France is well known around the world for its baguette bread, strong cheese, good wines and frequent strikes. Turns out French IP also has clichés of its own, and one of them is probably the Soleau envelope. Although the general public does not necessarily know much about IP law, they have usually at least heard of this national institution.
The Soleau envelope is a way to self-preserve evidence by putting any document in a sealed envelope and having it date-stamped and kept in store by the INPI (the French patent and trademark office). It is popular probably mainly because it is a cheap and easy process. But this comes at a price of a number of misconceptions (just like some of the other French clichés), as many people tend to believe that it is a lesser alternative to a patent – which of course it is not.
The Soleau envelope had an inventor, Mr. Eugène Soleau, who quite interestingly filed and obtained… two patents for his invention. At least he knew better.
The case discussed today is relatively exceptional in that it is an example of a situation in which Soleau envelopes were actually useful in the end. There is yet another reason why the case is fairly exceptional: it relates to a claim for ownership of a patent, and the claim was successful – quite often the burden of proof on an ownership claimant is simply too heavy to be properly discharged.
Mr. Courau is a specialist of pine resin extraction, which is a traditional practice in the Southwestern part of France. Resin extraction is performed by making an injury on the trunk of the tree. Resin exudation can be stimulated by spraying sulfuric acid on the injury, but this has obvious drawbacks for the environment and workers.
According to the judgment, Mr. Courau has been experimenting the use of alternative resin exudation stimulating agents, comprising notably citric acid or sodium citrate, for a number of years.
He filed Soleau envelopes describing his work in 1994, 1995, 2003, 2009, then on July 7, 2010 and finally on August 18, 2011.
Between 2007 and 2012, he worked with the company Holiste Laboratoires et Développement, which specializes in aromatherapy. A confidentiality agreement was signed between them on July 7, 2010 (the same day as the fifth Soleau envelope was filed), and then apparently a collaboration agreement two weeks later.
On March 16, 2012, Holiste filed a French patent application. This application was eventually withdrawn but a divisional application was also filed which matured into a patent. Holiste also filed a PCT application claiming the priority of the French application. Mr. Courau found out about these filings and sued Holiste in June 2014, claiming ownership of the patents / applications because, he said, the invention was stolen from him and the filings violated the 2010 confidentiality agreement.
Holiste’s defense was that Mr. Courau was not the inventor of the patents / applications at stake. They said he had offered to replace the conventional acid stimulating agent by a neutral stimulating agent. The parties had therefore discussed a possible neutral composition based on sodium citrate, calcium carbonate and water. On the other hand, the invention at stake is rather about using citric acid as a stimulating agent. This concept was suggested by another technician (namely the person designated as the inventor in the French and PCT filings).
The court analyzed the claims and the description of the French patent. The main claims recite a solution containing citric acid or a derivative thereof for stimulating resin exudation. Various additives can be employed, including in particular a filler such as clay.
The court then turned to the contents of Mr. Courau’s successive Soleau envelopes. In those dated 1994 to 2009, stimulating compositions based on sodium citrate are mentioned. As a reminder, sodium citrate is a salt of citric acid; when put in a solution citrate sodium will decompose and yield citrate (a base) and/or citric acid (guess what: an acid) depending on the pH of the solution. Anyway, in the later Soleau envelopes of July 2010 and August 18, 2011, citric acid per se is mentioned.
Then the court reviewed the collaboration agreement of July 2010. The agreement defines confidential information exchanged in the framework of the agreement and provides that the recipient of confidential information from the other party has no right on (notably) related inventions. In a letter dated September 3, 2010 to Holiste’s designated inventor, the plaintiff had explicitly referred to “the neutral exudation paste which contains sodium citrate and the know-how necessary for its implementation” as confidential information under the agreement.
Finally, the court took into account of number of email exchanges. In August 2010, Holiste acknowledged that Mr. Courau was the sole inventor of a new resin exudation stimulation composition. The filing of a patent application by Mr. Courau was planned after some additional testing, with a license to be granted to the company. In December 2011, Holiste further confirmed in writing that Mr. Courau was the inventor of the exudation stimulation composition.
The court considered all the above evidence as convincingly showing that Holiste had indeed been disloyal and breached the agreement by filing a patent application on his invention. The invention was a solo invention made by the plaintiff.
The court disregarded Holiste’s defense based on the use of the term “neutral“ by Mr. Courau to characterize his invention (whereas the patent applications mention the use of citric acid):
Claude Courau invented the composition of an exudation paste that he termed as “neutral”, not in a chemical sense (i.e. at pH 7) but in a common sense, meaning that it is not harmful for man and the environment, unlike sulfuric acid which was previously used. It cannot be concluded from the awkward use of this term that the product did not contain any acid. On the contrary, all documents mentioned above, which are dated prior to the patent filing, recite the presence of either citric acid or its derivative sodium citrate (which is obtained by adding soda).
As a result, the court ordered that Mr. Courau be retroactively considered as the sole applicant of the French patent, as well as of the PCT application, “including patent applications originating from national phase entries thereof“.
The plaintiff was also awarded 10,000 euros for moral prejudice as well as 8,000 euros for reimbursement of attorney’s fees.
It seems that the claimant in this case was a very careful person, who had extensively documented his work or ideas over the years. This is not so common and is certainly the reason for the positive outcome that he obtained.
I do wonder however whether the court sufficiently reviewed all the claims of the French patent. For examples, dependent claims 6, 7 and 10 recite the presence of clay as a filler, in particular bentonite or kaolin. Whether this embodiment was also communicated by the plaintiff to Holiste prior to the filing date is unclear as the judgment is silent on this aspect. Also, the PCT application contains a slightly different claim set, with some additional features.
It seems to me that, if Holiste’s designated inventor contributed to at least some of the claims, the court should have ordered co-ownership instead of a full retroactive transfer of ownership.
As a last remark on this case, the PCT application entered into European regional phase. This is not mentioned in the judgment, but of course the file wrapper is accessible online on the EPO website.
In December 2014, Mr. Courau’s representative requested that the examination proceedings be stayed due to the pending ownership litigation. This request was immediately accepted by the EPO.
Holiste’s representative countered by stating that the lawsuit was groundless and by directly attacking Mr. Courau. The legal division of course stayed miles away from taking position on the merits of the case but simply explained that the legal conditions for ordering a stay of proceedings were met.
In July 2016, Holiste’s representative nevertheless filed amended claims to (oddly) align the European claims onto the French granted claims. Of course, this amendment could not be processed by the EPO. As a result, Holiste’s representative sent another letter in August 2016 expressing bewilderment at the EPO’s refusal to deal with the amendment.
To be continued. The next steps in the examination proceedings will of course depend on whether an appeal was lodged by Holiste against this TGI ruling.
CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal de grande instance de Paris, 3ème chambre 3ème section, May 13, 2016, Courau c/ Holiste Laboratoires et Développement, RG No. 14/09297.