Stay ordered in a rush

Today’s post will remain delightedly short – for once – as I would just like to update readers on the currently hot topic of “biological patents” (this expression being a shortcut of course). 

At the end of a recent post co-penned with Lionel Vial, I briefly mentioned a notice by the European Commission regarding the so-called biotech Directive 98/44/EC. The Commission took the view in this notice that the EU legislator’s intention in the Directive was to exclude from patentability products (plants/animals and plant/animal parts) that are obtained by means of essentially biological processes.

This view by the Commission is contrary to the position recently taken by the Enlarged Board of Appeal in decisions G 2/12 and G 2/13 of the Tomato and Broccoli sagas. The final words in the post were that patentability of biological materials in Europe is currently on moving grounds, and that more episodes of this developing story were to be expected.

No, this is not an illustration of a EU commissioner. I was just wondering whether this creature was obtained through an essentially biological process.
No, this is not a picture of a EU commissioner. I was just wondering whether this creature was obtained through an essentially biological process.

However, what Lionel and I did not expect is that the new developments would be so quick.

According to a notice from the EPO dated November 24, 2016 (but actually published only on December 12), “follow-up measures” further to the Commission’s notice are under discussion with representatives of the member states of the European Patent Organisation.

In the meantime, the president of the EPO has decided that all proceedings before examining and opposition divisions in which the decision depends entirely on the patentability of a plant or animal obtained by an essentially biological process will be stayed ex officio.

This notice from the EPO does come as a surprise.

Clearly, the notice from the European Commission has no binding effect on the EPO. The EPC is a non-EU international agreement. Rule 26 EPC specifies that the biotech Directive shall be used “as a supplementary means of interpretation” when it comes to European patent applications and patents concerning biotechnological inventions. But there is no organic link between EU institutions and the EPO. Thus, the EPO or the Enlarged Board of Appeal may very well have a different interpretation of the biotech directive than the EU institutions.

On the other hand, since the majority of the EPC contracting states are members of the EU (and this is supposed to remain the case in the future, Brexit notwithstanding), some consistency between the approaches taken by the various institutions involved would be highly desirable.

Gossip has it that the president of the EPO is looking for any opportunity to throw tomatoes (or broccoli) at the Enlarged Board of Appeal – things between them being what they are. Now, gossip is seldom reliable; but is it conceivable that the EPO management might currently show less deference to the Enlarged Board’s views on a number of topics than in the past?

What will happen next is anyone’s guess – though of course the stay of proceedings does not bode well for biological product patents or applications.

  • Will the EPO align its practice on the Commission’s notice? If so, how? Will an amendment of the Implementing Regulations be proposed?
  • Shouldn’t the EPO wait first for the Court of justice of the EU to have its say on the matter, one way or another? After all the Luxembourg judges may not necessarily share the same interpretation of the Directive as the Commission.

The bottom-line is that the fate of products obtained by essentially biological products is becoming again very much a matter of public policy.

In this respect, it is quite interesting to note that France, sometimes mocked by its neighbors for its handling of patent matters, was first to act before the Commission’s notice, as reported in the earlier post.

Finally, as explained by Lionel in the post, most interesting is the definition of which processes are essentially biological and which processes are not. Various stakeholders have vastly different views in this respect. Is it possible that, on this issue as well, the Boards of Appeal’s position could at some point of time be at odds with that of member states or EU institutions?

Partial opposition

Generally, opposition proceedings are an all-out war, and only the death of the patent can fully satisfy the opponent. But in rare occasions, one may come across an opponent who turns out to be less bloodthirsty, as in the recent case T 1264/12.

On the one hand, this decision is quite underwhelming, as the “reasons” section is remarkably short. But on the other hand, it seems interesting to have a closer look at the case, as it provides a rare example of a partial opposition.

The patent at stake is EP 1625093, owned by Bluestar Silicones France. In its granted version, the patent contains 21 claims.

Claim 1 is directed to a method of draining a flexible container containing a viscous product. Claims 2 to 10 depend on claim 1. Claim 11 is directed to a kit for carrying out the method according to any one of Claims 1 to 10. And claims 12 to 21 depend on claim 11.

The patent was opposed by a Finnish company named Oy Fluid-Bag Ab.

