “poisonous divisional applications“.

Basically, if a claim in an application or patent encompasses subject-matter which was disclosed in the application to which priority is claimed, but is broader than said disclosed subject-matter, the priority is not fully invalid. The part of the claim which was disclosed in the priority document benefits from the priority, and the other, new, part of the claim does not. G 1/15 makes it clear that no conditions or limitations apply in this respect.

With that in mind, I do have a couple of thoughts on this topic that I might as well share in this post. Actually, both thoughts are not so much about what the decision says as about what it does not say.

The first remark relates to the Enlarged Board’s reasoning. The theory of poisonous divisional applications was originally adopted in a number of decisions from the Boards of appeal. These decisions relied on the following sentence in the founding decision G 2/98 on the assessment of priority claims:

The use of a generic term or formula in a claim for which multiple priorities are claimed in accordance with Article 88(2) EPC, second sentence, is perfectly acceptable under Articles 87(1) and 88(3) EPC, provided that it gives rise to the claiming of a limited number of clearly defined alternative subject matters.

This sentence was interpreted by a number of boards as imposing a limitation to the possibility to divide a claimed subject-matter into different parts having different effective dates. This was also the respondent’s position in the referral. The argument was well summarized in the submission of the president of the EPO. And in item 3 of the reasons of G 1/15, it is acknowledged that “the divergence that has emerged in the case law has been caused by the proviso in point 6.7 of the Reasons of G 2/98“.

Therefore, I am somewhat disappointed that the Enlarged Board did not really address the question of what was meant by this sentence in G 2/98. In the core of G 1/15, the Enlarged Board analyzed the EPC, the Paris Convention, the Travaux préparatoires and some authors’ opinions, and came to the conclusion that there can be no condition or limitation restricting partial priority. This is all fine and well, but the sentence in G 2/98 was simply left out of the picture. So, does G 1/15 represent a change in case law relative to point 6.7 of the reasons of G 2/98? Or was the Enlarged Board unable to figure out what was originally meant in G 2/98? After all the sentence explicitly mentioned a proviso, which does strongly suggest a condition or limitation.

So, it seems to me that there is a little bit of a lack of transparency here.

The second remark is more practical than theoretical – and therefore probably more interesting than the first one.

In one of my previous posts, I reviewed decision T 1222/11 in detail. This was the first decision which extensively discussed the theory of poisonous divisional applications and came to the conclusion that the theory was incorrect. The reasoning was that partial priority can always be acknowledged if a claim is broader than the disclosure of the priority document. This is the so-called “conceptual approach” which has now been endorsed by the Enlarged Board in G 1/15.

In this previous post, I noted that the line of thought of T 1222/11 may also have side effects which go beyond the issue of partial priority. More particularly, the issue is related with the question of what is a first application, for the purpose of assessing priority. So, now seems like a good time to revisit this question again.

Quite remarkably, in T 1222/11 the refusal of the patent application at stake was confirmed due to an invalidity of the priority claim. This has always striken me as paradoxical, since this decision was widely acclaimed in the patent profession as being an antidote to the nefarious theory of poisonous divisional applications adopted in earlier decisions (as well as in several national court rulings).

G 1/15 basically states that the principles set out in T 1222/11 were the right ones. Although it does not address the particulars of this earlier case, there is every reason to assume that T 1222/11 was also correct in that it concluded that the priority claim at stake was invalid.

One last sip of poison for the road?

In T 1222/11, the claimed subject-matter was properly disclosed in the priority document. But part of it was also disclosed in an even earlier application by the same applicant, called D4b. In other terms, the teaching of the priority document (and of the claimed subject-matter) corresponded to a generalization relative to document D4b. In particular, some examples of D4b were found by the Board to fall within the claimed subject-matter. Although the claim at stake mentioned a property (namely a buffering capacity) which was not recited in D4b, the Board concluded that the same property was necessarily achieved in D4b. Also, the fact that D4b was limited to the use of a combination of two components (malic acid and lactic acid), whereas the priority document and the claimed invention were not, was found to be irrelevant.

The overall conclusion was that D4b was the actual first application for the claimed subject-matter, and not the priority document. As a result, the priority was invalid, and the claimed subject-matter lacked novelty over D4b. No disclaimer was allowable because D4b became full prior art due to the invalidity of the priority claim.

Therefore, G 1/15 has fully disarmed opponents or nullity claimants. Although poisonous divisional applications may no longer be a legal weapon, what we coud call “poisonous prior applications” (of the D4b sort in T 1222/11) have perhaps become more powerful weapons.

Let’s simplify the question one step further. Let’s assume a first application A1, a subsequent application A2 and an even later application A3 by the same applicant.

A3 claims subject-matter S, which is properly disclosed in A2. On the other hand, A1 does not disclose S but only part of S, which we can call s.

For instance, s can be a process involving a certain temperature range, and S can be a similar process involving a broader temperature range. Or s can be a composition comprising components A, B and C, while S can be a similar composition comprising components A and B.

If you had asked me the question a few years ago, I would probably have taken the view that, in such instances, the first application for subject-matter S is A2 and not A1. Just like, for consistency reasons, and under the EPO’s “gold standard“, the disclosure of s cannot be a proper support for claiming S (for the purpose of the assessment of Art. 123(2)).

This view is actually consistent with what is stated in the EPO case law bible (Case Law of the Boards of Appeal of the European Patent Office, 8th edition, II.D.4.1, 1st paragraph).

However, a side effect of the generous view of partial priority adopted in T 1222/11 and now endorsed in G 1/15, seems to be that this view is not correct, and that the first application is such a case is in fact… A1.

Applicants will therefore need to be careful about this, especially if they file successive applications containing the same examples but claiming different aspects of the same technology. Or else, some form of poisoning will come back to haunt them. 

Now, here is a challenging idea: could some form of partial priority be acknowledged in the context of a “not-the-first-application” argument? In other terms, if A1 discloses S1, A2 discloses S2, and A3 claims S1 or S2 (while claiming the priority of A2 only), is the priority claim fully invalid, because A2 is not the first application at all? Or does the priority claim remain valid as far as S2 is concerned?

Based on T 1222/11, I would tend to answer that the priority is fully invalid. Unless some supplementary condition needs to be examined, such as the fact that a limited number of clearly defined alternative subject-matters are claimed? Just kidding.

CASE REFERENCE: Enlarged Board of Appeal, November 29, 2016, G 1/15, Clariant Produkte (Deutschland) GmbH v. Infineum USA L.P.

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