The case reported on today is a good opportunity to remind all readers that the new statutory provisions on heightened examination of patent applications in France will kick off on May 22 (with the entry into force of another part of the loi PACTE).
In other words, all national patent applications filed on or after May 22 will be subjected to full examination and may be rejected for basically the same grounds of refusal as at the EPO, including lack of inventive step.
Therefore, if you want your patent application to be prosecuted under the current regime (wherein the grounds for refusal are much more restricted), there is only one month left for you to file.
As a further reminder, if a refusal is issued in examination proceedings, the means for redress is an appeal in front of the Paris Cour d’appel – this will not change after May 22, so a surge in such appeals is to be expected in a few years’ time.
For the time being, appeal rulings further to refusals are rare. We should thus certainly review them to get a sense of what may lie ahead.
A few months ago, I reported on a judgment overturning a refusal of an application by Thales on an aircraft GUI invention. Today, I will address a case involving Bull, another French tech company.
Bull is the applicant of national patent application No. FR 16/00894, published as FR 3052274. Unfortunately the file wrapper on the INPI website appears to be incomplete, but I can gather the following:
- The application was filed on June 2, 2016.
- On November 9, 2016, the INPI examiner in charge of the application issued a communication stating that the claimed invention appeared to relate to a method for performing mental acts as such. The applicant replied, but this reply is missing from the online file wrapper.
- On March 27, 2017, another communication was issued, stating that no meaningful search could be carried out.
- On August 21, 2018, the INPI issued the decision of refusal (also not accessible on the INPI website!) based on ineligibility.
As a comment regarding these proceedings, we are looking at a French application which does not claim a foreign priority. Therefore, the application was sent to the EPO for the search, so that it is the EPO examiner who concluded that the search was not possible. The documents from the EPO are regrettably not present on the INPI website, but they can be accessed via the EP file wrapper of the corresponding Euro-PCT application (which was deemed to be withdrawn, in case you are wondering).
It turns out that the EPO examiner justified the absence of search by stating that the claimed technical features at stake were notoriously known from the state of the art. In the written opinion, the examiner argued that the claimed invention lacked inventive step.
As a first remark, the EPO examiner’s position is quite different from that of the INPI. Lacking inventive step is not the same as not being an invention. And, most importantly, lack of inventive step is not a ground for refusal in France – until May 22.
As a second remark, I do not quite understand the EPO’s practice of not carrying out a search in the case of allegedly notorious technical features. After all, if an invention relies on notorious features, the search should be very easy to complete. The absence of search on the other hand has serious procedural consequences for the applicant and does not make it possible for them to properly challenge the examiner’s reasoning.
Let’s now turn to claim 1 of the application, which reads as follows:
A terminal for establishing communications, the communications being broadcasts inside a group of users, a user of the terminal belonging to at least one group of users, the communication terminal including means for:
- associating a list of user identifiers with a group identifier,
- associating a plurality of properties with a user,
- associating a property activation value with each property,
- recording an identifier of a current group,
- recording a value of a current state,
- updating the value of the current state as a function of a user input,
- adapting a display as a function of:
- the identifier of the current group,
- the value of the current state.
According to the refusal decision, the subject-matter at stake does not comprise any specific technical feature but merely sets out a method for carrying out mental acts implemented by generic computing means.
In the judgment, the court emphasized that the claims have to be interpreted in the light of the description and drawings.
The court then noted that the mention of a terminal comprising a microprocessor, storage means such a hard drive or a memory card, a communication interface and a screen, implies that the application does not relate to a purely abstract method.
The court then went on to analyze the problem set out in the application, and concluded that it is indeed a technical problem:
It is set out (on pages 1 and 2) that the invention is in the field of communication devices and in particular of the maximization of a ratio of information/surface comprising a plurality of users, more specifically for portable terminals such as those used on battlefields; and it provides a mode of global visualization of an aspect of a situation on a screen, so as to circumvent the problem of the state of the art per which fighters are endowed with information systems making it possible to display each fighter’s identifier, mission and operational capacities, but not giving any vision for a unit comprising several fighters, so that in a situation of combat stress, it is not possible to remember the corresponding information for each fighter. As a result, the technical problem is that of global visualization of a situation for a unit comprising several fighters, and not of memorization in a stressful situation, which is indeed a problem of a cognitive nature but which is not the one that the invention purports to solve. It thus cannot be considered at this stage that the invention does not provide a technical solution to a technical problem.
The INPI further reasoned that the various claimed means were defined in a purely functional manner and were generic, not clear, and merely related to basic and usual computer tools.
The court was not convinced, as these remarks are not relevant to the issue of whether the claimed subject-matter relates to an invention or not:
The use of technical means to implement a method within the framework of mental activities, thus totally or partly excluding human intervention, can confer to said method a technical character and therefore make it possible to consider it as an invention, just as the patentability of a combination of technical and non-technical features is admitted.
[…] The Director of the INPI can refuse a patent application on the ground of a manifest lack of novelty, and argues that the EPO examiner working on the search report stated that the computer technology relied upon is universally known and widespread, so that the notoriety of such prior art cannot be reasonably challenged. [But he] did not base the refusal decision on a manifest lack of novelty but on article L. 612-12, 5° which only excludes patentability when the subject-matter of the patent application can “manifestly not be considered as an invention under article L. 611-10 Code de la propriété intellectuelle”. The requirements of sufficiency of disclosure, novelty and inventive step cannot be taken into account in the application of this provision.
Based on these findings, the court considers that the subject-matter of claim 1 relating to a terminal for establishing communications comprising various mutually interacting technical means does not concern a method of performing mental acts as such. It is thus not excluded from patentability for this reason.
All in all, applicants and patent attorneys alike will likely rejoice, as the court has drawn a clear and sound distinction between patent eligibility and the other patentability requirements, in keeping with the case law of the Boards of appeal of the EPO. Also, this approach is consistent with the earlier Thales ruling mentioned at the beginning of this post. This means more international uniformity and more legal certainty.
The issue remains that the main claim does have a broad and somewhat vague flavor to it (which is what the EPO examiner had to say in the first place). If the examination proceedings continue, will the INPI try to refuse the application a second time, this time for a manifest lack of novelty? Or will they conclude that, for a pre-PACTE application, they simply do not have the right legal tools to challenge such a claim?
At any rate, the fate of the first computer-implemented invention applications filed as from May 22 will have to be closely monitored, to see which way the new winds will be blowing.
CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 2, November 22, 2019, SAS Bull v. Directeur Général de l’INPI, RG No. 18/21161.