Rather unusually, the opposition only concerned claims 1-3, 8-13 and 21. As a side note, the opposition was filed in 2008, for a final decision issued 8 years later. This means that a partial opposition does not mean a speedy one…

Looking more closely at the claim structure in the patent, the following can be noted:

  • Method claims 4-6, which were unopposed, depend on claims 1-3 and form a group in which use is made of a draining device which notably comprises a pressure member having a piston, and a drainage vessel.
  • Method claim 7, which was likewise unopposed, also depends on claims 1-3 and forms another group of its own, in which use is made of a draining device which notably comprises at least one pressurizable drainage vessel, which is pressurized by means of a pressure fluid.
  • Method claim 8, which was opposed, also depends on claims 1-3 and forms another group of its own, in which use is made of a draining device comprising a pressure member having at least one roller and one counter-roller element.
  • Method claims 9-10, which were opposed, depend on claims 2-8 and are therefore relevant for the various groups mentioned above.
  • A similar structure applies to the kit claims. In particular, claims 14-16 (unopposed) depend on claims 11-13 and calls for a piston and a drainage vessel; claim 17 (unopposed) recites a pressurizable drainage vessel; and claim 21 (opposed) depends on claims 11-13 and notably recites a roller and a counter-roller element.

In summary, the patent seems to relate to three mutually exclusive embodiments, which I would call the piston embodiment, the pressurizable vessel embodiment, and the roller embodiment. Some claims apply to all three embodiments, while others apply specifically to one of those. It seems that only those claims which are relevant for the roller embodiment were opposed.

A roller (coaster) embodiment.
A roller (coaster) embodiment.

This is in fact confirmed by a helpful indication in the statement of facts and arguments of the opposition: “the opponent reserves the right to raise an objection against the claims if amended, on the basis of the description, to any such form that the draining of the container using roller(s) (corresponding to Figure 3 of the opposed patent) is readable from the claims“.

It seems that the opponent was not prepared to spend time and resources to challenge other embodiments than the one which obviously was of interest to them – which makes perfect sense. As a side note, in some cases it may even be beneficial for an opponent if a patent partially survives and lies in the way of third party competitors who may be interested in further technical solutions.

In first instance, the patent was maintained in amended form. But the amendment was apparently not good enough for Oy Fluid-Bag, who filed an appeal.

According to the appeal decision, the sole request of the patentee on file contained four independent claims:

  • One method claim corresponding to the combination of claims 1, 2, 4 and 9 as granted.
  • Another method claim corresponding to the combination of claims 1, 2, 7 and 9 as granted.
  • One kit claim corresponding to the combination of claims 11 and 14 as granted.
  • Another kit claim corresponding to the combination of claims 11 and 17 as granted.

In other terms, the patent was restricted to the piston embodiment and the pressurizable vessel embodiment. The roller embodiment was no longer covered.

The appeal decision, which as I said is very short, does not explain why these amendments were introduced. In order to understand what happened, we need to review the minutes of the oral proceedings.

It turns out that the main request of the patentee was originally that the appeal should be rejected and thus that the patent be maintained in the same form as in first instance. However, the Board found that kit claim 9 of this main request lacked inventive step.

An auxiliary request No.2 was then discussed, but kit claim 9 of this request was also found to lack inventive step.

At this point, the patentee had to fall back on auxiliary request No.3, restricted to the piston and pressurizable vessel embodiments. The appellant objected that one of the product claims was not fully clearly restricted to these embodiments, and the patentee thus filed an amended request on the spot to overcome the issue. This new request was admitted into the proceedings.

Then, the patentee withdrew all the other requests, presumably so as to avoid any negative statement from the Board in the written decision on some of the granted claims. This is why the decision is so short and focuses on the roller embodiment-only request.

Now, here (finally) comes the Board’s assessment of this final request, in my own unofficial translation:

Since the extent of the opposition is limited to claims 1-3, 8-13 and 21 of the patent as granted, the claim combinations mentioned above result in claimed subject-matter which was not challenged by the opposition (rule 76(2)(c) EPC). 

The subject-matter of the above-mentioned claims are not the subject of the opposition (see in this respect G 9/91 (OJ 1993, 408), item 10 of the reasons) and there is no procedure under articles 114 and 115 EPC relating to these non-challenged elements. Therefore, the Board has absolutely no power to rule on them, which also necessarily applies to claims which include their subject-matter.

The appellant confirmed this position of the Board during the oral proceedings. The Board can only maintain the patent with these claims (volenti non fit injuria). 

For the benefit of continental Europeans like me, the latter phrase seems to be not only a fancy display of Latin but also an actual legal concept under common law (albeit within a quite different context).

I do not doubt that the Board reached the correct decision in not reviewing the new main request.

That said, the founding decision G 9/91 quoted above does leave some room for examining claims other than those which were opposed.

The first sentence of the Enlarged Board’s headnote is the following:

The power of an Opposition Division or a Board of Appeal to examine and decide on the maintenance of a European patent under Articles 101 and 102 EPC depends upon the extent to which the patent is opposed in the notice of opposition pursuant to Rule 55(c) EPC.

But then the second sentence goes like:

However, subject-matters of claims depending on an independent claim, which falls in opposition or appeal proceedings, may be examined as to their patentability even if they have not been explicitly opposed, provided their validity is prima facie in doubt on the basis of already available information.

For instance, in T 525/96, only two process claims 13 and 14 were opposed. In an auxiliary request, these process claims were deleted, but a product-by-process claim, referring to the same process, remained. The Board examined whether this unopposed product-by-process claim was allowable, based on the above principles set forth in G 9/91, and came to a negative conclusion, leading to the rejection of the corresponding auxiliary request.

Therefore, the Board in T 1264/12 probably theoretically had the power to examine the unopposed piston embodiment and pressurizable vessel embodiment claims, if their validity was prima facie in doubt.

We can safely assume that this was not the case. In particular, the opponent had probably not submitted any prior art relevant with respect to other embodiments than the roller one which they were concerned with. Besides, the opponent apparently did not object to the third-auxiliary-turned-main request.

But strictly speaking, the absence of prima facie invalidity might be a missing step in the Board’s reasoning.

CASE REFERENCE: T 1264/12, Board of Appel 3.2.07, September 22, 2016, Oy Fluid-Bag Ab v. Bluestar Silicones France.

An eccentricity issue

Judgments in which a mechanical engineering patent is revoked for insufficiency of disclosure are few and far between. Typically, insufficiency problems tend to arise in the context of chemical or medicinal inventions – although they are not unheard of with mechanical inventions.

So, today’s decision may be viewed as somewhat eccentric in this respect. But the best part is that the feature which was found to be problematic revolves around… an eccentric (mechanism). End of pun.

In the case at hand, the patent (EP 1023111) was commonly owned by its three inventors, and licensed to a company called LPG Systems. LPG are the initials of one of the inventors, who, not unexpectedly, was a partner of the licensee.

At some point of time, things must have gone wrong, as LPG put an end to the license agreement. As a result, the two other owners of the patent filed suit for wrongful termination. And as a counter-strike, LPG filed a patent nullity action.

The patent was revoked for insufficiency of disclosure in first instance. This was confirmed in a judgment by the Cour d’appel de Paris dated September 9, 2014. The two disgruntled patent proprietors filed an appeal on points to law with the Cour de cassation (judicial supreme court). This final appeal was dismissed in a judgment dated October 4, 2016.

In order to properly understand what was wrong with this patent, it is easier to go back to the 2014 appeal ruling, as judgments from the Cour de cassation have this tendency to be somewhat cryptic and in particular to only partially recall the relevant facts.

The patent at stake relates to an apparatus for restoring the balance of the human body.

Due to various medical conditions, patients sometimes need to have their balance corrected or restored. This can be achieved owing to a training apparatus, such as the one claimed in the patent:

Apparatus for restoring the balance of the human body, consisting essentially of a mobile circular platform intended to support the subject to be treated and which can have an oscillatory movement imparted to it, and in which the said platform has its oscillatory movement imparted to it about a central support point, this movement being combined with a reciprocating rotational movement, by means of a single motor connected to transmission means and without the intervention of the patientthis being in the plane of the platform supporting the subject, about the geometric axis perpendicular to the said platform and passing through its centre, the amplitude and speed both of the oscillation and of the rotation being adjustable and capable of being varied during use, means being associated with the said apparatus so that the subject can be held on the platform either in a standing position or in a crouched or seated position.

The expressions highlighted above are probably the most significant ones for the decision.

LPG claimed that the patent at stake does not disclose appropriate means for adjusting the amplitude of the oscillation and rotation during use and that the skilled person would not be able to implement this feature of the claim.

The Cour d’appel agreed. The court reviewed the description of the patent. Said description does disclose a mechanism for providing the claimed oscillatory and rotary movement of the platform: the platform is mounted at the extremity of a shaft of a cylinder, which imparts the desired oscillations. And rotation can be generated owing to another shaft connected to an eccentric.

The court stated that both the rotation amplitude and the oscillation amplitude could be adjusted by acting on respective relevant parts (cylinder shaft and eccentric). However, it was only possible to do so when the apparatus was not working. But the claim required the possibility to adjust this amplitude in use. Such possibility was not taught in the patent.

The appellants submitted two expert opinions aiming at showing possible ways to implement the claimed feature. The description of the opinions is very brief in the judgment. It seems that the first one suggested to use an electric or hydraulic cylinder for the eccentric itself, so that the patient could actuate it during use; and that the second one offered to mount an electric or hydraulic cylinder on the eccentric so as to actuate it and rotate with it.

The court dismissed these expert opinions. They noted that the first opinion called for the intervention of the patient; and that both relied on the presence of an additional motor. And this was not consistent with the teaching of the patent. They also added that the technical solutions contemplated in the expert opinions required more than mere implementation steps.

Eccentricity can sometimes be brilliant.
Eccentricity can sometimes be brilliant.

In order to challenge an appeal judgment in front of the Cour de cassation, it must be shown that the law was not correctly applied. This is seldom an easy task. It is often said that appeal courts are skilled in drafting judgments relying almost entirely on facts (and not on any particular interpretation of the law) in order to reduce the risk of being overturned. Conversely, cassation appellants tend to artificially disguise arguments that the Cour d’appel erroneously assessed facts as arguments that the Cour d’appel violated the law. An interesting game indeed.

In the present case, first the appellants stated that the Cour d’appel had come up with an argument of its own (which they are not supposed to do) without hearing the parties on it (which they are not supposed to do either). The argument in question was that the adjustment at stake could not possibly be made by the patient him/herself. The Cour de cassation disagreed because this argument made by the appellate judges was actually derivable from the main claim itself.

Second, the appellants submitted that the patent does not require the claimed adjustment to be made without the intervention of the patient, and with a single motor – as asserted by the appellate judges. The main claim requires on the one hand that the oscillatory movement is “combined with a reciprocating rotational movement, by means of a single motor“; and on the other hand that “the amplitude and speed both of the oscillation and of the rotation [are] adjustable and capable of being varied during use“.

In other words, there is no explicit limitation in the claim to an adjustment by means of a single motor, without any intervention of the patient. Paragraph [0026] of the description mentions an “oscillatory movement around a central support point, which is combined with an alternate rotation movement, owing to a single motor connected to transmission means and without any intervention of the patient”. Here again, it is not explicitly stated that the requirements of a single motor and of the absence of intervention of a patient apply to the adjustment of the movement.

Here is how the cassation judges dealt with the argument:

This description is not clear and accurate. It does not mention that the single motor does not provide the adjustment of the speed and amplitude of oscillation or of the alternate rotation. Nor does it mention that another means should be used for that purpose. The Cour d’appel held that the addition of a supplementary motor was contrary to the teaching of the patent based on an interpretation which had to be made due to the ambiguity of the description – and therefore the decision was correctly reasoned. 

In other words, the appellate judges were at a liberty to interpret the claim in a restrictive manner because the description of the patent did not clearly and unambiguously lead to a different interpretation. Again, it is not the Cour de cassation’s job to redo the work done by the Cour d’appel. They only focus on possible errors of law. I figure that a blatant interpretation mistake could be considered as misapplying the law, but this was not the case here.

The appellants also blamed the Cour d’appel with not sufficiently taking into account the experts’ opinions in its reasoning. But the Cour de cassation considered that the reasoning was sufficient: based on the above claim interpretation, the movement adjustment was supposed to be performed owing to the single motor – according to the patent. Since the experts’ opinions relied on an additional motor, the Cour d’appel did not err in rejecting those.

I guess this is one of those cases where it is in fact a lack of clarity of the claims which made the patent fall down the abyss of insufficiency of disclosure.

Probably not that eccentric an outcome, if you ask a chemical engineering patent attorney.

CASE REFERENCE: Cour de cassation, ch. com., October 4, 2016, Bardon & Tudico v. Guitay & LPG Systems, appeal No. Y 15-12.294.